Archive Page 2

We Are What We Eat

“It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”  Jesus, Matthew 4:4 (MSG)

Self-feeding is a key developmental task for us humans. Our older grandchildren (18, 20, and 22) learned healthy eating habits from their parents and their own involvement in athletics. They enjoy an occasional junk-food splurge, but overall they feed themselves well. “I’m not being fed” is no longer a complaint we expect to hear from them. They’d be told, “Fix yourself something. You’re (almost) an adult.” They’ve mastered the developmental task of self-feeding. Our younger grandchildren Lucas and Amelia have moved from milk to baby food to solid food. Now they’re learning to make their own healthy food choices. 5-year-old Lucas knows he’s allergic to nuts. He also knows he needs to consume some protein soon after he wakes, or else HE’S A GROUCH! 3-1/2-year-old Amelia lives for dessert, especially chocolate! Her folks work hard to help her balance her food intake. [As I wrote, No. 2 son David sent me this picture of lasagna he’d just taken out of the oven. He’s also clearly mastered self-feeding!]DavidH Lasagna

Yet one of the most common exit whines in church life is, “I’m not being fed.” It comes from sheep church members looking to leave their current congregation for pastures that appear to be more lush and green. “Not being fed” is an all-purpose complaint that might mean: “Pastor never talks about my favorite things;” Pastor drags me outside my comfort zone too often and I wish (s)he would quit it.” “Pastor and I disagree about nearly everything.” “Pastor doesn’t interpret the Bible the same way I do (and therefore with questionable accuracy).” Pastor keeps raising hard questions when all I want is easy answers.”

“I’m not being fed.” I heard it periodically during my forty-plus years of active ministry. So did most of my colleagues. More often than not it filtered up through third parties after the sheep parishioner had already wriggled through the fence and wandered off. The goal was rarely dialog, learning, and mutual understanding. It was more often assuring a steady diet of one’s favorite “foods” that wouldn’t upset a tender spiritual tummy.

These developmentally-delayed disciples live their whole lives expecting someone else to feed them–the pastor, the Bible class teacher, the TV preacher, the online Jesus guru. Paul wrote to some early Christians: “I gave you milk to drink instead of solid food, because you weren’t up to it yet.” (1 Corinthians 3:2 CEB) Newborn infants have to start with milk. But very soon young bodies and minds want and need much more. Strength and health come with “solid food”, not junk food. “If we’re not growing, we’re dying” is true not only for our physical bodies, but for spiritual, intellectual, and professional growth.

Our Lord freely offers us “the Bread of Life”–but we continue to choose junk food. Spiritual junk food is as easily available as the physical junk food in convenience stores and fast-food outlets. Junk food is full of empty calories. Its intentional overdose of fat, sugar, and salt overwhelms our bodies with excessive carbs and minimal nutrition. Spiritual junk food tastes good and satisfies immediately. But it leaves us empty. It provides little or no lasting nourishment. It doesn’t build us up. The empty calories of physical and spiritual junk food do us far more harm than good.

Spiritual junk food is self-centered. It’s all about what’s in it for you. It’s about what you can get out of God, rather than about what you can give to God and God’s purposes for God’s world. The seminary professor who taught us worship showed how “junk food” hymns overflow with first-person singular pronouns—“I, me, my, mine” etc. When it’s all about me, God gets squeezed out of the picture. That’s a toxic recipe for sure.

Spiritual junk food is exclusive rather than inclusive. It tells us, “Thank God we’re not like “those people”—Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Mexicans, Japanese (WWII), conservatives, progressives, poor folks, immigrants, etc. If the dish set before you consistently divides humanity into a good “us” and an evil “them”, it’s almost certainly junk food: “[Jesus said]…The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’ Jesus commented, ‘This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.’ (Luke 18:9-14 MSG)

Spiritual junk food offers too-easy answers to hard questions. Those easy answers may satisfy us initially. But we’re hungry again in an hour. Too-easy answers ignore the consensus of contemporary knowledge. They close discussion and foreclose the possibility of additional learning. They reinforce the status quo and excuse us from the responsibility of living out our faith day by day in the real world.

Worst of all, spiritual junk food takes a too-simple approach to the Bible. Truly “nutritious” Bible reading takes seriously Scripture’s character as an inspired complex collection of writings produced over many centuries. When Jesus went into the wilderness prior to beginning his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-11), the Tempter tried to trick him into a bumper-sticker approach to the Bible–“God said it, I believe it, and that settles it”. Jesus wouldn’t bite. ”It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth,” he replied. Scholars have wisely suggested we do well to take the Bible seriously rather than literally (another post for another day). What did a passage say to the folks who first heard it? What was their world really like? When we go a little deeper, Scripture becomes truly Bread of Life for us.

My Methodist roots remind me of John Wesley’s term “Means of Grace”. That was his term for spiritual disciplines and practices that open spaces in our lives for God’s unlimited love to nourish and shape us. You can read his sermon on the subject here. These personal and public practices help us be sure we’re  consuming good solid food, not junk food. This illustration shows how these disciplines support our focus on the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34) and balance both personal and public discipleship. No junk food here. More than enough solid, body-building nourishment to get us through the wilderness of another Lent.

meansofgrace diagramThis year let’s clear out all the spiritual junk food that clutters our lives and our churches. Let’s covenant together to feed ourselves well and to offer hearty, nourishing “solid food” to all the hungry folks we meet as we grow together in Christ.

Happy Birthday

My mother Rosalie Higgs was born Jan. 19, 1913. She died Jan. 2, 2012, shortly before her 99th birthday. My brother-in-law Mike Bunch put together the collage below as his way of giving thanks for her life. But his website (http://www.springeraz@blogspot.com) refused to cooperate this morning when he was ready to post it. So I’m doing that for him on behalf of our family. FYI the picture in the lower right-hand corner shows Mike taking Mom for a motorcycle ride at Mike and Kathy’s wedding reception. Mom was approaching 90 at the time.

 

 

rosalie

Unarmed Truth and Unconditional Love

Sometimes a phrase grabs me and won’t let go–like last Tuesday as I listened to President Obama’s State of the Union message. I was listening with about one-and-a-half ears when I heard “…unarmed truth and unconditional love…” “Never heard that before,” I thought to myself. “Unconditional love” isn’t new. Granted, it’s talked about far more than practiced. But “unarmed truth”? That phrase took me completely by surprise. And the more I reflect, the more I discover that the two together have a synergy far greater than their individual parts.

Toward the end of his speech, the President challenged  us—all 300+ million of us–to participate actively in public life by voting, volunteering, and adding our diverse voices to the conversation. “That’s the country we love,” he said. ”Clear-eyed, big-hearted, undaunted by challenge, optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” A few minutes later, He said that when his term ended, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen—inspired by those voices…that have helped America travel so far…Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word—voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.” He said it again! The phrase comes from Martin Luther King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” 

 image001                                                                                               

I hear a ringing Christian affirmation in Dr. King’s words. True, he doesn’t explicitly mention God or Jesus. But he affirms the servant lifestyle of “unarmed truth and unconditional love” that we see in Jesus and all who follow him. He proclaims Easter faith—“…right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”—and ultimate hope—“…unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word…” Our President embedded in his message a strong mini-sermon for “all who have ears to hear…”, including persons of other faiths and no religious affiliation who share our practice of “…unarmed truth and unconditional love…”

 “Unarmed truth” is assertive, not aggressive. It speaks up for itself, meets challenges to itself and challenges untruth. It attacks issues rather than persons. “Unarmed truth” respects individuals and their freedom. It does not manipulate or coerce. It speaks passionately and persuasively, shares its message freely but not invasively, and its “talk” is consistent with the talkers’ daily “walk”. “Unarmed truth” does not “sell” or “market” itself. It simply, clearly, unapologetically offers itself to “all who have ears to hear”. It welcomes dialog and listens actively to other views. “Armed truth”, on the other hand, doesn’t do dialog well. It tells all within reach that it is the only real truth. Its relentless conviction of its own absolute rightness runs roughshod over everything and everyone in its path. Religiously, “armed truth” claims exclusive access to the “correct” vision of God, the way to salvation, etc. Such exclusiveness rejects the validity of any other opinion or approach. Politically, “armed truth” continually constricts freedom in order to systematically and self-righteously eliminate all opposition. Dictatorships throughout history have used “armed truth” to claim and consolidate their power. Today terrorists like Al Quaeda and Isis seek to achieve power through the violent propagation of their own “armed truth”. Their efforts are ultimately doomed just as those of the present and past dictators of Iran, Libya and other African states, assorted Central and South American regimes, Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany—and others you may name.

I hear a very specific definition of “truth” beneath Dr. King’s words: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’.” (John 14:6 NRSV) Christians believe that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection embodies God’s Truth about God, humanity, and our relationships with God and each other: “…the Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth… grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:14, 17 NRSV)

Grace and truth go together. Unconditional love is one definition of grace. The Creator loves each and every one of the 7 billion+ of us who occupy this planet. Every human alive, previously alive, or who will live in the future, bears “the image of God”(Genesis 1:26-27). Just as all humanity has in common 98% or so of our DNA, so we share the spiritual DNA of the Creator of all that is. Tragically, human history can be read as the story of the family of God fracturing and re-combining over time into families, tribes, nations, religions, and various assorted ingroups and outgroups. Those groups offer their members and allies conditional love that’s not really love at all. They (we)play nice when it suits them. But their (our) ultimate goal remains to impose their “armed truth” on others, usually at a frightful human cost.

Yet every so often one of us, a few of us, or a whole host of us rise up to say, “NO! We can live differently.” Dr. King led one such movement in this country beginning in 1955. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Gunnar Jahn, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, described him as“…the first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence…the man who has never abandoned his faith in the unarmed struggle he is waging, who has suffered for his faith, who has been imprisoned on many occasions, whose home has been subject to bomb attacks, whose life and the lives of his family have been threatened, and who nevertheless has never faltered.”

In his acceptance speech, Dr. King shared the vision that energized him: “I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and ‘every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.’”(Micah 4:4)

I hadn’t planned to write a piece for Martin Luther King Day. But sometimes the material (and the Spirit?) lead in another direction. Will you join me in renewed commitment to “unarmed truth and unconditional love”? Take some time somewhere this holiday weekend to reflect on the shape of those qualities in your life, your family, your church, your workplace, your neighborhood, wherever you live your life. Who else might share your commitment?  What transforming difference can you make together?

Above all, never doubt that “…unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Christians and “American Rage”

Anger 2

Grassroots politics in our country just keeps getting angrier. The anger has simmered for years, fueled by opportunistic politicians and talk-radio commentators. In this election season presidential candidates across the spectrum are fanning the flames. Unfortunately, they appear more interested in transforming the anger into votes than in finding lasting solutions to the issues generating the anger. “American Rage”, an Esquire Magazine/NBC News joint survey, asked a diverse group of 3000 Americans their views regarding a wide range of current issues. I encourage you to read this study in detail, to consider its implications for our life together, and of course to raise questions where warranted.

“American Rage” identifies three main factors shaping our collective anger:

  • Experience of unfair treatment–70% of blacks, 48% of women, and even 21% of white men expressed anger about the way they are treated in this country.
  • Empathy measures our concern about how others are treated. Blacks and Hispanics surveyed reported the most anger about how various other minorities are treated, while Whites reported the least anger about the treatment of other groups.
  • Expectations refers to disappointment and frustration with regard to one’s current situation and future prospects: “Are you disappointed? Do you feel stifled and shortchanged and sold a bill of goods? Then you’re probably pretty angry. Consider the white men and women in our survey: From their views on the state of the American dream (dead) and America’s role in the world (not what it used to be) to how their life is working out for them (not quite what they’d had in mind), a plurality of whites tends to view life through a veil of disappointment… we see the anger of perceived disenfranchisement—a sense that the majority has become a persecuted minority, the bitterness of a promise that didn’t pan out…”

 How do Christians relate to this collective anger? Some of us ignore it and hope it goes away. After all, politics isn’t very “spiritual”. And didn’t Jesus say anger was pretty close to murder? “You’re familiar with the command of the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder.” (Matthew 5:21-22 MSG) So let’s not even go there. We’ll suppress it, repress it, deny it, ignore the anger of “those people”. anger 3

Some of us plunge into the fray and choose up sides that fit our theological and/or political views. Decades of experience have taught me that church people can fight as dirty as anybody—even politicians! Still, we may feel some guilt about mixing it up with folks. We have a dim memory of that Bible verse: “Be angry or do not sin.” Then somebody reads us the real thing: “Be angry and do not sin.” (Ephesians 4 :26 NKJV) Now we’re confused! Aren’t “anger” and “do not sin” mutually exclusive? How—in God’s name–can we hold them together?

Another translation says (and continues), “Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life.” (Ephesians 4:26-27 MSG) Anger and other feelings are neither good nor bad in themselves. We may express feelings lovingly or unlovingly, healingly or hurtfully, etc. It’s not the anger. It’s the poisonous hate festering deep inside; our careful nurturing of resentment; our targeted hate that identifies the person with whom we’re angry with the issue that divides us. “Be angry and do not sin.” Address the issue—promptly, clearly, lovingly (well under 100 decibels!). Speak your piece and be sure your neighbor knows you will listen to him/her/them as intensely as you have spoken. Be angry over the issue and be equally clear that the other is, like you, a beloved child of God—no matter how maddening their recent words or deeds!

anger 1

Anger without sin

  • Does not dehumanize, demonize, disrespect, diminish, label, or stereotype the other. It recognizes each person’s full humanity and treats him/her/them as we would expect to be treated if the situation were reversed.
  • Is not all about me. It seeks God’s will, not my self-justification. It seeks the best outcome for all.
  • Isn’t a winner-take-all fight-to-the-death. Its goal is collaboration, constructive action, community-building, and reconciliation.
  • Willingly listens to differing perspectives. It knows that mutual understanding and respect are the foundation for consensus or at least agreeing to disagree agreeably.

We who follow Jesus can offer a unique witness in our angry, polarized society. Father Richard Rohr’s writings express the shape of this witness. His Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico organizes its life around Eight Core Principles. Two of them especially fit this discussion. No. 1–“The teaching of Jesus is our central reference point.” Yes, anger is close to murder. Our murderous heart wants to obliterate that other person, we just haven’t acted on it. “The teachings of Jesus” also include “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Love your enemy…”, and others that make it hard to stay (self-)righteously polarized.

Core Principle No. 3 states, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Oppositional energy only creates more of the same.” In fact, the more “oppositional energy” we generate, the more we lose sight of the most vulnerable people in our society. This principle challenges us to follow another way. Instead of playing down to the opposition’s level, let’s raise our game and challenge others to live and relate at that higher level.

In the first century Paul called Christians in Rome to “the practice of the better”: “If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do… Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.” (Romans 12:18-21 MSG)

“Be angry and do not sin.” What does that look like in your family; your workplace; your neighborhood; your church? How will you pursue “the practice of the better” where you live your life?

Real Live Hope

In early October I wrote a “Response to Roseburg” shortly after the shootings at Umpqua Community College. Politicians of “all sorts and conditions” sent “thoughts and prayers” to those touched by that horrific act—but did nothing new to change things. Both religious and non-religious folks proclaimed the hypocrisy of “thoughts and prayers” that didn’t lead to transformative action. I shared a colleague’s prayer: “Help us listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing.” I also called for us who follow Jesus torediscover the peacemaking tradition in Christianity….” 

Two months later San Bernardino happened. My frustrated, grieving, angry response was “How Long, O Lord? An Advent Lament.”  I asked brothers and sisters in Christ, How long will we who follow Jesus mirror our society’s attitudes regarding war, violence, and the use of force rather than embodying a countercultural alternative of strong, assertive, nonviolent love in the spirit of Jesus?… how long will Christians living in the USA choose to be Americans first and Christians second?” Popular religion works hard to erase that boundary. I believe authentic faith in Christ sharpens it instead of erasing it.

I’m hardly the only one thinking about how people of faith respond to gun violence.  One such group recently talked, prayed, and struggled their way to an “Advent Declaration on Gun Violence”. Its Preamble says in part, “A spirit of fear, enmity, racial prejudice, distrust, and violence is tragically normal in our [American] way of life. We believe this is contrary to the gospel, and so we say ‘Enough of this. No more.’…There is an urgent need for followers of the Prince of Peace to challenge the easy use of guns in our society.”  

This declaration sets the bar pretty high—but no higher than it’s always been for us who follow Jesus. Signers of  “An Advent Declaration” affirm that:

  • “We advocate for greater restraint and stricter controls on the private use of guns.”
  • “We accept the way of the cross.”
  • “We take up the armor of the Spirit.”
  • “We seek the justice that makes for peace.”
  • “We pursue love for enemies.”
  • “We are confident that the goodness of God defeats evil and injustice.”

The closing paragraph states: “Relying on God’s grace, we commit to lead our faith communities in acts that do good toward enemies, for this is the strongest witness to God’s love and defeat of evil, the most compelling contributor to the transformation of our enemies, the best way to de-escalate violence, and the path to build communities of peace where all can flourish as beloved children of God.

I’ve signed this Declaration. I urge you to read it, ponder it, pray about it, discuss it with others. Don’t sign it unless you intend to act on it! Sign it if your journey with Christ leads you in this direction. It’s not a litmus test for “real Christians”. I don’t pretend that electronically signing a document will change the world. Nor do I imagine that the current 157 signers are enough to accomplish that change—though Jesus started with just Twelve! Let this Declaration refocus your discipleship. Let it lead you into asking new questions, into asking old questions in a new way, and into entertaining new answers to old questions. Let it lead you into conversation with folks with whom you disagree strongly (judging by the intensity and volume of previous engagements!) Let this document lead you to listen deeply and prayerfully to your neighbor, even if he/she doesn’t immediately respond in kind. Eventually that will happen. Let this declaration lead you to serve others inside and outside the church. Let it lead us where we never imagined we might go to do what we never imagined God could do through us. Let the community that forms around this Declaration become a sign of Hope for all who still cry out, “In God’s Name–How Long?”

christmas change

HOPE is the itch I’m trying to scratch. During this Advent season I haven’t heard clearly the outrageous impossible Hope that comes to us in Christ. I haven’t heard how Advent not only looks backward to Jesus’ birth but also forward to Christ’s coming at the end of history to heal the world’s brokenness. I haven’t heard how this Child will turn our upside-down world right-side-up. I haven’t heard how God invites, empowers, and expects every follower of Jesus to help build this New Creation.

I haven’t heard God’s wild, wonderful promises through the prophets: “… swords into iron plows… spears into pruning tools…they will no longer learn how to make war. (Isaiah 2:4 CEB ). “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isa. 11:6 NRSV). I haven’t heard that majestic litany of Jesus’ other names: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6 NRSV)  I haven’t heard the en-couraging news that “God is here, right here, on his way to put things right and redress all wrongs.” (Isaiah 35:4 MSG). Nor have I heard the astounding eschatological promise that “Blind eyes will be opened, deaf ears unstopped; lame men and women will leap like deer, the voiceless break into song.” (Isaiah 35:5-6 MSG)

If I’m feeling a hope deficit, what about neighbors going through struggles we can scarcely imagine or comprehend–fire, flood, disease, environmental or economic disasters; refugees who can never go home again; the friends and loved ones of the 12,000+ people who have died in gun incidents in this country in 2015; so many more. How long, Lord?

How do we know “God is here, right here, on his way to put things right…”“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 MSG) Love wrapped in flesh like ours embodies Hope in the midst of despair and brokenness. “…followers of the Prince of Peace…challenge the easy use of guns in our society…We obey Jesus’ simple strategies of love: refusing to hate in return, unilaterally forgiving those who harm us, doing good to people who oppose us, and continually praying for God to bless all people, even those who treat us as enemies.” A community of people exhibiting such strange and wonderful behavior transforms outrageous impossibility into God’s truth happening through God’s people—you and me!– here and now! :“… swords into iron plows… spears into pruning tools…; they will no longer learn how to make war.”  “God is here… to put things right and redress all wrongs.”

Help us listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen”

“How Long, O Lord??” An Advent Lament

US gun crime in 2015 (Figures up to 3 December)

353 Mass shootings        62shootings at schools

12,223people killed in gun incidents       24,722people injured in gun incidents

Source: Shooting tracker, Gun Violence Archive

  • How long will we tolerate nearly-daily mass shootings in our nation and fail to take meaningful action to stop them?
  • How long will we watch processions of victims being transported to the hospital or the morgue—and accept such tragic scenes as the “new normal”?
  • How long will we watch grieving families weep and mourn their loved ones—while praying that our community isn’t next—but do little or nothing to make a difference?

“ If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  Isaiah 64:1 CEB

  • How long will politicians let their fear of the NRA keep them from enacting sensible regulations regarding gun ownership?
  • How long will we fail to require licensing and insurance for gun ownership and users similar to that required for other lethal equipment such as motor vehicles?
  • How long will we entertain the ridiculous claim that assault rifles and similar weapons of war are normal household appliances, toys, or sporting equipment?
  • How long will we believe the lethal fiction that we’re safer with more guns in more people’s hands in more crowded public places?

Print

  • How long will we allow the condemnation of all Muslims for the actions of a few hyper-extremists?
  • How long will we allow misguided policies and divisive rhetoric to become recruiting tools for future terrorists?
  • How long will we tolerate the cycle of mass shootings followed by universal hand-ringing followed by failure to take meaningful action?
  • How long will we talk past one another instead of with one  another and demonize those with whom we disagree?
  • How long will the words of Scripture proclaim our continuing collective insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results): “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.”? Proverbs 26:11 NRSV
  • How long will we continue to slash mental-health funding that can provide life-changing treatment for disturbed people who might otherwise become “active shooters”?
  • How long will people of faith trust everything and everyone that promises safety and security more than we trust the One who is “…Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”? (Isaiah 9:6 NRSV)
  • How long will our spiritual leaders remain fearfully silent or at best timidly indifferent regarding guns and the glorification of violence in our culture? (HINT—Christmas Day is too long!
  • How long will we offer “thoughts and prayers” for victims of violence divorced from any commitment to transformative action toward preventing future tragedies?
  • How long will we whine that “God Isn’t Fixing This” when the real issue is our choice (passive or active) not to collaborate with God in healing brokenness and building a new world?

God Isn't Fixing This

  • How long will we who follow Jesus mirror our society’s attitudes regarding war, violence, and the use of force rather than embodying a countercultural alternative of strong, assertive, nonviolent love in the spirit of Jesus? In other words, how long will Christians living in the USA choose to be Americans first and Christians second? Fuller Theological Seminary professor Kutter Callaway writes about renouncing his Second Amendment rights. I hereby renounce mine. It’s time for followers of Jesus to rediscover  and reclaim our peace-making tradition found in the early church, the Mennonites, Quakers, and Church of the Brethren,and more recently Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, the Sojourners movement, and others. More along this line soon.
  • How long will we talk and sing about Incarnation (God’s love embodied in Jesus) while failing to become God’s instruments through whom Redeeming Love becomes physically present to all neighbors within our reach?

“The Word became flesh and blood, “and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” John 1:14 MSG

Beyond Clergy Appreciation Month

[I wrote this a few days ago in the setting described below. One of very few negatives turned out to be the hotel’s marginal wi-fi which lacked sufficient go-power to let me post this while there.]

IMG_20151104_071846

This week we’re enjoying a great gift that came just when we really needed it. We’re in the mountains north of Durango, Colorado in very comfortable accommodations. Today we have typical early November weather—snow! My son’s response to this picture sums it up pretty well—“Looks like great sitting-inside-by-the-fireplace weather”.He’s right. Life’s been pretty stressful at our house recently. We hope that’s about to change. “Sitting inside by the fireplace” has helped, as have our ventures into the mountains and forests around us.

One way I know I’ve needed a break is that my brain starts working better.  I have more time and curiosity to read and ponder material I tend to skip or skim. I’ ve just finished reading Thom Schulz’s latest blog post, “The Pending Exit of the Clergy”. He reflects on his experience at Group’s Future of the Church Summit. He heard sociologist Josh Packard describe what he’s learned about changes in people’s participation in church life. A growing number of individuals he calls “The Dones” are leaving the organized church but still practice their faith. Another group, “Almost Dones”,  are tired, frustrated, burned out, this-close to leaving, but for now still active in their church.

Schulz heard murmurs of recognition and agreement throughout the room as Packard described the Almost-Dones. “He’s describing me,” one nearby pastor said. Schulz by no means believes that a majority of ministry professionals fall in this category. But he does see “…a growing sense of desperation…” among pastors whose “…numbers and… angst seem to be growing.”

A harsh insistent alarm went off in my mind. That alarm sounds whenever I struggle to hold together contradictory things. How could I hold together those desperate “Almost Done” pastors—and Clergy Appreciation Month (usually October)? I know and have served churches whose people appreciate their pastors in sincere and meaningful ways throughout the year. I also know settings where CA Month lives down to its origins as the religious trinket industry’s made-for-marketing guilt-generator. Give Pastor a card (preferably filled with currency), make nice one Sunday out of 52, and you’ve checked that box for another year.

“Clergy Appreciation  Day/Week/Month” and “Almost Done—that’s me”. What if more of us in more places appreciated loved our pastors enough to help them discover more joy and less desperation in ministry? Granted, pastors can also help themselves by learning to do some things differently and to do some different things. You will not find my magic-bullet formula for resolving this struggle in the remaining 600 or so words of this post. But (as you no doubt suspected) I have some suggestions for pastors and laity who would like to find a deeper level of mutual appreciation:

  • Shared ownership is the most effective way to do ministry. One major source of pastoral burnout is the expectation by laity that the “hired hand”/”holy one” do the congregation’s ministry because it’s his/her job. Clergy perpetuate this heresy because it fills our need to be needed; because we’d rather not risk trying to change things (and the potential disasters attempted change can bring); or because we just don’t know where to start, we don’t know how or whom to ask, and/or we’re simply unwilling to ask for help.

Let’s express our mutual appreciation for one another unity in Christ by reclaiming the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Contrary to conventional wisdom, “Priest” does not designate a special class of super-Christian. Early Christians understood that we are all priests: “…a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9 NRSV) Priests mediate between people and God. We point people toward God. We help them recognize God in daily life. We lift people before God in prayer. Nobody else can serve as effectively as a priest/mediator/bridge to God where you live your life as you can. All who follow Jesus, clergy and laity, are priests called and empowered to share the story of “him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

  • Recognize and accept that being the church and being a pastor have become far more challenging. Church ain’t what it used to be back in the day—whenever your “Good Old Day” was. Church has changed, and so has leading a church. Demanding that pastors and church function “the way we’ve always done it” is killing us. We can’t go backward. We can only go forward—together. (see #1!)I’ll preach the rest of this sermon another time.
  • Support your pastor’s efforts to help move the congregation forward into the future and outward into the community.

“I’m presiding over a dying organization,” said one pastor Thom Schulz met. “I’ve realized I’m in the church hospice business. That’s not a business I want to be in.” The clearest sign of terminal illness in a church is that it has turned inward upon itself and backward toward its past, rather than outward toward its community and forward toward the future. We’ve circled the wagons. We tell each other we’re going to make it no matter what’s going on outside our four walls. That fortress mentality is literally a killer. The way to life is to throw open the doors and windows, get outside and participate in the life going on around us; to become Christ for our neighbors by our presence, deed, and word (often in that order). Transformational change is possible and far from easy. It requires much prayer, persistence, unity of purpose (see #1 above), Spirit-fueled imagination, and bold humility ready to release traditions and practices that block our way forward and outward and embrace new traditions and practices..

Don’t rubber-stamp your pastor’s efforts to move your church forward to today’s best practices and outward to meet your neighbors and offer them Christ in deed and word. Collaborate prayerfully and creatively to discover your new direction. And if, by some chance, you and some of your brothers and sisters in Christ are ready to move but the pastoral feet are dragging—give him/her a firm, loving shove toward the future and your neighbors!

RESPONSE TO ROSEBURG–PEACE-FULL ACTION

Last Thursday shock and horror at 2015’s forty-fifth school shooting shook our nation. That’s a horrific pace of more than one a week. “Prayers for Oregon” memes flooded Facebook. A visibly shaken and angry President Obama spoke to the press and the nation about our collective failure to take meaningful action to stop this deadly trend. Self-interested parties on all sides immediately restated their long-held polarized positions. Mr. Obama’s sentiments echoed the many spiritual leaders who called challenged us to move beyond prayer to action. Sixteen years after Columbine, ten years after Red Lake, eight years after Virginia Tech, the millions of words we’ve thrown at the issue as we’ve talked around and past each other have failed to prevent 142 school shootings since Sandy Hook.          blessed-are-the-peacemakers_t_nv

Yes, for God’s sake and the sake of potential future shooting victims, let’s move beyond prayer to action. “Beyond prayer” doesn’t mean not praying. For me it means maximizing the synergy of active prayer and prayerful action. Prayer informs, shapes, and fuels our action. Action drives us deeper into prayer as we seek God’s will while we are active in many different ways and settings. A colleague of mine shared this prayer on her Facebook page: God of love, you give us minds to think, hearts to love, and a soul which longs to know you. Help us listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen. (Rev. Sharon Ragland, 10/3/15) 

Beyond prayer to action—what action? Let us who claim to follow the Prince of Peace covenant together to return to our roots as a peace-full people. Let us take seriously Jesus’ call to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), to love our enemies, (Matthew 5:44-45), to choose reconciliation and restoration over retribution (Matthew 5:17-48). Let us grow together into a peace-full people marked by peace-full words, deeds, thoughts, and prayer. We talk constantly about personal “peace with God” and “peace of mind”. But we haven’t learned (been willing to learn? been taught?) a robust biblical understanding of Shalom that embraces all human activity and indeed the whole creation. Peace-full people refuse to isolate personal “peace with God” from God’s continuing mission to bring peace and wholeness to all Creation. As long as any of God’s precious children are caught up in chaos and violence, my personal peace as a follower of Jesus, a peace-maker, is disturbed.

The Hebrew word “Shalom” is frequently translated as “peace”. But the word’s complex meanings include “peace”, “soundness”, prosperity”, “wholeness”, and more. Eirene” is the predominant Greek word for “peace” in the New Testament. It carries Shalom’s richness and enriches it further with insights like this: “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.” (Ephesians 2:14-16 CEB) Yes, the passage speaks about the Christian community. But that process of reconciling a broken human family is God’s mission for the Church and God’s dream for all humankind (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

Peace-full action by a peace-full people involves (re)discovering and (re)committing to peacemaking and “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). What a stark (and welcome) contrast to “…the violence which permeates our culture…”! United Methodist Bishop Robert Hoshibata wrote to members of our Desert Southwest Annual Conference shortly after the Roseburg shooting. One of his suggested steps “beyond prayer” was Bible Study. He lifted up a three-session study, “Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities”. Of course three sessions are just enough to start the conversation. But no journey begins without that first step. Let us also rediscover the peacemaking tradition in Christianity. It includes early Christians who found service in the Roman army incompatible with their faith; historic peace churches like the Mennonites and Quakers, and more contemporary advocates of nonviolence including Thomas Merton. Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and many more. Let us reclaim our fundamental identity as peacemakers and reconcilers in the Spirit of Jesus. We will experience invaluable “on-the-job training” as we share deeply-held convictions, seek common ground and shared truth, and struggle to understand and love brothers and sisters with whom we disagree passionately.

Our beginning conversations about how we follow Jesus as peacemakers in this society will lead us into deeper dialog regarding our attitudes toward war and the military; the depiction of guns and violence in contemporary culture; about whether allowing our children playing video games (or watching us play) where the object is to kill a human being (even a cartoon) is compatible with becoming peace-full people; about capital punishment and prison reform; about how we live peacefully in our congregations with diverse and sometimes polarized opinions; and much more.

Bishop Hoshibata’s letter quoted the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory:

“Cure thy children’s warring madness, bend our pride to thy control;

Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul…”

Bishop Bob (as he invites us to call him) stopped there, but I’m sure he’d support adding the final verse:

“Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.

Let the search for thy salvation be our glory evermore.

 Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving thee whom we adore,

Serving thee whom we adore.”

May Harry Emerson Fosdick’s words open us to “…listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

 

 

Doing Jesus’ Laundry

“…that was me—you did it to me.” Jesus,Matthew 25:40 MSG

“…Let all the brothers [and sisters] preach by their deeds.” Francis of Assisi

Fifteen-year-old Caroline Gowan had completed all the requirements for her Girl Scout Gold Award except her community service project. (The Girl Scout Gold award is roughly equivalent to a Boy Scout Eagle badge). Community service came naturally to Caroline and her mother Michelle. For example, they regularly donated some of their home-made laundry detergent to their church’s food pantry. Clients welcomed the detergent because doing laundry at a laundromat was often the only available option–and an expensive one. (Take a moment to go stand by your washer and dryer and thank God for the resources to have your own laundry facilities.)

Caroline thought and prayed about those folks and their struggle just to have clean clothes. Soon an idea took shape. She arranged to use Chuck Mollenkopf’s “Git R Dun” laundromat the second Friday afternoon of each month. She put flyers announcing “Loads of Love” in local convenience stores and in every bag of food from the food bank. Her church, Bonaire United Methodist Church, began supporting “Loads of Love” with donations, volunteers, and additional publicity. On the second Friday in June Caroline and her crew used $115 in quarters to do 30 “Loads of Love”. In July they did 88 loads for $266.50.

Shakika Sneed is a single parent who’s discovered this ministry. “I spend anywhere from $20 to $30 washing clothes,” she says, “and for it to be free is a tremendous blessing to me because it means that money can go on to another bill that I have.”Jesus Laundry Each month church and community volunteers come to visit with those who are doing laundry. Some bring refreshments. Musicians play and sing.  Often a spontaneous singalong erupts. Members of Caroline’s scout troop and the church youth group entertain children with games, bubbles, and sidewalk chalk. “I was just expecting (clients) to be playing on their phone,” Caroline says, “but they really do get into the music. They come in with dirty laundry and leave with a renewed spirit and clean clothes…I feel like not only am I doing something for the people around me and that I am doing something for people I don’t even know, but that I’m doing something for the Lord. I am doing Jesus’ laundry!”

Caroline had heard the story in Matthew 25:31-46 dozens of times at church. But Loads of Love brought it to life! In this story Jesus describes a Final Judgment. People are separated into two groups. The difference is their treatment of the Son of Man (Jesus) whom none of them recognized,“When did we see you…?” “I was hungry…thirsty…sick…in prison…”  “…as you did it [or failed to do it] to the least of these…you did it to me.”

OMG Caroline! You aren’t serving Shakika, John, or Betty on laundry day. You’re serving Jesus! You’ve followed him far enough to have your eyes opened wide. Now you see him clearly in “the least of these”. You and all the folks at “Loads of Love” join a long line of servant disciples with “eyes to see” the image of God in unexpected places and faces. Mother Teresa ministered to the poorest of the poor in India. She described her experience as meeting Jesus in his “most distressing disguise”. As Caroline and others serve in “Loads of Love”, their spiritual vision grows sharper. With increasing clarity they see Jesus in his sometmes “distressing” disguise as an ordinary human being.

Caroline and all who serve alongside her stand in the tradition of St. Francis. He was a spoiled rich kid who finally got over himself and decided to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. He chose a life of simplicity, humility, and poverty. Priests who join the Franciscan Order, from the 14th century to the 21st, embrace that same lifestyle. You’ve probably heard that Francis said, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.“ Scholars today doubt that those are his exact words, but they express the spirit of his ministry. Most agree that Francis told the Franciscan brothers “…Let all the brothers [and sisters] preach by their deeds.”

A couple of years ago the newly-elected pope chose Francis as his official name. This new pope was a Franciscan who took his simple lifestyle seriously no matter how high he rose in the church hierarchy. Pope Francis continues to stay true to his Franciscan vows of poverty and simplicity and to stay in touch with “the least of these”. He knows they help us see Jesus in his “most distressing disguise”. You’d think a guy who’d been chosen for the highest office in the Christian world wouldn’t be doing anybody’s laundry. But whenever he gets the chance, Francis grabs his box of detergent and his roll of quarters, heads for the nearest laundromat, and starts doing Jesus’ laundry.

Pope Francis has been consistent, insistent, persistent, some would even say obnoxious as he advocates for the poor. We more affluent folks don’t always welcome that message. Nevertheless, more and more of us are listening. Francis earns the right to be heard one day at a time.He’s not perfect any more than you and I are. But his Christian life is more consistent than most folks I know, including me. His wordless preaching  and his  words carry the same message.

I could make a good old-fashioned three-point sermon out of Francis’ “wordless preaching”:

  1. If nobody seems to be listening or paying attention to our Christian talk, try talking less (even about Jesus) and more action to recognize and serving Jesus in his various “disguises” within our reach.
  2. Care less about being “relevant” and “trendy”.  Care much more about being as faithfully countercultural as Francis, Jesus, and countless others!
  3. Resist the seduction of church busy work and “good deeds”. They make us feel better but don’t really change the world. Spend the time and energy you used to waste on busy work doing Jesus’ laundry!

 

francis world-god
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE NEXT STEP/ACT OF FAITH

“The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.”—Hebrews 11:1-2 MSG

I’ve just discovered ancestors I had no idea existed. No, I haven’t been on Ancestry.com.  I read about George Houser who died last week at 99. He was identified as the last surviving member of the first Freedom Ride. I expected to learn about his participation in those integrated bus rides through the south that began in 1961 to test the Supreme Court ruling in Boynton vs. Virginia which had declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional.

George Houser didn’t ride one of those buses in the early ‘60’s. He rode the very first bus—in 1947. He and fifteen other men (eight white, eight black) took a bus trip through the south to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in Irene Morgan vs. Commonwealth of Virginia. In 1944 Irene Morgan was returning to her home in Baltimore after visiting her mother in Virginia. When the driver asked her to give up her front-of-the-Greyhound seat, she refused—eleven years before Rosa Parks! The police were called. Mrs. Morgan was cited and fined. She appealed her case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1946 the court held that segregation in interstate commerce was unconstitutional. Southern states mostly ignored the ruling.

George Houser and some other early civil rights activists set out to test (expose?) the strength of the Court’s ruling. In April 1947, they set out on a journey they called the “Journey of Reconciliation”. Their bus trip wound through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.  Black men sat in the front of the bus, and whites in the back. They all violated equally the (now unconstitutional!) segregated seating laws. When one of them was asked to move, he would explain calmly to the driver and/or the police, “As an interstate passenger I have a right to sit anywhere in this bus. This is the law as laid down by the United States Supreme Court.” Sometimes they found support for their position. Other times they were arrested, jailed, and sometimes beaten. In North Carolina black riders Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson were arrested and sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang for violating the state’s segregation laws–which the Supreme Court had already declared unconstitutional! Many consider that “Journey of Reconciliation” the very first Freedom Ride.

But the Journey of Reconciliation was only part of George Houser’s human rights legacy. In 1940 he was among a group of theological students who refused to register for the military draft begun by the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. The law exempted theological students , but they felt called to protest the system for peacetime military conscription. Houser and seven other students were sentenced to federal prison. George Houser served a year in a federal prison, and then set out to complete his theological education at Chicago Theological Seminary. When he and a (black) fellow student were refused service in a Chicago restaurant, their search for constructive action led them to become founding members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). George Houser served as the group’s first executive secretary. In the 1950’s, Houser’s focus shifted to South Africa and the struggle against apartheid. His activism for various soclai justice causes continued in some form until very shortly before his death at 99.

George Houser’s story reminds us that we all stand on someone’s shoulders. Dr. King and other better-known figures stand on the shoulders of George Houser and Irene Morgan. All who are working today to eradicate the poisonous racism that infects our society stand on their shoulders and on the shoulders of King, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, and many more. Their “…act[s] of faith…set them above the crowd.” The energy builds as Hebrews 11 tells the stories of ordinary people who engaged in heroic acts of faith: “…by faith…”, “…by an act of faith…”, “…acting in faith…”.  Faith goes beyond simply believing the right things to betting your life on them. People of faith live as though that barely-visible promised reality is already at hand.  We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us because of their “acts of faith”.

In 2007, a New York Times reporter interviewed 90-year-old  George Houser. How did he keep on working for difficult and often  unpopular causes when progress was often so long and hard? He referred to the hymn “Lead Kindly Light”, particularly the words that say:  “…Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene — one step enough for me.” “I believe that,” Houser said. “I believe one step is enough and you take it, as long as you have faith you’re doing the right thing to begin with.”

George Houser’s  “one step” acts of faith helped transform our society. Today George, Irene, and all our spiritual ancestors who’ve stood on their shoulders ask us: “What’s the next step? What’s your next act of faith?” It’s probably not a headline-grabber. It’s more likely a conversation with a neighbor, a co-worker, a child or grandchild. It might be a gentle, peace-full response to a harsh, aggressive word or action, or a series of lifestyle choices that say, “Here’s a different way for us to live together. Want to join me and try it out?” All our “one step” acts of faith in the right direction lead finally to the “new thing” (Isaiah 43:19) envisioned by the prophets, Jesus, and others who’ve caught that vision.   

“Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in.”—Hebrews 12:1-2 MSG

 


Categories