Thursday, August 31, 2017

Birthdays and Anniversaries...

Kids look forward to birthdays, don't they? Sure, a birthday means presents, and possibly a party with family and friends, but there is a kind of overall excitement that happens when a child has a birthday. For many teenagers, the "kid" excitement is replaced by a countdown until eligibile for a driving learner's permit--"Only two more years and I can get my permit!" During the college years, birthdays are an excuse to "party," or at the very least, have someone buy us a drink.

Adult birthdays--at least for me--aren't much of a thrill. At my age, they tend to remind me that I'm actually--finally--getting older, something I've denied for years. Sometimes they become an occasion to "take stock" of one's life up to that point. Doesn't sound too thrilling, does it.

As I've shared with some of you, this year something different happened. In my waking moments on August 23, the day I turned 63 years of age, I started to contemplate, which is a very dangerous pursuit for me before my requisite morning caffeine infusion. But on my birthday, I came to the realization that if I were fortunate enough to live as long as my Father, I have 27 years left. Now, I realize that there is certainly no guarantee that I will live that long, and none of us knows about this. However, as a point of "contemplating" reference, the figure took on some significance. I own a Mazda Miata that is 27 years old. I actually have ties that are 27 years old. All of a sudden that 27 years began to look like a pretty short span of time. My fantasy of not growing older and living forever (and I'm not talking about heaven here) was melting under a new-found 27-year "speed" limit.

I didn't get depressed at all by this contemplative realization. Instead, I began to focus on what I wanted--or feel called--to do with my time left here on Terra Firma. This wasn't a "bucket list" moment, but more of a shuddering within my Myers-Briggs "Perceiving" quality, that which causes me to default more to taking things as they come rather than building lists and planning my activities around some master-plan matrix. With less time than I imagined, should I begin to make plans? Is this a time to figure out the things I haven't accomplished in the first 63 years in order to make sure they make the agenda for the years ahead? Thankfully, the "P" won out, and instead of pulling out the pen and Post-A-Notes for a list-making session, I thought about the stuff that is important to me and how I would choose to focus more on those things than on the "expectations" and "shoulds" that we pick up through life like sweater finds lint. I guess you could say it caused me to begin to prioritize things? (Myers-Briggs "P"s don't like to do that, either.) What really matters to me? And how will that guide me through the rest of the years I have? Where am I going with this?

Well, I'm not going to share all of my personal meanderings with you, but I will say that my personal Christian faith commitment got a good going over. As a pastor, I have been too frequently a "professional Christian." I do more theology than actively and intentionally encountering God, and it's time to begin to "fish or cut bait," as they say. I love to study the Bible, but just sitting back and reading it to let it "message" as well as massage my life? There needs to be more of that, going forward. That's the "God stuff." I am married to an amazing individual. I want to learn more about her and from her. She has a wisdom and a connection with God that I envy. I also just want to spend more time with her that is not guided by a clock and a calendar. Maybe we can actually develop some friends? That hasn't happened much in pastoral work. While we have had a blast with our church folk, and have come to value those relationships, we have been pretty "arms-length," so as not to create (or even appear to create) a "clique," or to bow to favoritism among church members. I think  we would like a friend or two. There's more than that, but you get the idea. Might this blog post be a subtle nudge to the reader to make a similar "self evaluation," and even before a significant birthday or anniversary comes along? Could be.

Speaking of anniversaries, these, too can be important points of re-evaluation. Dara and I hit wedding anniversary number 40 in 2017. I wish I could say I had a similar "come to Jesus" contemplation session inspired by this occurrence, but it didn't happen. I did tell Dara that I still can't believe it has been 40 years. It seems like yesterday that we walked down that aisle of our home church in Rocky Grove, PA, and I still get a thrill when that woman walks into a room. Oh, and I still am trying to convince her she didn't make a huge mistake on May 28, 1977.  But, as those "retirement" years are also getting closer, I know it soon time to make some goals for what we want to do together when July 1, 2021 rolls around. Yeah, it's necessary, for she is a "J" on the Myers-Briggs indicators--they are the list-makers and the organizers! (So much so that when I want to get my wife in a romantic mood, I buy her a label maker or a selection of the latest Post-A-Note iterations.)

St. Paul's United Methodist Church is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this month. In 2,000-plus years of Christian Church history, that is but a breath. (Warren First UMC, which I served before being appointed back to St. Paul's in 2014, is celebrating its 200th Anniversary this year!) Is this a good time to re-evaluate who we are as a church and make plans for what comes next? Of course it is! In 2017 we completed a two-year process to write new Mission and Vision statements for our congregation, and we are challenging our folk to share some of their hopes and dreams for the church with our staff and leadership. We are excited about what how the next 50 years are beginning to take shape!

Here's a final thought: don't ever give up on the birthdays and anniversaries. Maybe they don't have the same luster as they did when we were younger, but as we age and move into the later years of life, they become even more significant, not only as measures of how far we have come, but opportunities to intentionally re-prioritize, then launching a fresh vision of what will be. Even an ancient book like the Bible is filled with countless stories of how memorable people constantly did just that, throughout its pages. Personally, I would like to be one of those memorable people. Will you join me, Dear Ones?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Bigotry--the malignancy of America...

It's frustrating. Being on vacation half a world away when something sickening like the KKK/Alt-Right/Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville occurs, and being away from the pulpit, is making my stomach churn. I was thrilled to hear that my colleague, the Rev. Karen Slusser, addressed the malignancy that is bigotry, racism, and extremism during her messages and the pastoral prayer during worship services at St. Paul's this weekend. Knowing her, her theological views, and her integrity, I'm not surprised, and am grateful, knowing that she spoke for both of us. Still, I have to say a few things.

Malignancy may not be a strong enough label for what is happening in the creepy corners and dark shadows of The United States of America right now. Having lost family members to cancer, and having spent thirty-plus years as a pastor supporting those struggling with such awful stuff, it may be a fair analog, though. You see, a diagnosis of cancer makes one's stomach churn and mind race to find a "new normal," but for those who are told, "You have cancer," there really is no "normal." And, if you are one of the fortunate ones whose malignancy goes into remission, there is still the residual fear that this dastardly disease could, at some point, reoccur. The best "cure" for the anxiety raised by this disease is a strong, practical faith that inspires hope, and surrounding oneself with a host of cheerleaders and supporters who will walk with you and "fight the fight" alongside of you.

So it is with racism and bigotry. Even as the faceless malignancies that may attack our bodies seem to us, evil, so those who lurk in the shadows and in the underbelly of American society who secretly (or as in the case of the Charlottesville rally, not so secretly) hold to anti-immigrant, anti-minority, anti-anything without white skin, or in some cases anti-anything not testosterone-soaked male, embody a palpable evil in our midst. And so they invoke the stomach-churning anxieties, and the continuing fear that, even after a couple generations of the "chemotherapy" of Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Act of 1964, not to mention a bloody civil war and a world war against the Nazism, the disease has left what we thought was a period of remission. Here it is again, threatening our very way of American life. The "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled-masses yearning to breathe free" life. The "melting pot" America. The America as defined by the Constitution of The United States of America. Bigotry and racism are a cancer, and they are back, and they will ravage the American body and destroy the American spirit.

Like many cancers, this "disease" never fully left us. It had been thrown into remission by a maturing society, the efforts of many, including people like Dr. King, and rendered less deadly by the growing diversity of the nation, causing neighbors to meet new neighbors who don't look like them, discovering that they are caring people like themselves, loving their families, working to make a living, and worshiping God in their own context. The cancer of bigotry was present, though, in isolated cells in the deep south, sure, but also in the minds of some well-educated white people who were fine with diversity as long as it didn't threaten their dominance and privilege, but who were not so comfortable with the advent of true equality in the land. It was even to be found in the hearts of young people raised in quietly racist families which continued to tell ethnic jokes around the table and to speak racial epithets while watching TV news stories or reading the newspaper, all as their children listened. When the Bible said: You shall not bow down to false idols or serve them, for the the Lord your God is a jealous God, visiting the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation...(Exodus 20:5), this is what it was talking about. But what has been the trigger to reawaken this fearful and life-killing disease in the body of our nation?

How many rally speeches did you listen to from the candidacy of Donald J. Trump? I don't know if President Trump is a racist bigot, and it isn't really germane to my point here. The fact is that he pushed many "bigot buttons" during these speeches, and his very campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, was seen by some as a "dog whistle" calling out the shadow-lurkers who believe that America was great when it was run by white men, when white men dominated their families and the "little woman"--and ethnic minorities--"knew their place." There were people who believed the Trump assertions that immigrants stole their jobs, rather than admitting that advances in technology or declining markets for the product they built or mined, did. Make America Great Again meant for way too many people a country far less diverse, far less equal, and with far less opportunity for those who aren't white. Candidate Trump parlayed the repressed anger of white people on the fringes, whipping it into a froth, and making myriad patronizing promises to this group to get elected. (Please note that I understand that some voted for Trump because of a long-standing loyalty to the Republican party and its typically conservative values--some in my own family, in fact. But Donald Trump would not have been elected without the "rally crowd"--the "Trumpers" who bought his line about making America "Great" again.) And as to the President's condemnation of the radical, bigoted  forces which marched hood-less and proud in Charlottesville this past week? "Crickets," as the young adults say today, meaning there WAS none. In fact, this President blamed "both sides" in a statement that his White House staff has had to retrace and cover for, in the light of harsh criticisms from leaders of the President's own party.

I'm a Christian pastor, and I have to say that it is sad that I must so often defend my faith against persons using it to advance a bigoted, racist agenda. It was enough to have to defend it against those who use it to assault LGBTQ children of God, or who denigrate women pastors. (I guess this could be called the "new apologetic"?) I'm also weary of those who distort the scriptures by holding to the letter of the law and denying the spirit of the law, which is the redemption of humankind through Jesus. The writer of the letter to the church at Galatia stated emphatically, There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 3:28) I believe this with all of my heart, and this is what I preach. And I believe the you are all one in Jesus Christ truly means all, beyond even those listed. 

Friends, it is time, yet again, to stand up to those who attempt to make anyone a second-class citizen of this nation because of the color of their skin, their national origin or ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their gender, or their religion. My congregation has adopted a Vision Statement that says, We will be a diverse, inclusive church, loving others according to the teachings of Jesus, and working for justice and peace in our world. Maybe we could advance these principles, with slight modification, as a nation? We will be a diverse, inclusive country, loving each other according to the teachings of our better angels, and working for justice and peace at home, in our nation, and in the world. Now that's a transformation I can wholly support. In the meantime, beloved, let us pray and work for a country conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men [ALL people] are created equal. Shalom.

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...