Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Questions for the Pastor IV - 2016

Who picks the scripture (for worship)? Why are they chosen, or what is the overall focus?

Good question! Generally, the Leadership Team (which includes our two pastors and our worship coordinator) sets various "themes" throughout the program year (September through May) such as the  "Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace" theme we had during Lent. Scriptures are chosen that address the subject of the theme, in this case, "peace," which we explored in terms of our relationship with God, others, and the world. In some of the themes we have chosen, scripture verses were selected from the Common Lectionary, a universal, Christian compendium of Bible readings chosen by ecumenical scholars. Each week, the Common Lectionary offers a selection from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a Gospel reading, and an Epistle reading, all of which relate, at least in the minds of the scholars. Pastor Karen and I work hard to "wrestle" with the chosen scripture when writing our sermons, as we are both committed to scriptural preaching, as was Mr. Wesley. In line with Mr. Wesley, however, we are not simply "didactic" preachers giving a "Bible lesson" in our sermons. Our goal is to elucidate on the text, and using illustrations, stories, or maybe a personal "ah, HA!" discovered during our study, make it applicable to our common life as Christians.

What are your least favorite Bible stories?

That's a tough question, and since I am answering these questions on my blog, I am answering for myself, so you would have to ask Pastor Karen directly, if you wish to hear hers. I don't like the stories that make God look overly judgmental or violent. I don't believe that the God who came into our world through Jesus Christ, and who offers "grace upon grace," is that kind of God. We have to realize that these stories are greatly "filtered" through human experience, and in the Hebrew Bible, they are written by a people strongly committed to monotheism. Hence, everything that happens--including the bad stuff--has to have its causality somehow related to God. What stories am I talking about? Well, the whole "wipe out the wicked world" story of Noah and the flood, God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and the times when "God tells" Israel to totally wipe out an enemy, including women and children, would be three I would cite. I also have a problem with many "modern" interpretations of the Book of Revelation, which attempt to bring the whole thing into our time and future times. I believe, as do most Bible scholars, that much of that book was fulfilled when the Roman Empire fell and Christians were liberated from the persecution of that regime. That all being said, I think responsible study (exegesis) and application (hermeneutic) of the Bible can find much value in the transmission of these stories through preaching and teaching.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Believe it or not, questions like this one were actually seriously debated by theologians and philosophers during the period of Scholasticism, which lasted approximately from 1100 to just before 1700. Debates between philosophical schools of Idealism and Classical Realism perpetrated these conversations, with the Naturalists (more "scientific" types whose foundation was observation) on the outside, for the most part. When one enters into a debate of what "real" means, theological questions like "How many angels..." become part of the discussion. In our time, the philosophical debate has more frequently pitted Existentialism against Idealism. While I enjoy a good theological or philosophical conversation, I don't see why anyone would really be interested in knowing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Questions III - 2016

How do we reconcile the violence demanded by God in the Old Testament with Jesus' message of "love thy neighbor," "love your enemies," etc.?

This question is a "popular" one, and a good example of why it is important that the Bible be interpreted "in community" and not just by individuals. If one were to read certain passages in the Hebrew Bible--for example, this from II Chronicles 25:12--The sons of Judah also captured 10,000 alive and brought them to the top of the cliff and threw them down from the top of the cliff, so that they were all dashed to pieces--it sure sounds like this was a violent bunch, and you can even find verses where it sounds like God "orders" it. What we really have, though, are primitive texts, written about people who lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago, who did violent things, and sometimes they "blame" it on God. As strict monotheists, these ancient peoples had to locate all authority within their understanding of deity. Hence, when they went into battle, or had to deal with the spoils of war, they often stated that God "told them" to commit violent and selfish acts. This is exactly what is happening with modern-day terrorism. Violent people, from largely lawless lands, commit heinous, violent acts to advance their "power" or political agenda, and "hang" it on a religion, whether it is Islam, Judaism, or some tribal belief. The media would often have us believe that all terrorism is carried out by "Muslim extremists," but this just isn't so. In fact, the desecration and burning of an historic church in Israel was actually done by an extremist group that claims to be representing God and Judaism. The genocide in the Sudan is the result of a tribal conflict. And let us not forget that both the Crusades, which killed thousands, and the Ku Klux Klan, which murdered men, woman and children of color in this country, "hung" their violent acts on the Christian faith! Incidentally, Jesus' commands to "love God with all your heart..." and "love your neighbor as yourself," both come from the Old Testament! (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:17)

Why did Jesus have to go to hell after all the suffering he did on the cross?

There are only a couple of obscure scriptural references to this idea, such as Ephesians 4:8-10: Therefore it says, "When he ascended on high he led a host of captives and he give gifts to people." In saying, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions of the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens that he might fulfill all things. In the tradition of the church, most of the idea that Jesus "descended into hell" comes from The Apostles' Creed, that ancient statement of faith recited during worship in many churches (although not all include the line, "He descended into hell," when they do. United Methodists don't). In this tradition, Jesus makes a "field trip" into the bowels of the earth (hell), during the interval between his own death on the cross and the resurrection, to release "the captives," whoever they are. Some would say they are those who died before, and who are now "freed" by the redemptive power of Christ, the Messiah. Again, the scriptures don't give us much to go on, so if we try to explain or expand the idea beyond this, we are offering merely conjecture. One thing is for sure, if Jesus did, indeed, "descend into hell," it wasn't any kind of punishment for him, but a mission of mercy.

What is the real value of prayer? I don't expect God to alter his ultimate plan based on my opinion of how things should be...

This question gets us into an interesting theological quagmire! Some branches of theology (Calvinism) leans in the direction of God having an "ultimate will," or some kind of divine master plan, and humans are pawns in the game. Other theologies (Wesleyan) rather believe that people and our redemption are God's plan. Both allow for the agency of prayer. For those who lean toward the "God's will" side, prayer becomes that which draws believers into focus on the needs of another (or oneself), and begins the process of aligning that person with what God is up to. Calvinists presuppose that God's will may be active in guiding their prayers. Wesleyans believe that prayer does the same thing, although we have less of an emphasis on some "ultimate will" of God as governing the nature of affairs, and more the idea that God, in God's desire to redeem us and fashion humanity into a caring, inclusive, and grace-filled community we often label "the Kingdom of God," responds to our prayers and uses our concerns to help shape and form this new reality. Regardless of which view one holds, prayer is important! I find that prayer probably changes me before anything else happens.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Questions 2016 - Part II

How do you know when God is talking to you?

First of all, don't expect a big, booming voice or a blinding light. The Apostle Paul got those, and maybe a few others throughout biblical history, but most of us have to learn to "culture" hearing God's voice. For most of us, God speaks in the quiet of our soul, in a restful, meditative moment, or in the advice or counsel of someone we love and respect. So, if you have been praying about something for which you need an answer, get yourself to a quite place more regularly, and "listen to your life." Any positive, caring "word" you hear within yourself may indeed be God's voice for you. Frankly, when I've been praying for guidance or for a specific answer to something, I find it hits me in the shower--a sudden, serendipitous thought, or "ah-HA" moment just arrives and stares me in the face as the water is "waking me up." Sometimes, when I am driving a long distance, I turn off XM radio and just do a little pondering and listening, and in the rumination of those moments, ideas occur, which I know to be God's voice, often in retrospect. If you are seeking God's guidance, go talk to a person of faith you respect. Let them know what's on your mind, or what's troubling you. In their thoughts and counsel, you may get your answer. Most of all, spend some regular time with God, through prayer, meditating on a passage of scripture, or in worship with your faith community! How better to "get to know" someone's voice than by spending time with them. This is most likely what Jesus meant when he said, "I am the Good Shepherd," and "My sheep know my voice."

As a pastor, why is working for inclusion of LGBTQ persons so important to you, when some other pastors I know say that it is our job to bring them to repentance?

LGBTQ people need to repent, but no more than any of the rest of us. And since science, medicine, and modern psychology tell us that our sexual orientation is on a "spectrum," and that persons who have same gender attraction or who believe their "true self" resides in a body that was gendered differently at birth, then this is not a "lifestyle choice," and I think faith communities must come to grips with this and include these persons without prejudice. Besides, if our sexual identity is on a continuum, and we take the Bible literally to mean "a man is a man" and "a woman is a woman," then most of us are probably guilty of being "too manly or womanly," or "not manly or womanly" enough, depending on the level of our testosterone or estrogen! Extremes are almost always bad for us. Theologically, throughout the centuries of the Judeo-Christian faith, we have reinterpreted scripture many, many times as our knowledge and experience grew. Is it fair to assume that what was written to primitive peoples centuries or even millennia ago would apply exactly the same to people in 2016? I don't think so. The basic principles are true. For example: prohibitions against "homosexuality" in the Bible historically appeared in ages when exploitive sexual practices were being carried out against children, especially young boys, and when "sex" was considered a "male rite," while the partners were just the "objects." Writers of scripture began to speak out against this in the early church, and they targeted some of the worst practices of this in the Roman and Greek cultures (exploitive homosexuality). What still works about these texts are the truths that: sex should not be exploitive; sex should not be a punishment or a weapon; sex should be an expression of love between two consenting persons who wish to have a relationship "covenant" of some sort; and sex should not just be a form of "jolly recreation," but be a wonderful creation of God designed to bond two persons together in love. Unfortunately, the "clobber passages" in the Bible have been used to exclude faithful persons who wish to live a life of love, faith, and service to God and others. I think that makes this a justice issue, and one I believe is worthy of my efforts as a pastor to help redeem.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Questions for the Pastor 2016 - First Installment

The Sunday after Easter, Pastor Karen Slusser and I take questions from our congregation at St. Paul's UMC. Unfortunately, due to the limited time during the worship service, a number of "surplus" questions are generated, so in the next couple of blogs, I shall attempt to answer them. Here goes...

Since this is a Communion Sunday (April 3), explain to me one more time why we only have Communion once a month, on the first Sunday.

Actually, we offer weekly Communion at St. Paul's, but only at our 8:30AM service, although this is available year-round. Why don't we offer Holy Communion at each service, as is the practice of our Episcopal, Lutheran, and Catholic friends? Some of our United Methodist congregations have gone to doing this. We don't at St. Paul's, partly because our services, for the most part, are less "liturgical" in church-speak, less "formal" in street language. While the sacrament of Holy Communion is a most important "means of grace" for Methodists, in the theological tradition of John Wesley, our church's founder, so were preaching and teaching God's Word, worship (in general), prayer, acts of mercy, and "Christian conferencing." Given that a great majority of our members primarily attend worship services, we feel that preaching and teaching the scriptures and corporate prayer times are high priorities for what we do in worship. Worship, for many, is the largest block of time spent on spiritual development in a given week, and instruction in the faith, therefore, becomes an essential part of the worship service. Roman Catholic Christians often refer to Communion as "food for the journey." Protestant Christians have more often focused on God's Word as illumination for the pathways of our lives and our spiritual journey.

After musical "performances" during worship, should we applaud? Or should we just say "Amen!"?

Over 30 years in ministry, in five different churches (and my two "home" churches I attended before becoming a pastor), this question is a stumper. The older tradition held that one shouldn't "clap" in church in the manner of "the theater". However, modern gatherings of people find it a natural expression of appreciation for talent shared, musical or otherwise, and in this cultural "shift," applause in church has become more commonplace. Even in the Psalms of the Bible we read things like, "Clap you hands, all people!" Here's what I think: if you are blessed by a piece of music shared by the choir, bell choir, instrumentalist/organist, or a soloist, and are moved to applaud, do so, knowing that God appreciates our appreciation for one of God's children sharing a talent in praise! However, go with your "spirit," not just the urge to be "socially correct," meaning that if the song is soft and meditative, respectful or awe-inspired silence may be the better praise. Feel the Spirit, and let her inform your spirit as to how to show appreciation and/or enter into the "praise moment." I do have one rule, though: Always applaud for children or youth who are sharing in worship leadership through song, recitation, skit, or speech! We should loudly affirm them!

Why are we having a Muslim speak in church? (Asim Kokan, Community Relations Coordinator for the Muslim Association of Pittsburgh North will speak at our 9:30 and 10:30 services on Sunday, April 17)

While I did answer this question in our April 3 Q & A time, I thought the "blog audience" should hear my answer, too. One of the greatest sins that divides people is ignorance, and the media is guilty of spreading a lot of ignorance about what Islam IS and ISN'T. What better way to provide accurate information than to have a Muslim leader speak at our church? And what better way is there to promote cooperation and understanding between these two major biblical faiths? Besides, Asim Kokan has become a dear friend of this congregation through our common social justice work through the N.O.R.T.H. organization in which we both participate (N.O.R.T.H. stands for "Neighboring Organizations Responding Together for Hope").  Our 9:30AM "Grace Cafe" service is inherently a dialogical format, and Asim will answer some questions during our 10:30 worship, but will also entertain "random" questions at a reception time immediately after the service in Wesley Hall. Come and be informed! [By the way many have asked, "Why aren't Muslim leaders speaking out against terrorism?" In fact, they ARE. Unfortunately, this doesn't make the news. Recently, the lead "letter to the editor" of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was from a Muslim Association leader speaking STRONGLY against terrorism, proclaiming that it is against the tenets of Islam. AND, if you visit MAP North's website (www.mapitt.org), you will see a banner across the top of their home page condemning terroristic actions.]

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...