Thursday, January 26, 2017

Alternative Facts...

I'll bet that President Trump's advisor, Kellyanne Conway, is very, very sorry for coining the phrase "alternative facts" in an attempt to defend White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, who was himself under "attack" for defending some whoppers "someone else" told about the inaugural crowd size. My guess is that as soon as she uttered it, Ms. Conway thought to herself, "OH boy, THAT was a bad idea!" The phrase now lives in infamy.

Still, now that it is here--and has taken on a life of its own--maybe we can look at it from a biblical and theological angle.

The Bible is full of "alternative facts." Jesus gave us a lot of them: "Love your enemies"; "Turn the other cheek"; and "Forgive seventy times seven." These alternative facts certainly go against the popular wisdom that springs from the human psyche. Hating our enemies, getting even with those who hit first, and, in terms of the one on forgiving, "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me." Why, the very idea of grace is an alternative fact when held up against retaliation, retribution, and a chronic judgmental attitude. How about "The last shall be first," and "The one who wants to be greatest of all must become the servant of all"? These biblical alternative facts come to light when the narrative is describing the Kingdom (Realm) of God that is and will be among us. That's because it is an alternate paradigm of priorities, relationships, and human interaction, not to mention a different kind of justice.

Theology is always postulating "alternative facts" as to the origin of the universe and the purpose of human existence, at least over and against the facts as can be ascertained by the scientific method. Theology also seeks to explain love. Science and psychology can only observe, describe, and relate it to hormones, synapses, and the chemical memory bank of the human mind.

If you ask my dear Dara for directions to a place, and ask me at the same time, she will get out a map, while I punch in an address on my car's navigation. The routes we offer may differ, but they will both get you there--mine usually the fastest way, while hers the shortest and most direct way. They are both facts, but to each other, they are "alternative facts."

A problem arises, though, when a phrase like "alternative facts" is used to describe something that is absolutely wrong, and provably so. Calling it an "alternative fact" is seeking to give it credence when it deserves none.

In fact (don't you just love my turn of a phrase?), the world is full of "alternative facts" when examining reality, concepts, ideas, or theories, as one's experience, perspective, or field of discipline may generate "facts" different than someone with a different viewpoint. But to call a statement that is totally false an "alternative fact" heads us down a very different path.

For now, I'm giving Ms. Conway the benefit of the doubt. Still, I enjoy poking fun at the use of the phrase, for in speaking it forth, she has generated more Facebook posts and upcoming Saturday Night Live routines that we can imagine. My guess is that within the next two years, the people at the Oxford Dictionary will announce they are adding "alternative facts" to their volume.

Shalom, Yinz.

Friday, January 13, 2017


I'm working on some thoughts for an upcoming church meeting where we will begin the process of implementing our new Vision Statement for St. Paul's UMC. We began this "re-visioning" experience almost two years ago, so now that we have the will and the verbiage, it is time to put it all to work for the future of the congregation, and to accomplish the mission for which we believe God has called us.

As part of the theological underpinnings of this next step, I revisited the scripture passages from John 15, which we used as our "theme" for the task, most especially the "I am the vine, you are the branches" verse. Now that we are moving forward into an uncertain and possibly even daunting future (for "the church" is now in "foreign missions" to our contemporary culture), an idea struck.

Jesus' illustration of the vine would most certainly have been about grape vines, given the vineyards which could have dotted the fertile areas of Galilee. In viticulture, new shoots are grafted onto old--and sometimes near ancient--root stock. Good root stock guarantees a bigger, high-quality yield. As an aside, when Dara and I were on a Holy Land trip a few years back, and we were touring the Garden of Gethsemane, I asked a docent to confirm something I had heard, namely that the olive trees in the garden might have been the same ones standing when Jesus was wrestling with his fate in that garden. The docent said this was not true--at least not the trees. The roots, however, probably were original. Again, new shoots were grafted onto old--even ancient--root stock.

So, as our church begins to implement a new vision for ministry, the very text that launched us on this endeavor now reminds us that our vision will only be fruitful if we graft it onto the substantial root stock St. Paul's has developed over its near 50 years of ministry--and, of course, onto the historic "root stock" of a Christ-centered faith.

The shoots will be--must be--new, growing now in a very different environment than shoots of old. Their grounding and nourishment will be supplied by the great stock that still inhabits, unseen, the rich soil of Christian scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. But the elements of contemporary culture, and the great, great needs, challenges, and unique anxiety it creates, will cause the new branches to adapt, acquire the necessary hardiness, and bear fruit among millennial generations and those that will come after.

There is always a temptation to just grow a new plant from scratch. Some have done this. But the resulting "fruit" might be uncertain, long in coming, and the branches may not survive the shock of producing, apart from history (tradition and experience). No, we need to graft onto the heritage of our root stock.

There is also the temptation to just take some of the old branches--ones that are ready for the fire--and just grafting them back on, because they worked before. Big mistake, too. That's not to say that all "old" ministries are outmoded, for certainly, some continue to be relevant and even timeless. However, do you get my drift here? And is this one possible reason some of our churches are gasping for breath--good root stock but fear in grafting new branches because the old ones always worked before?

Our new St. Paul's Vision is: We will be an inclusive, diverse church, loving others according to the teachings of Jesus and working for justice and peace in our world. Now do you see why it is essential that we graft onto proven, historic root stock? And yet, St. Paul's has always been a church that "branches out." That's in our DNA. So, we're pretty jazzed up about the possibilities for the new branches and the fruit they may produce.

And, you know that works for individuals as well. What is your "root stock" like? And have you grafted on any new branches recently? If you struggle with bad or "diseased" root stock, maybe it is time to plant anew. In faith parlance, we call this a "new birth." But if you have good roots, why not be open to "reinventing" yourself by grafting in fresh branches--take on a new mission, write your own new, personal Vision Statement, reconnect with your faith in Christ! May you be jazzed up about your journey, too. Shalom, Yinz.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Taking responsibility...

As part of our stirring theological discussion this morning, my Friday covenant group (three pastors, a Bible scholar, and a lawyer) got talking about the concept of original sin. To quote an old joke (which seems appropriate for three pastors, a Bible scholar, and a lawyer), "We're agin' it." The concept of "original sin," as committed by Adam is one of those litmus tests of fundamentalism. For more progressive theologians, "original sin" is just a term for whatever first prompted human beings to put their own interests above those of the rest of creation. Progressive theologians view the Garden of Eden narratives as an inspired folk tale that stands in for a mythical part of the human experience that was probably less an "event" than part of our evolutionary process, most likely an offshoot of our primordial self-preservation instinct (humans did selfish things--many of which were detrimental to the others around them, or to their world--driven by the need to survive).

Some are still driven by this instinct today: people who make war to protect their village and preserve their way of life; persons who steal to buy food for themselves or their family, etc. However, most of us "sin" because we want to. It is an act of volition. We don't need an "inherited" incident of original sin to prompt us to do so.

Maybe I should take a stab at defining "sin." I think sin is any thought, attitude, or activity that harms, objectifies, or demeans another person, or that may bring harm to ourself. Sin is that which breaks relationships, or makes them impossible to have or sustain. Sin focuses on me and not thee, whether the thee is another person or God. I know some will say, "The Bible makes clear what sin is." Well, yes and no. The "lists" of sins in the Bible are examples of the behaviors I have described above. They are meant to teach us that these kinds of things will ruin our relationship with God and others. Christians are people living our lives in community. Sin ruins community, from the extremes of murder and adultery, to theft and sexual promiscuity that "uses" others for personal gratification, instead of as a bonding experience in a loving relationship. Some of the things the Bible lists as "sins" are probably not big issues for us today, but there are other things we do that make up our own sin list: harming the environment; racism and sexism; benefitting from, rather than exposing and opposing rampant economic disparity, to name a few, and these are not directly addressed in the biblical lists. If we define sin in this way, then my efforts to subdue or "win over" it are couched in making myself a better person and one who encourages and enhances the community life around me, which seems like a holistic and productive pursuit. In this model, God's forgiveness becomes not just divine appeasement, but something that motivates us like a coach egging on her team.

While "original sin" is an interesting thing to have theological conversation about, the reality is that the only cause of our own sin is us. Blaming our sin on some "sin nature" we inherited from Adam is akin to saying "the devil made me do it." We are the ones who choose to sin, and we are the ones who can choose not to sin. This is not to say that we can't ask for help from our supportive community--or from God. Jesus spent most of his time with "sinners" in his ministry, and a considerable amount of that time was in teaching how not to sin, and how to love others. In a couple of incidences with the Pharisees, he seemed to make light of his ability to forgive sins, and emphasized ethical, moral, and loving behavior as the genuine cure for what ails us.

So, as we get up to speed in the new year, let one of our most shining resolutions be to take responsibility for our own sins and shortcomings, whatever they may be, and with God's help, work on being freed from the "bondage" they inflict on our lives, and also, therefore, the harm they may be causing in the others around us. In the words of Mr. Wesley, let us "go on to perfection." 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...