Thursday, January 28, 2016

Drifting Left...

I was chatting with a church member recently, and as we discussed my first year-plus experience as Lead Pastor here at St. Paul's, he made the observation, "You seem to be drifting left in your rhetoric when going beyond the essentials," (meaning in my sermons, I assumed). An interesting discussion ensued, and frankly, I've been thinking about this for several days since.

"Drifting left" was his way of saying away from a "conservative" and more toward a "liberal" direction. While we were not directly discussing politics, obviously, this was at least one small elephant in the room. As I stated earlier, I continued to ponder our conversation, and here are a few thoughts that have emerged:

I am a United Methodist Elder, and as such, I am called to support the views of this denomination, generally. Of course, we are free to disagree on some things. I, for one, do not agree with our current disciplinary statement, "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings." I disagree, for many reasons, including that I believe it is a bad extrapolation of Bible verses that are not addressing covenantal, monogamous relationships, but a kind of sexual perversion that is also condemned among heterosexuals. I disagree because the Bible is not a book of science or medicine, and those fields--with great support from psychology--today say that our sexual orientation, like so many other things, is on a "spectrum," and "normal" may fall at different places on that spectrum. I also disagree with our exclusionary statement because we now know that there are no longer just those two "poles" of heterosexuality and homosexuality. This is why we now use the term LGBTQIA to at describe sexual orientation. We need to add an "S" for straight, too. However, this post is NOT predominantly about sexual orientation, so I digress.

As a United Methodist leader, I do support our position on a variety of social issues. Since its inception, for example, United Methodists have been in favor of universal healthcare. And as such, our Board of Church and Society lobbied on behalf of the Affordable Care Act, which, though FAR from perfect, was at least a move toward insuring more people and getting rid of the "pre-existing conditions" rule that often left people with chronic illnesses without coverage when they changed jobs, or lost a job and had to find their own healthcare coverage. I like our views on abortion. The "official position" of The United Methodist Church is that we oppose the use of abortion as a means of birth control or for gender selection. We do affirm a woman's right "to choose," in consultation with her family and physician, and we support abortion as an alternative when a woman is raped or is a victim of incest. We believe in working for peace, and reluctantly accept military action as a means to achieve this. Pastors are encouraged to help young people discern very carefully before choosing military service. United Methodists have historically been viewed as "pluralistic," meaning we are tolerant of different viewpoints theologically--there is no rigid doctrinal statement or confession to which we swear allegiance beyond the core beliefs of the Christian faith, which Mr. Wesley called "the essentials." Another term for this intellectual headroom is called "Big Tent." We are a "big tent" people.

Our resolutions on social issues like those listed above, as well as others such as gun safety, ministering with those in poverty, and the role of government, make us "drift left" in the minds of my conservative friends. Is it a fair indictment? Yes, if you compare how we apply our religious values to how Jerry Falwell, Jr. does! But not all of our positions on issues are "liberal," and most could be summarized as "moderate." In terms of social issues, our founder--meaning Jesus, not Wesley--certainly "drifted left," and was considered a downright liberal by the powers that be of his day.

And now, here is the BIG HOWEVER: As biblically sound Christian people, we preach personal responsibility and community engagement. We are called to be ethical, moral people by the teachings of Jesus as most especially seen in the Sermon on the Mount and in his famous parables. We are not "liberal" when it comes to understanding this responsibility, either. While we work for worldwide justice, Mr. Wesley believed that "each individual is endued with a sense of dignity and moral responsibility." We don't "drift left" here. When we are given opportunities to make a positive contribution to our society and the world, we are to do it! Self-centered choices are eschewed in favor of fairness and sharing with the wider community and the community of faith. However, each of us must relate to (as well as answer to) our God and Savior individually, and be responsible stewards of our time, talents, and treasures. Just because my pew neighbor can put a big check in the offering plate doesn't mean that I am absolved of giving. And while my abilities, skills, and expertise are mine to use to make a living and carve out a decent existence, they are not mine alone. God's wants some of that, too, for how else will the Realm of God unfold?

So, while our belief in the Gospel as instituted and preached by Jesus Christ often DOES cause us to "drift left" by loving our neighbor as ourselves, caring for the poor, and visiting the sick, the widows and the orphans, this same Gospel calls us into a personally accountable relationship with Christ, and to a life that reflects the grace and love of Christ. Politically, we are Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Independents, and on and on, depending upon which scriptures you are interpreting and which ministries to which we feel called.

Finally, I leave you with this thought: The dove can only fly when it beats both the left and right wings, synchronously. As United Methodists, we will not adequately reflect the "whole counsel of God," the Holy Spirit, and the Prince of Peace unless we coordinate that "big tent" stuff and keep both "wings" moving. Drifting too far "left" or "right" will take us off course. Shalom, Yinz.

Friday, January 8, 2016


During the Advent cycle, pastor Karen Slusser and I preached a series of sermons on "less," which included "listless," "worriless," "timeless" and "limitless." Several folk have suggested I revisit some of the elements of the "Worriless" message in this blog, so here goes...

The key text was Philippians 4:6-7: Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

On first read, we are tempted to respond, "That's easy for HIM to say..." I read about a church sign that accidentally juxtaposed two sentences: "Don't let worry ruin your life. Let the church help." With a few yucks, it does awkwardly get at the question, what is the role of our faith in helping curb or sooth our worrisome anxieties?

Paul says Don't worry about anything. Humans are born worriers. Our intellect, and the ability to assess a situation and formulate actions and responses naturally also paves the way for worry.

We tend to lump worry and fear together, yet an interesting article I read in a psychology periodical provides these pairings and definitions:

Worry and Anxiety - A set of responses to an unknown, imprecise or ill-defined threat; often anticipatory in nature and created by the imagination. It's more associated with the need to be prepared. Worry leads to feeling anxious.

Fear and Panic - A set of responses to a known, precise, well-defined threat, which can be real or vividly imagined. It's mainly about avoidance and escape. In its extreme form, fear becomes panic.

Makes sense, doesn't it? This "worrisome" thinking can easily create the conditions that make a person feel anxious. The article listed four scenarios that lead to this:

  • Helplessness - Insufficient information to handle the situation
  • Over-stimulation - Too much information, or information overload
  • Incongruity - Conflicting information
  • Unpredictability - Having an uncertain outcome
In our current political environment--especially the run-up to this year's presidential election, the "over-stimulation" and "incongruity" factors are huge. We are bombarded with stuff from all directions of the media universe, and the "incongruity" of what we hear is unbelievable. I have learned that when a political candidate says "the fact is," or "Frankly..." doubt everything that comes next!

In another "worrisome" arena, some wag had posted on FaceBook a picture of a doctor's coffee mug which read: "My medical degree trumps your Google search!" How true it is that when we receive a diagnosis, we so often go right to the Internet to research it, or the meds prescribed. AND that brings on the worry and anxiety. I remember being given a prescription several years ago, and when I read about it--and its side-effects--on the Internet, I was scared to death to take it. Thankfully, I called a former parishioner who was head of pharmacy for all of UPMC Health Systems at that time, and he gave me a good scolding: "TAKE the drug--you need it! Besides the side-effects mentioned only occurred in a small population of teenage females from a mid-eastern country, so I think you're safe." It is so true that we drive ourselves to worry much of the time.

Passing through life's challenges--and related worry--is similar to a spacecraft coming back to earth, re-entering the earth's atmosphere:

1. It can just hit the atmosphere and burn up. When we don't plan ahead and prepare ourselves for some of the contingencies, this "crash and burn" may happen to our psyche. This is where the fear and panic come in.

2. The spacecraft may have an "ablative" heat shield. This is designed to slowly burn away as it enters the atmosphere, carrying the dangerous heat away from the vehicle. Might we be able to use this "gradual burn" as a way to keep from the "heat" building up to a dangerous level in our personal situations? A "controlled burn" sometimes works as a coping skill when facing trials.

3. The spacecraft may have "tiles" like the space shuttle did. These special ceramic tiles were able to "take the heat" and then dissipate it internally. I once saw a demonstration of these tiles whereby one was held by a pair of long forceps in a very hot flame until the center of the tile was literally glowing red. The person doing the demonstration then suddenly pulled the tile out of the flame and literally grabbed it in his bare hand. In that short period of time, the unique properties of the tile "snatched" the heat away from the surface, and even though it was still glowing hot at its center, the outside was already cool to the touch. Amazing. In terms of our worries and anxieties, being surrounded by a strong supportive community--family, friends, church--can act like those tiles in a time of crisis or challenge. I have observed that people who have little "supportive community," or friends who are affirming, comforting, or willing to walk along side of them during difficulties, often fall prey to the "crash and burn" scenario.

4. Finally, a spacecraft can avoid the destructive forces of friction in the upper atmosphere by a "powered descent." If it has an engine capable of balancing the force of gravity and descending slowly, no heat is generated. However, this requires a lot of power, and we haven't yet built a spacecraft that can do this. From a psychological and spiritual perspective, this is what Paul is talking about when he says--...but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Prayer and trusting in God can provide that extra power and "lift" to allow us to descend to the low points slowly, and then to begin to rise above them.

Two additional things Paul mentions here are also keys to navigating life without giving undo way to worry, anxiety, fear or panic:

Peace - he says it can "guard our hearts and minds". Learning how to practice peace, work for peace, and benefit from peace is a good assignment. The first item on this agenda is avoid being a contentious, angry or unpleasant person. Hotheads rarely experience--or can create--peace.

Thanksgiving - that "with thanksgiving" part of Paul's sentence is huge. Living with and regularly dispensing gratitude goes a long way in helping us avoid worry and anxiety! the conclusion of this particular message, we invited parishioners at St. Paul's to write their worries, fears, and anxieties on a peace of paper we provided when then arrived. Then, as they left, we had paper shredders at each door, and they were urged to drop these papers into the shredders. What they didn't know was that when they arrived for worship on Christmas Eve, their shredded worries had become the "straw" in the chancel manger bearing the Christ Child. Play with that image a bit, won't you? God cares. God really cares. And many of God's people care about you, too. Find some of them and engage a journey of faith and healthy psychological values, coping skills, and affirmations. You will be so much happier for it. And stop listening to all of the politicians...

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...