Thursday, December 27, 2018

2019 Beckons...

I know I'm a little early, but Happy New Year! Since I seem never to get a jump on Christmas, I figured this may be the next best thing. 2018 is almost history. Frankly, it will not go down as a "year to remember" for Yours Truly. WAY too many challenges reared their ugly heads than I care to tackle--good friends and colleagues with tough diagnoses, deaths of so many dear ones, the national malaise over an unorthodox government (at least not one like we've ever seen before), and a stock market that functioned more like a pinball machine than a Rolex watch.

A telegram sent to the crew of Apollo 8, after their historic lunar orbital mission, said, "You've saved 1968!" While 2018 was no where near as horrible as 1968 (the raging war in Viet Nam, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy), I found myself waxing nostalgic as to the "healing" powers of Apollo 8 and its near miraculous voyage from the earth to the moon, complete with astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders reading from Genesis on Christmas Eve, and capturing the famous "Earthrise" photo that would later launch "Earth Day" and a broader concern for the environment. 2018 was the 50th anniversary of this space journey, and I watched every video and read every retrospective article and editorial I could, hoping to recapture some of its magic. It helped. Tom Hanks produced a marvelous series for HBO years ago called "From the Earth to the Moon," and I have it on DVD. It covers the entire Apollo program, was co-produced by Ronny Howard, and is WELL worth reviewing. I watched the Apollo 8 episode about three times over the holidays.

Humankind needs faith and inspiration. Pure humanism, while a valid and valuable "starter" for developing care for one's fellow human beings, doesn't "make our spirits soar." Apollo 8 did that, as did Apollo 11, six months later. My wife and I saw the recent film "First Man," about the first man, Neil Armstrong. It's a very good film. It jars those of us, though, who followed and loved the space program by leading off with African American performer, Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon." In this piece, Scott-Heron chides America for ignoring domestic needs while spending billions to put "whitey on the moon." His point is a necessary counterpoint to spending tax dollars to accomplish what some consider frivolous pursuits (a wall on the Southern boarder?) However, the trips to the moon "saved" a difficult era and gave humanity a new vision for our planet, "a grand oasis in the big vastness of space," in the words of Jim Lovell. We are "riders on the earth, together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold" (Poet Laureate, Archibald MacLeish).

It is time for that faith and inspiration again, Dear Ones. May 2019 be one for the record books, and not for the same, inane reasons 2018 may be. Faith may best be described in the words of Robert Kennedy: "Some see things as they are, and say 'Why?' I dream things that never were, and say 'Why not?'" Faith is like the second half of this statement--it's most valuable function is to help us dream about how things COULD be, and pray and work for it to become so. May your 2019 be that kind of year!

Finally, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8, I quote (in its entirety) the inspiring poem by Archibald MacLeish, written as he reflected on the revelations of that first lunar excursion:

Riders on Earth Together, Brothers in Eternal Cold

Men's conception of themselves and of each other has always depended on their notion of the earth. When the earth was the World -- all the world there was -- and the stars were lights in Dante's heaven, and the ground beneath men's feet roofed Hell, they saw themselves as creatures at the center of the universe, the sole, particular concern of God -- and from that high place they ruled and killed and conquered as they pleased.

And when, centuries later, the earth was no longer the World but a small, wet spinning planet in the solar system of a minor star off at the edge of an inconsiderable galaxy in the immeasurable distances of space -- when Dante's heaven had disappeared and there was no Hell (at least no Hell beneath the feet) -- men began to see themselves not as God-directed actors at the center of a noble drama, but as helpless victims of a senseless farce where all the rest were helpless victims also and millions could be killed in world-wide wars or in blasted cities or in concentration camps without a thought or reason but the reason -- if we call it one -- of force.

Now, in the last few hours, the notion may have changed again. For the first time in all of time men have seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depth of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small as even Dante -- that "first imagination of Christendom" -- had never dreamed of seeing it; as the Twentieth Century philosophers of absurdity and despair were incapable of guessing that it might be seen. And seeing it so, one question came to the minds of those who looked at it. "Is it inhabited?" they said to each other and laughed -- and then they did not laugh. What came to their minds a hundred thousand miles and more into space -- "half way to the moon" they put it -- what came to their minds was the life on that little, lonely, floating planet; that tiny raft in the enormous, empty night. "Is it inhabited?"

The medieval notion of the earth put man at the center of everything. The nuclear notion of the earth put him nowhere -- beyond the range of reason even -- lost in absurdity and war. This latest notion may have other consequences. Formed as it was in the minds of heroic voyagers who were also men, it may remake our image of mankind. No longer that preposterous figure at the center, no longer that degraded and degrading victim off at the margins of reality and blind with blood, man may at last become himself.

To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold -- brothers who know now they are truly brothers. 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Immigrants...

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Turkey Trot...

What's Advent and Christmas season like for pastors? Crazy. I know some clergy get freaked out over the Lenten and Easter seasons, with Holy Week being a particular stressor, but personally? I pretty much lose it over December.

I saw a video posted on Facebook the other day of a small boy on his way home from school, and he was being chased by a wild turkey. You could tell the child was in a panic, as the big (dumb) bird was gaining on him. A Good Samaritan driving down the road, pulled his car onto the brim between them, cutting off the turkey, and ending the boy's anxiety. This is a great metaphor for clergy--at least for this one--in December. I am the small boy, Advent and Christmas are the turkey. Where, O where is our Good Samaritan?

I'll probably have to spend a weekend in purgatory for equating these Jesus-oriented seasons with a marauding turkey, but planning Advent themes that are meaningful without being trite is a challenge. I am blessed to work with a great Leadership Team here at St. Paul's, and we have a Music and Worship Director who leads us in putting together themes, services, and liturgy, but still, keeping it all focused in one's head, while preparing sermons and aiming at "The Show" on Christmas Eve wears one down.

We have five worship services each weekend at St. Paul's--one on Saturday night, and four on Sunday morning. Typically, I preach at three, and Pastor Karen at two, but we flip-flop that from time to time so each congregation gets to hear a different perspective. It's a little daunting that each of the services is a different format, and that the sermon is best "tweaked" and at worst sometimes totally revamped to fit the aesthetics of each. Yours Truly likes to use a little humor, from time to time, and I get a kick out of the fact that in one service, a planned moment of levity in a sermon is liable to fall totally flat, while being greeted by guffaws in another. One must also learn that a proud moment of "inspired" biblical exegesis doesn't seem as awe-inspiring to an 8:30AM wake-up crowd as it may to a 10:30AM pre-lunch assembly. And, of course, these congregations expect a few real stem-winders over the December holidays. After all, Advent and Christmas are about Jesus, past, present, and future.

What complicates matters for this clergyperson is that I love these seasons, personally. I think it was Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes who said, "If you have a big cannon, SHOOT it!" Christmas is our "big cannon" in the church. While Easter is endowed with much more theological significance, Christmas is the holiday that has won universal acceptance. It's when a church of 1,200 members here in Allison Park usually has about 1,500 show up for worship on Christmas Eve. Finding time to personally revel in the revelry is like trying to find the red needle in the green haystack. Usually, Christmas Day is a time to recuperate, especially after getting home around 2:00AM the night before.

Still, I love the season, and usually DO find time to thank God for the gift of Jesus, who came into the world to rescue us all. The life of Jesus inspires me, the teachings of Jesus guide me each day, and the sacrifice of Jesus--which I'll never fully understand--amazes me. Preaching about Jesus is not hard, but doing it in such a way that people "meet" the Christ rather than just hear a lesson or a news report about him is, well, hard. I know, I know, "rely on the Holy Spirit." Sure, that's easy? Over thirty-four years of preaching the Good News on Christmas Eve, though, I have learned to do two things: stick to the story, and "keep the main thing the main thing." As one of our hymns proclaims, "love came down at Christmas!" Indeed.

Ever wonder what goes through the mind of a minister while she or he is navigating December? Well, here you have it. Pretty disjointed, isn't it? Where IS that Holy Spirit when you need her? To all my pastor friends, may the Spirit give "kick" to your Advent and Christmas sermons, and may you find time to enjoy God's love and grace with your partner and your family. To my non-pastor friends, just push through the bustle and celebrate like there is no tomorrow. Experience God's love that DID come down at Christmas--and has never left. Say a prayer for peace. Commit a few of those random acts of kindness. And let joy fill all of the empty spaces.

Oh, oh, here comes that turkey again. I'm off...another sermon beckons. Shalom, Yinz. And if I don't get to update this blog before it happens, Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Eulogy...

The passing of a President of the United States is always a gripping, and sad event. George Herbert Walker Bush's passing at age 94 elicited quite a series of editorial cartoons and Facebook memes about how wonderful it was that he was reunited with his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Robin, in heaven, and these are certainly nice sentiments. We are comforted by such thoughts, not just for our former Chief Executive and family, but for our own loved ones and friends at the time of a death. Our faith "kicks in" strongly when a dear one passes, helping us imagine them being "welcomed home" by Jesus or greeting family who have gone before, at the "Pearly Gates." Given that scripture doesn't really give us much of a picture of the afterlife, we are free to let our imaginations run wild, and the fact that we have such imaginations, and the desire to use them to picture a loving, receiving realm like heaven--even heaven of the movies--complete with a cast of loved ones on the welcoming committee, certainly must be a gift from God. Maybe this "tendency" we have is actually a kind of backdoor "proof" of there even being a God?

We bid you "adieu," President George H.W. Bush, or as we have come to know you after your son ascended the throne, too--"Bush 41." And, while, as a person of faith, I DO hope we get to see you again, I would be even happier if we could see "your kind" return to the seat of power here in the U.S.A. While neither you nor your son, Bush 43, were any kind of orator, I can still see you saying--quite decisively to a gaggle of reporters asking you about Iraq's invasion of Kuwait--"This WILL NOT STAND!" Years later, I saw an interview with Colin Powell, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs when you made that pronouncement. Powell said he saw the report on TV, and immediately called the rest of the military brass to let them know that we were going to war with the Iraq and their Republican Guard. There was no doubt, because he knew you always meant what you said. Period. Oh, and Bush 43? When the attacks of September 11 happened, he spoke very plainly and forcefully when he condemned ANY violence against American Muslims and mosques, saying they were peaceful people, and should not be punished for the actions of a few foreign extremists. AND, any of us who were here at that time remember him standing with the first responders at the ruins of the Twin Towers in New York, and speaking words of gratitude to them. And when one of them shouted out, "We can't hear you!" over the din of bulldozers in the background, Bush 43, extemporaneously shouted back,"I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." These two responses were the kind of leadership we expect and hope for in a President, regardless of how you feel the later war with Iraq unfolded.

Eulogies often focus on the "goods" of a person's life, and that's not a bad thing. The "fits" and failures of a departed friend or loved one don't need punctuated, as, if we knew them and loved them, we know these full well. The best eulogies point out the celebratory successes of the departed, and/or tells of some little known, or even unknown, stories or events of that person's life that brought inspiration, blessing, or resolve to another in their orbit. Eulogies of heads of state may seek to make the leader "bigger than life," although I'm not sure that is possible, considering that, as a head of state, they had at least one major success--they won a national election. Even our current President has that as a legacy, regardless of how hard he may be working to undo it, at least in many people's view. Both Bush 43 and "Poppy" faced crises of aggression and responded with strong resolve. I give 41 credit for building a great multi-nation coalition, forcing Iraq out of Kuwait, and then coming home. 43 spoke for a hurting nation when he stood on the pile of rubble next to an improvised shrine in New York City. As history rolls on, they will be remembered for these good words and acts of courage. Much of the folly that also crept into their terms (especially with the mire of the Iraq war under 43) will fall away. The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would do well to go to school on these ideas, if he hopes to have a nice eulogy spoken of himself some day.

We're not heads of state, though, are we? What of our legacies? What of our own eulogies we are still either providing fodder for, or putting up so badly that our survivors will have to make up a lot of stuff to be able to say something nice about us? This is where we have one advantage over the dead--we are still "writing" our eulogies! Bush 43 did a lot this week to bare his heart to America and show us something. How about you? When I officiate at funeral or memorial services, I take stock of my own life, knowing that my turn at the stile may be sooner than I think. I don't want my family to have to make up stories to convince anyone that I wasn't just a waste of 98 cents worth of chemicals and a few quarts of water. And I also say a prayer to God, asking for a fresh positioning of myself under the redeeming, inclusive, and forgiving grace God has offered me through my faith in Christ. By the way, I will not apologize to anyone that I believe God is working in people's hearts of every faith that leads them to seek God's favor and motivates them to love their neighbor as themselves. This is why I am proud that part of my faith legacy is the interfaith relationships I have sought to form as I have matured. These, too, are children of the Most High God.

A few weeks ago, I wrote my own obituary. Try it, and be honest about yourself. Then, from time to time, look at it. How are you doing, keeping up with how you want to be remembered? It's a sobering exercise, believe me. I have learned, though, that I would rather fix my life than re-edit my obit, so that's something. 

One more thing: when the great people--the luminaries--pass, pause, stop what you are doing, and listen to the words said about them. Listen to their "familiars" and the platitudes they offer, but also listen for the honest assessments of those in the "other camp"--those who had reasons to dislike or be hostile toward them. It's also an education. I will never forget that awe-inspiring scene of former Senator Robert Dole fighting to his feet to offer a salute to a deceased contemporary, an adversary, and one who sent him to political defeat. Through personal tears, I could hear John Mellencamp's lyrics, "Ain't that America!"

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

A Flash from Thanksgiving Past...

During my first year in seminary, I wrote this little piece, which was printed in the February 1985 edition of Monday Morning, a devotional for Presbyterian pastors:

ON BEING THANKFUL...

Every Sunday morning, when I lead the pastoral prayer in our church, I tack on a list of things for which we can be thankful to God. I try to be creative with the list of "thank yous," but often I find that I quickly run out of things for which to praise the Lord. That is until recently.

During a field education banquet at our seminary, a woman told about her experiences working in a center for the handicapped and disabled. She told of a time when she had some disabled children make a litany of thanksgiving--things for which they are thankful to God. A tear of revelation and joy came to my eye as she read a list that included things like "Thank you, God, for being able to stand up." And "Thank you, God, that Aaron (presumably a brother or friend) is alive." Wow! How do we miss such precious things? Things like "Thank you, God, that Jesus is alive," or "Thank you, God, for the gift of speech." How about "Thank you, God, for giving such powerful insight to these 'handicapped' little ones"? They have given me a new outlook on praise and thanksgiving!

This past week, when many of us were inconvenienced by being without power for a day or two, I thought about those folks in California who left everything behind to be consumed by fire, or those families who lost loved ones in the wildfires. How fortunate we were that our "suffering" was so minor and so temporary. I guess being thankful is a relative thing.

As we approach another national day of Thanksgiving, may we say a prayer not just for our own "thanksgivings," but for those who are caught up in a seemingly endless loop of challenge or tragedy. May we pray that they, too, soon will be able to give thanks for their deliverance.

Be safe, Beloved. Be well. And be thankful. Shalom!

Friday, November 2, 2018

Solidarity...

Last Friday evening, October 26, I spoke at the 7:00PM Shabbat Service at Temple Ohav Shalom here in Allison Park. As part of establishing a kind of partnership between St. Paul's and TOS, Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt spoke at all of our Sunday services here at St. Paul's, and we scheduled my reciprocal speaking engagement for 10/26 shortly after. We had just finished a six-week worship theme on "Under the Tree of Life," examining the "other" tree God planted in the Garden of Eden in Genesis. We Christians have been preoccupied with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the story, with beaucoup theology being produced on the resulting subject of sin and redemption. It was enlightening to spend some time talking about the Tree of Life in the center of the mythical garden, a tree that shows up again in the final chapter of the Bible when the vision turns to the "new heavens and the new earth." So, I spoke about this Tree of Life, which we share, and can live under together. Truth-be-told, our Jewish friends have always focused on THIS tree more, even as we fretted over the other. Little did I know...

The next morning, as I was driving to complete a few chores, the story of the horrible hate crime at, of all places, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill. Like so many of you, I went home and sat riveted to the TV, watching this tragedy unfold. All I could think about was how joyous and hopeful we all were over the Tree of Life the night before, and how ironic that now, that name would forever be linked to sadness and grief, at least to some extent. I reached out to Rabbi Jeremy, to see if there was anything we could do to support him and Temple Ohav Shalom. He said his board was having an emergency meeting that night, and that he would get back to me.

The result of that meeting was an invitation from the people of Temple Ohav Shalom to the churches and faith organizations of both our social justice group, NORTH (Neighboring Organizations Responding Together for Hope), and our local ministerial association, to join them for their Friday Shabbat Service on Friday, November 2. This, they suggested, would serve as a show of support and solidarity, and might help calm the fears of the TOS congregation about coming to synagogue for the first time after what happened at Tree of Life. As I write this, we have 25 faith communities and ministerial organizations which will be represented at the service, as well as at least 25 clergy and faith leaders, including Christian (Protestant and Roman Catholic), Muslim, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, and Mormon.

The gratification in this show of solidarity is that it truly is an "under the Tree of Life" moment. As you have read in countless stories in the aftermath of this horror in Squirrel Hill, the broad display of love, empathy, and "we stand with you" solidarity may be one of the biggest "God moments" I have seen in my life. Add to that the fact that the Pittsburgh Muslim community raised enough money to pay for all of the funerals of the JEWISH victims, and what we see is a true picture of what the Realm of God will someday look like, when we are ALL living under this great tree at the center of "the garden." This, above all, gives me hope in a time when I find it hard to muster much of it.

I'm looking forward to tonight's Shabbat Service. In this miraculous time of these faith groups coming together in solidarity, I think I shall always think of our weekly services as Shabbat Services! Please join us in continuing to uplift and support the Jewish community and all of their faith communities in prayer. Shalom Shabbat!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Election...

Nationally, the mid-term elections are just around the corner. Please vote, people. If you can't get to the polls, reach out to the many organizations that will give you a ride, provided you haven't already made provisions to file an absentee ballot. Anyone who declares themselves a patriotic American, and who doesn't vote in every election is lying to her or himself. The one thing that keeps the American "experiment" going is that its people vote. Did you ever stop to think that the myriad problems we face as a people may be directly linked to the increasing decline in the voting ranks? In this past presidential election, about half of eligible voters actually voted. Only half of this democratic republic have raised a voice. Vote! Vote! Vote! I'll make you a deal: if you promise to vote, I'll promise to not rag on you for how you voted. Even if "my" candidates don't win, I'd still feel better--we should all feel better--if at least a majority of voters in the country actually voted. If you know someone who doesn't vote, hound them--nicely, but hound them. Better yet, bribe them. Offer to take them to breakfast, lunch, or dinner after they have voted. Something's got to wake this nation up. Maybe it'll be a stop at Bob Evans or a Big Mac, or something.

Speaking of election, did you know that some famous theologians in the history of the Christian faith believed in it? John Calvin is often labeled as the "father" of the doctrine of election, but many others down through the centuries, including more contemporary writers such as R.C. Sproul, believed in it and promoted it. In its simplest form, it is the idea--mostly gleaned from the Apostle Paul, with some padding from Hebrew Bible poets--that because God is omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful), God already knows who will be "saved" (redeemed from the ash-heap of condemnation) and who will be "lost" (dispatched to the ash-heap of condemnation). Hence, if God already fore-knows, then God must necessarily fore-ordain this reality. The end result is that some will be of God's "elect" and some will lose the "election" without the privilege of a consolation speech. I could never get my head around this. I'm guessing it goes to one's idea of the nature of God. If you are one who believes God's justice means the "good" get rewarded and the "bad" get punished, then you could be attracted to this theological model. Of course most of the proponents of this theology don't believe that our actions can have this effect, only God's "choice" of who's good, and who's bad. They also tend to believe that God's "choice" in the matter is affected by "salvation by faith." It seems this means for them, though, that "salvation by faith" is what happens when God chooses you; it's not something you can choose to receive. Those who really push this "election" model would say that "evangelism" is just calling out the elect. Again, as a life-long Methodist, this gets weird for me.

That's because Methodists--adherents to the theology of John Wesley--are "free will" folk (again, an oversimplification). Generally, we believe that God puts before humanity the option to make choices as to how one will live (either "good" or "bad") and whether one chooses to respond to the grace of God, which we believe God offers to all persons. Our view is that just because God may be omniscient (all-knowing), it doesn't mean God is therefore fore-ordaining. The prophets of Israel most often highlighted two potential pathways for God's people, one of which would lead them to ruin, or at least some really bad real estate, and other to prosperity and full bellies. The prophets preached a choice of these paths as being up to the community as to which they would take. The better path, of course, required keeping God's commandments and being nice to each other and the "strangers" in their midst. The undesired path was the "default," if the people only cared about their OWN real estate or how full their OWN bellies were. I guess I find it hard to see any "election" in the Hebrew Bible, which becomes the basis for the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus.

Why am I putting these two "elections" together? Maybe you should ask my therapist. Seriously, though, here is my "thought for the day" thesis: If we tend to believe in "fate" (a type of election) or that nothing we do makes much of a difference, we probably lean toward not voting in elections, and toward just trying to carve out a decent life for ourselves and our own family. If we believe that we are charged with making choices that will seriously impact the course of our lives and possibly even the broader course of our community, our nation--or even our church--then we will probably vote in elections, volunteer in community-building or benevolent organizations bent on improving everyone's quality of life, and advocate for equality, inclusion, and justice.

Thankfully, in the world of theology, hardly anyone goes to either of the extremes of "election" (which some call predestination) or "free will." The Calvins knew and wrote that we do have important choices, although none of them can trump the sovereignty of God, and the Wesley's agreed that "free will" still functions within a big, divinely-crafted picture that moves toward redemption and wholeness for the creation. Of course we grassroots theologians (pastors) can argue these points--and do--just as a kind members of spiritual fantasy league.

Unfortunately, our national voting record has, most recently, belied a brand of American fatalism that is far more dangerous than the Wesley/Calvin theological chess match. To reiterate: the American "experiment" is based on the people having a voice and a vote. When the "journalist" in me spars with "friends" on Facebook, I often wonder if the people taking the other side of the political argument are actual voters. I suppose I could start asking that of them: "Do you vote?" And, if the answer is one of these fatalistic cop outs, "No, because what difference does it make?" I should immediately abandon the repartee.

So, what am I really saying here? Come November 6, drop the theological clap, lose the "que sera sera" fatalism and vote...vote...vote...VOTE!!!

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Kavanaugh Fallout...

I don't know how many churches are standing for women and their general opinion that, in confirming Brett Kavanaugh, and even celebrating this "victory," the Senate has thumbed its nose at them and the whole issue of sexual assault. Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., led by their lead pastor and staff, read in worship and released the following statement:

Hear my prayer, O LORD;
let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
- Psalm 201:1-2a
Over these past days, we have witnessed what many have called one of the ugliest and most painful moments of political theater in memory. Through the confirmation hearings for the most recent addition to the Supreme Court, not only has our brutal and near absolute tribalism been on display—both within the government and in response to it—but, through the courageous testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, we as a nation have been forced to confront yet another unacknowledged epidemic in our society: sexual harassment and assault.
As the former president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops and resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, Bruce Ough wrote,
"It felt as if the very soul of our country was being laid bare. Thousands, more likely millions (statistical studies indicate that one of every three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime) of women and girls relived the pain of their own sexual harassment, assault, abuse or rape. It was a powerful, indelible teaching moment for millions of people and, indeed, a nation too long in denial of our epidemic of sexual assault and abuse. No matter what one's political position is regarding Judge Kavanaugh's [confirmation as] a Supreme Court justice, we, as followers of Jesus, can no longer remain silent about the sin of sexual assault and abuse or tolerate 'boys will be boys' excuses."
Not only women and girls but also many men have been re-traumatized through this process. Today, we as your pastors want to say to all of you: We see you. We believe you. We honor you as a beloved child of God. We are here to be present with you and to listen, to connect you with supportive resources, and to pray with you.
We give thanks for Dr. Ford and for all who dare to break the silence about what they've experienced. We stand in solidarity with all those who risk so much by speaking up and sharing their story.
Today we reaffirm the dignity and worth of every person and recommit to working for the common good, for the values of love, mercy, and justice embodied by Jesus, and for the health, agency, and safety of all God's beloved children—God's female and male children, God's transgender children, God's black and brown children, God's lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer children, God's children of all abilities and ages and nationalities and religions.
We call on the highest court in our land to do the same.
We call upon all people of faith and conscience to practice compassionate listening and measured speech in this age of bruising political divide, to pray without ceasing, and to be guided through your prayer into action.
"For the sake of our daughters and sons we will exercise every means available to us to help make for them a better world: through prayer and spiritual support; education and community engagement; witness and protest when necessary; legal action and advocacy; and exercising our most basic civic duty of voting in every election. For those of us who follow the Way of Jesus, this is not merely a civic imperative, but a calling to bring this world closer to what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, where 'mourning and crying and pain will be no more' (Revelation 21:4), and where love will triumph over hate."
Your pastors and co-laborers in Sacred Resistance, 
Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli, Senior Pastor 
Malcolm Frazier, Associate Pastor, Director Hospitality and Care
Will Green, Associate Pastor, Director of Discipleship Ministries
Julie Hansen, Director of Finance
Ben Roberts, Associate Pastor, Director of Social Justice Ministries
Lani Willbanks, Business Administrator

It would have been one thing for the Senate to have allowed a full FBI investigation of the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford, which, had it cleared Mr. Kavanaugh, could have confirmed him AND released a statement that they took such charges very seriously. They then could have said that this full investigation resulted in no corroborating testimony or evidence for the accusations, while still acknowledging that a terrible thing had happened to Dr. Ford, but that there just wasn't clear evidence that Mr. Kavanaugh was the perpetrator. But that's not what happened.

A greatly truncated "investigation," apparently limited by the White House, and rushed to allow for a quick confirmation by the Senate well before mid-term elections, "vindicated" Judge Kavanaugh, and a gloating Judiciary Committee--and then the full Senate by the narrowest of margins--voted to confirm him and verbally "slam dunk" this travesty as a "great victory." There was no victory. Women lost again. There was no compassion shown to Dr. Ford, nor any of the other women who made accusations. And, due to the reigned-in investigation, the reputation of the FBI was again besmirched.

Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham went full "old white guy" postal against Blasey-Ford, the process, and of course, the Democrats. There is evidence that Kavanaugh, himself, had crafted a better legal rebuttal for his response to Blasey-Ford the day of that hearing, but that he was "coached" by the White House to tear it up and come out swinging. He made a fool of himself, and demonstrated the kind of "attack dog" demeanor that would lead a sane person to believe he was capable of a violent assault against a vulnerable, female minor. His display caused a majority of Americans polled to believe he would be unfit to mount the bench of the Supreme Court of the land.

This one was a tough call for yours truly. I strive to keep "politics" out of the pulpit, but certainly HAVE tackled justice issues in accordance with the biblical witness and the teachings of Jesus and the prophets. Pastor Gaines-Cirelli and her team spoke out boldly, not really caring whether this strong statement crossed "political" lines, but standing courageously with women. I applaud them.

I have shared this statement because I think it is important. I agree with its context and content. I just can't state with integrity, and without several more conversations, if it represents the wider body of the church I serve. I do believe it would most likely be affirmed by a majority of our people. Still, I thought you should read it, and know where I stand, since you have obviously been reading my blogs.

I would like to believe that this horrible experience has quickened our nation to the realities and scope of sexual assault and the violence committed against children of God based on sexuality, gender, and/or sexual orientation. I fear that the present state of human evolution does not have us there yet, but maybe the needle has moved a little? Meanwhile, those who rushed Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation onto the fast track before the elections (incidentally, the same ones who refused to give Merrick Garland a hearing "until the people had a voice in the next election") celebrated the event like a Super Bowl touchdown. Even the President turned Justice Kavanaugh's swearing-in into a media circus, claiming his full exoneration.

I pray our new Supreme Court Justice takes the pain this event has caused so many to heart. I pray it makes him a better jurist on the high bench. I guess we'll see. I do know that the women I have talked to come out of this with greater fear, more doubt, and a stronger feeling that they are not being listened to. How sad. How very sad.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Spectacle...

I'll keep this short, for if I don't, I could get angrier and angrier. What transpired in the "hearings" for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh should have every American embarrassed. Embarrassed to the core. It was an awful spectacle.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was a genuine, credible witness of the assault she experienced, allegedly at the hands of a young man who would go on to become a nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States. That she was assaulted came through clearly, and her therapists, a polygraph test, and witnesses could provide conclusive proof by whom. The witnesses were not subpoenaed, and were thus suppressed as evidence. An FBI investigation—which has now been advocated by the American Bar Association and Mr. Kavanaugh's Alma Mater, Yale University—has been ruled out by the President and the majority members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Mr. Kavanaugh, in his defense, was belligerent, condescending to his questioners, obfuscated answers  and rejected measures--such as the aforementioned FBI investigation--that could find clear evidence of his professed innocence. There is something wrong with a person who proclaims innocence, exhibits bullying anger, but refuses to advocate for an investigative process that could produce exonerating evidence--especially when that person is a Federal District judge and a candidate for the highest court in the land.

The whole country believes Dr. Ford was assaulted. There are legal ways to find out by whom, whether it was by the man she has accused, or by someone else, as at least one of the "alternative" facts has suggested.

Mr. Kavanaugh's innocence could be proved by the same investigation. By denying it, or in the case of the Judiciary Committee, by not asking the President to convene one, the accused parties are either hiding something or just trying to ramrod their choice for the high court.

All parties lose. Ford has blown open her life because of testifying to what she believes is a disqualifying event for a supreme court nominee. In his own defense, Judge Kavanaugh demonstrated a temperament that does not belong on the Supreme Court--an angry and deeply partisan temperament. Even if, before the final Senate vote, an FBI investigation was convened, and even if it exonerated him, Kavanaugh's tactics at the hearing this week should exclude him from the high court, in my opinion.

No one gets out of this mess unscathed. It appears that Judge Kavanaugh will be confirmed by a majority with a specific agenda--pack the court with conservatives at all costs. He will serve not as a distinguished jurist, but as an "asterisked" caucasian version of Clarence Thomas.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford will pick up the pieces of her life, knowing that when she answered the very difficult call to serve and inform her country of what she saw as a gross injustice, those leading her country right now said, "Don't call us, we'll call you."

Let us pray for both of these families to find redemption, for our nation to find a way out of this hyper-partisanship that is tearing us apart, and for women who have suffered the same kind of assault as Dr. Ford to be emboldened to speak out against their abusers and attackers.

I also pray we will never see another spectacle like that again, but the results of the Mueller investigation is yet before us. Lord, have mercy.

[NOTE: A Senate vote delay was called and an additional FBI background investigation ordered,  after the time this blog was posted.]

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Creation Story like no other...

At St. Paul's, we are spending a few weeks examining the great "forgotten tree" of the Bible, at least as far as Christians are concerned. Genesis chapter one says that when God created the garden, God placed in the center of the garden, "...the Tree of Life, and there was also the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil." As I said in my introductory sermon two weeks ago, Christianity has been preoccupied with the other tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree is blamed in the great faith fable for the "fall" of humanity, by yielding a forbidden fruit that, when eaten, stripped away human innocence and set in motion a cascade of events that left us out, looking in. In the Christian narrative, Jesus Christ comes to redeem humankind from the sin that separates us from God. Thanks to this central story of the Christian faith, we have mostly forgotten about the other tree in the garden.

The Tree of Life is a nurturing tree! It is a tree under which we can live out our faith and our lives, a tree that provides shelter and shade, and is large enough to beckon all to come thrive under its branches. It is a tree that shows up in the apocalyptic literature in the last chapter of the Bible, where it is said, "...and its leaves are for the healing of the nations." That, my friends, is about as inclusive as it gets--the healing of the nations!

I don't think I am alone in believing that the "fruit" of this tree is not reserved for the end of days. Through the love of God, particularly for us as demonstrated in Jesus Christ, this delectable fruit is available now and for all and forever. If one reads the Gospels with this tree in mind, one can imagine Jesus saying from the cross, "OK, you are forgiven. Now get over it and start living under the Tree of Life!" Jesus' teachings and parables clearly are a primer for what life looks like under this tree--in the goofy parlance of our day, the alternative tree.

Life under the Tree of Life is inclusive, loving, peace-giving, forgiving, transforming, uplifting, edifying, encouraging, motivating, and has an extreme "love thy neighbor as thyself" quality to it. It isn't racist, sexist, or disparaging of other faiths seeking God's truth. No one starves under this tree, for there is no end to the nourishing fruit. This tree is NOT a "zero sum game" whereby if I get what I need or want, you can't have what you need or want. This tree provides shelter for everyone who seeks shelter. And its roots go to the very foundation of the creation.

Genesis begins by saying "God created," moves to "let the earth bring forth," and finally to "let US create," wherein humanity is made in the "image of God." I don't think this means we look like God, but maybe more that we can behave like God (or like Jesus, for the Christian)--loving, accepting, creating, always hopeful, and working for a victorious "allee, allee, in-free" ending.

Is there a catch? Yes. We have to cultivate the ground under the Tree of Life. We have to make sure we don't poison its soil, and assure that it is amply watered, and not with acid rain or suffocated with carbon monoxide. The Genesis text literally says that we are to "master" the earth (not "subdue" it, like some bad translations have it). "Mastering" it is more like what a master gardener does, or a master plumber, or someone who wins "The Masters' Tournament" in golf. Mastering the earth means being the best stewards of it we possibly can, and helping it thrive and grow, co-creating with God and the earth to continue to bring forth life. If the Tree of Life dies, guess who else does?

Why have Christians been so hung up on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? Why have we so "missed" or neglected the Tree of Life, which is at the beginning in the Genesis narrative, and which will be at the center of the garden in the "new heavens and new earth" of Revelation? If these are scriptural bookends, might we not be better off living between them, and under God's great Tree of Life? Shalom, Dear Ones...

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Seasons...

Summer is over. Yeah, I know that it technically doesn't end until the Winter Solstice, or whatever, but you can "feel it," that Fall is coming, even with the 90+ degree days we've had here early in September. I could be one of those perpetual Fall people. It just has to be my favorite season. I'm married to one of those "I love the seasons" people. Anytime I've even hinted at the idea of moving to a more "stable" climate upon retirement, it gets nixed. Instead, I'm getting psyched about the concept of watching the snow fly, knowing that I don't have to go out in it, if I don't want to. I'm not meaning to "diss" Spring here, as it is the most "spiritual" of all of the seasons (things coming back to life, new growth, longer days with more light). But it is also the season that seems to blip by so fast--too fast--so I try not to get too attached to it.

I wonder if they had seasons in the Garden of Eden? If so, I guess Adam and Eve had a bad Fall. I'll just leave that there...

I do like the human parallels to how trees weather the seasons. (For you biology types, I'm speaking of the deciduous variety.) In the Summer, they are waving in the breeze, leaves firmly attached ("buff"), adding to the life of the tree via photosynthesis. Then comes Fall, and the leaves begin to wither and fall off, littering the ground as spent castoffs. The tree itself must wonder what is happening to it; they begin to look a bit bald, with a few leaves hanging on until the bitter end. Then comes winter, and the tree is basically a spectator, blown cold by the chilling, Winter wind, and with branches reaching up like praying hands, hoping that somehow, better days are ahead. Finally comes Spring, and buds form. Then come the new leaves and those seed pods. I figure those little "helicopter" things that cover our decks, stick to our dewy cars, and clog our gutters are the tree's way of showing off that it is alive and wants to be noticed--kind of like a teenage thing.

Of course, if you live in a place with one climate--like Arizona--the "trees" are covered with nasty needles and spines, basically announcing "I'll be here for a hundred years or so--bug off!"

Human seasons. Hmm... Turning 64 a couple of weeks ago reminded me that age is a progressive thing, and quite linear. Like it or not, my life--and yours--has seasons, and for me, the Fall is coming on. I guess if the trees can handle it, so can I. Even as I cringe when I see a huge tree uprooted after a violent storm, so I shrink back when someone younger than me falls, prematurely, into the arms of God. I have always struggled with funerals and memorial services for individuals younger than me, and in the few cases (thankfully) where I have led or participated in a service for a very young person, I may go for weeks, asking the "why" question and pondering my own efficacy, even as I grieve for and with the family. I guess we are better off living more like the trees--make hay in the boost days of Spring, have a blast in the Summer, dig in for the long haul in the Fall and enjoy the pumpkin spice of life, knowing that the Winter is coming for us all. Faith reminds us that Winter will not last forever--it's just a season. This, too, shall pass, as they say.

And then next year Medicare eligibility hits, and all of this philosophical "balance dance" of mine will need a new narrative! Stay tuned, Yinz...

Friday, August 24, 2018

64...

As of 8/23, I'm now 64. Cue the Paul McCartney tune...

How does it feel to be 64? A year older than did 63, I guess. My 87-year-old mother freaks out at the thought of me being 64, but really, it's no big deal. I do a better job of remembering the even years, so it should be easier to recall, when asked, "How old are you?" I feel bad that my Dad didn't get to see my 64th year. I feel worse, realizing that my next youngest brother will be 60 in October. Next year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Why, then, can't I remember my cell phone number and stare like a blinded trout when asked? McCartney said that turning 64 and hearing his own song about it being played was kind of a depressing moment. While I had nothing to do with his song, I can say that turning 64 really didn't bother me in the least. Turning 40 did...

I was on the pastoral staff at St. Paul's when I turned 40. For whatever reason, it really freaked me out. Maybe it was the echos of Jack Weinberg whispering in my ear, "Don't trust anyone over 30" or just the idea that I was 40, but whatever it was, the degree to which it bothered me really snuck up on me unawares. Thanks to that sudden and unexpected trauma, I went to the ancient, pre-Google font of knowledge, the Shaler Public Library. By using a prehistoric search engine called a card catalog, I found a book called Seasons of Man's Life by Daniel Levinson. Through interviews with men over 40, Levinson exposed five developmental stages in our lives. (I should note that some of this work has been updated to include women as well, whose own "mid-life crisis" has been spurred on by mainstreaming into all areas of adult careers and leadership.) Turning 40 apparently triggered a kind of mid-life crisis in me. It provoked a sermon, which, in turn, brought several others into my counseling office--other men who knew something weird was going on with themselves, but didn't have the foggiest as to what. My angst because a good thing, as it were.

Honestly, my mid-life crisis was kind of a tempest in a teapot. Once I got beyond the initial shock of being 40, and Levinson's insights, things settled down. I never cheated on my wife or got a wandering eye, but had an opposite reaction, which as Levinson pointed out some men do, meaning that I about went nuts "re-pursuing" my dear wife, trying to convince her afresh that she didn't make a huge mistake. I think it scared the daylights out of her. I'm still doing it, by the way. Oh, and I didn't buy my red sports car for years (maybe I'm stuck in mid-life crisis mode?). Levinson's book was a great help. One day my wife informed me that she had returned it to the Shaler Library, and I gasped: "Oh no, I had made a lot of pencil notes in the margins and didn't get to erase them!" I hate when that happens in a book I pick up to read.

A funny story: A few years later, and in another church I was serving, a man came to me for counseling with fears he was losing his mind. Deducing rather quickly it was probably a job for Levinson, I prescribed that he read Seasons of a Man's Life and come back in to talk about it as soon as he had. Two weeks later, the fellow came in all aglow that the book had been a watershed for him, too. Furthermore, he said that the copy he acquired had some "very helpful notes" someone had written in the margins." I asked to see his book--he had gotten it through the inter-library lending service, and sure enough, it was from the Shaler Library! I love it when a good plan comes together...

64, huh? I'm not worried. You know that "time thing" whereby the older you get, time seems to slip by much faster? That's happening, so I expect that before I get this blog out of my mind, it will be time for 65. That one may get me--Medicare...MEDICARE! (Unless You-Know-Who finds a way to kill it.) When I turned 50, I immediately joined the AARP--after all, I've never had someone lobbying for me until then! And I really like their magazine. Medicare is different. That's like saying, "Happy Birthday! Here's your ticket to geezer healthcare!" We'll see how that goes. Oh, and by the way, my lovely wife, Dara, has had none of these age-related "crises" happen to her. None. The forty-thing bothered her brother more than it did her ("My little sister is forty!") I guess she has her hands full with me.

You may be thinking, "This guy's a pastor--where is the spirituality in this blog?" Well, my short answer would be that life is a gift, and that we are thankful for whatever days we have here. I'm blessed to be starting my 65th year. I have had family members, friends, and many parishioners who never got this far. However, most of these people lived thankful, blessed lives, even though their earthly days were shorter than all of us had hoped. I am exceedingly thankful for the days I have, and I pray you are, too. I know that Christ walks with me in this journey, and that, as trite as that little Footprints poem is, it is as true as the rain--there have been times in my life when I know that God is carrying me, and I'll bet that is true for you, too. None of us knows what we face as we live out our days here, but in this, I have to say that the song Bill and Gloria Gaither wrote about Jesus and us holds true:

Because he lives, I can face tomorrow;
Because he lives, all fear is gone;
Because I know he holds the future,
And life is worth the living just because he lives.

Now go out and kick it. Shalom, Yinz...

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Can clergy be trusted?

God is love. That's what the scriptures say in I John 4. If we begin with this, maybe we can walk back the horrific clergy and priest sexual abuse scandals that are currently dominating the news. Can we agree that the nature of God begins with love and ends with love? God has chosen to redeem, forgive, and accept us all--ALL--whether we are ready to receive these acts of grace or not. Let us agree, then, that God would certainly not want God's children to be subjected to the kind of clergy abuse recently revealed through the investigations in Pennsylvania (and we can assume were replicated in venues across the globe). Let us also assume that "abuse" is not limited to sexual abuse, and is not just perpetrated by Roman Catholic priests. We also know the stories of the Jimmy Swaggarts and the Jim Bakkers, Willow Creek's Bill Hybels, and numerous Protestant and independent-church clergy across the country.

In light of these scandals, can clergy be trusted? That's a really good question. My answer will not be a satisfying one for many of you, and it's not a short one, and certainly not an exhaustive one. And I am writing as an ordained clergy person, so keep that in mind.

If I were an engineer, a doctor, or a teacher--or a member of virtually any other career that requires professional knowledge and credentials--I would be expected to 1. legitimately have the necessary credentials for my job; 2. maintain a standard of accountable and documented excellence in my job; and 3. keep current with the required continuing education in my field. And "good" doctors, teachers, or engineers actually crave growing her or his knowledge of their field. It is my belief that clergy should be held to at least these professional standards. Problem is, the requirements vary greatly from faith tradition to faith tradition. There are clergy whose religious affiliations only require a sincere "call to ministry" to be ordained and considered clergy. (Of course there are those who get their own "ordination" at some online diploma mill, but we'll not address these here.) Other traditions require a Bible college certificate or some combination of undergraduate and seminary training, but these vary from what is considered "accredited" or not.

And to be ordained? Connectional systems such as the United Methodist Church, which is my denomination, tend to have higher systems of accountability for clergy. We must attend fully-accredited colleges, seminaries approved by a denominational University Senate, and satisfy District Committees on Ministry and Boards of Ordained Ministry to even be cued up for ordination. We also have to receive the affirming vote of a Pastor-Parish Relations Committee from a church in which we have been a member for at least a full year. Are all of these steps to create a professional clergy a guarantee against abusive practices by the ordained? Obviously not, if one observes the revealed debacle in the Roman Catholic Church, which has similar standards. Oh, and in my United Methodist Church, we also have local licensed clergy, which have different standards, and while I'll not directly address this category of ministry in this blog, I will say that these licensed clergy are generally more closely supervised by mentors and superintendents, and they may have their license revoked on a whim for a variety of reasons, so their "power" as clergy is often quite precariously held. And, as anyone who cares for abuse victims will tell you, power is an element setting up the potential for abuse.

I am saying that requiring and maintaining professional standards for clergy should be a factor in clergy trust. To me, that makes sense. Now, here is one that will be controversial. I generally don't believe that "trusting in God" or being "close to God" are factors that help stem abuse. In fact, I believe they could--in certain circumstances--provide fodder for it. In countless articles about clergy abuse, we read suggestions that if the accused clergy were "just closer to God" or had a "genuine faith," the incidents in question would not have happened. Let's go back to the engineer/doctor/teacher illustration: Would you trust one of these professionals more just because they loved their profession? Which bridge would you want to drive across more, one designed by a competent, credentialed engineer? Or one designed by someone who just loved bridges with all his or her heart? Would you prefer a surgeon who "just loved doing surgery"? "Loving God" is not near as important as having a healthy understanding of the nature of God for clergy. Just "praying more" or spending increased time "reading the Bible" will not address the roots of what eventually sprouts clergy abuse. This is a pathology, not just "a sin."

In twelve years on our Conference's Board of Ordained Ministry, I grew less interested in a candidate's "call" to ministry than in her or his answer as to why they felt called. This question often revealed more about the individual's understanding of the nature of God. Was their God judgmental? Was their God an angry God? Was their God more random than functioning within history? How did they understand the biblical assertion that "God is love"? As I was leaving our board, I had just come to appreciate and advocate for the inclusion of a new factor in screening potential clergy: emotional intelligence. An emerging field of psychology, emotional intelligence--which can be explored through testing--may be one of the best predictors of clergy performance, integrity, and stability.

I know it sounds I'm saying that piling on myriad ways to screen, approve, and credential clergy may help guard against not just lousy clergy leadership, but abusive clergy as well, and I guess I am. Thirty-three-plus years in ministry has shown me just how complicated and serious my work is. People tend to trust their pastors much and spot them much power. What I say from the pulpit or in the counseling office may cause persons to adjust their life plans! At the very least, it may stir their thinking in a way that could have consequences in how they behave. That's a lot of power and trust! This investment my parishioners have made in me has caused me to always question what I "know," and to voraciously pursue further education and insights into my work and in having a healthy view of it, emotionally and psychologically. I thank God that I am part of a denomination that is growing in its systems of clergy excellence and accountability (even as I grieve its continued discrimination toward LGBTQIA+ persons). This is one place where the Roman Church let down its guard--giving priests much power in their parishes and providing little supervision and accountability. And when abuse surfaced, they chose to cover it up instead of bringing it to light. (I'm sure that all of our denominations have done some of this somewhere along the line, but currently it is the Roman Catholic Church making all of the headlines.)

Abuse is not just sexual or emotional. It may also be professional. Bad counseling, hurtful or judgmental preaching, poor practices of visitation, and dictatorial or punitive supervision of church staff are abuses, too. Seminary requirements should include more classes in counseling and administration than they do. Clergy today need to be far more professional than just "spiritual," if we are to be trusted by our people, let alone the society. I return to my initial assertions that proper credentialing, a passion for continuing education (especially where we have deficiencies), and denominational and local systems of accountability are essential for having and maintaining healthy clergy behavior and trust. While these aren't guarantees that there will be no abuse, they are what we have. The more we can assess and address our human and psychological wellness as clergy, the better we will serve a loving God and effectively serve God's people.





Friday, July 27, 2018

You deserve a break today...

"You deserve a break today..." This was once the tag line from a McDonald's TV commercial. Breaks are important. When people don't get them--or take them--we become much harder to live with, don't function as well, and physically deteriorate. That's a fact. Workaholics that many of us are, we lie to ourselves and believe that intense schedules, serial tasks, and never-ending meetings show that we are at peak efficiency. Nope. Nope. Nope. Just ask the people around us if that is what they see in us. We usually just run them ragged and strike a debilitating blow to office morale.

In Mark 6, Jesus calls his disciples to "come away." They go off in a boat to the center of the Sea of Galilee to escape the madding crowds. We're talking Jesus here, the Son of God Jesus! The Son of God took frequent breaks in his schedule to pray, meditate, and to "come away." Who are we that we think we are better than Jesus, and that we don't need these refreshing, edifying and restful breaks? Just deceived, I guess. In fact, I'll bet we need more time away than the Savior took. I'm sure you are now realizing that I'm writing this piece just before the two most "busy" weeks of the American vacation season, don't you?

I'm about to take only the second three-week vacation of my working life, and I'm pretty stoked about it. It took me 32 years in ministry before I finally yielded to my wife's requests for a longer vacation period. Last year, we spent the first two weeks in Hawaii, where our daughter and her family had temporarily relocated for her husband's job. The third week we did one of those "stay-cations," enjoying our home and taking a couple of "day trips" to local sights, including one of my favorite places, Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Upon returning to St. Paul's, I felt much more rested, and at least in my head, my creativity and passion for ministry had been enhanced (I'm not sure that my co-workers didn't think I was just nuts). I certainly felt better. This year we are going to spend a week at a little cottage on a bluff overlooking Cape Cod Bay. The ocean is such a calming influence. Science says that we are drawn to the water because we came from the water. I like that. Mind you, I don't go into the ocean, as there are things there with teeth and tentacles, but walking along the surf at dusk assuredly soothes the spirit.

When Jesus and the boys arrived at the shore after their brief "come away" party, the met, again, the madding crowd with its host of needs, demands, and questions. So it is with the pastor returning to her congregation. But, like Jesus, we love these people, and we just can't deny them our best efforts to sort out their lives, find a lasting redemption, and heal their wounds. Notice, I said our best efforts. Are they getting these if we are not rested up, prayed up, peaceful within our own souls, and yet fully and healthily in touch with our own human frailties and suffering? Nope. Nope. Nope.

So, my friends, you deserve a break today. Don't get up and go away to McDonald's--just get up and go away! And if you can't afford to go away, "come away" by discovering for a time how to focus passionately on something other than your job. Take in an art gallery or a zoo, a science center or a State park. Borrow a bike and ride it. Fish at North Park. Read a book that has absolutely, positively nothing to do with church or Trump or anything else that keeps you up at night. Pray. And not the laundry list intercessory kind, but the put-on-the-symphony-or-the-Beatles kind where you just groove in the score and thank your brains out to God that you are alive, even if it is just for a short season. Love someone. Love them real hard. Just stare at your partner, your children, your grandchildren, or that hound who will stare back at you with its own kind of thankfulness. Paint something--a room, a car, or a picture. Eat something you're not allowed to eat, but just enough that you don't get sick (I'm talking to you diabetics here, not peanut allergy people!). Make a really hot cuppa' joe and sip it on your deck or porch early in the morning and thumb your nose at Starbucks. Sing. Even if you sound like the Keurig at the end of its brewing cycle. Sing. Oh, and sleep. Yes, sleep. Sleep in, sleep soundly, sleep naked, sleep it off, sleep with someone you love, sleep under the stars, sleep in a tent, but sleep. The Son of Man may have had nowhere to lay his head, but thanks be to God, you do. And in the best of worlds, you have someone's shoulder to rest yours on. Taking a break is the beginning of true shalom, dear ones. Make it so.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Summer...

It's almost half over. Well, isn't THAT a depressing thought, especially for those of you who have already taken your vacation? Why is it that we go so nuts over Summer?

1. It goes back to our time as kids, when Summer meant not getting up for school, Monday through Friday. That was an exciting time, wasn't it? I was a nerdy kid, who would do things like go hang out at the public library, reading all kinds of stuff, but mostly books and magazines about science. Or, on Tuesdays, one of my fellow coin-collecting nerd neighbors and I would go on a "penny hunt." What's a penny hunt, you ask? Well, we would take two quarters and descend upon the local branch of Northwest Bank. A sympathetic teller would give us a roll of pennies for our fifty cents, and we would each take a roll to one of those glass-topped coffee tables they had in the "sitting area" where no one ever sat, and spread out the pennies, looking for the specific ones we were collecting. After searching each roll, and replacing any "finds" with an uninteresting replacement, we would re-roll them and ask the teller to exchange it for a fresh roll. We could do this for hours, and the regular stream of customers used to think we were "cute." We weren't cute, we were nerds, but we sure had fun, and added greatly to our collections. I remember one day when my friend found a German coin in a penny roll--you would have thought he had stumbled upon the Hope diamond. Penny hunts died a couple of years later when the banking industry started machine-wrapping the pennies into sleeves you had to crack like an egg to get open, and they didn't want the pennies re-wrapped into the old-fashioned, non-machine rolls. It was just as well, as our junior high years were approaching, and if we were still doing the penny hunts, I'm guessing neither Roger or I would have done too well getting dates.

2. It's the weather, stupid. Sun and gentle rains are wonderful things, especially for those of us who live in Western Pennsylvania, where they are usually an oddity, especially in the other seasons. Did I mention the sun? Walking, running, hiking, driving in a sports car, sitting out on the deck, cooking out--these are just a few of the things the Summer months make much easier and more desirable. Of course, with some of the unfortunate climate change we are seeing, the gentle rains are being replaced from time to time with "500 year" storms, flooding, and landslides, but we still can hope for "moderate" Summer weather. I love driving my Miata through North Park both coming to and going home from work, just to enjoy the park's beauty, and to watch all of the people taking advantage of this local treasure. I keep telling Dara that WE are going to use North Park more when I retire, and she just rolls her eyes, but mark my words, we ARE going there. I might even take up fishing, because it looks so peaceful. Do they make fishing lures without hooks? I think I would just like to cast out and reel in a lure for the shear relaxation of it, but I certainly don't want to catch a fish. I'm not touching one of those things.

3. It's the altered schedule. St. Paul's is an incredibly busy church, and during the "program year," between classes, meetings, and staff meetings, along with all of the "typical" pastoral care duties, the days can get very long. Believe it or not, there are actually less "crises" that seem to happen in people's lives in the Summer, including less elective surgeries, and people are on vacation, which means less counseling appointments. Meetings, other than ones that absolutely must happen, are on hiatus until Fall. Some of our staff gets ramped up for youth mission trips, CAT Camp, and Vacation Bible School, but once those weeks are over, we all start taking vacations, too. While I can't say the pace around here is "relaxed," it is just different, and different is good. For most of you non-church working people, I realize that your work schedule probably isn't much different  in the Summer (unless you are a teacher!), but vacations come into play, and evenings and weekends provide some "getaway" time.

So, that's Summer. As a pastor, I'm always saddened by how the Summer may impact church attendance, but over the years I have learned that, while weekly numbers may be less, people DO come to worship in the Summer. It's just that any given week, a few of "the regulars" are on holiday. St. Paul's offers a "Chapel in the Woods" service in the "green cathedral" in the woods on our property, and this is very popular. (It also boosts our attendance, for you statistics freaks out there.) It works in the Summer, but not so much in October. A couple of years ago, we tried to schedule a "Chapel in the Woods reunion service" in October and got either rained or snowed out. So, it will remain Summer fare.

I sure hope God takes a vacation. I know the Divine Presence is a 24/7 thing, but maybe one of the reasons we Christians believe in a triune God is so at least one person of the godhead can get away for a brief break. Jesus probably brought this idea back to The Realm from his sojourn on the earth, and when he used to go out on a boat with the disciples to "get away" from the throngs.

Enjoy your Summer, Dear Ones. Stay safe; travel safe; enjoy watching children who revel in this season. Shalom, Yinz!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Vaccines..

Some people are losing their minds over vaccines. These "anti-vaxers," as they are known, have bought into bizarre ideas that certain childhood vaccines cause cancer, autism, or other horrific medical maladies, and are crusading on Facebook and other social media, urging parents to forgo these immunizations. Medical science--REAL medical science, not the "Dr. Bornstein" types--is unanimous in defense of these childhood vaccines that protect children from everything from whooping cough to polio. Why is it that we are so quick to accept these strange "causes" of things we don't understand--or don't want to accept? NO parent wants her or his child to have autism, in an ideal world. But children are born with autism, and this is a fact. It is no fault of the parent(s) they have this condition, which is now understood to be a "spectrum" disorder, meaning the degree of debilitation caused by it can be "rated," with an eye toward prescribing the best therapy, rehabilitation, or coping and life skills for the individual. Vaccines do not cause it, and no, none of the "preservatives" in them do, either. Randomly consulting "Google" for information about such a serious issue often returns as many unhelpful, inciteful, and disturbing "facts" as it does genuine insight.

Why am I writing about this? Possibly because I just had the second half of the new Shingrix vaccine for shingles. When I had part one, something happened to me that has never happened before--I got all of the side-effects they said could happen, and I missed a day and a half of work. For all intents and purposes, I got what acted like the flu. This week, I got part two, and was warned that if I had reactions the first time, there was a better than the Pirates' team batting average they would happen again. I am here to report that, like the Pirates' falling average, I did NOT have the same set of reactions. Other than feeling like I got punched in the left arm by Muhammad Ali, I am able to work, eat, sleep, and write stuff like this blog. I think I'm coherent? Seriously, this Shingrix vaccine is highly recommended for those of us beyond 55 as it is highly effective against shingles, an illness that is horribly painful in the least, and may be highly debilitated by it, at worst. Unfortunately, the vaccine is in short supply right now, which I didn't know. Dara and I were told by our physicians to get it, so we stopped in to our Giant Eagle pharmacy with prescription in hand, and within a week, had part one, and now, eight weeks later, part two. When I got my injection the other day, the pharmacist congratulated me, saying that Dara and I were only the fourth and fifth people receiving the vaccine at our store, and that 75 others were on a waiting list!

It seems strange that something designed to keep you well could make you sick, but side-effects do happen in isolated cases. However, medical studies have not shown any serious side-effects to the necessary childhood immunizations, unless you count the fact that before these anti-vaxers stopped vaccinating their children, we had almost wiped out whooping cough, polio, and small pox. At least the first two are making a comeback because populations of unvaccinated children are cropping up because of this craziness, and this brings great danger to the population of children around them. If you, as a parent, have been even the slightest bit swayed by the anti-laxer arguments, please come home to scientific reason, and for God's sake, have your children vaccinated, if not for their welfare, for that of the others around you.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if science could find a vaccine against conspiracy theories, ignorance brought on by things going "viral" on the Internet (isn't it interesting we use that term?), and hate fueled by vitriolic rhetoric flowing from radio shows, memes, and blogs written by reactionaries and rabble-rousers? If we could be vaccinated such that the only thing our ears could hear would be truth, we might think we'd gone deaf in the current environment of public discourse.

One way to "vaccinate" yourself against falling prey to these "diseases" is to be well-read, but while reading responsible news, educated and informed authors and reporters, and by carrying on conversations with reasonable, informed, and non-contentious persons. If someone wants to engage you with one-sided barrages of political or social propaganda with little evidence of its integrity or truth, just walk away. Unfortunately, finding souls who wish to enter into up-building, intelligent dialog about the state of affairs are getting harder to find. A popular conservative talk show host recently asked his audience if they would still support their favorite politician if they chronically lied, and the majority of the audience said they would, "because that's our guy." O, if only we had a vaccine against falsehood...

I did read the other day that there is a disease being carried by some ticks that renders the bite-ee unable to eat red meat without getting sick. THAT is weird. Really weird. But maybe there is hope that some other tick might be out there that renders a person unable to spout lie after lie without going at least temporarily mute. I'm rooting for that tick, wherever you are.

Get your vaccinations, people. Be healthy. Stay Healthy. And get informed. We'll all be the better for it. Shalom!

Monday, July 2, 2018

Antwon Rose...

A couple of weeks ago, another African American teenager was shot by a white cop. We can examine dozens of reasons as to "why" this happened, but the number of such tragic encounters certainly seems to be on the increase. What is going on?

White fathers and mothers don't have to have "the talk" with their teenagers about the specifics of what to do if you are pulled over by the police to assure that you don't get beaten or killed. This is a fact--both that we DON'T have to tell our kids this (other than the typical "respect the police"), and that African American parents DO have to have this talk, which includes specifics like where to put your hands, what to say and what NOT to say, etc. Without "the talk," a black teenager may respond to a law officer the way a typical white teenager might, and that could provoke a bad outcome. I know that some of you reading this won't believe it is true, but please don't deny it until you have personally had a few conversations with African American moms and dads.

A well-known local African American activist was speaking to a group at St. Paul's UMC last year and during his talk about this subject, he asked how many in the audience had ever been pulled over by a cop for a "safety check." No one in the white, suburban group had, and several had no idea what one even was. The activist revealed that it is a regular occurrence for him, especially when he drives out into a white suburb to give a talk. And when he IS stopped for a "safety check," he is often asked to exit his vehicle and put his hands on the roof of the car. Has that ever happened to you during a "safety check?" Have YOU ever been stopped for one? Can you imagine an African American police officer pulling a white professional over in Homewood or the Hill District for a "safety check?" And can you imagine the ruckus such a thing would cause in the white community?

I share this just to point out that the playing field is NOT level, regardless what we white people think. So, Antwon Rose II is in a car pulled over by a single cop, newly sworn in as part of the East Pittsburgh police force. The car is suspected to have been involved in a drive-by shooting in Braddock, PA, and when Officer Michael Rosfeld signaled for the car to pull over, the driver obliged. We know what happened. As the officer was securing the driver, two men bolted from the car and ran. Officer Rosfeld took out his service weapon and shot Antwon Rose II three times, once in the face, once in the arm, and once in the back, and he died. The other suspect was later apprehended.

Officer Rosfeld waffled on why he shot at Rose. At first, he said he thought maybe he had a gun, but during his interview, he said he really didn't see anything in Rose's hand. Rosfeld has been charged with criminal homicide. Why was he so quick to shoot at a fleeing suspect? Typically, one cop would secure the scene and another might pursue the others on foot or begin radioing their direction of travel to other units. Herein lies the first problem.

Rosfeld works for a very small police squad. He was alone in his patrol car. It would make sense that when the suspect's vehicle responded to his lights and siren and pulled over, willingly, Rosfeld would wait in his squad car until a backup officer arrived. Why didn't he? Allegheny County District Attorney Steven Zappala flagged the lack of standards for police training, calling on State legislators to write a bill that provides minimum requirements for ANY candidate to carry a badge, even for a tiny, eight-person police force like East Pittsburgh. I would suggest that such a bill might include reference checks, which would have turned up the fact that the 30-year-old Rosfeld had problems in his previous law enforcement positions, including at least one case where he may have demonstrated that he had racial issues. When it comes to the kind of life and death circumstances that ANY police officer may face, channeling "Barney Fife" is no laughing matter. Also, Zappala flagged East Pittsburgh for having no written policies regarding its police force. This fact could open them to civil action in the Rose case that could immediately bankrupt the borough. Maybe all towns and boroughs that field police should have these?

Of course, such training and written policies would not have stopped this shooting if it was racially motivated. One has to wonder if Rosfeld would have begun shooting at the two fleeing men if they looked like his brother? Legally, there is no way to prove that race played a part in this tragedy, but that is PRECISELY the problem! Racism is insidious. A white woman clutching her purse tightly to her side just because a black man is walking down the street past her isn't a crime, but neither is a black man walking down the street past you a crime. But if that black man is walking past you down the street in Ingomar, Allison Park, or Franklin Park, does this not cause some to question? That is racism. I have spoken to suburban police officers who have confided in me that they have been called by residents to report "a black man driving a car on my street" or a "black teenager hanging out in our neighborhood." This is racism. Might racism--in this case, fear of the other, or ignorance of the other--have played a role in Michael Rosfeld pulling out his gun and shooting Antwon Rose II for the "crime" of running from a cop (see paragraph two above)?

I'm amazed how there are still people in our highly educated, "professional" congregation in the North Hills who bristle and write letters of complaint if one of our pastors cites "white privilege" in a sermon. White privilege is a sociological and psychological fact. Case in point: we don't have to have "the talk" with our kids when they reach driving age, do we? Statistics show that their chances of being beaten or shot by police is very, very low. Not so much among black teenagers, including ones who were excellent students like Antwon Rose II, who it appears was in the wrong place at the wrong time. When I bought my house, I found zero resistance to the process of choosing a neighborhood, arranging for financing, purchasing the house and moving in. Talk to a few African Americans and see what their experience has been in this regard. (Or, for that matter, talk to a Muslim co-worker who may have a Ph.D. but is dark-skinned or speaks with an accent.) White privilege IS a "thing," pure and simple, and it may even "infect" the field of law enforcement, from time to time.

Regardless of the outcome of the Antwon Rose II case, we, as an enlightened society, must work to embrace diversity and human understanding. I don't know if white people can ever get over our racism, as it is so ingrained in us. I do know that as one who desires to overcome it in myself, it is a constant battle. And any white person who says they have overcome it, doesn't understand it at all, nor does that one understand the societal and institutional roots it has that run very, very deep. One of the most racist statement I hear from white people goes something like this: "Personally, I don't see color--I don't care if people are black, white, purple or green..." What that statement says is, "I don't understand racial and ethnic differences, and I don't care to," or "I have very few relationships with people who don't look like me, other than at a very superficial level." This statement is also very self-centered. Even IF a person really believes they "don't see color," are they not refusing to acknowledge the difficulties persons of color experience while trying to do the "normal" things that we all do like renting or buying homes, buying a car, shopping, or driving through a white neighborhood without arousing suspicion?

As a Christian pastor who struggles to actually "be" Christian, and to love others according to the teachings of Jesus, it is discouraging to see how far I and my congregation have to go, even after 2,000 years of Christian influence and almost 70 years of civil rights "progress" in the U.S. And then I think about some of my colleagues out in the rural parishes where a sermon on white privilege would most likely provoke letters to the Bishop and Superintendent. However, we are people of hope, and people of prayer.

Tonight (July 2) we're having a forum at St. Paul's on the issues of family separations in immigration, and the upheaval in our community over the Antwon Rose II shooting. I'm pitching the idea that responsible people of faith should be all about IPA (beer people will like this) in these justice issues: Inform, Pray, and Act. Standing by and waiting for someone else to do it may just get us ALL killed.

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...