Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Christmas Carol...

I guess Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" as a money-maker. He knew it wasn't "high art," as so many of his other novels would be, but he figured it would be a popular "supermarket" seller. It was. And is. However, it lives today as a play and a raft of movie adaptations. My wife and I have made it a personal journey to see as many of these as we can. The other night, we watched a British musical version on Amazon Fire video that was simply awful. Bad music, bad acting, and production values that made the used car ads of the 1980s look like Spielberg. But watched it to the end we did; gluttons for punishment we are.

Up until this past Friday night (December 16), our favorite was the movie version with Patrick Stewart. Seeing Captain Jean Luc Picard as Ebenezer Scrooge was just too good to pass up. Last Friday, though, the St. Paul's senior high youth put on a little dinner theater as a fund raiser for their Summer mission trips, and the play was a short-script version of "A Christmas Carol." It was so thoroughly enjoyable! The teens did an absolutely amazing job of putting life to the timeless characters of Dickens fame, and the little stage in our large fellowship hall was alive with magic in terms of innovative sets, high-tech effects, and even the stealthy use of a trap door to put two of our darling little ones up under the flowing robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Videos selected to set the mood and connect the necessarily disjointed scenes (due to set and wardrobe changes) were projected on the screen above the proscenium. A talented and passionate young woman played the staring role of Scrooge, a brawny young man with a sly but winsome smile played Bob Cratchit, and a host of other teenagers with great heart and dancing eyes filled out the cast. At the end, the whole house (and it was a sell-out) sang Christmas hymns and carols together as our Associate Pastor played the piano. This was an event, friends! Every year I look for something that will knock me off of my staid, ho-hum "holiday" blahs into a fresh Spirit of Christmas. The St. Paul's senior high production of "A Christmas Carol"--and all of the fixings thereabout--did just that. In the aftermath of the show, our Director of Student Ministries told me that the teens had a blast, and that several of them came forth as saying that they have been bitten by the theater bug! (This is a significant development, since many of them attend huge high schools here in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, two of which have been rated in the top 20 in the nation; even highly talented youth can't "crack" the casts of their schools' Quad-A extravaganzas that compete annually for the Gene Kelly Awards.) We are all so proud of these kids, and of the "cast" of adults who work with them throughout the year, and especially with this year's successful production.

And, of "A Christmas Carol": Is there a better message, beyond the Gospel story of Jesus' birth, that speaks the universal Spirit of Christmas any better that Dickens' little cash-generating novella? I think not. There is a Scrooge afoot in society that often denies the existence of "the poor," and there is a bit of that Scrooge in each of us. We are often scrambling to make ends meet ourselves (and most of the time the "crisis" is more of our own doing, extending ourselves beyond our resources), so we miss the less fortunate around us. Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim get us in touch with that soft center that we have for the "underdog" or the suffering small ones. (Our time had its own "Tiny Tim" a few weeks ago when we all saw that photograph of the injured little boy sitting on a chair in an ambulance in Aleppo.) Those same three "Spirits" haunt us all this time of year, don't they? And finally, the redemption and transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge means there is hope for us all. Isn't this the Good News in a nutshell? Dickens was a muse, my friend. The message of "A Christmas Carol" didn't only emanate from his creative brain.

So, as we ready ourselves for a fresh dose of Christmas, the birth of our Savior, and the wonder of children and families gathering to exchange gifts and empty calories, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas (and Season's Greetings to my friends of other beloved faiths). And I close with Tiny Tim's timeless words, "God bless us, Every One!"

Friday, December 9, 2016

Waiting...

When I was much younger...much...waiting was a real downer. I hated waiting for anything.

Oh, there was one exception--my turn in the dentist's chair. I can vividly recall following my mother into the "waiting room" for my appointment. I had lots of appointments because they said I had "bad enamel." In fact, I had really good teeth that liked to chew stuff like lollipops, popsicles, penny candy, cookies, and anything else that could possibly react with saliva and a warm environment to produce bacteria that could erode teeth like hot water over a sugar cube. My dentist, a known sadist, had a waiting room that smelled like the clean room for an Atlas rocket, and 1950s furniture that today is worth thousands of "throw back" dollars. I thought it looked tacky. I still think it looks tacky. They called it "lime oak," I believe. In the "waiting room," a very soft music was playing from a service I think they used to call Muzak. It was designed to mask the sound of dentist drills and conversation initiated by obnoxious people on elevators. Why did they ever get rid of it? When's the last time you had a meaningful conversation on an elevator? Bring it back, O keepers of ambient sound, please! Back to Dr. McAndrews office...when the first iteration of waiting was up, a nice dental assistant dressed like Florence Nightingale opened the door to the inner sanctum and whispered, "Jeffrey, the doctor will see you now." Like a single lemming to the sea I walked, and had that little paper bib slung around my neck anticipating the immense drooling that went along with the inevitable meeting between Ritter and my teeth. And waiting iteration number two began. Dr. MeAndrews was a very nice man with hands the size of meat-hooks and arms that looked like "Return to the Planet of the Apes." He didn't use Novocain and while polite, had little tolerance for a fearful, writhing six-year-old. After the horror stopped, I was rewarded with a--you guessed it--lollipop, along with orders not to eat it for two hours. Waiting iteration number three thus began. At age 62, I am in therapy...

Now that this is out of the way, we can meander back to Planet Earth and 2016, where we're still waiting for Jesus. (Really, we're waiting for Christmas, but I had to say that "waiting for Jesus" stuff for my liturgically correct friends.) Even though the pace of the waiting for Christmas has advanced along with my age, I still don't like the waiting part. When I was a kid, I remember thinking, as the initial candle of Advent was lit, that if I could just run to the front of the sanctuary and light the other three candles right now, maybe Christmas would miraculously arrive. Never got to try it. So, we wait...

Facebook has given rise to the seasonal barrage of memes decrying "taking Christ out of Christmas" and saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." I really hate this harping, negative stuff.  (I was happy to see a new meme this year that reminded naysayers that "X-mas" comes from the ancient practice of using the Greek letter chi (X) to represent Christ such as it does in the Christian symbol chi-rho or "Christ the Victor" [it looks like a "P/X" when you see it]. It is not an "X".) First of all, you can't take Christ out of Christmas! Jesus won't let you. Anything joyful that happens to you during the Christmas season is brought to you by Christ. And if your recent bereavements are the harbinger of a "Blue Christmas," Christ will be with you through that, too. Just. Have. Fun. And. Enjoy. It! Everyone will be blessed, if you do this, including Jesus. Getting a blast out of the gifts, the decorations, the cookies, the food, the wine, the kids, the smiles, the laughter, even the tears--these things keep Christ in Christmas. They are tactile ways to believe and gut-level ways to worship the One who is out to save us all. Don't think too much--it ruins the "fa-la-la-la-las."

We're still waiting? I thought this blog entry was getting long enough that Christmas would be here. Oh, we are still waiting for the fullness of God's true shalom to break into our world. (Is that enough Advent theology for you liturgical watchdog friends of mine?) But this is a very different kind of waiting. It's more like waiting for the finished picture to appear while you are still painting it. This isn't a "buy it and hang it" Kingdom that is coming, nor is it a "paint by numbers" one. Each of us has been gifted with our own colors, brushes, and images to add to the picture. Go paint the Kingdom, people!!! Yes, we have to wait for the whole cyclorama to become visible, but it won't be unless we keep slathering some paint and making some strokes on this great canvas.

If I don't get too caught up in the season, I'll try to write more about what Christmas looks like when it gets here. For a lot of us, we really need a Jolly Old St. Nick to show up this year, as the world seems brimming with Grinches. But Hope...Peace...Love...Joy...are slicing away at the darkness as each of their candles are lit. Go to church, beloved. Greet, pray, sing, listen, and bow. You and Jesus will get a kick out of it. And another few lines of color and form will be added to the unfolding art of God's Realm...

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Advent as a time for hospitality...and respect

For the Christian church, Advent is the church year season that began last Sunday, November 27. Liturgically, it is "New Years"--the beginning of the church year. Denominations that hold to the liturgical calendar religiously (sorry...), sing only Advent hymns and refrain from mentioning Christmas, which is its own season. Many of us, though, eschew this rigid liturgical correctness and sneak in a Christmas hymn or two, and let the excitement build toward that season as each week's Advent candle is lit at the beginning of worship. So sinful are we...

Advent's traditional focus is on the "second coming" of Jesus Christ. The word Advent, itself, comes from the Latin, adventus, which is from the Greek, parousia, meaning "end-time things." A majority of evangelical Christians believe that Jesus will return, literally, to the earth and bring about the end of the age. A variety of books (and movies) have been produced on this fantastic subject, and the mere mention of it gets many a believer salivating for more stories about how the good guys get their deliverance and the bad guys get fried at the "end of time." Some folk actually get quite giddy at the thought of Jesus "coming in the clouds" and plucking believers out of the deplorable mire of earthly life. But what if that is not our theological ethos? What do others believe about Advent?

We DO believe it is a season of hope. However, hope here is not the selfish "wish" of individual redemption, but the expectation of God showing up. And not just at the end of time, or to pluck out the "true believers," but showing up to work in partnership with the people of God to help build a global realm of justice and peace for all people. This is the true promise of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit (counselor, helper, gift-giver, one who empowers) came upon the fledgling church to walk with a people committed to redemption for all and a just, abundant life for all of God's people. Advent is a time of believing that God has and will continue to show up via the Spirit of Jesus in the hearts and minds of us all, and lead us to a new promised land where "every mountain and valley shall be made low and the rough places a plain" (the rich humbled and the humble made rich). Hope gives way to peace, joy, and love, practiced by humanity for the common good as well as individual fulfillment.

In essence, we believe Jesus keeps returning, day after day, week after week. We are the initial beneficiaries, but as the blessings and grace come to us, they are passed on through acts of mercy and kindness, justice and peacemaking. Might Jesus actually show up "in the flesh" again? Very possibly, but rather than hold our breath waiting, we are nudged by the light of Advent to act like he's already here, and like we are already "on the clock" regarding the Jewish understanding of tikkun olam--fixing the world.

Hospitality and respect are two key ways we begin to do this. "Welcoming the stranger" as a full-blown member of the community, and respecting all life (but most certainly humans) are sure signs that the Advent of God is happening. If you want to see what the world would look like if Jesus came back, love your neighbor as yourself. Seek relationships with people very different than you, and respect them as if they were your kin. Expect the Spirit to create within you a welcoming persona--an attitude of blessing others because you have, yourself, been blessed.

This is Advent, and this is why it is a season of light in a darker world. Stop the waiting; get with the "doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God."

Oh, and sneak in a couple of upbeat Christmas hymns like "Joy to the World, the Lord has Come" or "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!" just to cope with the gray skies and what seems like a creeping fear all around us. Expect God to show up...today...tomorrow...forever. And may you live life like Jesus just moved into your neighborhood. Salaam and Shalom, Yinz!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Trump's America

Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States. We continue as a polarized country. We need to find a way out of the angst and national malaise. I don't know how we are going to do this. And it's not realistic to just say, "God's in charge." When it comes to national affairs, I think God has largely put US in charge. So, what do we do?

There are several different "audiences" with which to deal if we are going to find a way forward:

1. Those who supported Trump because he gave voice to their anger, fear, and possibly nationalistic, misogynist  and racist views. These may be the people who are responsible for the 60% rise in "hate crimes" that have been reported by the FBI since the election.

2. Those who supported Trump because they just feel left out and dis-empowered. These are the people in the "flyover" areas often talked about by pundits, but according to filmmaker Michael Moore, rarely taken seriously--except by the Trump campaign. Moore suggested--months ago--that these people wanted to "throw a 'Molotov Cocktail' into Washington" and that would be Donald Trump. He predicted way back then that these people would put Trump over the top. They did.

3. Those who supported Trump because, ultimately, they are party loyalists, and Trump was their candidate. Some of them overlooked his flaws; others just put on a cloak of denial, but either way, they voted the ticket.

4. Those who supported Trump because they just really didn't like or trust Hillary Clinton. Period. It pretty much didn't matter what the other candidate looked like. They were NOT voting for Clinton. Some of these folk extolled Trump's business acumen and believed these credentials could help the country.

5. Those who voted for a third-party candidate. Some did this because they didn't like Trump OR Clinton; others because they LIKED Stein, Johnson, or whomever; and some because they wanted to help get the Libertarian Party over the 5% mark toward legitimacy.

6. Those who supported Clinton because they did NOT like Trump. They weren't big on Clinton and the "baggage" or "drama" she brought to the ticket, but they were NOT going to vote for Trump.

7. Those who felt Clinton was very qualified for the office, based on her senatorial and State Department experience, but who still struggled with some of her questionable judgments such as the exorbitant speaking fees for Wall Street firms and the whole private email thing. Many of these were women and men who felt that the combination of experience and her gender--the potential first woman president--overcame the negative.

8. And finally those who enthusiastically supported Secretary Clinton, many of whom did so back in 2008 as well.

So, things are not as simple as "Trump vs. Clinton" people in this divided land. This was a much more complicated presidential race than it first appears. However, the extreme "poles" do tend to draw attention to themselves--the "alt-right" group that were the screamers and the brawlers at his rallies, and the strong feminists (including many men who were allies) who supported Clinton at least to some measure because of the trailblazing opportunity of voting for a woman.

Notice that I have said nothing about religion in any of these scenarios. Why? Because people of various religious backgrounds and practices were all over this list. It is true that the group branded "evangelicals" by the press voted heavily for Donald Trump. This is a really lousy label, however. "Evangelical" means "people of the Good News." I believe that every person who calls themselves "Christian," and who believes in witness to her or his faith, is an "evangelical." If you invite people to come to church with you, you are practicing "evangelical" theology. If you believe that Jesus left this world better off than when he came, you are "evangelical." If your faith makes you smile, treat people with compassion and respect, and you like to exude positive "vibes" in the name of Jesus, you are "evangelical." I could go on. I call myself and evangelical liberal, which is what Mr. Wesley, founder of Methodism, was. He believed in the the Bible as our guide to faith, but was very liberal in his interpretation of how it applied to life in the Eighteenth Century. He preached faith in Christ in the streets, and in the fields of England, but organized efforts to provide public education, reform the prison system, and encourage fathers to work hard and provide responsibly for their families (which was a really liberal social idea in that century!). Methodists were "people of the warm heart" when it came to having a passion for their Christian faith, but who also had a burning heart to change the society. That would be my definition of "evangelical liberal."

What the media is calling "evangelical" are Christian people who ascribe to certain core dogmas such as being "born again," believing the Bible should be taken literally, and who believe people who don't have the born again experience are condemned to Hell. This understanding of evangelical generally is applied to very conservative individuals who include among their social dogmas being anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-same-sex marriage. Many people thus labeled "evangelical" in the popular culture voted for Trump because of their conservatism, and in some cases, just because Trump promised to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade.

These two paragraphs are a gross oversimplification of the different understandings of "evangelical," just as my Eight Audiences listed above are an oversimplification of the fields of American voters in this most recent election. However, both are meant to provide at least a framework for understanding the "mess we's in," so to speak.

So, how do we go forward? In a world that still believed in compromise, we would look for some common ground:

1. People need jobs who have been displaced by outsourcing, the death of certain industries like coal and steel, and the rapidly changing job market, period. Expanded opportunities for education, training and re-training are needed.

2. Something has to be figured out with healthcare. The ACA was a flawed attempt to offer coverage to all, and I believe this is still a common goal of many Americans. They just don't want to mortgage their home to pay for it, and are tired of deductibles now approaching half of the annual premium outlay.

3. Our children need a quality education that should not be based solely on one's ability to pay for it. Public systems should not be funded merely through taxing people in the district. This means that wealthy districts will have good schools, and poor or inner-city districts will have poor schools. And it's not just the money. Just pumping dollars into schools won't help without changing some of the paradigms for testing, teacher competence, and administration. And all students should be able to afford a college or trade school education after high school, for all jobs, including the trades, will require specialized training.

Let's call these things the "basics." I don't believe that any of the Eight Audiences above would have a problem with these "essentials." What if we petitioned our new government to work on these things? If you look at them carefully, you will see that the most liberal liberal and the most conservative conservative would have a fundamental problem with any of these three foci. There will be different ideas as to how to approach them, and some very conservative (especially Libertarians) may balk at government even taking on the challenge. But I'll bet the majority of Americans would affirm these things. I'll bet even the "evangelicals" would be OK with them.

If the government could stimulate job creation and help catalyze education and training for people to be qualified for the jobs which are created, this would be good. If we could come up with a better way to make affordable healthcare available to all, this would be huge, but it would most likely involve doing something that Secretary Clinton said would be very difficult: separate healthcare from employment. And if we could create systems that would make education and trade training widely available and affordable, an educated citizenry would be prepared to do occupy the jobs created, going forward.

Again, this is certainly an oversimplification of complex, national challenges. However, what I believe is not only practical but necessary if we are to make any progress is finding common ground goals that every constituency can believe in, and ones that, if accomplished, would benefit all Americans. Hence, I submit these three for your consideration.

Conservatives could still keep their "pet" agendas: strong defense, the Second Amendment, smaller government, etc., and they could continue to fight for these things. Liberals could fight for theirs: equal rights and pay for people of any gender, gender identity, or orientation; First Amendment freedoms, dismantling racism, etc. And "evangelicals" (as well as other religious groups) could fight for their agendas: anti-abortion, freedom to practice religion without undue government harassment, etc.

But maybe, just maybe we could greatly advance our country by making sure people had jobs, a decent education, and healthcare, first. We'd all have more energy and resources to work on the "pet" agendas! And our society would be that much more just.

Incidentally, these are, in a form, the kind of reforms Mr. Wesley was about in Eighteenth Century England.

Now, to quote comedian Dennis Miller: "This is just my opinion--I could be wrong." Shalom, Yinz.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Praying for the elections...'

I know, the last thing you want to hear now is the word "elections." Well, I'm praying for the elections--praying they will be over! Have we ever seen such a divisive time in the American experience? I would be happy to return to the "attack ads" of yesteryear. Today's are absolutely depressing. "If you vote for (fill in the blank), nuclear war can't be far behind. Every puppy in America will cease to exist, and you will be homeless. Our veterans? Fuggedaboutit!" And then, five minutes later, you see basically the same ad with the opponent's name in the blank! What are we to do? VOTE!

Now, while I agree with an article I read recently that said that it is a fundamentally American right NOT to vote, if one chooses, I do believe we should vote. If you are too disgusted to vote for the top names on the ticket, at least vote for your state and local offices who will represent you in "domestic" matters. If they, too, have been duking it out and acting like children, write in someone you think could do the job! At least vote for your local civic authorities, as they will set your tax rate! Oh, and don't forget that Pennsylvanians have a referendum on the ballot that is stated in so much doublespeak that you really DO have to do some reading to figure out which way to vote.

But vote. I can't take anyone seriously in a conversation about anything political when they admit they didn't vote. Voting is our "chip in the game," so to speak. Show up at the polls, and vote. I have a cure for those who feel that the nastiness and myriad misinformation present in this election cycle have rendered them so debilitated that they feel they can't vote: Read! Read editorials, articles in newspapers and from all manner of news sources. Don't just take in a steady diet of MSNBC or Fox News (and, God forbid, Breitbart or Daily Kos). Read editorials from people who have won Pulitzer Prizes, and who write for newspapers (or electronic media) that have been around for awhile. But READ. And don't believe everything you read, but enough that you can form an "educated" opinion, and one that is your own, not someone else's ideas just rammed down your throat. Then, make an educated vote. There is no way to know if your decision is "right" or "wrong." But make it well-thought-out!

Don't vote straight party ticket! Even if you wind up voting for every candidate of a given party, at least go through the exercise of looking over every name on the ballot and making conscious choices. Savor your right of casting a ballot.

And, as people of faith, of course you should pray about your voting decisions, as well as for all of the others casting ballots, and for each and every candidate as well, because some of them are going to win, and they may not be your choices. The world will not end if your candidates are not elected, despite what the goofy ads say. I think, ultimately, God does have some say in this whole thing, but I do not believe God is in the corner of any specific candidate. God will always be doing triage and picking up the pieces of the inevitable "less than stellar" performance of any government. That is why the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans, chapter 13, to pray for these people. Even Paul understood that politicians are usually quite human (maybe more so than their constituents?), and that prayer may be what keeps us alive.

Finally, please don't be a "single-issue" voter. It certainly is your right. Heck, you can vote for someone just because you like his tie or her hairstyle, but governing requires so much more than focusing on a single issue. As I read FaceBook, I see lots of people using abortion or veterans issues as the sole delineator as to for whom they will vote. This stuff is hard, and life is extremely complex. There are no simple solutions to our very difficult problems. That' s a fact, regardless of what the goofy ads say. Voting for someone for high office just because of what she or he says about the military, or immigration, or women's reproductive rights will not get us to where we need to go.

And once it's over, pray for the winners and the losers. They all need grace. And if they turn out to be lousy leaders, pray for each other as we all need grace. And if you are really disappointed in what these people do or don't do in office, consider exercising another right of your American citizenship: put your name on the ballot next time around!

One final prediction: Come Wednesday, November 9, we will all still be here. America will continue to be America, with its incredible blessings and its vexing problems. And as people of faith, our best response is to pray, and then get to the work of being a hard-working, responsible citizen, a loving neighbor, and the kind of patriot who lives it instead of just hiding behind the flag. Not a bad recipe for being a good Christian, too! Happy voting, Yinz, and above all, shalom!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Funding stuff...

Well, it's that time of year when our church's Stewardship Team puts together our "annual campaign" to ask our members and friends to "pledge" (we actually use "estimate of giving") their support for the coming year of ministry and mission at St. Paul's. As with many non-profits, funding the work we do is getting harder and harder. Costs are up--surprise!--and younger generations of church attenders are not prone to be as financially supportive as their parents and grandparents.

I have been fortunate to serve churches that do far more than just offer worship services. Each has engaged in a variety of community ministries from feeding programs to children's ministry that reached out into the families of the community. Most also supported myriad relief efforts in times of natural disasters, and most fielded work trips or "Volunteer in Mission" teams which did "hands on" acts of caring. What I'm saying is that we did far more with the dollars entrusted to us by these congregations than just hold worship and pay the gas bill--in business parlance, I guess you'd say "more bang for the buck." Hence, we have been able to encourage giving out of integrity, knowing that the "good" we did was worth it. Still, as the older generations move on--either to personal care homes or the "Church Triumphant"--the budget is getting harder to cover.

Of the churches I have served, St. Paul's is the most heavily invested in ministries of education, outreach, and regional and international mission. Interestingly, it is also the only church with basically no invested funds (endowments, trusts, etc.) from which to draw in times of low giving or poor cash flow. That is a challenge! Our Stewardship Team is working on several new ideas, from intentionally encouraging legacy gifts, to new electronic giving options via smart phones. We believe in what we are about, and have a great track record of delivering on our mission and vision. We are in the final stages of creating and approving a "fresh" mission and vision to guide us in the coming years. And yet, with some of the generational "shifts" happening, we go forward with some fear and trepidation. I like to think we trust God to provide, and this is what we preach, teach, and model for the congregation, but as lead pastor, I would be less than honest to say I'm comfortable with this level of uncertainty.

Yeah, I'm a pastor, so I started this blog with the financial woes of the church. And I realize that I have been very fortunate to serve vital churches that worked hard to maintain relevance beyond religion. But the second part of this "rant" is that our societal priorities--or lack thereof--threaten to plunge many non-profit causes into financial crises. As I write this, the Pittsburgh Symphony is on strike because of an unacceptable contract offer, and the teachers in the Pennsylvania State university system have gone out on the picket line as well. Charities, the arts, and education are all taking it on the financial "chin," currently. As is true with the church, generational shifts in charitable giving are having an increasingly negative effect. People who do set a high priority on charitable giving are inundated with requests for gifts and donations. It is not a premium time to be in the non-profit sector!

What will be the "fix" for this? First of all, I believe we need to restructure some of our societal priorities. We have never come up with a way to fund education that works. Public schools rely on outmoded systems of taxation and funds distribution. School boards are so intimidated that it is getting harder to get people to run for school board in many of our communities. Public universities find costs outstripping revenues, and tuition increases only serve to cut down on the number of students. Even private colleges and universities struggle unless they are blessed with huge endowments, as tuition costs have increased rapidly. Current school loan programs encourage high debt on the part of students who will enter the job market at salary levels inadequate to pay them down in a reasonable time frame. Many with undergraduate and graduate degrees will make school loan payments for the rest of their working careers!

In a nation that will spend over a trillion dollars on a single fighter plane program (the F35 Joint Strike Fighter) and that spends over 32% of its annual budget on defense, is it any surprise that when it comes to education as a national priority, we "speak loudly but carry a toothpick"? I'm not saying that national defense and "homeland security" aren't important, but a third of the federal budget?

Making a quality education for all a priority in the United States, and making the necessary financial sacrifices in the federal budget to fund it, would free up lots of money in the hands of citizens to fund other charities and the arts. A better educated citizenry would have a tremendous impact on our nation and the world. Better education means a deeper understanding of world issues, and may mean more informed ways to work for justice and peace. Fielding a strong defense doesn't have to bankrupt our nation, but not coming up with a better plan for funding education will, in the long run.

Finally, we must cultivate the generosity of all Americans. As mentioned earlier, younger generations are not demonstrating the altruism of their parents. Look around. The beautiful homes in a local housing plan near our church that used to house corporate leaders, school administrators, and medical professionals are now starter homes for the younger generations. Near where I live in Mars, PA, homes are going up all around that start at $800,000 and go upwards of three million dollars in cost! The average square footage of a new home today is 1,000 square feet larger than a new home in 1973. This is just one example of where we are parking our dollars. Automobiles? In our housing plan, our Toyota Prius and Subaru Forrester are, by far, the "bargain" cars in the neighborhood!

I'm suggesting that we all should take a "priority audit" of our own spending. How can we ever expect out government to re-prioritize its spending when it may just be following our lead? And please note that I'm not just harping on "giving to the poor" or "taking care of the least of these," according to the words of Jesus. I DO believe this should be a high national priority so none starve or have to be homeless who do not want to be, but in the long run, I think the "cure" for poverty is access to appropriate education and jobs that will lift people out of poverty.

Well, today's rant has been brought to you by a growing frustration in seeing college teachers and symphony artists on the picket line, and church stewardship teams beginning to feel like TV hucksters in finding ways to fund the mission and ministry our own people say they want. Should we trust God for help with all of this? I have to say "yes," but I remember the words of a wise old pastor who once told me that the expression, "Prayer changes things" was in error. Instead, he said, "Prayer changes people and people change things." Right or wrong, it's a good place to start! Shalom, Yinz...

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Political Ads...

I'm not going to write about the political climate again--if you're not tired of that already, you probably need therapy. I am going to address a concern that arises from the advertisements overrunning just about every media outlet before our eyes and ears, but most especially TV and radio. Political ads on these media fall into the "You've GOT to be kidding?" category.

While watching television the other night, and being confronted with advertisements for candidates ranging from President to Congress-persons, I found both my anger level rising and my "bull" detector sounding off like a ship's klaxon. First of all, the people who make these ads are either nuts, evil, or on something, and possibly a combination of all three. Rarely did any of the ads address actual issues facing voters, and when they did, they either oversimplified complex issues beyond all hope, or they just turned and demonized the opponent, having named the issue in question. I realize that they only have thirty seconds in which to make their point, but please people, how about an ad that goes something like this:

"Hi, my name is _____________ and I'm running for_______________. I believe the three most important issues facing Pennsylvanians/Americans are: 1__________, 2_________ and 3_________. I have specific ideas on how to address these. Please visit my website at: _______________ for more information, or call ___________ and we'll send you a printed copy.  After seeing my ideas, I hope you will vote for me on November 8."

Honestly, if I saw an ad like that, I might vote for the person just on principle! The ad, however, makes an assumption: that voters WANT to be informed and are willing to READ to be so. Therein lies the problem...

When it comes to important stuff--who we will elect as our local and national leaders, the health and welfare of our families, and our religious beliefs--seeking reliable, accurate, and detail-oriented information and READING it should be a proverbial "no-brainer." Whatever happened to an informed citizenry? Has Twitter and FaceBook robbed us of the desire to know more than tag lines, slogans, and "tweets" about things that impact our existence? The fact that political campaigns spend MILLIONS on TV and radio ads tells me that they are bearing fruit. I just can't imagine hearing one of these childishly oversimplified "problem/solution" ads or a nasty "smear" ad and thinking, "Oh boy, I'm gonna' vote for her/him!!!" They insult our intelligence, each and every one, and yet they must be working or candidates would stop doing them!

As a pastor, I sometimes find myself in a "debate" over an aspect of religious faith with a church member or even a clergy colleague. I quickly deduce that the other is not well versed in the subject on which they have a strong opinion. When I suggest a book or two, or a series of articles for them to read so as to be better informed, I may get the cold, hard "Are you KIDDING?" look. I fear that the "political climate" polarization may have helped ruin the art of conversation and an informed citizenry. This reminds me of an old episode of the popular TV show, "Cheers," in which the cerebral waitress Diane tried to end a beer-fueled debate going on in the bar by inviting opposing parties into the back room for a healthy, informed conversation about the issue. No one left their bar stool. Then, Diane said, "OK, how about everybody with a two-bit opinion?" And the whole bar emptied into the backroom.

Friends, I don't EVEN want to suggest how you choose to vote, or for whom. But PLEASE do your duty and vote! And PLEASE seek out reliable, intelligent sources of information about the candidates  and READ. Do a little research, as such sources of information are getting harder to find, due to the popularity of heavily skewed media! At least read BOTH sides, if you can't find less partisan sources. Be able to give an account for the choices you make on November 8. Be able to say:

"I have decided to vote for _______________, and based on the information I was able to find and read, I am choosing this candidate for the following reasons:______________________."

Make sure you are adequately informed, that the "reasons" you cite are more than just the tag-lines of someone's moronic ad, and that none of the reasons is an attack on the other candidate! This puts you well on the path of being an informed citizen. Good for you!

Oh, and when it comes to the health and welfare of your family, consult reliable health professionals and sources, not the latest miracle "cure" on FaceBook; in terms of financial matters, don't fall for a scheme or call one of those 800 numbers where they claim to "eliminate" your debt, and when it comes to parenting advice, read some books or take a class.

And if the subject is your religious faith, read, read, read! Maybe even the Bible? And ask your pastor if you can borrow a commentary or two? How about taking in a lecture at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary? Most of them are free, and feature world-class scholars!

If we don't soon begin to reverse this "two-bit opinion" trend now infesting our politics, our finances, and our faith, we will soon be left with nothing but "two-bit" leaders. And for a nation that built itself on hard work, education, and an engaged, informed citizenry, the results will be calamitous.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

In-between times...

I'm sitting here trying to finish a sermon on "The Supportive Community." It sounds like an easy one, but it isn't. To get beyond the cliche understanding of what a supportive community might be is difficult. And when do I get to decide what actions are "supportive" when I am the one needing support? I'm sure you all have had the experience of trying to support someone going through a rough time and either you got the sense that what you were doing was not helping, or the person you were trying to help TOLD you it wasn't helpful. Maybe we should develop the habit of just asking, "What could I do to be helpful to you at this time?" More on this in a moment...

Oh, I could write about more shootings and the protests that have followed. But I really don't know what to say, at this point. I do think that some kind of "national" standards about how and when police should use deadly force would be helpful, and this idea has been endorsed by many in law enforcement. I don't think "stop and frisk" is a good idea. It will just drive an even bigger wedge between cops and citizens.

And then there's the election. How could something so very important get us to the point where we just want to move to another country? Why are we doing this so poorly? One candidate just calls everyone who disagrees with him all kinds of names, and the other usually speaks in "lawyer" language (carefully worded propositions?), dulling the senses of most listeners. And don't tell me to vote for one of the fringe candidates. That's just a dumb idea, as neither of them will be president. Period. I might as well just burn my voter registration card as to cast a vote for a candidate that has absolutely no chance to be elected. Enough on the elections...

The Pirates are probably done for the year. McCutcheon had a "blah" year, what looked like promising pitching turned out to be smoke and mirrors, and enough dumb errors were committed--especially on the base paths--that it might call management into question. Maybe it was just a bad year--the storm before the calm. The Steelers are looking good after two games. They face a rookie Ben-lookalike with the Eagles this week. Could be interesting. People are getting excited about the Pens again, but need I remind you that, while they really haven't lost any talent from last year's team, a hockey Stanley Cup repeat is the toughest one in all of sports? Shuffleboard, anyone?

Ministries and the program year at St. Paul's are off and running and doing well. Our finances, year-to-date, are about par for the course over the past three or four years, which is not to say real good. Giving has increased moderately, but then so have expenses. Oh well, we just keep trusting God and our people to make the good stuff continue to work! Our proposed new purpose, mission and vision statements are being rolled out, including the preaching series on our congregational values that have been incorporated into the new verbiage. So far, so good. We hope to have final statements ready for Church Conference approval on November 15. Incidentally, our previous PMV statements guided this congregation for over 15 years!

Back to "The Supportive Community." What might that look like to you, the reader? If the church is to be a supportive community, what does that mean? Do individuals within that community "rise up" and offer to help you in your time of need? Does the existence of a praying, caring "church family" serve as a kind of safety net for you while you feel your life is being shot out of a giant canon? Or does an attentive congregation provide examples you may follow in getting out of the mess you feel you are in? One thing about it: It's easy for a church to SAY "We are a supportive community." Being that is another thing, and my sense is that, because the people--the objects of our support--are individuals, being supportive will mean a great variety of things, and it will often be kind of trial and error to get it right. Maybe it is supportive just in the very idea that people are willing to try, with all their hearts?

One image I have is that little party game where you have a "subject" lay down flat on her or his back, and all of the rest of the "party" each puts just two or four fingers under them, and with very minimal effort, the raft of collected fingers actually lifts the person upward. Wouldn't it be nice if our churches could be "supportive communities" in this manner? Unfortunately, not all of the fingers in question would be lifting, in many of our churches. Some would be poking, others pointing, and some even making obscene gestures, leaving the few legitimate "lifters" carrying way too much of the weight.

Enough "In-between times" for now. Hopefully, next blog I'll have something to write about...Shalom, Yinz.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Hallmarks...

As I was reading and studying the text of Hebrews 13:1-8 in preparation for a sermon a couple of weeks ago, five major challenges of a life centered in Jesus Christ presented themselves. For the purpose of this column, let's call them "hallmarks."

The first is hospitality. God's people, Israel, were given a hospitality code, or command, whereby they were to "welcome the sojourner in the land." God basically told Israel that even as they were once strangers or sojourners in a strange land, so should they now welcome others into their land. This hospitality code found its way into the Christian faith, and this Hebrews text reminds followers of Christ that by "welcoming the stranger," one might even "entertain angels without knowing it." For Christians to manifest this hallmark, we must be open to all kinds of "sojourners," and this in a day when everyone double-locks their doors, fences in their backyards, and carries on friendships via Twitter or FaceBook. This hallmark is a challenge! In the current political climate, immigration policy and "destroying ISIS" are pretty much items one and two in the debate, and to which degree each candidate would pursue these goals. For most of us, however, immigration policy and ISIS are not our direct problems, but how we treat the new neighbors, or the new person at work, or just people who don't look like us are. If there was ever a time, for example, when interfaith dialogue and bridging the "ignorance" gap of what others believe and practice were important, now is that time!

The next is reconciliation. The Hebrews author speaks like everyone should know that God seeks to redeem and reconcile all human beings to God-self. In the Christian faith, this is through the life, ministry and teachings of Jesus. But reconciling goes far beyond just the propitiation for personal sin. Honestly, that is probably the least of God's problem with humanity, at this point in history. Put yourself in God's position for a moment: you created humans to be a loving, just community with whom you could relate. Then, sin happened. The problem of sin wasn't as much as it separated one person from God, but that it breaks community and puts human selfishness and desire on the pedestal. Reconciling humanity means bringing us all back into this human/divine community where all people are viewed as children of God, and God is viewed by all people as the host of the feast. Still, if this great process begins with you--the reader--having your own sins forgiven by God, and you, in turn, forgive others as you have been forgiven, that's not a bad beginning!

The third hallmark we find in the Hebrews text is Fidelity. Here, the author talks of respecting ones partner in marriage, and not committing adultery. Of course, today we realize that there are many ways of committing adultery, and most don't even involve a physical sex act. I like the word fidelity. When I was a kid, we had something in the living room called a Hi-Fi (and no, for those of you under 40, I don't mean wi-fi. Our hi-fi sound system was able to play a record (a big, round, vinyl thing with physical sound grooves on it) that was recorded in high fidelity in such a way that the sound coming out of the speakers was the closest to the sound that went into the recording microphone that could be produced with 1960s technology. Thus, the sound was said to be high fidelity. So, if we are called, as Christian believers, to love others as God loves us, it stands to reason that God is calling us to a high fidelity love wherein the love we offer is as close to the love with which God loves us as is possible with human "technology." Jesus' love didn't discriminate. Jesus' love was always directed at forgiving, healing, and redeeming the human soul. Anyone who wanted to receive it, did. The only ones who didn't were those who chose to walk away. That's another important point about this high fidelity kind of love: we don't stop loving the other, even if they reject us and refuse to receive what we offer.

Hallmark number four is contentment. The biblical writer says, Your way of life should be free from the love of money, and you should be content with what you have." Now, don't go all slippery slope on me and think this says we can't work hard and pursue a prosperous career, or that we shouldn't want a new Apple Watch. What the text says is that, if we focus our lives on acquiring wealth and trying to become "independently wealthy," (or fixate and obsess about that new Apple Watch), then our priorities are so out of whack as to put our existence in danger. We are created to be community-based beings. We are created to need each other, and to seek meaningful, human relationships. We are called to share with God in the reconciling process to redeem humanity from its sin of selfishness and the attitude--which we see so often now in the culture--of "I got mine, so have a nice day." Learning to be content is a spiritual journey, friends. It is not easy, and the culture will hound you with every product ad, political candidate, and even--sadly--religious narrative to not be content with who you are, and in some cases, with whom your neighbor is! This "me first" mindset is to ingrained in the culture that I'll bet the idea of contentment as a spiritual discipline catches many of you by surprise.

And now, the fifth and final hallmark from this compact, yet pregnant little pericope of scripture? Trust. That's right, trust. The text reminds us that Jesus will never abandon us, and that Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. This means that Jesus will always be trustworthy and present to all of God's children, not that Jesus doesn't feel, or change, or empathize with the human condition. In fact that is exactly what Jesus and the theological doctrine we call the incarnation is all about! The part of Jesus that is always the same is his presence and his grace, and we can always trust Christ. Trust is the foundation of any successful relationship. Period. You might think it's love, but without trust, it will fail. I've counseled with many couples who never stopped loving each other, but whose relationship disintegrated over broken trust. Can love overcome such a broken trust? Yes, but only if the love has fidelity, as mentioned above, and only if both parties are willing to do the necessary and really hard work to bridge the chasm opened with untrustworthiness. Oh, and even when these efforts are forged, the rebuilt trust that results will never look like the trust that was first formed in the relationship. It will be different, and pretty uncomfortable for a season--maybe even a long season.

So, there you have some thoughts of Hebrews 13:1-8, and the five hallmarks it advances: hospitality, reconciliation, fidelity, contentment, and trust. Who said a Christ-centered life was easy? Not Christ, that's for sure! There is a scene in one of my favorite movies, Jeremiah Johnson (starring Robert Redford and Will Geer), where the grizzled, old mountain-man played by Geer wants to teach the novice, would-be tough guy a lesson. He shuts Johnson up in his cabin with a live Grizzly Bear and shouts, "Skin that one, Pilgrim, and I'll fetch you another!" The same could be said for developing these five hallmarks of a well-lived Christian life. Shalom, Yinz...


Thursday, August 25, 2016

Playing the hand that is dealt...

I am not a fatalist. I really don't believe that we are all just "dealt a hand" in life, and that this is all we have to work with. In fact, I believe that we can all grow in life, learn more, and improve the way we think and use the knowledge we have and acquire. As a Christian believer, I also believe this is where God meets us--in the challenging and growing edges--and from the depths of our soul and spirit, lures us toward a more healthy and holistic perspective on life, and then through the Holy Spirit, empowers us to get there!

That said, I want to apply the colloquial phrase, "playing the hand dealt you," to my wife's nephew's son, and to how young Seth Apel has played his hand. You may know that Seth is the twelve-year-old son of Dara's nephew, Josh Apel, and his wife, Angie. Seth was helping his father cut and stack wood, which they use to heat their house, when his coat got caught in the power takeoff of a tractor. His arm was literally twisted off his body. Through what can only be described as a miraculous series of events, Seth was spirited to Pittsburgh Children's Hospital from rural Knox, PA, and was in surgery to reattach his arm inside of 90 minutes. This all happened in November of last year.

Dr. Lorelei Grunwaldt lead the team that performed Seth's surgery. If you're looking for real-life heroes, she, and the EMTs that knew just what to do on the ground in Knox, would be leading candidates, in my book. In the months since, Seth has continued to heal, and adapt. He is regaining feeling down his arm, can move the upper arm and shoulder, and has begun even to regain some movement in his fingers and wrist. It is not yet known how much function of the reattached arm he will have, but as a very determined young man, his chances are as good as can be.

So, this is "the hand he has been dealt." Seth's response to all of this makes him my next nominee for real-life hero (along with his parents, who have been beyond awesome in all of this). Seth, who loves to play baseball, immediately began learning to throw with his left hand, and to catch the baseball with the glove on his left hand, toss the ball in the air, drop the glove, catch the ball in his bare hand, and throw it, all in one, fluid motion. Seth also had to teach himself to hit again by gripping the bat differently, and training his left arm and hand to do more of the work, including steadying his right arm and hand. He played baseball this season, and was declared the MVP of his team, and it wasn't a "pity award." He really played, and had a rash of hits!

From the day of the horrible accident, Seth's parents, Josh and Angie, have modeled for the whole world their love, patience, and trust in God. Seth's whole family is a deeply committed Christian one. His mom began daily FaceBook posts to not only update everyone on Seth's early recovery, but to offer encouraging words of faith to all who would read the posts. During the endless series of TV, radio, and newspaper interviews they--and Seth--were subjected to, they demonstrated how a family works well together in the face of a huge challenge, and how their trust in Jesus Christ, and in God's supportive and healing presence made all the difference. They came across as so very genuine, and it's because they are. What you saw (and continue to see) is real and inspiring.

But back to Seth. He has used every opportunity as a "media star" to inspire other kids who face physical challenges, to share his own very practical and pedestrian Christian faith in a "works for me" way, and to be a twelve-year-old boy who likes to play baseball. So, so real. That we could all aspire to be as genuine as this kid, in life, in faith, in attitude--in everything. And none of the myriad media attention has gone to his head. While in the hospital, he had a visit from former Pirate Neil Walker, one of his favorite Pirate players. And this season, when Seth and his family were treated to a special night at PNC Park by the Pirate organization, Seth got to reconnect with Mr. Walker, now with the New York Mets. I'll never forget seeing the pictures of this "reunion." Seth and Neil, just two guys "chewing the fat"--no pretense, and no flashing the pearly whites for the surrounding media. How cool, for both of them. Oh yeah, I also nominate Neil Walker for that real-life hero list.

This past Monday, Seth had the honor of throwing out the first pitch at the 8:00PM game at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA. He fired the ball from his newly-adopted left hand delivery, and was angry that he didn't throw a perfect strike. Seth is that way. The kid lost his arm, and has years of recovery to endure with the reattached appendage, and yet he was upset that his adaptation wasn't perfect yet! I have to say that Seth Apel may be the most inspirational person I have ever known, and that would be true even if he weren't my great nephew by marriage. What a thrill it was to play catch with him at a family reunion gathering back in July. It's not everyday you get to do that with a hero.

So, how do we "play the hand dealt us" today? Do we light a candle or curse the darkness? From now on, when my devilish little internal pessimism rears its head, tempting me to do a little cursing, I'm going to try to remember Seth, who hasn't just lit a candle, but wields a blowtorch of hope, determination and faith. Shalom, Yinz...

Thursday, August 11, 2016

On Vacation...

We've been on vacation since the afternoon of July 31, and this is the first time I've used a "real" keyboard since then (today is August 11), so I guess that's something. I did post on FaceBook that, while spending time "crashing" next to Lake Michigan, I was pondering St. Paul's purpose, mission, and vision, which is in the midst of a renewal process. So, I haven't been without "work," while we've been away. Brian Bauknight, one of my mentors and friends, noted on that same post that he found that he needed to take at least three weeks of vacation in a row before he could "exorcise" the church out of his head in time to enjoy a brief "unfettered" break. Honestly, while it is true that I really enjoy what I do as a pastor and preacher (and I DO), I am aware of the psychological and spiritual pitfalls which can result from taking no breaks.

We have actually had a wonderful holiday, as the Brits would say, celebrating our granddaughter's 4th birthday and spending some time with her family in Louisville, cruising on Lake Erie out to Kelley's Island and South Bass Island (Put-in-Bay), and then venturing here to Mackinac Island. We stopped at a Cracker Barrel restaurant (yes, we're suckers for their goofy shops; I go nuts over the "legacy" candy) in Maumee, Ohio. It was like stepping into a different world--a very diverse one, racially. Milling around the restaurant and waiting for their tables were large African American families, clearly coming from a morning of church, families from Indian and Asian heritage, and Muslim families as well! They were all friendly with each other, and upon overhearing some of the conversations, I would say many were resident neighbors. I think I would like to live in a community like that. I know I would like to have a church like that! As I pondered the purpose, mission, and vision of St. Paul's during those "restful" moments along the lake, two words kept "thought bombing" my consciousness: diversity and justice. Whatever our final, new vision looks like, I think it needs to address these, somehow. If we are happy with how our church looks now, we need a revival moment, friends. While we celebrate the good that the Spirit of God is doing in our midst, and through our mission and ministries, we would do well to develop a little "holy anxiety" about our lack of diversity. And while our church has some diversity in terms of politics and stands on social justice issues, there ARE many issues we could begin to address with action groups and community organizing: dismantling racism; working for equality and justice for LGBTQ individuals; new ways to fund education that don't create such disparity in school quality within a ten-mile radius of 1965 Ferguson Road; and climate justice. Does not the Good News of Jesus compel us to address those things that create social stratification with the extremes we see around us?

While I have not pondered "nuts and bolts" methodologies in my mental meandering while away, I do believe we have to start with a vector and some volition. Please join me in pondering and praying about how our congregation can begin to actively address these (and I'm sure, other) issues that face our communities and our churches. If St. Paul's is to be a leading church in our connection, it is time to begin leading.

I'm writing this while sitting on the porch of The Harbourview Inn "cottage," along Main Street, Mackinac. It's a restful place, if you want it to be, and a bustling place, if you walk up into the middle of town. It is not a diverse place. They have no compulsion to be, but the church does! I can't help but wonder what Mackinac would be like if it looked more like Maumee, Ohio?

See you all soon, back in "The 'Burgh." Grace and peace...

Monday, July 18, 2016

Conversations and Intersections...

I don't know if I will ever learn to stop responding to most "arguments" on FaceBook! I guess it's the debater in me that wants to answer shoot-from-the-hip posts by people (usually about some theological or biblical issue) with a well-structured and carefully reasoned counterpoint. After painstakingly pouring over my response--often on my iPhone or iPad, without the benefit of an actual keyboard, the individual responds back with an even more terse narrative that amounts to what we used to do when we were kids: "Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, NYAH, nyah!" It's then I realize that no post of mine, no matter how well reasoned, no matter that it draws on seven years of formal theological education and 31-plus years of ministry experience, will change the other's mind, nor will even get them to doubt their intrenched position.

That's the problem with FaceBook, or any other electronic/social medium: it isn't at all the same as face-to-face conversation. Are we in danger of losing that art? I miss those times of sitting around the refectory tables in seminary when we could debate biblical interpretation, theological concepts, and how these affect our lives and the world. Rarely did we "agree," but the conversation expanded our understanding and served to "soften" our individual positions, making it harder and harder to put down an anchor and become permanently intrenched. Maybe this is at the root of the gross polarization we are seeing in the church, in the political realm, and in the world, in general? And even when we DO talk, it is often on a smart phone, when we resist the urge to just text the other. Talking through an artificial channel such as this strips conversation of all of its non-verbal cues, which some say are responsible for 85 percent of all communication! Are we really getting ourselves into so much philosophical trouble because we're only utilizing 15 percent of our human communication skills? And writing posts on FaceBook or "tweeting" on Twitter takes away the verbal cues as well!

Common ground. There, I said it. This is a term that has largely been exorcized from our lexicon today. There once was a time when we could find "common ground" with the other through conversation, looking for points of intersection between our divergent philosophies, interpretations, and opinions. Now, we just want to "win." I'm tempted to call that the "Trump" effect, but the phenomenon pre-dates the Trump candidacy. In fact, it may be this very societal polarization that made the Trump candidacy possible!

I could cite numerous examples of the kinds of things that should be fed by more and meaningful, face-to-face conversation, such as the current church debate over LGBTQ inclusion, the political debate over economic or foreign policies, or the merits and misgivings of universal healthcare, but the current poor (or non-existent?) state of real conversation over these has resulted in mostly just "yes" or "no" answers over each. How sad, for these are highly complex problems requiring highly complex and most often compromising solutions.

Early today, on the day I am writing this, Space-X successfully launched a Dragon space vehicle along with a specialized docking adapter and supplies to the International Space Station. The booster rocket successfully landed itself back at Cape Canaveral for later reuse. A few months back, this same mission ended in disaster when the rocket exploded shortly after launch. If the engineers at Space-X had applied the same logic and dysfunctional rhetoric to solving that problem as is currently being used in public discourse, they would have concluded after that failed launch: "Aw hell, let's just shoot another one off! It'll probably work..."

Now, let me dial this way down to a much less volatile subject: the notes that come across a pastor's desk. Often, these notes are prayer requests, or persons wanting to make sure that we know that so-in-so is in the hospital, for which we are indeed grateful. (Modern HIPAA laws restrict what information hospitals can provide, even to interested caregivers such as pastors, but most hospital admissions software still has the questions about "church affiliation" and "Do you want your clergy person informed?" Even if the answer to this out-dated query is "yes," no hospital informs us, due to HIPAA.) However, sometimes these notes have suggestions, and they can be many and varied. For example, I recently received a note suggesting that we not do the "greet one another," or "pass the peace" during worship, as people tend to only greet the people they know, ignoring first-timers. (Studies actually support this note writer's conclusions, by the way.) However, this week, another note came across my desk, suggesting that we should do the "passing of the peace" or "greeting time," if we fashion ourselves as a "welcoming" church. Obviously, taking either of these two positions will not make everyone "happy." There is some possible compromise by having the greeting time on an occasional basis, which is what we have been doing at St. Paul's during our larger 10:30AM service. We always have the "passing of the peace" at our 8:30AM Communion service, and actually have a five-minute "fellowship break" during our Saturday evening service. Since both notes I received were unsigned, I am not able to have conversation with those making the suggestions, or I might suggest that a better response to welcome new people would be for our "veteran" church members to look around during the gathering time and intentionally greet persons they don't know, rather than "force" an awkward greeting for 30 seconds during the service. (Remember, the introverts among us don't like to be "blitzed" or surprised by personal attention.) This rather benign illustration shows, however, that even among well-meaning and "allied" individuals, very different opinions may arise. And I'm sure that both of these individuals feels strongly about their position. Conversation might help each see that not everybody benefits from their suggestion or philosophy about church greeting. Conversation might provide a chance for friendships to develop.

If there is one thing I have come to believe in my ministry experience (and in life, in general), if we err, we should err on the side of including, loving, and respecting persons. Years ago, someone popularized the question, "What would Jesus do?" In the Bible, we have a clear answer--he loved people, especially those marginalized by his society and the religious base of his day. Either everyone is a child of God or they are not. I believe they are. If yo do not, good luck sorting that out. Grace and peace, my friends!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Prayers and Sympathy...

How sad it was to hear of the horrible terrorist attacks against Muslim people during the last days of Ramadan, a high holy month for people of this faith. Hundreds died, hundreds were injured. Who did this? The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or Daesh, as they hate to be called), claimed full credit. If any person doubted that terrorism and the true faith of Islam should NOT be seen as compatible, these horrific attacks should end all debate. Our prayers and sympathy are with the families of all of the innocent victims and the injured. I call upon all Christians and Jews to pray for them. This is what our faiths teach us, even as Islam teaches compassion for those victimized by hatred.

President Obama's "critics" slander him for not using the term, "Islamic terrorists" to describe these fiends. He does not, and neither should anyone else, for it is not accurate. Why brand peace-loving people of faith with such a title? How would Christians have felt if the activities of the Ku Klux Klan were described by the media--or a sitting President--as "The Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan lynched three more victims tonight..." There would have been a HUGE public outcry from "true Christians," nationwide. No one should use the term "Islamic terrorist." These people are just terrorists, and they no more represent the faith of Islam than the man in the moon.

Again, I suggest that if you are a person who still harbors ill against "Muslims" because of these awful crimes against humanity, please go visit a mosque (which are often called Muslim Community Centers here in America). Get to know practicing Muslim individuals in your company, organization, or community. You will find devoted, patriotic people--persons who are grateful for their families, their country, their careers, and the opportunities they earned, just like anyone else. You might just find what many of us from St. Paul's UMC have found among our growing group of Muslim siblings: incredible hospitality and a shared love of peaceful fellowship and cooperation!

Visit the website of the Muslim Association of Pittsburgh (mapitt.org) to learn more about Islam and what it has in common with the other two major biblical religions, Christianity and Judaism.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Good News...

As I look back over my recent blogs, I realize that most of them have been dealing with difficult and controversial topics. I defend that, in that part of the role of ministry is striving for a "prophetic" voice, and calling out injustice wherever we see it. Last Sunday, I preached a sermon based on the "deliverance" of the Geresene demoniac story from Luke 8. In the CEB rendering of that text, it is said that after Jesus heals the man, he is found "completely sane." My message questioned what that would mean in today's cultural malaise. Specifically, I urged the congregation to write their legislators, encouraging them to act on an assault weapons ban and fair gun safety laws that allow for Second Amendment freedoms, but apply some common sense. I'm sure not everybody was happy with my specific call toward "complete sanity."

Here is some good news. A few weeks ago, St. Paul's bestowed the Rita Berg Peace Award upon two of our members. Freda Copper has served St. Paul's in myriad capacities over the years, but most especially in ministries that help those less fortunate or those in extreme need. So much of what Freda does is "behind the scenes," but those who nominated her felt she was due a little recognition, and since her efforts were about restoring health to persons and the community, she received the Rita Berg award. The second recipient was one of our young adults. Natalie Geer, who recently graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University, received the Rita Berg Peace Award for her dedicated fundraising and "in the field" mission work on behalf of a clinic in Zimbabwe. She and a good friend raised over $30,000 for the clinic two Summers ago, and Natalie has spent considerable time on site, working with the people there. Congratulations to both of these extremely deserving disciples of Jesus Christ!

As I write this, over 40 of our senior high youth and adult leaders are working with Next Step ministries in Lexington, South Carolina. They are building sheds, installing new roofs, and doing some landscaping. After they return, our mid-high youth will be embarking on work with The Pittsburgh Project. Tami Weisner, our Director of Youth Ministries, has developed a youth program here at St. Paul's that helps make disciples of Jesus Christ out of these kids. While they have great fun and fellowship in our youth programs, first and foremost is advancing our youth in their faith development and Christian service.

Also going on this week at St. Paul's is our Creative Arts Camp for elementary children. They are painting, making gingerbread houses, "camping" in the woods behind the church, working on a musical for presentation on Friday evening, and today (Wednesday), some are even going on a field trip. And then, after a break for the holiday, St. Paul's Vacation Bible School will kick off for over 200 kids! Kudos to Erin Soza, our Director of Children's Ministries, and her adult staff of volunteers! Again, the emphasis is on faith development in all of these programs, not just "babysitting."

The organizational skills of Tami and Erin are amazing. Most of us just watch in amazement. We are so blessed to have their gifts and leadership here.

Hats off, too, to Rich McClure and our custodial staff. One look into the New Horizons room, where CAT campers are constructing gingerbread houses with "live" icing, sprinkles, and other sticky stuff, would bring the average person to tears. But these people just do what is always done around St. Paul's--just kick in and scrub carpets, clean, and turn around rooms ASAP, as no space here sits idle for too long. In the Summers, when most churches have "down time," and the custodians can perform "exceptional" cleaning of carpets, sanctuaries, and meeting spaces, St. Paul's is going full-tilt.

Hey, on this second full day of Summer, 2016, enjoy the day, and be blessed, friends. Shalom!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

More on Orlando...

In the short time I have been writing blogs on this site since being appointed to St. Paul's, I have had to address the question of mass shootings several times! How sad that, here we are again, in the aftermath of a horrible act of violence that has claimed at least 49 innocent lives, with more than that number injured, and several still critical. This is a time for appealing to God for comfort and grace for the victims, their families, and friends. Prayer is our first order of business. The gut-punch America received upon hearing word of yet another slaughter will linger for a while, and should remind us to keep those prayers flowing until the hurt begins to subside. And pray that at least a little national healing can occur before the next gun-borne tragedy strikes.

What the news is telling us about the shooter is that he was "self-radicalized," and most likely had no formal contact with Daesh (ISIS). It appears he was a very sad man, violent in many venues, and consumed by hate. He also most likely suffered from some undiagnosed mental illness. We should pray for his family, as they seem as lost as to why he committed this unspeakable act as are the rest of us.  From Columbine to Sandy Hook, Charleston to San Bernardino, and now to Orlando, this seems always to be the case. How awful it must be to hear that a loved one has done something like this and to not have had a clue that it could happen. Lord, in your mercy...

What we do know, without a doubt, is that this shooter targeted a specific community--our LGBTQ siblings. Reports say he was recently angered by seeing two men kiss. What is wrong with us? There was a time when, if we felt something was repulsive, or if it "angered" us, we would just turn and walk the other way. When did we become the kind of society that gave birth to such violent and deadly reactions? What is fueling this? And why are we picking on the LGBTQ community? Our own United Methodist denomination still discriminates against this population, so maybe we are feeding it a bit ourselves? I am so tempted to invoke the late Rodney King's question, "Why can't we all just get along?" Why, indeed.

The glorification of guns and the rise of an unyielding "front" against any sane gun safety regulations that hides behind the Second Amendment are culpable. Irrational slogans and Internet posts draw on every type of illogical propaganda, from the infamous "slippery slope" to "red herrings" and "straw men," to "support" opinions that can best be summed up in this selfish philosophy: "I want what I want when I want it," and "It is my right." (I have a real hard time with people who claim to be Christ-followers, and yet still put "my rights" above the greater good.)

Within the first three days of the Orlando tragedy, someone posted a placard on FaceBook that proclaimed:

"If a madman wants to kill innocent people
he will find a way.
Killers don't need guns to kill people.
Timothy McVeigh
used fertilizer.
9-11 terrorists used
box cutters & planes.
The Nazis used
cyanide gas...
Taking guns from
innocent people will not
protect innocent people.
The problem is not guns.
It is a Godless society."

This is the kind of ridiculous "logic" that sane gun safety regulation and banning military-style assault rifles is up against. I responded to this post by a gun-promoting acquaintance by inquiring: Have you tried to purchase ammonium nitrate in any quantity since the Oklahoma City bombing? You can't, because it is now highly regulated. Have you tried to take a box cutter onto a plane since 9-11? Oh, and we fought a World War and staged the Nuremberg Trials as a response to what the Nazis did. And yet, the AR-15 has been the weapon of choice in several mass shootings, and not ONE attempt has been made to regulate its purchase.

We are not a "Godless society." We are a society--of people of color and diversity, of a spectrum of sexual orientations, of differing socio-economic means, of many religious preferences, and political persuasions--and many believe in God. Many don't. Neither of these facts excuse us from acting in the best interests of all, and finding a way to "love our neighbors as ourselves," as someone has suggested. Every time another of these shootings happens, I pray that it will finally be the tipping point for us to demand that our lawmakers act to protect the true innocent. Children are dying because gun safety is so lax. Murder-suicides in domestic disputes are an almost daily occurrence. Over 30,000 people die in acts of gun violence each year in the United States. Having "God" won't fix this problem alone. (In fact, most of my FaceBook "friends" who advocate for gun rights claim to be practicing Christians!)

As a pastor, I am deeply grieved by the strange dichotomy between "God" and gun rights. If we are followers of Jesus, we are called to set aside our own rights when they may cause harm to others. If Jesus had followed the philosophy of the National Rifle Association, he would have turned the Earth into a cinder and walked away after his trial before Pilate. I am not against "law-abiding citizens" owning a gun for sport. And while I would never advocate that people of faith own a gun for "personal protection" (are you, as a Christ-follower, really ready to kill someone?), this is most likely allowed under the Second Amendment. But assault-style weapons? High-capacity ammunition clips? These things are designed to kill people, pure and simple. And they should be illegal to own.

So, what are we going to do? Will we keep playing our sad violin songs until the next shooting? Or will we begin to use our First Amendment rights to speak up, write our lawmakers, and vote our conscience? If not, we'll meet again at the next post-tragedy blog. God help us.

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...