Thursday, December 26, 2019

Christmastime...

Halloween used to be a day. Now, it's a season. Christmas beat it to the punch. While Halloween is rapidly becoming the "most decorated" time, Christmas has held that title for a couple thousand years. Don't ask a liturgical scholar when Christmas begins and ends, as their answer doesn't match what has been going on in the popular culture for centuries, actually. Is it appropriate to sing "Christmas hymns" before Christmas Day? The popular culture is on to things like "Last Christmas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Tell modern church-goers (the ones who still come) we don't sing the few hymns they may actually know like "O Little Town of Bethlehem" or "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," until after Christmas Day, and they will soon join the ranks of those who DON'T come anymore. Are there still folk who like to observe liturgical correctness? Of course. Most of them have at least an M.Div. degree or attend a traditional liturgical church, say Lutheran or Episcopal. There is a place for such liturgical traditions, and I'm not meaning to disrespect them. However, as a pastor whose personal mission statement includes "connecting people with God and people to people," maintaining a liturgical rigidness adds a degree of difficulty I can't accept.

I'll not get into the whole "contemporary" or "modern" worship debate in this brief piece. I believe these are wonderful and viable "flavors" to add to Christian worship, as they speak to the hearts of many folk, and serve to help make the relational connection to God I believe to be Priority One. Personally, I still prefer what we label "Classic" or "Traditional" worship, but only because it falls more squarely within my comfort zone. I read enough music to like to occasionally drop down to the bass line and sing harmony, and can, with enough instrumental backup, sight-read a new piece of worship music. Words on a screen, accompanied by gifted vocalists who like to "bend" the melody line artistically, while fine from a "spectator" perspective, don't adequately encourage me to embarrass myself by trying to sing along. Of course, for us "traditional" folk, this technique would keep us coming back, as after we have heard a worship tune for six or seven times, we might pick up enough of it to get brave.

This same argument, with a few edits, will be used by those of you who love contemporary Christian music and worship songs. You don't see the point in hymns, especially when sung at a slogging pace. You're not at all inspired by an invitation to "raise mine Ebenezer," or signing on to "we, too, will thither..." Interestingly, many of the younger set are gaining a fresh appreciation for the pipe organ. This promises a revival of the type to which I can exclaim, "Hallelujah!" The world is populated by so many significant examples of this magnificent instrument that this new development is essential to its survival. Pipe organs are decidedly "high maintenance." Now, if we can just get a raft of these newbies to sign on to learn to play the things!

Sorry for the tangent. (This is why I never became a stand-out preacher, in spite of being an excellent student of homiletics.) Back to the extended session we call Christmastime.

I'm OK with it. The four-month Christmas Season, that is. Nothing gets folk talking more about religion, God, the Bible, and "church" more than the onset of Christmas, even if it does start before Halloween. (Politics will do that, too, for some, but that's when the fight breaks out...) I love the idea of generosity and giving gifts that goes along with Christmas, although I do wish we could get beyond that "gift for everybody" mindset that has begotten smelly, fast-burning candles and brightly-decorated tchotchkes with a wall-hanger, both of which the giver expects to see displayed proudly when they visit next Christmas. My wife puts "Holiday Traditions" on our satellite radios as soon as it debuts. I'm OK with that, too, because she is just the cutest thing, and I'd love her even if she liked Country music (however, I say a prayer of thanks, daily, that she doesn't, other than an occasional Johnny Cash number). We used to collect Nativity sets until we down-sized and moved into a townhouse. We did keep some of the most significant ones, which are still proudly displayed. I was able to find a young lad in our current church who was happy to receive my Veggie Tales Nativity, still one of my favorites. (I didn't say that my "educated" Christianity was without schmaltz!)

I say "Happy Holidays" so as not to disparage my friends and colleagues from other faith traditions. This year, though, I got a beautiful Christmas card from my dear friends at the Muslim Association of Pittsburgh, North, and the first "Merry Christmas" text I received was from my Rabbi friend. I do, therefore, try to stay on top of when their holidays and festivals are so I may return the kindness. I know that, because of the popular culture, they can't avoid Christmas. Still, it is a sin to "rub it in" by insisting on saying "Merry Christmas." That's crusading.

I decorate. Not to the Clark Griswold level, but I decorate. While my beloved wants to downsize our Christmas Tree, I'm resisting. It is already a pretty humble-sized, artificial one, but It is still taller than I am, which is the acid test. We have a twinkling, colorful tree on our back deck, because no one else decorates their back deck in our plan. Just the rebel in me. Oh, and I have one of those green and red laser things panning the front of our townhouse. I like lasers, and eschew ladders. I like the lights of Christmas--they are a wonderful and universal metaphor for the incarnation, and make a statement that the light of Christ is alive and well in the world and on Village Green Boulevard. East.

I read a story recently about a pastor who was visiting a parishioner several months after Christmas. As they were chatting, his eyes wandered to a shelf where a lone Christmas Tree ornament was displayed. His host saw the puzzled look on her preacher's face, and explained, "No, it's not a mistake. I pick one ornament from the tree each year to keep out, just to remind me that the Joy of Christmas is not just a seasonal thing--it's for every day of the year. Indeed. Now, which ornament to choose...

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year, Yinz...oh, and Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Hopers, not Mopers...

Last Sunday, I told our congregation that the world needs HOPERS, not MOPERS. In a season of hope, Christians and other people of faith are called to mobilize a message of encouragement, welcome, and hospitality. There is no longer any room for "no room in the inn." Christians believe in a Jesus who opened the door to hope and refuses to close it--to the least, the last, the lost, the outcast, the shunned, the dismissed, and the hopeless causes. Jesus also welcomes the privileged, the wealthy, the "entitled," the majority, those in power, and those for whom "struggle" is a dirty word--just please leave your pretenses at the door, and be prepared to sit at the far seats at the table.

Hope, for the world, is a kind of wish. "I HOPE this will happen"..."I HOPE my friend is OK"..."I HOPE I will keep my job." Outside of the teachings of faith, hope doesn't offer much, well, hope. One of my parishioners thought it would be a good idea to buy Christmas tree ornaments with the four words of the Advent journey on them: Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love. She could only find ornaments with Peace, Joy, and Love." Hope was nowhere to be found. Apart from faith, hope has little traction.

People of faith, including we Jesus-followers, are blessed with a very "meaty" hope! In the scriptures we read, "Faith is the substance of things HOPED for..." Our relationship with God, our experience with answered prayers, the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of God's continued agency in our daily lives breeds a "hope" that is far more than a wish. This hope is a promise. Our faith has the power to reverse the effects of entropy--as we trust in God, we may actually gain passion, energy, insight, and optimism, instead of eroding them, along with the natural course of things. We are empowered to be HOPERS. Entropy--the natural "winding down" of things--may create an orbit of MOPERS--people who, at the least, string complaints and gripes like pearls on a necklace. At the worst, they suck the energy from everything around them. Mopers could write their own scripture verse: "Don't spend much time worrying about today, as you can count on tomorrow being worse."

The world needs HOPERS. The church needs HOPERS. For the life of me, I can't see how "more clearly defining our rules" and adding punitive measures against those who violate them can possibly generate hope in the church. I can remember a time when we evangelicals* cared most about "the lost," and in helping people find a relationship with God. It seems now that in an age of increasing "moping," Evangelicals are more focused on judging, trying, and dispatching dissenters. Is it any wonder why the church is bleeding young people?

It IS a season of hope! Advent is about the coming of the Christ--define that how you choose, but Christians believe any "coming" of Christ, whether celebrating the current presence of Christ in us, anticipating the "second coming" of Christ, or even remembering that night when Christ was born into the world--yields HOPE. However you experience the approaching Christ, let his presence plant a seed of hope in your soul. Purpose to be a HOPER, not a MOPER. Start small, as moping has a lot of entropy working for it, and will try to drag you down at every turn. And don't walk in your own strength, alone. Let the Spirit of God juice you up with passion for compassion, strength for service, and words for witness! HOPERS love, hopers serve, and hopers offer good words to others in a time of critical rhetoric.

Shalom, Dear Ones!

*I use “evangelical” with a small “e” to indicate that, as a true Wesleyan Christian, I am compelled to “offer them Christ,” out of love for all God’s people. “Evangelical” with the capital “E” has come to mean a right-wing, political manifestation with a small agenda that excludes and judges.

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Best Beat in the Bible...

God shall judge between the nations,
    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.
I remember hearing this text many, many years ago as a teenager, sitting in the balcony of Grace United Methodist Church in Oil City, PA. I'm sure it had been read in previous Advent seasons, but I was at an age when the war in Vietnam was still raging, and one of my neighbors had been killed there. The highlighted section hit me like a brick between the eyes. I remember thinking, "Wow, how COOL, and it's in the BIBLE!" (As a teenager, I was more skeptical of the ancient wisdom of the scriptures than enraptured.) 

We read this passage, still, during Advent. It is a wonderful promise that many believe is an eschatological one. But does it have to be only a promise of some far-off future? What if God already gave us the ability to fulfill most of the promise--beat our swords into plowshares? 

Rocketry was invented to lob bombs into an enemy camp by the ancient Chinese; Germany perfected it in the V-1 and V-2 to devastate London during World War II. After that war, the U.S. and the Soviet Union divided up the German rocket scientists and used them to begin what we now know as the space program, including the race to the moon, ultimately "won" by the Americans. Years later, the two super powers would collaborate on the Apollo-Soyuz project and eventually the International Space Station. Rocket technology has launched humans and space probes to other worlds and beyond for the purpose of exploration instead of destruction. Swords into plowshares?

The brilliant minds of Einstein, Teller, and Oppenheimer collaborated in the Manhattan Project to build the world's largest bomb--a nuclear one. Only two of them have ever been exploded in war, but the outcomes for the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were cataclysmic. By harnessing nuclear energy for peace, massive amounts of electrical power have been generated to drive the technological revolution of many nations, medical uses of that same energy have saved millions of lives, and space probes (Voyager 1 and 2) and a Mars rover (Curiosity) will explore our near universe for decades more. Spears into pruning hooks?

ARPNET was a system of communication using computers, designed by the U.S. military to move information between battlefields and bases. ARPNET was turned over to the universities, where it morphed into what we know as the Internet, today. While the Internet has brought its share of issues to the human community, there is no doubt that it has revolutionized our communications, world-wide. We carry it in our pockets, shop with it, send photos of our grandchildren, take courses and engage serious academic research. Need information? Just "Google" it! Swords into plowshares?

Again, give credit to the U.S. military who launched and used the first Global Positioning Satellites (G.P.S.) to steer bombs and artillery accurately. Turned over to us, it guides our cars, planes, boats, and steps to specific addresses and coordinates. For those of us who get lost at the drop of a hat, GPS, whether through our car navigation systems, a Garmin, or a cell phone app, is a true godsend. Another spear into a pruning hook?

Why, even the military "Jeep" from World War II resulted in today's all-wheel drive Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) that most Americans drive today, making us safer in wintry weather and on wet, slippery roads.

Mikhail Gorbachev launched reform in the Soviet Union he called "Glasnost." Through his peace overtures to the U.S. and President Reagan, the Soviet Union eventually dissolved into its separate states, and the "Doomsday Clock" was dialed back several hours. My late brother-in-law, who was a corporate attorney, worked for a company that got contracts to go into the Soviet Union to help them hold up their end of a peace accord with the U.S.--the dismantling of a large number of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with nuclear warheads. After the warheads were removed and their nuclear material re-purposed, the metal of these missiles was melted down and used to make tractors for the farming industry--LITERALLY swords into plowshares! When I suggested to my brother-in-law that he was helping fulfill a biblical prophecy, he was amazed.

After Glasnost and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States responded to this relaxed threat by using some of the dollars no longer needed for national defense for more benevolent purposes. Some went to education, some to research (medical and technological), and some to social programs to aid minorities and low income Americans. This was called the "Peace Dividend," and while it lasted only a few years before the attacks of 911 and the rise China and Putin's Russia as new threats, tremendous advances were recorded, especially in technology and medicine. This peace dividend gave us a small sample of what our world can look like when at peace. Unfortunately, we now have more enemies in the world than before Glasnost, and we are again pumping billions and billions of dollars into new ways to destroy. But we EXPERIENCED a sample of peace, and it was astounding!

While I would not suggest that the Divine did not have some part in these "swords into plowshares" endeavors, they were largely human efforts. God HAS given us the ability to create peace and to disarm our world. I told our congregation that if we don't work for peace, we will be overcome by war, as that is what will fill the vacuum. 

Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Jesus IS the Prince of Peace. If we believe in the presence of Jesus in the world today, we have the secret to both world peace AND inner peace. While not wanting to delay our efforts toward peace and justice in the larger sphere of our existence, I do believe that the popular hymn "Let There be Peace on Earth" is right--"...and let it begin with me." The message of the gospel focuses first on the human heart. What within you is at war with you? Are you facing challenges too great for you to conquer alone? Are you at war with your body? Your mind? Do you suffer from the kind of self-esteem that needs a ladder to kiss a snake's belly? Jesus touched INDIVIDUALS as he walked this earth, bringing healing and peace to their souls, even as he taught us how to bring peace to the wider community. Yielding to the "peace initiative" of God may yield a balm for the human heart and soul. Once we have built a bridge to peace WITHIN ourselves, we may have the heart--and method--to expand it outward.

As Advent begins, may this be for you a season of Peace, dear ones! And may we use the gifts God gave the human community to build a peaceful, just, and inclusive realm for ALL of God's people! Shalom!

What's Next?

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