Archive for August, 2012

The End–or the Re-Beginning? (Revised)

(Didn’t mean to confuse anyone. Hit the Publish button prematurely a moment ago. Revised to add categories and tags to help more folks find this.)

Twice a month I have breakfast with some other retired United Methodist pastors. The other day we found ourselves discussing the “stuckness” in much of contemporary life. Every attempt at dialog and civil discussion of “hot-button” issues quickly degenerates into a shouting match. In Arizona, where my colleagues and I live, it often happens around immigration issues. Bring together folks with strongly opposed ideas and expect the encounter to go nuclear! We disagree intensely with our neighbors about this and many other issues. But we’re so sure of our position that we refuse to seek common ground with those who differ. We’d rather be “right” than together. We’re stuck in our (self)-rightness.

Naturally we professional  church folk talked about the “stuckness” in our United Methodist system–the exhaustive, expensive General Conference whose hours of debate and mountains of paper changed precious little; the focus at the top on “metrics”—evaluating pastors and ministry primarily by counting dollars and people. (Many worry that this approach will squeeze the life out of pastors and their ministries by not taking into account vital but harder-to-measure “qualitative” factors.) We talked about the “Statement of Gospel Obedience” resolution by the Western Jurisdictional Conference (a regional unit of the church). This resolution proposes what amounts to ecclesiastical civil disobedience to the church’s conservative stance on homosexuality. Homosexuality, you may know, is the subject most likely to trigger a yelling fit among United Methodists these days.

Then we sought to widen our horizons. If our national political process doesn’t get unstuck, our whole country—and beyond—will suffer. Right now Congress is stuck with regard to passing a meaningful national budget; with regard to increasingly critical immigration issues; with regard to doing much of anything that requires cooperation or compromise. Most legislators are dug in on their own side of the aisle. They’re unwilling or afraid to make any move toward the other side, let alone actually cross party lines to take meaningful action for the common good. 2012 has brought a dismal display of bipartisan dereliction of duty and legislative malpractice with respect to the national debt. Remember that ridiculous drama in the first part of the year, the on-again/off-again deal between the President and the Speaker, the Select Committee’s utter failure to agree on budget cuts sufficient to stave off “sequestration” (automatic budget cuts) in 2013. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office recently predicted that this dismal display of inaction could well send the whole nation careening over that fiscal cliff into renewed recession.

The mood in the room had grown serious. Were we seeing an ending, a decline, a historic transition? What if we fail to overcome the stuckness paralyzing our church, our nation, our families, nearly all our institutions? We must address our challenges creatively and responsibly with the best available wisdom from all perspectives—or else. None of us was eager to detail “or else”. But all of us envisioned disturbing scenarios if our leaders fail to exercise the courage and political will to “unstick” our public dialog, our political process—and themselves!

Then someone (not me) asked, “Are we coming to the end? Or are we at the beginning of something new?” Key question for people of faith to ask. Huge question for Christ-followers who believe the last word in life is not death but Resurrection. Hard question to answer while we’re making our way through history one messy day at a time. All of us around that table hoped and prayed for our nation and our church to find their way through the “stuckness”. We also reaffirmed that we have the power, individually and together, to act to “unstick” ideas and attitudes in the local congregations of which we’re a part; in the neighborhoods, community organizations, and political groups in which we’re involved; in our persistent, respectful communication with our legislators. We can choose to model civil, respectful dialog instead of perpetuating polarization, stereotypes, name-calling, and negativity. We can be respectful and assertive equal-opportunity truth-tellers, especially where truth seems in short supply.

Are we at an ending—or a re-beginning? People of faith will answer “Yes”. Every ending contains the seeds of new beginning. Those seeds are planted by our God who says, “Look, I’m doing a new thing.” (Isaiah 43:19 CEB)The shape of the new beginning is often unclear clear while we’re in transition. But never doubt that our creative God is at work whether or not we can see it clearly at any given moment. Look at the Exodus journey. Look at the Babylonian Exile. Look at the post-Easter church. Look at those times in your life when all the pieces came together in a way you never could have planned or imagined. The end may not be what we want. But every ending bears the seeds of re-beginning. What else should we expect from the God who promises, ”I am making everything new.” (Revelation 21:5 CEV)

You Built It Yourself–with More Help Than You Know!

On our road trip last week we heard a news report of a politician abusing an honor roll student in public. The story didn’t use those words. We heard the politician praise the student for his achievement. He went on–and on and on–about how that student had achieved that honor himself. But the politician was just using the honor student. The politician turned the student’s legitimate accomplishment into one more excuse to distort President Obama’s recent statement that a successful small business owner “didn’t build [his business] himself.”

[IN CASE YOU’RE GETTING WORRIED–This isn’t intended as a partisan political rant–from here on! This incident highlights two contrasting worldviews present in many facets of life including the church. It puts us squarely on the boundary between faith and politics. I believe this border needs to be free and open with plenty of two-way traffic. Others prefer a rigid boundary that firmly separates faith and politics.]

Let’s call one of these worldviews the “individual” view. The individual view insists that the businessman (Mr. Smith to us) did build his business himself. He invested his own money, expertise, hard work, sleepless nights, perseverance, creativity, etc. That honor roll student (George), says the politician, is the one who went to class, did the homework, wrote the papers,and  made the grades. George is the one who chose to stay in and study rather than go out with his friends. The initiative and determination shown by George and Mr. Smith is worthy of celebration and imitation. I agree. I believe the President would agree.  Those who hold the individual view might call Mr. Smith “a self-made man”. They might even say he “pulled himself up by his own bootstraps”. He didn’t. None of us did. None of us can. It’s against the laws of physics. Try it—-if you can find boots with straps! Pull. Pull hard–harder!! You won’t pull yourself up off the ground. You’ll either wear yourself out very quickly–or lose your balance and fall in a heap!

The other view [we’ll call it the “community” view] celebrates Mr. Smith’s hard work and success. It also sees many who helped Mr. Smith’s journey to success. It’s certainly reasonable to suggest his childhood and family life were foundational. The community where he lived provided schools, parks, and other opportunities for him to learn and grow. Key adults in addition to his parents touched his life along the way. A teacher, coach, pastor, scout leader, or neighbor may have made a life-changing difference. That difference-maker may not have known it then–or even now! Mr. Smith started his business in a community and nation built by others before him. He relied on existing laws, transportation, and utiity infrastructure. He paid for the next generation’s use of that infrastructure (including things like public schools) through his taxes. George, the honor student, worked long and hard to make the honor roll–but not all by himself. More than likely his parents supported and encouraged him. Influential teachers motivated him. Beyond the local community, both state and federal tax dollars–yours and mine–helped provide the school system in which George excelled. Like Mr. Smith, George probably has adults in addition to his parents who enrich his life.

Do you see the difference  between these two ways to look at life? The individual view says “I did it. I deserve all the credit for my accomplishments. I helped myself. You help yourself.” The community view says, “I deserve credit for my hard work, for using my ability, perseverance, and creativity–but not all the credit. I did it in an environment I didn’t choose or create, with more help than I can name from family, friends, and folks I will never meet. I did it with the help of this community (however you describe it–church, family, tribe, town, nation, etc.). The communities of which I am a part will shape all the decisions in my life We’re in this together!”

Do you see the contrast? Keep your eyes and ears open as the political season intensifies. Pay attention to celebrities, family and friends, and talk on the street. Listen to your pastor–and to the meetings after church in the hallway, the coffee hour, and the parking lot. I don’t believe life is sustainable when the individual view predominates–in families, cities, nations, churches, or on our planet. The community view is realistic, practical, sustainable, biblical–and against the grain of human nature and the prevailing cultural winds. If you agree, will you seek to let this worldview shape more of your life? Will you seek ways to share this perspective, especially with folks who see life differently? Let’s agree to try to do that lovingly, openly, and non-yellingly! No political party is completely right or wrong on this one. Yes, we’re teetering on the narrow ledge of that faith/politics boundary. But keeping a solid  brick wall between the two has gotten us where we are. Let’s try something new. How about moving from faith and politics to faith-full politics?



Neighboring by Walking Around

A while back some earnest folks trying to be both authentically Christian and environmentally responsible wondered aloud, “What would Jesus drive?” I’m pretty sure they’d rule out my 4WD pickup. Our mid-size SUV would be on the bubble at best. But Jesus didn’t drive anything! Jesus walked the earth centuries before the automobile appeared.

“Jesus walked…”  I know, I know. So did everybody else in first-century Palestine. Walking provides a different perspective on life. Everything looks different when we pass it at a few miles an hour instead of a few dozen miles an hour. We notice so much more at that slower pace. When we’re not sealed in our automotive isolaton chambers, we can stop and talk with folks we meet. Walking around our neighborhood connects us to the place we live in a way that driving cannot.

Our daughter and son-in-law bought a house and moved into it not quite a year ago. Its finest feature is a first-floor grandparent-ready guest room. The first time we brought along Carson, our ShihTzu, he insisted on an early-morning walk just like at home. One early-morning walk quickly became every-morning-and-every-evening. Carson and I met the neighbor who babies his car that’s just like one I sold long ago. We found the houses where dogs lived–and barked! We saw a wide variety of cars and trucks, as well as some nice boats and RVs. We noticed the personal touches some folks had added to the nondescript subdivision landscape–and other houses with little or no personal touches. Had their occupants decided not to try to make that temporary place “home”? Were they too busy, too stressed, too financially-stretched?

Our morning walks have helped me learn to read people’s trash. No, I don’t touch it, I just look! Before we met the neighbors across the street, I had deduced that they were Asians. Their trash contained large cartons that had contained large quantities of rice! You can also tell by the cartons when people have new furniture, appliances, or toys for their kids. Curbside trash also identifies houses in transition. Someone moving out has left at the curb what they don’t want and can’t get rid of any other way. Someone’s moving in, it appears by the discarded packng materials. This neighborhood, like so many , has experienced its share of Southern Nevada’s  real estate struggles. It contains some long-empty houses that just won’t sell, some that are in transition, and a few that appear to be headed toward foreclosure.

Our grandson Lucas (almost two) also likes to walk around the neighborhood with me. We met the man with the old car–and his poodle. He and the poodle appear to be about the same age.  One warm evening we met a man sitting in his garage playing with his toddler and trying to entertain his 6-month-old twins. His van/tour bus sits out front and I suspect it doesn’t haul as many people as often as he’d like, but he’s doing the best he can. We met young teen boys playing basketball with a portable goal. Lucas loves to sit on the curb and watch them play. One day one of the boys invited him to play. They rolled the ball around a little. Then we lifted Lucas up to the hoop and helped him drop the ball through the basket. He loved it! Of course the basket was well below the regulation ten-foot height, so those boys  could dunk and imitate the moves they saw the pros make on TV.

My preliminary exploration of the neighborhood (with Carson and Lucas’s help) reminds me of God’s action in Jesus: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 MSG).  Our “neighborhood” is wherever we live our lives. Most of us live in other neighborhoods in addition to our physical neighborhood–work, online communities,  church, school, family, various other communities to which we belong. God is not aloof from our “neighborhoods”. In Jesus God has “moved into the neighborhood”. God cares about that young father and his family, those boys playing basketball, those families trying to survive through the housing crisis. Jesus doesn’t sit around the church all week waiting for us to come visit him on Sunday. He’s immersed in the wondrous dailiness of our ordinary lives!

 So what does all this mean for us who follow the One who’s “moved into the neighborhood”?

  • Expand your definition of “neighborhood” as it makes sense, but don’t neglect your physical neighborhood.
  • Take a walk. Take regular walks, mostly when some of your neighbors will be outside.
  • Pray for the neighbors you know and the ones you don’t, for issues you’re aware of and could reasonably expect to exist, and for your observations as you “move into the neighborhood” with Jesus.
  • Don’t expect instant results. Getting to know the neighborhood takes considerable time and attention. Relationships will develop through dozens of small steps.
  • Our mission field begins at our doorstep. The people in our neighborhood are our neighbors–those whom Jesus calls us to love as we love ourselves (Luke 10:25-37). Our loving presence invites them into the best news ever–“The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood”.

“…the Bible tells me so.”

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Like many of you, I learned the song early in my Sunday School career. But our Sunday School teachers probably didn’t mention Karl Barth, one of the twentieth century’s premier theologians. Toward the end of his life he was asked to sum up the meaning of all he’d learned about Christian theology. He reflected a moment, then said simply, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Another time we’ll explore the depth of that profoundly simple sentence. Right now let’s focus on that last phrase–“…the Bible tells me so.”

The Bible is Christianity’s sacred text. Some Christians use “The Bible says…” as a “bulletproof” phrase that automatically validates their position. Trouble is, different Christians read the same book and conclude that “the Bible says” very different and often contradictory things. In relatively recent  history that’s happened with regard to slavery, racial segregation, the place of women in the life of the church and in society, abortion, eschatology–the final chapter of the divine-human drama–and homosexuality. Both sides in the curent homosexuality debate  insist their position is the truly biblical one. Common ground is excruciatingly hard to find. After nearly three decades of debate on the issue, last spring’s United Methodist General Conference couldn’t even pass a motion that said in effect, “We agree that we disagree.” Other mainline denominations have had their own bitterly divisive struggles. The church leaders caught up in these fierce struggles have prayerfully and thoughtfully reached strongly-held but diametrically-opposed conclusions about the issue. Most would affirm that “…the Bible tells me so”even though the Bible told their neighbor something very different. 

So what’s an ordinary, non-seminary-trained, non-Ph.D. person of faith to do? A complete answer requires a dense, thick book like the ones Karl Barth wrote. But Barth gave us a starting point: “I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally.” The Bible isn”t one book. It’s a rich, diverse collection of sixty-six books, not including the Apocrypha. These books were composed over more than a thousand years in various places by various people, many of whom we cannot identify. The most recent of those writings was completed in the late first century or early second century CE. The world of these writings is very different from our own. “Taking the Bible seriously” means for me that discovering what “the Bible says” to us today  begins with understanding what a particular passage said to those who first heard it. How did those people live? What historical events affected them? What languages did they speak and write? How have those languages (mostly Hebrew in the Old Testament, Greek and a little Aramaic in the New Testament) evolved? What were these peoples’ religious beliefs? What other nations, religions, and civilizations influenced them? What energized them? What kept them up at night?

“Taking the Bible seriously” means not superimposing our ideas and worldview on these ancient texts. We let poetry be poetry (Psalms, Song of Solomon, and much more). We let Genesis affirm the power and glory of God who created all that is without trying to turn it into a science text. We marvel at the way God used great sinners like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and many more. We worry less about who wrote a book (often many people through a long process of revision and editing) and more about what’s said and what it means.We don’t apply contemporary standards of accuracy to the historical and biographical books. We understand that the gospels are faith statements about who Jesus is more than biography. We understand apocalyptic literature (e.g. Daniel, Revelation) first by its message to its original audience. We refuse to treat these books or any part of the Bible as encrypted code that describes the end of history.

In short, “taking the Bible seriously” for me means appreciating its “other-ness” and being skeptical of folks who say “the Bible says” too easily and too casually. Those folks likely haven’t done their homework; worse yet, they don’t think it’s necessary. Repeating “The Bible says” too easily suggests that the speaker is manipulating the Bible to validate an already-chosen position, rather than using it in a process of open-ended seeking of God’s wisdom.

“So what’s an ordinary, non-seminary-trained, non-Ph.D. person of faith to do?” Take the Bible too seriously to take it literally. Learn all you can about the people and cultures that produced the biblical books. Don’t settle for too-simple answers. Ask your pastor to provide Bible study that takes the Bible seriously, not literally. Disciple Bible Study is a great United Methodist option. Read books like N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus, or Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder and Eat This Book. Walter Brueggemann’s writings are also helpful, though some may find them more scholarly and less accessible. We want to learn to think like biblical people as well as contemporary people.

Here’s the Good News. When, with Barth, we “take the Bible too seriously to take it literally,” we discover at a deeper level the simple truth that he identified as his bottom line bedrock faith: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”