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...


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...