Friday, June 23, 2017

Bible Stories...-

For the Summer months, we have decided to center our worship and preaching at St. Paul's UMC around several of the famous stories of the Bible. Many of us learned these on the "little painted chairs" of a Sunday School room, but an increasing number of church attenders were not raised in this tradition, and often don't know these stories. So, when we preachers say something like, "You remember the story of Cain and Abel...", the fact is, many don't remember it, and even if they do, they will think of the story as they remember it from their childhood days. And that can be bad.

The simple moral lessons we learned as kids probably are a real short-sell of what is going on in the original story. In a recent sermon, I likened this to the two different "levels" brought to the cartoon feature The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. When you watched the adventures of the buck-toothed flying squirrel and his goofy moose sidekick Bullwinkle J. Moose, you laughed and enjoyed the prevailing mayhem. However, when you review one of these episodes as an adult, you uncover an entirely different message. The little squirrel and his friend remind us more of the Smothers Brothers, speaking critically about the social justice issues of the day, lampooning those in power, and attacking the ethics and prejudices of the Cold War and the civil rights injustices of the day. Wow. Rocky and Bullwinkle carried out their subtle social protests and satire under the radar of the sensors, but Tommy and Dick Smothers got cancelled by CBS at the peak of its popularity for their version.

The Bible story of Adam and Eve tells us more about the human condition, human suffering, and our often failed attempts to remedy our situation than they do about sin and redemption. The oversimplification of this myth causes us to miss asking the important questions: Did God REALLY not want human beings to live without the knowledge of good and evil? Was the demonizing of the female protagonist in the story more about the prejudices of the author than a pronouncement that women are to blame for the world's problems? Did the devil really make us do it? I'm afraid many of us perpetuate childish ideas about what we can learn from Bible stories like Adam and Eve!

What we can learn from the story is that the "best design" of human beings is that we are made to need each other, and for far more than perpetuating the species. We need each other to care for the earth and to live in harmony with it. WE need each other to live what Jesus would later call "the abundant life." We need each other to create healthy communities and to share resources, talents, and abilities for the common good, as well as our own. Any strong thrust toward individual rights and power skews human society toward economic and political injustice, and creates a class of people who have not money, power, nor influence. These people will suffer unfairly. Eden, even after the "tree" incident, was a place where people needed each other and would not survive--let alone thrive--in isolation. And having a relationship with the Creator was a part of this we-need-each-other topology. Even after the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, when Cain is set to the land of Nod, East of Eden by God, he is not condemned. The seeds of his rehabilitation are sewn in God's command that no one would be allowed to harm him as retribution for his act.

And anyone who tries to use either biblical creation story to justify attacking people who are not at the extreme ends of the gender spectrum, or who are transgender, is missing the meaning of this story, and is turning it into a "clobber passage." The biblical story is about relationships, the social interaction of the human creation, the fickleness of human judgment, and how human suffering plays out while working through the difficulties of these. It is not an apologetic for hard-line, conservative ideas of gender exclusivity. Our blood should curdle when we hear someone say, "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," or some other such ignorant blather as an assault against other children of God. An oversimplified, childish statement such as this misses the whole reason we even have this story preserved in scripture, and should be seen as an affront to the whole human community, not to speak of it being an offensive slur against the God who created us and loves us all.

Over the coming weeks, we will look at stories such as the Tower of Babel, Esau's Birthright vs. Jacob's chicanery, Jacob and Laban, David and Goliath, David and Bathsheba, Queen Esther, Shiprah and Puah, the Temptation of Jesus, Ananias and Sapphira, and the Conversion of Saul. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, we suggest that if you are an adult, you start using the same mind--the same mind you use to be successful in your field of endeavor, wisely parent your children, prudently manage your finances, maintain a happy and growing relationship with your significant other, and plan well for your future--to read and study the Bible. And try not to listen to anyone who feeds you oversimplified, dismissing, or hurtful interpretations of what you read in its pages. The fact that we are all still here is the best proof that God is more about love, forgiveness, and helping us work out the challenges of human suffering than about condemnation, judgment, and retribution. This stuff is complicated! But, as Mr. Wesley said on his deathbed, "The best of all is, God is with us!"

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Irrationality of Violence...

An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (originally featured in the Washington Post) cited a study of mass shootings which tied a great majority of them to persons who had long histories with domestic violence. Most mass shootings are perpetrated by men. That is just a fact. So, researchers began to look into the criminal histories of mass shooters, and what they found was startling. James Hodgkinson, the shooter who attacked the Republican senators and congressmen practicing for a charity baseball game, had been cited for stalking and at least one instance of striking a woman. Similar findings of violence, stalking, and/or domestic abuse were tied to: the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho; Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista, California shooter who killed six and wounded 13; Cedric Ford, who shot 17 people at a Newton, Kansas plant last year; and Omar Mateen, who murdered 49 people in Orlando, Florida at the Pulse nightclub. All of them had various incidents of legal citations for domestic violence.

It would be easy to demonize these people--as we typically do with sexual predators or child pornographers--and want to "lock them up and throw away the key." While some might say that these people are "deviants" who could be "cured" by having a religious conversion experience, the truth is that many of them are also religious, sometimes reaching what we would call the fanatic stage. One thing seems clear--these criminal acts are committed by people with an established pathology. Is this pathology genetic? Is it a form of mental illness?

There is no doubt that deadly criminal acts should be prosecuted by our legal system, although many of the shooters take their own life at the end of their killing spree. And there is no doubt that society should be protected from them, to the best of our ability. The NRA says the answer is to arm ourselves, even dramatizing the Virginia shooting, saying that without the Capitol Police who were present and armed, that baseball diamond could have become a killing field. Yes, but the Capitol Police are well-trained officers, not just people with guns. Had there been more citizens with weapons on the scene, there may have actually been more injuries due to untrained people discharging their firearms. If there is an answer, it is not in more citizens carrying guns.

Nor am I suggesting that those perpetrators of deadly acts--at least the ones who survive--should be simply confined to mental health facilities. While the pathology they exhibit, which according to the study cited in the Washington Post article is possibly a root cause of what can escalate to more serious acts of violence, the actual crime needs to be addressed according to the rule of law. However, the question I believe the article begs is: Should we require some kind of mandatory intervention for these individuals when they are first cited for stalking or domestic incidents? Could it be that the "secret" to getting ahead of the increasing number of senseless killings is to get persons who exhibit excessively controlling and violent behaviors HELP as early as possible?

One thing I do know, though: a recent act by the current administration and Congress to allow persons who have been treated for mental illness to buy and own firearms makes no sense. NO sense. You can cite all of the Second Amendment legal arguments you want, but in so many cases, this is just lighting the fuse. Almost all of the mass shootings have been carried out by persons using legally-owned weapons. In a perfect world, persons who run afoul of the law due to domestic violence or have court ordered PFAs because of stalking would not be allowed to own or possess firearms. We are not a perfect world, and for all of our bluster and rhetoric about this being "the greatest country on Earth," we are far, far from being a perfect country, especially on this issue.

It remains to be seen if the Virginia shooting makes a difference in Congress's views about gun violence, or whether the "bipartisanship" it has temporarily spurred, lasts. While we pray for the survival of Congressman Scalise, we might also pray for our better angels to whisper in the ears of our leaders about heading off the apparent root causes of these deadly incidents, and finding ways to stop arming those with a pathological history.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Final Questions from "Ask the Pastors"...

Since this will be my final installment from our 2017 Post-Easter "Ask the Pastors" session, I'll try to pick a couple of good ones! Here goes...

What is the significance of the "Jesus fish"?

This question is from one of our Mid-High youth. The "Jesus fish" was actually featured on an episode of Seinfeld. David Puddy, Elaine's boyfriend has one on his car, and they get into a humorous "spiritual" battle about David's Christian faith and why he doesn't seem to care if Elaine is going to hell or not. She ends up prying the "Jesus fish" from his car and retuning his car radio away from a Christian music station, in a fit of revenge. Sorry...serious questions usually take me to Seinfeld...

The "Jesus fish" is a simple symbol made of two opposing arcs, which, when overlapped, form what looks like a fish-shaped line drawing. Legend has it that it was used as a kind of code for early Christians during the time of persecution under Roman Empire rule, when it wasn't a great time to be very "public" about one's faith. If a person suspected another was a fellow Christian, they would draw an arc in the sand with her or his foot. If the other person WAS a Christian, they would draw the opposing arc, forming the fish. Without saying a word, they could confirm their common profession of faith. If the other person WASN'T a Christian, the little sand figure would be meaningless--no harm, no foul.

There is more to this fish story, however. Sometimes you will see the Christian fish symbol with several capital Greek letters contained within its belly. The letters look something like this ΙΧΘΥΣ. These are the first letters of the Greek words which mean: "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior." And when you put them together into an acronym such as shown, they form Greek word "Ichthus," which means "fish." So, as you see, the "Jesus fish" has much going for it as an early secret code and as an interesting theological word puzzle. Who knows, maybe its use saved a bunch of lives of early Christians? Now, though, it's just a "Jesus fish."

Here's one more from our youth...

What do you think is something people misunderstand about our church?

Wow. What a great question. Depending upon what "people" you are talking about, I'll bet there are a lot of things people misunderstand. Let me see if I can walk us through a few that concern me.

We have as part of our Mission Statement that we are a "welcoming" church, and each week our worship guides list our more formal "Welcome Statement," which we are very public about. This statement lists some specific marginalized groups which have been spurned by many Christian churches-and even some denominations--historically. We list them so that any guests who come here and who may be a member of one of these groups, will know specifically that they are welcome at St. Paul's. All of us, though, fit into one of the groups listed (we all have a family status, an age, a sexual orientation, etc.). Because some churches and "Christians" have disrespected or even shunned persons who are of a "different" group, many persons have developed a strongly negative view of the church and the Christian faith, in general. I fear these folk may tend to lump St. Paul's in with these less-than-welcoming churches. This is one reason why our Welcome Statement is so important, and why we put it--along with our Purpose, Mission, and Vision--on just about every thing we do! We are a welcoming church, and we aim to be an inclusive, diverse church. We want to "draw the circle much bigger," as they say, rather than build walls to shut people out who may be different than we.

St. Paul's is a church in the Wesleyan tradition, which means we have a rich theology of redemption and grace, which necessarily launch us into an ever growing myriad of social justice activities. That's what true "Wesleyan" churches are about, and this is what they do. There are some who are trying to claim the "Wesleyan" label who have a very different and confining definition of what this means, and I fear it projects a very negative witness to a lot of people who could really benefit from a loving, redeeming, and empowering relationship with Jesus. There is a real "civil war" brewing in our United Methodist denomination over the divergent views of Wesleyan Christianity. Unfortunately, this dispute is claiming more "press" than the incredible, life-changing ministry and mission being carried on by the people called United Methodists. I fear the harm this situation is doing could be long-lasting to our church. Our Purpose, Mission, Vision, and Welcome statements put St. Paul's right smack in the middle of what most serious scholars of Wesleyan Christianity would endorse, but the entropy of the "family spat" within Methodism can too easily overshadow what we are really about.

Here's one more "misunderstanding" that I hope we can overcome. Actually, it is not a misunderstanding! Our current reality is that we are a "white" suburban congregation, at present. While we certainly have several families of color and/or ethnic origin other than North American here at St. Paul's, a snapshot of our church on the average Sunday morning is pretty "monochrome." If we are to realize our Vision of becoming an "inclusive, diverse church," we have much work ahead. A good question for us to keep asking until we get an answer is, "Why are we remaining such a white church when the North Hills is becoming more ethnically and racially diverse?" I don't have an easy answer to this question. But thanks to our new Vision, we are compelled to find an answer--and a solution--to this question, with the goal to be a church that fully reflects the growing diversity of our local communities.

And, one final question from the congregation...

What's the best way to comfort someone who is hurting emotionally?

Obviously, there are many reasons why someone may be hurting. As a friend, or even just as a fellow Christian or church goer, the first thing we can do is express our sincere concern. Many people are "hurting" and no one notices. Secondly, talk with them in a supportive, loving way, listening for any cues as to how serious their emotional pain is. If you feel that they are pretty distraught, ask them if it would be OK if you shared their concern with one of the pastors, or maybe even inquire if you could personally take them to meet with a pastor. There are times when a person is in deep anguish, or possibly even on the road to more serious depression, and they may benefit from clinical help. Your pastors are sometimes more able to help determine this and then offer to refer the person to a counselor.

A majority of the time, however, the individual just needs a caring, listening presence. Any person can be "present" to a friend, neighbor, or church member at this point. The most important thing to remember is be a listener, and ask just enough questions to prompt the individual to talk. Do not try to solve the person's problem, and while launching into your own personal story (which may or MAY NOT really parallel their experience) is a strong temptation, resist it for as long as you can. Focus on the other, and try not to get "hooked" into their story to such a degree that you begin opening up your own issues, rather than being a listening ear for theirs. This is actually much harder than it sounds, by the way. The brain is amazing in its ability to connect things, but all of these "circuits" are not necessarily empowering to the person with whom you are trying to help.

Also, remember that St. Paul's has a Stephen Ministry. We have individuals trained through this program, and they are available to be assigned to a care receiver, walking with this individual through their process, whether it is grief, loneliness, or a spiritual "dark night of the soul." Pastor Karen Slusser leads our Stephen Ministers, so if you feel a person to whom you have reached out might benefit from a Stephen Minister, reach out to her.

Grace and peace, Friends!

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...