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 ( to learn more about Islam and what it has in common with the other two major biblical religions, Christianity and Judaism.

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...