Saturday, December 29, 2007

Word Without End

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."
- John 1:1-5, 14 (ESV, adapt.)

John 1 is one of the great Christological passages in all of Scripture. Few other passages so concisely proclaim both the divinity of Jesus, who is the Word, as well as his humanity. The baby born on Christmas is a very real, vulnerable human baby...who is also God...the one, true, only God...who created all that there is or ever will be. Good, good stuff.

It's part of the lectionary for Christmas Day, but I'll be preaching from it tomorrow.

I've always been a bit intrigued by verse 5: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." Though the rest of John 1 tells a story from the past, this verse suggests something that's ongoing...that the light that is Jesus Christ is still shining, and the darkness - which is very real - still does not overcome this light.

The familiar liturgical phrase "world without end", taken from the "Gloria Patri", emphasizes the eternal nature of the Holy Trinity, but we can certainly think of Jesus as the "Word Without End", for he never fails us and will be waiting for us at the end of every year and at the end of time, to embrace us and walk with us into eternity.

As I prepare my heart for the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008, I am thanking God for Robyn and our children, our family and friends, our congregation and our home, our Connection and Christ's Holy Church, but, most of all, I am thanking God that Jesus is always near, a light in the darkness, even when I'm having trouble seeing. Have a blessed and fruitful new year!

Monday, December 24, 2007


"'Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel' (which means, God is with us)."
- Matthew 1:23

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hawkman ROCKS!

The Nativity scene on our mantel.

Merry Christmas; HAVE FUN!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Rerun: Merry Christmas from Harry Reasoner

"The basis for this tremendous annual burst of gift buying and parties and near hysteria is a quiet event that Christians believe actually happened a long time ago. You can say that in all societies there has always been a midwinter festival and that many of the trappings of our Christmas are almost violently pagan. But you come back to the central fact of the day and quietness of Christmas morning - the birth of God on earth.

"It leaves you only three ways of accepting Christmas.

"One is cynically, as a time to make money or endorse the making of it.

"One is graciously, the appropriate attitude for non-Christians, who wish their fellow citizens all the joys to which their beliefs entitle them.

"And the third, of course, is reverently. If this is the anniversary of the appearance of the Lord of the universe in the form of a helpless babe, then it is a very important day.

"It's a startling idea, of course. My guess is that the whole story that a virgin was selected by God to bear His Son as a way of showing His love and concern for man is not an idea that has been popular with theologians. It's a somewhat illogical idea, and theologians like logic almost as much as they like God. It's so revolutionary a thought that it probably could only come from a God that is beyond logic, and beyond theology.

"It has a magnificent appeal. Almost nobody has seen God, and almost nobody has any real idea of what He is like. And the truth is that among men the idea of seeing God suddenly and standing in a very bright light is not necessarily a completely comforting and appealing idea.

"But everyone has seen babies, and most people like them. If God wanted to be loved as well as feared he moved correctly here. If He wanted to know His people as well as rule them, He moved correctly here, for a baby growing up learns all about people. If God wanted to be intimately a part of man, He moved correctly, for the experiences of birth and familyhood are our most intimate and precious experiences.

"So it goes beyond logic. It is either all falsehood or it is the truest thing in the world. It's the story of the great innocence of God the baby - God in the form of man - and has such a dramatic shock toward the heart that if it is not true, for Christians, nothing is true.

"So, if a Christian is touched only once a year, the touching is still worth it, and maybe on some given Christmas, some final quiet morning, the touch will take."
- TV news commentator Harry Reasoner
(quoted in "Illustrations Unlimited",
J.S. Hewett, ed., Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988,

First posted 12/22/06.

Friday, December 14, 2007

TJ State Champions!

Congratulations to the Thomas Jefferson Jaguars football team!

Class AAA PA State Champions 2007!
(Story here.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Rerun: The Blessings of Commercialization

"'There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see "the Son of Man coming in a cloud" with power and great glory.
Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.'
Then he told them a parable: 'Look at the fig tree and all the trees;
as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.
So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.'"
- Luke 21:25-31 (NRSV)

Jesus said to be on watch for the signs of the times, because when the signs are "just right", miraculous things will happen.

In Luke 21, he is primarily talking about that glorious Day when he returns to fulfill God's Promise to reconcile all creation to heaven.

But while we wait (sometimes rather impatiently) for the blessed return of Our Lord, we can also look for other signs marking other times, other miraculous seasons, other incredible opportunities to praise Almighty God and to reach out to others.

This is why I don't condemn the commercialization of Christmas, as many do; on the contrary, I revel in it.

Why? Because the signs are all around us! Trees, lights, bows, candles, greens, snow...and the wonderful music! The world is reminded during this time that we are about to commemorate one of history's greatest events, as God became incarnate in human flesh in a grand effort to save the world! (Why we evangelicals don't make a bigger deal out of the date of Jesus' conception is beyond, Christmas it is.)

Because the culture has decided to commercialize Christmas, we are given a great opportunity to share the gospel. Everywhere people look they are faced with the nativity scene...they are reminded in song of the miraculous birth from the womb of a maiden...they must deal with the beautifully powerful message of the greatest and most profound of all Christmas carols, "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing".

So, bring on the bright lights, the cookies, the candy, the presents, the reindeer, and the cocoa by the fire! For at least one more season, the world is faced with an opportunity to meet Jesus in his most vulnerable state - that of a newborn infant - and is given one more opportunity to consider (or ignore) the kenotic miracle of God's love!

Merry Christmas!

First posted 11/30/06.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

First Sunday in Advent Review

What a day!

This morning was a special worship service at JUMC. We introduced some technology into our worship service, with power point-type visuals and a film clip (from It's A Wonderful Life), and celebrated the Eucharist with a liturgy which we sang to the tune of Christmas carols. The sanctuary was packed...standing room only. It was a blessing! The techno stuff really matched up well with my preaching style, which was both a surprise and a relief. The feedback was extremely positive. is possible to mix traditional style worship - robes, Wesley hymns, candles, etc. - with 21st century technology. It was really neat.

After the service, we adjourned to our fellowship hall for a Christmas party. The hall was filled to capacity (and a bit beyond) and we had a wonderful time. The people of JUMC are simply the best, and God is blessing us in abundance! It's a great time to be a part of this fellowship. We are getting more and more visitors, and I'm having a heck of a time scheduling all the baptisms. Hallelujah!

Tonight, Robyn and I are heading for Heinz Field. Some kind friends from JUMC gave us their tickets for tonight's game against the Cincy Bungles, and we are hyped up to go! Look for me on TV; I'll be the shirtless guy with the Cross & Flame painted on his chest. God is so, so good!

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Sometimes, life just doesn't seem fair.

Tonight, the two best teams in the NFC will square off as the Green Bay Packers head south to play the Dallas Cowboys. Both teams are led by quarterbacks who are having Pro Bowl seasons, with young talent Tony Romo lighting it up in Big D and aging football icon Brett Favre still doing what he does best. One of these two teams will be playing in the Super Bowl...where they will lose big to the New England Patriots. It's a great night for football in America!

Unfortunately, most of us will be unable to see this important game. The event is being televised on the new "NFL Network", which is not carried by many cable outlets. In my area, Comcast doesn't offer this channel, so I am just out lof luck. My brother and I are exploring the sports bar possibilities in the area.

If I want to watch this game, then I've got to think clearly, act quickly, and adapt to my current situation.

While I'm stewing and exploring, I'm also aware that this Sunday begins a new Church year, and the lectionary cycle begins anew, focusing on the Gospel of Matthew. This Gospel is a tour de force of Old Testament quotes, reinterpreted by the Gospel writer (and the early Church) in reference to Jesus. The Gospel writer thus was able to take another look at the situation and make changes in order to accomplish a goal.

For example, what had been a prophecy for King Ahaz, reaffirming God's presence in his life and in the life of Israel (see Isaiah 7) was adapted to refer to Jesus, who was and is God incarnate in human flesh. Even God, it seems, was willing to adapt in order to accomplish his goals.

Actually, in football terms, this is what has made the legend of Brett Favre. He is a quarterback who has refused to simply work the play which is called, and instead is willing to scramble, look, and adapt in the hopes of keeping a doomed play alive. Yes, he has the all-time record for most interceptions thrown because of the way he plays the game, but he also has had tremendous success, has thrown for more touchdowns than any other quarterback in history, has a Super Bowl ring, and is a lock for the Hall of Fame.

So, how am I adapting? It's a postmodern world out there, and in many ways, I am very old-fashioned. In other ways, I suppose I'm pretty current. How do I balance who God has made me to be with the needs of my life and ministry?

How do I adapt to a world that doesn't understand "atonement" and "crucifixion" and "incarnation" and "resurrection"? Certainly, Scripture, liturgy, and the symbols of the Church can communicate in powerful ways; how do I use them most effectively?

I suppose I'm adapting tonight by watching the game in a bar ("Another Shirley Temple, please."). Maybe, just maybe, I'll learn a thing or two about continuing to adapt and, if I can say this without offending my more fundamentalist-minded brethren, maybe I can evolve, just a little bit.

Hey, it's Advent-Christmas time...the season of miracles!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Christ the King Sunday 2007

"All hail the power of Jesus' name! Let angels prostrate fall;
bring forth the royal diadem
*, and crown him Lord of all!"
- Edward Perronet, 1779

Many of us - most of us - have a secret desire to be like God. It's what got Adam and Eve into trouble. We want to "be our own boss", control our own fate, be master or mistress of our own destiny, "call our own shots".

But there is another aspect of "being God" that we may want to avoid. The same God who created the universe and remains sovereign over everything and everyone also became one with the very "stuff" of his creation, "emptying himself" of glory, and became humble even to the point of horrific suffering and a torturous death on a cross. God - this man Jesus - sacrificed not only his glory but himself, in order to reconcile creation to its Creator.

Let all who would follow him have the same servant's heart, the same willingness to sacrifice. Let us crown and serve a true King - one who teaches us humility and mercy, and the true meaning of power and majesty.

"O that with yonder sacred throng we at his feet may fall!
We'll join the everlasting song, and crown him Lord of all!"
- Edward Perronet, 1779

* = "Diadem" is an ancient poetic word for "crown".

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving 2007

I really like the hymnody of Thanksgiving. Songs like "We Gather Together" and "Now Thank We All Our God" are wonderful, powerful in worship and effective in devotions.

But my favorite hymn associated with Thanksgiving is without a doubt "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come", which is #694 in The United Methodist Hymnal. The text was written in 1844 by Henry Alford, an Anglican Greek scholar. The text makes reference to Jesus' parables of the sower and the wheat & weeds in Matthew 13, and also brings to mind Matthew 9:37-38, which records Jesus' words as, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." (RSV)

The text is set to a hauntingly majestic 1858 tune by George Elvey, who served as the organist of St. George's Chapel in Windsor for many years. It is a perfect marriage of text and tune.

I truly hope that all of my sisters and brothers and friends have a blessed holiday; Brett Favre and his Green Bay Packers play at 12:30 PM!

"Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home;
all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide for our wants to be supplied;
come to God's own temple, come, raise the song of harvest home.

the world is God's own field, fruit as praise to God we yield;
wheat and tares together sown

are to joy or sorrow grown;
first the blade and then the ear,

then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we

wholesome grain and pure may be.

"For the Lord our God shall come,

and shall take the harvest home;
from the field shall in that day

all offenses purge away,
giving angels charge at last in the fire the tares to cast;
but the fruitful ears to store in the garner evermore.

"Even so, Lord, quickly come, bring thy final harvest home;
gather thou thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin,
there, forever purified, in thy presence to abide;
come, with all thine angels, come,
raise the glorious harvest home!"

- Henry Alford, 1844

Monday, November 19, 2007

Stewardship & the Tithe

Here's one to use during your next stewardship campaign...

Thanks to The Church You Know.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Olmsted Manor & Probation

I returned today from a pastor's retreat at Olmsted Manor, a beautiful facility in a remote outpost known as "Kane District". At the invitation of Jeff Vanderhoff, who is the director of the probationer's program in our Conference (astoundingly, considering his antics during our own probationary years - setting off mini-bombs in the Conference Center and such), and given the unavailability of #1 draft pick Eric Park (who has led this event in the past), I was the facilitator of a retreat entitled "Life Altar-ing Experiences". The retreat focused on the theology and practice of worship, liturgy, and sacraments.

Four observations...

1) I found this group of new probationers (all commissioned in June 2007) to be very impressive. They seemed theologically sound, wise, and eager to do ministry. That's encouraging.

2) Several members of the class are as much as ten years younger than I am. While I certainly don't want to discount the gifts of those who are older than my 36 years (several of whom seem to be outstanding pastors, with whom I could trust my family), it was refreshing to see first hand that our Conference is, in fact, raising up young leaders of the new emerging generations. It was particularly nice to spend some time with Seth McPherson, who is serving in Johnstown District. When Seth was a youth at Brookville: Evangelical UMC, we attended several retreats together at Wesley Woods, as I was an adult youth leader at Indiana: Trinity UMC. It's great to see him "grown up", so committed to the Lord, and doing good things for the Kingdom.

3) I could not help but laugh during my stay at Olmsted. Not too long ago, my own probationer class gathered twice a year in the lovely forest setting to hear the latest propaganda speaker the Conference sent our way. I felt that in many ways our class was extremely subversive, and at times, probably, needlessly disrespectful toward our well-meaning facilitators, several of whom left Olmsted scratching their heads and seriously concerned about the future of the Church. Now, most of our class is involved in some form of Conference leadership (have we sold out? are we too "respectable"?), and here I was in a role we lambasted a few years ago. My, oh, my. God's dark sense of humor is always surprising.

4) I found myself missing my old probationer class. We were (and remain) very different people, with very different styles and ministry tastes, yet we shared a passion for Jesus and for ministry, and grew very close as Christian brethren. We were often ruthless in our behavior toward our facilitators and one another, but shared a love and respect that was (and remains) special. Good times, good people, who will always remain close to my heart.

Knowing that, I was very deliberate in my allocation of time. While we did cover sacraments, weddings, funerals, worship styles, and related matters, I was intentional about scheduling time for the group to explore the mansion together, go bowling together, and go out "after hours" to watch Monday Night Football together (they ended up with a great story, too, as they invaded the home of David Lake, pastor of Kane: 1st UMC). It warmed my heart that when we concluded our retreat, several group members remained to walk the prayer labyrinth together. I made no secret of the fact that if they emerged from their probationary years with these relationships and close connections, that would be by far the most important aspect of their probation. I pray those blessings upon them.

At any rate, it was good to get away and get to know these wonderful colleagues, but it was even better to come home to my four lovely children and my astonishingly beautiful wife. And a good sleep in my own bed is quite welcome tonight.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Deserved Hyperbole

Wow. Last night, the Steelers played on Monday Night Football and destroyed the Ravens. Hallelujah!

To say that the Steelers were dominant doesn't tell the tale. They embarrassed the Ravens, and did it in spectacular fashion. Ben Roethlisberger was nothing short of magnificent, throwing for 5 touchdowns and finishing the night with a 158.3 passer rating. He proved that, while Brady and Manning are clearly the best two QBs in the NFL right now, Roethlisberger is third (with the legendary Brett Favre not far behind).

On the defensive side of the football, linebacker James Harrison had a tremendous night. 9 tackles...3.5 sacks...3 forced fumbles...a fumble recovery and an interception...Harrison did it all. No defensive player in the NFL had a performance this weekend that was as dominant; Harrison owned the Ravens, as well as Week 9 of the 2007 NFL season.

What made the night so special, though, wasn't just the great victory. The night was special because of the presence of so many Steelers legends who came back for the game to help celebrate the team's 75th anniversary. These men were gods in western Pennsylvania while I was growing up; before children could name the four Gospels, they knew Rocky Bleier, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene, L. C. Greenwood, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Chuck Noll, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, and Mike Webster. These men were part of the greatest single team in football history, and remain the greatest of all NFL dynasties (as noted by Redskins fan Tony Kornheiser). To see Big Ben, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, and the rest of the current team put on that kind of show for those beloved legends was wonderful.

One more thing was confirmed last night. The Patriots and the Colts are the best two teams in the NFL (in that order, with apologies to Indiana John), but the Steelers are third, hanging right there with them (I suppose the Cowboys, the Packers, maybe the Giants, and, oddly enough, the Lions bring up the rear). If they play their best, and have some luck thrown their way, it's possible that Mike Tomlin's Steelers could be playing in the Super Bowl in a few months. Let the praying commence.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Prayer on All Saints Day

Almighty Heavenly Father,
your saints are one with you
in the mystical body of Christ:
give us grace to follow
the Church Expectant
in all virtue and holiness
until we come to those
inexpressible joys
which you have prepared
for those who
truly love you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween 2007!

"There's a goblin at my window,
A monster by my door.
The pumpkin at my table
Keeps on smiling more and more.
There's a ghost who haunts my bedroom,
A witch whose face is green.
They used to be my family,
Till they dressed for Halloween."
- by Sandra Liatsos

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Willimon words

"The pastor is [often] reduced to the level of the soother of anxieties brought on by the dilemmas of affluence, rather than the caller of persons to salvation. My colleague Stanley Hauerwas has accused the contemporary pastor of being little more than 'a quivering mass of availability [emphasis mine].' Practicing what I call 'promiscuous ministry' - ministry with no internal, critical judgment about what care is worth giving - we become victims of a culture of insatiable need. We live in a capitalist, consumptive culture where there is no purpose to our society other than 'meeting our needs'. The culture gives us the maximum amount of room and encouragement to 'meet our needs' without appearing to pass judgment on which needs are worth meeting… In this vast supermarket of desire, we pastors must do more than simply 'meet people’s needs.' The church is also about giving people the critical means of assessing which needs give our lives meaning, about giving us needs we would not have had if we had not met Jesus."
- from Pastor: The Theology and Practice of
Ordained Ministry (2002)
by William Willimon

Thanks to Indiana John and Oklahoma Matt.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Super Bowl in November

My birthday is in a few weeks; I'll be 37. I don't really ever ask for much for my birthday...breakfast in bed and some time with my wife and children is great. I'm a pretty simple guy.

But, I have to say, that I am thrilled that the NFL is giving me an early birthday present. This Sunday, Nov. 4, the 7-0 Indianapolis Colts will host the 8-0 New England Patriots at 4:15 PM. Typically, the Super Bowl is played in late January or early February, but, this season, the two best teams will be facing off on All Saints Sunday.

This could be a game for the ages. The Colts are the defending Super Bowl champions, having dominated the regular season in the 21st century like no other team. They are actually a better team this season than they were in their Super Bowl season, with a stronger running game and a vastly improved defense. The Patriots have, of course, three Super Bowl rings this decade, and, as dominant as the Colts have been in the regular season, so the Pats have dominated the postseason. Amazingly, the Patriots may have this season not only the best team in football, and their best team yet, but quite possibly the most dominant team of the Super Bowl era. They are unbelievably good.

We will witness a battle royale of the two greatest quarterbacks of the decade. Peyton Manning has been attacking the record books with stats to impress even the most skeptical observer. He wins games consistently, dominating almost every game he plays. Most of the time, he is the master of the field when he is on it, and few quarterbacks in NFL history have enjoyed intuitive ability to read defenses and find their flaws. He finally has the Super Bowl ring which eluded him for years, and may well be one of the Top 5 QBs ever to play the sport. He's at the top of his game right now.

Despite Manning's dominance, Tom Brady has been the most successful quarterback of the century so far. Only two QBs have won more Super Bowls (Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana), and only one more has won as many (Troy Aikman). The knock on Brady has been that he lacks Manning's stats; Brady's defenders have countered that he has lacked Manning's weapons, most notably future Hall of Fame receiver Marvin Harrison. This season, Brady finally has weapons, most notably the ultra-talented Randy Moss. Brady has responded by becoming without question the league's MVP to this point of the season, putting up stats (especially points and touchdowns) which are on track to decimate many of the current records...many of them held by Manning. He is having possibly the best season any NFL quarterback has ever had, and is clearly at the top of his game.

We may be witnessing the two best quarterbacks in NFL history at the peak of their games. What a tremendous joy to watch! Which player is better? My money is on Brady to win this Sunday, and I would give him a slight edge in the "good, better, best" contest, because, for me, Super Bowl championships trump stats. But we may be saying that they are #1 and #1a on the all-time list; they are both phenomenal players.

We will also be witnessing the two best current coaches in the NFL. Like their quarterbacks, Bill Belichick and Tony Dungy will end up being enshrined in Canton. They could not be more different, at least in terms of their public personas.

Belichick has come to represent evil for many football fans. Short tempered, at times mean, nasty, and seemingly vindictive, he has been accused of everything from cheating to playing dirty to "needlessly" running up the score to having a lack of respect for his opponents. But...his success is indisputable. This season, he may become only the second head coach to win four Super Bowls (Chuck Noll being the only one to do so to date). His team is so good, so dominant, that he may win another ring or two or three in the years ahead. In terms of Super Bowl victories, he would then tower over every other head coach in history.

Dungy, on the other hand, seems to be one of the nicest men ever involved in sports. A real family man who loves the Lord and clearly puts his men ahead of plays or rings, he seems to be a remarkable human being, the kind of man you'd want to raise your children should something tragic occur in your own life. In his coaching career, this former Steeler has turned two perpetually losing franchises into winning teams - Tampa and Indianapolis - and, like his QB, finally has a Super Bowl ring to confirm his excellence and his success. Like Belichick, he is respected. But, whereas Belichick is feared, Dungy is beloved.

Sunday's game presents two great quarterbacks and two great coaches, as well as a tremendous supporting cast...Addai, Bruschi, Freeney, Harrison, Moss, Sanders, Seau, Seymour, Stallworth, Vinatieri, Vrabel, Wayne, Welker, et al.

So, today, in anticipation for Sunday, I'm thanking the NFL and God for this birthday present. It will be an exciting game as the league's best two teams meet in Indiana; for perhaps the first time, the Super Bowl will be played in November.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

This Weekend

It's good to have a weekend off. It's even better to spend that time with friends. This weekend, I will officiate at the wedding of Melissa Costolo and Bill Ferris at Hopwood UM Church. Melissa is the daughter of Randy and Carmella Costolo (pictured). Randy is a pastor in our Conference currently serving the Hopwood & Brownfield Charge. Randy and I served together as a pastoral team in Dawson, and have remained friends and brothers in Christ. Robyn is a bridesmaid in the wedding (and looks stunning in her dress); the Costolos are family.

My mother will be staying with the wee McIlwains as Robyn and I enjoy some rare time alone together. I'm looking forward to the time with my beautiful wife and with good friends. God is good.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

By the Pricking of My Thumbs...

Why Christians Should Celebrate Halloween,
Part 3: Racism & Incarnational Ministry

It's hard to believe in 2007, but there once was in the United States a tremendous amount of racist energy directed at people of Scottish and, especially, Irish descent. Today, it seems that these British subcultures are so much a part of the fabric of America that we may not remember what it was like for those first poor immigrant farmers who came to a new world after severe famine (in the case of the Irish) or after being cleared off their land for political and racial reasons (in the case of my own Scottish ancestors). Those of us more historically minded might recall the "Nativist" movement of the 19th century and political drives such as the so-called "Know Nothing" Party. Racism remains an ugly aspect of our society, a grave sin which permeates so much of Church and culture; it has been so for many, many years.

It bothers me, therefore, when Christians are able to look at German pagan traditions, such as what we now call "Christmas trees", and adapt them for our own use. The claim is that these are harmless practices which are worthy of salvific grace, and can be transformed into something positive. Most churches will happily include a tree in their holidat celebrations; the Advent wreath, too, has its roots in pagan practice, but most congregations will use them come December.

Many are willing to transform German pagan traditions, or English, or Italian, into proper Christian practices, but refuse to do the same for the traditions of my own ancestors. The Scottish and Irish traditions are, for many, not worthy of salvation or transformation, and ought to be damned. Apparently, for many, the Irish are worth just that...damnation.

This is racism. Why are German, English, or Italian traditions viewed as superior in some way? Racism. Some sins die hard.

In our family, I insist that we mark Halloween, out of respect for our heritage. True, it is now, for us, a celebration of Christ's victory over the powers of darkness, but we mark it as a part of our own family tradition, as my ancestors did years and years ago, in their own way.

My prayer is that the racism inherent in rejecting Halloween while embracing the pagan pasts of other racial groups will soon fade away and be fogotten.

The final reason Christians shoudl celebrate Halloween may be, from a ministry perspective, the most important. Children in most American communities will be trick-or-treating on or near Halloween. This is a wonderful time for the young, as they dress up in fantastic outfits, walk throughout the community, and gather candy. What memories I have of Halloween nights past!

As God became incarnate in human flesh in order to save, so we as Christians must become incarnate in our communities if we are to assist in the divine mission. The Amish have a wonderful witness, but, in my view, we are called to be in the world...though, truly, not of it. Far too many congregations view themselves as so separate from a sinful community that they are unable to truly incarnate the grace and love of the Almighty.

Halloween offers a great opportunity to practice our calling to incarnational truly be a part of our community. An act as simple as smilingly handing out candy to children can demonstrate the awesome love of God in exceedingly powerful ways. This can be prevenient grace in action. The Christians who offer safe candy to children are doing a wonderful thing, for we all need to be conscious of safety on Halloween night, as on every other night of the year.

Or...we can fail to take advantage of this opportunity. We can even encourage our sisters and brothers to boycott this "night of darkness". I've known Christians who have done this. This is certainly an option, but, in my opinion, we're sending a truly wicked message if we do so. If we do so, we are saying to the children of our communities, "This is not a safe house. Look elsewhere for someone to offer a smile and candy." God forgive us.

I have endeavored to show that celebrating the once pagan Halloween is no different in many ways from celebrating the once pagan Christmas and Easter...that we have strong Biblical and theological reasons for embracing Halloween...that we should oppose the historic racism which still permeates our culture...that we have a holy obligation to minister to the children of our communities. It is my prayer that thosewho might reject Halloween would prayerfully ponder these points and come to a change of heart, and that my pastoral brethren who are approached about Halloween might have some information and starting points for discussion.

It is my sincere prayer that every person who reads this post has a wonderfully blessed Halloween. God bless us, every one!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

And I will Strike Down upon thee with Great Vengeance and Furious Anger...

Why Christians Should Celebrate Halloween,
Part 2: The Lordship of Christ & Colossians 2

"See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

"When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

"Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 'Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!'? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence."
- Colossians 2:8-23 (NIV)

The first and most important fact established in Colossians 2:8-23 (indeed, in the entire epistle) is the Absolute Lordship of Jesus Christ. Jesus, who is fully divine though incarnate in human flesh, is the Lord of All There Is; there is nothing over which he does not reign supreme. This fundamental truth is one of the foundations of Christianity; many would say it is the foundation. Certainly, Christians can agree on the central reality of Jesus' Lordship.

Second, the passage teaches us that Jesus has already triumphed over the "powers and authorities" of evil, having "disarmed" them by the power of the Cross. In other words, the evil, demonic powers of the world - call them sin, Satan, Beelzebub, Death, demons, disease, hate, war, country music, etc. - are defeated enemies who simply have not yet admitted defeat, and are trying to take out as many of us as possible before they are completely stripped of power. But, ultimately, these evil powers are subservient to the first theological point established here...the Lordship of Christ. They have no power over Jesus.

Third, we learn in this passage that Christians have been "given fullness in Christ", have put off "the sinful nature" by being circumcized into the Body of Christ through baptism and faith. Having experienced the New Birth, we are now alive in Christ and forgiven, no longer bound by "the written code with its regulations". Essentially, this means that the evil powers and authorities of this world are not our lords. They have no power over Jesus; they have no power, therefore, over those who are one with Christ.

Presumably, these three theological points are aspects of Biblical faith with which most Christians find agreement.

But the writer of Colossians, whom I believe may well have been St. Paul (despite the doubts of many scholars), "fills in the blanks" beautifully with some tasty little details, which can affect how we note Halloween.

"See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ...And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross...Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day."
St. Paul writes that we are not to heed human tradition which flies in the face of the theological truths already established about our Faith...namely the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the defeat of the evil powers of the world, and our participation in Jesus' victory.

Why, then, are Christians reluctant to celebrate Halloween, some calling it "the Devil's Day"? Let me be as perfectly clear as I can be: the Devil has no day. Jesus is Lord of every day of the year, including October 31. To claim that evil has some kind of extra power on that one night is nothing short of apostasy, for it denies the absolute Lordship of Jesus. Definitionally, for the Christian, Halloween is no more or less sacred or holy than Christmas, Easter, or Super Bowl Sunday; Jesus presides over every day of the year. Evil has no authority over Jesus, nor over his saints.

The apostle goes on to write that, on the Cross, Jesus so humiliated the powers and authorities of this world that he "made a public spectacle of them". Were it not for the horrors of Good Friday, one can almost picture the Heavenly Host openly laughing at the demonic hordes, who believed they had triumphed but had actually suffered the greatest defeat in history. Jesus embarrassed the evil powers, he humiliated them, he made a public spectacle of them. What a great truth!

It seems to me that Christians have a tremendous opportunity each Halloween to remember and mark Hell's humiliation. By donning masks, we are openly mocking the evil forces which would seek to destroy us but are powerless to do so. We are saying to the satanic minions of the underworld, "There is nothing you can do to me; Jesus has won the victory! I openly mock you, as my Lord did, and, like him, I make a public spectacle of you!" Viewed as an opportunity and not a hurdle, it's a wonder that more evangelical Christians don't dress up on Halloween.

Finally, we learn a lesson that can help us in our darkest days. St. Paul writes that we should not worry about being judged by what holidays we keep or fail to keep. Those who would judge based on whether or not we celebrate Christmas, or Easter, or Pentecost, or All Saints, or Halloween, are engaged in what the apostle refers to as "false humility". Are we more or less holy because we don a mask, play with children and eat candy? Hardly; we are sanctified by the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Already made holy and, hopefully, growing in holiness daily, no mask or holiday can alter what Jesus has done for us.

So, if on Halloween one chooses to celebrate Jesus' Lordship and his victory over evil, the complaints of detractors should not be a concern. Likewise, if someone is struggling with issues surrounding Halloween, whether it is questioning the Lordship of Christ, doubting the completeness of his victory, or because of racism, those who have chosen to celebrate should not actively attack those who have chosen to abstain. Prayer is a far more appropriate and effective response.

You may not agree with this exegesis of Colossians 2 which, I confess, contains some eisegesis. But I urge you to ponder these issues and pray on them.

My final post will deal with issues of racism surrounding Halloween as well as the incarnational ministry to which we are called each day, even on October 31.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Chicken for Missions

"I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me!"..."We are fools for Christ's sake..."
- 2 Cor 11:1; 1 Cor 4:10 (ESV)

JUMC has developed a good relationship with our local Chick-fil-a restaurant. Once a month, it's "Jefferson UMC Night" at Chick-fil-a in Pleasant Hills, and, roughly put, 15% of their profit from 4 PM - 8 PM goes to our church. We use it to help pay our Mission Share. Last night, I was permitted to don the cow outfit, work the room, and even stand on PA Rt. 51, waving at cars and encouraging them to stop by; my picture is on the right.

This has been a good way for us to make some extra money for missions and, just as important, it's been a great fellowship night for our church family, as we gather to break bread and enjoy one another's good company. Finding creative ways to make mission fundraising fun can be a great way to make the Connection mean more to people than a simple "tax from the Conference".

Friday, October 12, 2007

Peace Prize?

So Al Gore won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize? I remember when they used to award this honor to those who fought against war and tried to make peace in the world.

Gore, who could easily win the U.S. Presidency next year were he to run, is, to me, the Hal Lindsey of the 21st century. Lindsey, author of The Late, Great Planet Earth, was the dispensationalist par excellence of the 1970s. His book, like all of dispensational premillenialism (and much of fundamentalism in general), was intended to scare people into making a decision. It wasn't meant to be a discussion, a dialogue, or a valid attempt to convince; Lindsey was out to frighten people.

That's really what Al Gore and his Global Warming movement are all about. They want to scare people into making a decision. Lindsey believed that the tactic was acceptable because the stakes were so high; Gore believes the same of his tactics. Lindsey may well have been correct in many ways (though I personally find dispensationalism to be thoroughly unbiblical); Gore may turn out to be correct as well (though many scientists believe the theory is about as valid as dispensational theology).

I don't care for the methods used by either man. I don't want to frighten people into the Kingdom, even though the stakes are quite high. So, I'm a little disappointed that the Nobel folks chose to reward the tactic of frightening people. On the other hand, maybe it shouldn't bother me at all...Halloween is just a few weeks away.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Once upon a midnight dreary...

Why Christians Should Celebrate Halloween,
Part 1:
A Holiday History

In ancient times, a grand celebration was held to remember the coming of salvation into the world. A god had been born as a human baby, enfleshed in the very stuff of creation, and had brought with him hope, joy, and rebirth. Eventually, this holiday, marked on or near the start of winter, was celebrated with wonderful feasts, the exchanging of gifts, lovely music, and the lighting of candles.

The holiday, known originally as "Saturnalia", became better known as "Dies Natalis Solis Invicti", or "The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun God", and was one of the most anticipated days of the Roman year. Families would gather and celebrations would extend from the temples to the homes of kinfolk. It was, by all accounts, a wonderful day.

Years later, with the spreading of Christianity throughout Europe, people who had come to accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ were reluctant to abandon this lovely celebration. After all, family gatherings and giving gifts to children were good things, and surely the Church could affirm these practices. Indeed, the Church could have, should have, and did. Soon, the pagan celebration of the sun god was syncretized with the traditions of Matthew 1 and Luke 2 to create the holiday we now celebrate as, of course, Christmas. This blessed day, thoroughly Christian, has distinctly pagan roots.

Easter comes to us in similar fashion. The name of this, the most important day in the Church year, is derived from Eostre, an ancient sun goddess of the Anglo-Saxons whose rebirth was celebrated in spring, at roughly the same time as the Jewish Passover and the Resurrection of Jesus. The name itself is strikingly similar to related figures in other Indo-European mythological traditions, such as Astarte (Canaan), Eos (Greece), Ishtar (Babylon), and Ushas (India), and even the Hebrew Esther. Upon the Christianization of Britain, the Resurrection was commemorated each spring and quickly adopted many of the symbols associated with the pagan celebration, such as feasting, rabbits, and eggs. This holy day, thoroughly Christian, has distinctly pagan roots.

Among the last Europeans to be converted to Christianity were the Celts of Scotland and Ireland, who celebrated a holiday known as Samhuinn (Scotland) or Samhain (Ireland). Essentially a New Year's harvest festival, it was the time when the gathering was complete and the people were ready for winter. It was also a bit frightening, for it was the one night of the year when the veil between this world and the "otherworld" was lifted; ghosts, the undead, and all sorts of terrible creatures might roam free, bringing with them terror and potential disaster. To ward them off, people carved scary faces into turnips, hoping to scare the evening ghouls. As a form of protection, some folks dressed as creatures of the night (a practice known as "guising"); children were sometimes given sweets and treats to keep them calm.

Samhuinn/Samhain practices became associated with All Saints/All Souls celebrations, just as Christmas and Easter had adopted pagan concepts. In the 19th century, Scottish and Irish families began emigrating en masse to the United States, and they brought many of their traditions with them, which were soon Americanized and largely softened. By the mid-20th century, Halloween was a major American holiday, many of its pagan roots transformed into more "kid friendly" practices such as trick-or-treating or the carving of Jack O'Lantern pumpkins.

In upcoming posts, I plan to look at the reasons Christians should celebrate this great holiday we call Halloween. Issues of Biblical faith, racism, and incarnational ministry will be on my agenda. This post establishes some of the historic background I'll be working from. Much of this information comes from research for sermons, teaching opportunities, or presentations past. I love Halloween, and hope you do as well.

Bannatyne, L.P., Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History. 1998.
Bourke, Joanna, Fear: A Cultural History. 2006.
"Christmas." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007.
Hutton, Ronald, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, 1993.

Kelly, Joseph, The Origins of Christmas. 2004.
MacMullen, Ramsay, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries. 1997.
Tighe, William, "Calculating Christmas". Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. Dec 2003.

Uselton, Bill, Trick or Treat: The History of Halloween. 1997.
Venerable Bede, On the Reckoning of Time.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

One more reason for abolition...

Study finds major flaws in PA death penalty cases

Tuesday, October 09, 2007
By Wade Malcolm, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pennsylvania's death penalty system has "substantial" flaws that put potentially innocent death row inmates at risk for execution, according to a new analysis of the state's capital punishment procedures.

The study, conducted by the American Bar Association, also noted that minorities comprise a significantly higher proportion of death row inmates.

The four-year study conducted by a team of legal professionals contends that inmates facing death often receive inadequate legal representation, particularly those from poor and minority backgrounds.

Representatives of the research team and the American Bar Association, which commissioned the study for Pennsylvania and seven other states, are expected to discuss the report's findings at a news conference this morning in Harrisburg.

The association supports a nationwide moratorium on executions to allow time for states to address what the Bar Association sees as flaws in the legal process.

Six people who were sentenced to death in Pennsylvania have been exonerated since the penalty was reinstituted in 1978, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an advocacy group opposed to capital punishment.

Only three people have actually been put to death in that time, the last being in 1999.

The authors of the report made several recommendations specifically for Pennsylvania, which include:

* Requiring the preservation of all biological evidence in capital cases throughout an inmate's incarceration on death row, something the state does not do.

* Ensuring all defense attorneys in capital cases have achieved the level of legal training recommended by the Bar Association for lawyers working on death penalty cases. The majority of death penalty sentences are overturned because of poor legal representation.

* Mandating that inmates are provided legal representation during the appeals process at the state level. Currently, defendants are not guaranteed a lawyer on appeal if they cannot afford one.

* Providing statewide funding for adequate legal counsel in capital cases. Currently, county governments, not the state, are responsible for providing public defenders in all criminal cases, and their competency varies.

Members of the assessment team that completed the report had "varying perspectives" on capital punishment and were not required to "support or oppose the death penalty or a moratorium on executions," the report noted.

The Bar Association said it would like Pennsylvania to complete its own comprehensive study assessing the death penalty system.

David Hoover, a community organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union and death penalty opponent, said he and other advocates hope the report will lead the state to re-evaluate the penalty.

"The real important issue is that Pennsylvania does a comprehensive review of what's going on with the death penalty," he said. "That's the responsible thing to do."

Pennsylvania has been criticized in recent years for housing an inordinately high percentage of minorities on its death row.

In a 2003 study, the state Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System found more than two-thirds of death row inmates were minorities, despite the fact that minorities comprised only 11 percent of the total prison population.

An NAACP study released in January reported Pennsylvania had the highest percentage of minority death row inmates of any state in the U.S. as of July 2006. The latest figures available from the state Department of Corrections puts the minority population on death row at about 68 percent.

"It's hard for us to say our state system is fair and unbiased if there are these disparities," Mr. Hoover said.

Good links:
United Methodists Against the Death Penalty
A United Methodist Witness in PA
PA Abolitionists (Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sunday review

What a great day!

Sunday began with some awesome worship at JUMC. We had an excellent turnout, especially considering that a good many of our folks were out of town for various events; we also had a good many visitors. The Spirit was present and doing what he does, and it was wonderful to be a part of it! We focused on Psalm 137 before celebrating the Eucharist, and the power was evident! Hard to leave without being on fire!

Then, some JUMC folks gathered with other disciples from the area at South Park for the resurrected South Hills CROP Walk. Thanks to the faithful leadership of servants like Kathy Clark and John Shaver, the event was tremendous! I'm not sure yet of the final numbers, but there were a lot of walkers of all ages, a good amount of money was raised for those living in poverty in our region and throughout the world, and a great tradition was, I believe, reborn in southern Allegheny County. Robyn and I brought the kids, which meant that we lagged near the rear of the walk...Elliot had to take two steps for every one of ours...but we all made it and we were very proud of the kids. While we walked, the Steelers trounced the Seahawks a few miles away at Heinz Field. God is good!

We ended the day at my mother's home in Swissvale with family members visiting and watching Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers (tough loss). Today, I'm driving north with my Uncle Chuck, visiting from Tijuana, to see autumn glory in Pennsylvania; he hasn't been here at this time of year in 20 years, so he's pretty excited to see the transformation.

We had a beautiful Sunday, which leaves me thanking my Heavenly Father and looking forward to more great days ahead!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


For me, the highlights of our District Evening with the Bishop a few days ago were sharing in the Lord's Supper and the singing of the opening hymn, "The Church's One Foundation". This great hymn, #545 in our hymnal, has one of the finest texts in the history of hymnody. Written by 19th century Anglican clergyman Samuel Stone, the hymn is rich in doctrine and proclamation. It's meat...vital, sustaining spiritual protein, as opposed to sugars or carbs, which have a place but ultimately don't sustain as well. Partnered to a majestic tune by Charles Wesley's grandson, this hymn is one of the Church's all-time "greatest hits".

I sometimes use the great hymns in my devotional life, and a hymn as doctrinally powerful as "The Church's One Foundation" could be used for weeks of prayer and meditation.

One of my great fears regarding the "contemporary worship" movement is that great hymns like this one are lost or forgotten. The reason this concerns me so is that I've heard few if any "contemporary worship" songs or "praise songs" that can compare to "The Church's One Foundation", either musically or in terms of the theological depth and the didactic possibilities of the text. We are what we sing. What do you think of this hymn?

The church's one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is his new creation by water and the Word.
From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.

Elect from every nation, yet one o'er all the earth;
her charter of salvation, one Lord, one faith, one birth;
one holy name she blesses, partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses, with every grace endued.

Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, "How long?"
And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

Mid toil and tribulation, and tumult of her war,
she waits the consummation of peace forevermore;
till, with the vision glorious, her longing eyes are blest,
and the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.

Yet she on earth hath union with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we
like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

When All Hope is Gone, Sad Songs Say So Much

"By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!'

"How could we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy."

"Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem's fall, how they said, 'Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!' O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Blessed shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Blessed shall they be who take your babies and dash them against the rocks!"
- Psalm 137 (NRSV, adapt.)

This week's lectionary features Psalm 137, which can be difficult to preach. Any Scripture passage, after all, which seems to approve of infanticide and/or genocide will likely run into some hermeneutic difficulties.

I have to say that it's one of my favorite psalms. Why? Certainly not because I give approval to its violent curses!

I love Psalm 137, which refers to the Babylonian Exile, because it gives me permission to be angry at times and sad at times. Few things annoy me more than a continually happy Christian. Life can sometimes stink; sometimes, life is painful and makes us angry; sometimes, life is so painful, we want to cry. Psalm 137 gives us permission to go through these moments of agony.

It's important to note that these moments aren't permanent; the Jews did return to Jerusalem after their sojourn in Babylon was completed. We must try to remind ourselves in the "low times" that sooner or later - perhaps when Jesus returns - we will find peace, joy, and restoration. But...there is a time to sing the blues.

These ideas bring to mind a great song by Bernie Taupin and Elton John, written in my youth...

"Guess there are times when we all need to share a little pain
And ironing out the rough spots
Is the hardest part when memories remain
And it's times like these when we all need to hear the radio
'Cause from the lips of some old singer
We can share the troubles we already know

"Turn them on, turn them on
Turn on those sad songs
When all hope is gone
Why don't you tune in and turn them on

"They reach into your room
Just feel their gentle touch
When all hope is gone
Sad songs say so much

"If someone else is suffering enough to write it down
When every single word makes sense
Then it's easier to have those songs around
The kick inside is in the line that finally gets to you
and it feels so good to hurt so bad
And suffer just enough to sing the blues

"Turn them on, turn them on
Turn on those sad songs
When all hope is gone
Why don't you tune in and turn them on

"They reach into your room
Just feel their gentle touch
When all hope is gone
Sad songs say so much"
- Lyrics Bernie Taupin, Music Elton John
© 1984 Big Pig Music

Saturday, September 29, 2007

2008 Hall of Fame nominees

Yesterday, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its nominees for induction in 2008. Note that these artists are not sure things, but 5 of these will be inducted next year. The final inductees will be announced in January, appropriately, on the birthday of Elvis Presley, the first and greatest rock and roll star and the most influential human being of the twentieth century. My definitive analysis follows.

The nominees are:

* Madonna - This is a lock, the most important of the nominees by far. Madonna is one of the most important and influential women in rock and roll history, proudly sitting alongside Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and Tina Turner. She's also arguably the biggest female rock star of all-time, in terms of pure celebrity. Madonna's been very controversial through the years, so let me say this up front: I'm a fan. Why? Because throughout all of the controversy - all of it silly, much of it stupid - the music stands up. Sure, her earliest hits ("Holiday", "Lucky Star") were inane, but she ended up producing some of the absolute best songs of the past 25 years. "Like A Prayer" is great, one of the best pop songs of the 1980s; "Vogue" is one of the best dance songs ever recorded, as well as one of history's greatest videos; "Ray of Light" is a great technopop record, maybe the best ever (and made at a time when the great U2 were failing miserably in the same genre, with their Pop album). At least two of her albums, Like A Prayer and Bedtime Stories are great. Say what you will about Madonna...the music stands up. She's a lock for induction and deserves to be.

* The Beastie Boys - This hip hop-punk trio ended up transcending their silly debut by becoming the undisputed masters of creative sampling. Their Paul's Boutique album has been called the "Pet Sounds of hip hop" small praise, that. They also became one of the most politically-driven artists in rock and roll, and have really put their money where their mouths are in that regard, earning great respect. While I appreciate their work, I'm not a huge fan (though my friend Matt loves them). They will make it into the Hall at some point, maybe this year. Incidentally, they were "discovered" by Madonna, and gained their first national exposure opening for her on tour.

* Afrika Bambaataa - The first great hip hop DJ, in many ways he "invented" what we now call "sampling". He was responsible for many of the earliest hip hop records that were actually worth something. If he makes it in, that's OK, though I'm not a big hip hop guy. You could make the case that without Afrika Bambaata, there would be no Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Public Enemy, or NWA, all of whom deserve to be in the Hall someday, so I guess that means he ought to be inducted sooner rather than later.

* Chic - This disco-funk-jazz band from the 1970s are responsible for the classic dance records "Le Freak" and "Good Times", and went on to produce as a band or as individuals big hits for artists like Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Madonna, Diana Ross, Duran Duran, and Sister Sledge. They had excellent musicians, including guitarist Nile Rodgers, bassist Bernard Edwards, and drummer Tony Thompson. Edwards and Thompson, who are both deceased, were among the best ever at their particular instruments. I'd like to see this artist inducted, but I'm not holding my breath.

* Leonard Cohen - He's known as the Canadian Bob Dylan, a comparison I think is unfair (to Cohen). Critically acclaimed but virtually unknown in the United States, I don't know enough of his work to judge its worth. That tells me he can wait.

* The Dave Clark Five - This is a British Invasion band from the 1960s best known for good pop rock hits like "Glad All Over", "Because", and "Over and Over". They really had no shot until last year. They were nominated for induction in 2007 but, rumor has it, the voting was rigged by Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, which prevented this band's induction. That revelation makes them a lock this year.

* Donna Summer - The queen of disco has, shockingly, not been nominated before this year. Disco itself has largely been snubbed by the Hall, for understandable reasons. But, Summer has a string of big hits and has been a key infulence on many contemporary R&B singers. I have to believe she'll make it.

* John Mellencamp - He'll make it at some point, but I'm not sure if now is the time; he's been nominated before. My gut tells me that this is his year. His albums Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee are among the best of the 1980s. I'm a fan of this champion of the American heartland, and would be happy with his induction this year.

* The Ventures - This 1960s surf rock band had big fans in folks like George Harrison, Stephen Stills, Joe Walsh, and Aerosmith. Hard to believe they aren't in yet.

The following artists were eligible for induction this year but failed to be nominated:

* Metallica, Run DMC - These two oversights are unforgivable. Both should be inducted in their first year of eligibility. Shame on the Hall of Fame.

* Little Anthony and the Imperials - "Tears on My Pillow", "Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko Ko Bop", "Goin' Out Of My Head"...what's a guy have to do to get some respect?

* Patsy Cline, Pat Benatar, Heart - More women should be inducted. Patsy Cline, one of the greatest singers who ever lived, is a glaring oversight.

* The Stooges - No love for Iggy?

* Gram Parsons - This country rock pioneer deserves to be considered.

* The Cure, 10,000 Maniacs, Violent Femmes - No love for 1980s alternative music outside of U2 and R.E. M., I guess. The Cure will make it in eventually, so I'm not sure what the Hall is waiting on.

* Culture Club, Duran Duran - No love for 1980s New Romantics. That's understandable. Duran Duran is a longshot, but I think Culture Club deserves more consideration. Say what you will about him, Boy George had one of the best pop-R&B voices of his era, and they put out some solid hits.

* Sting, Men at Work, Wham! - Sting's already in with the Police, so I guess he's covered, though I still think he'll make it in for his solo work eventually. Men at Work are a longshot, but who doesn't love "Who Can It Be Now?", "Down Under", "Overkill", and, my personal favorite, "Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive"? As far as Wham!, what do we do about George Michael, one of the greatest voices in rock and roll history? Induct him as a solo? We'll see.

* Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Rush - Once again, "art rock" / "progressive rock" has been ignored. That's OK, as I'm not a big fan, but I wish they'd give some love to the boys in Genesis. Hard to imagine a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins.

* Carol Kaye - As a (very) amateur bass player, my favorite bassists are - in order - Paul McCartney, Chip Douglas, Carol Kaye, Jack Bruce, and Sting. Kaye was a member of Phil Spector's session band called "the Wrecking Crew". She played on such great records as "Good Vibrations" (Beach Boys), Pet Sounds (Beach Boys), "I'm A Believer" (Monkees), "River Deep, Mountain High" (Phil Spector/Tina Turner), "Sixteen Tons" (Tennessee Ernie Ford), "Someday, We'll Be Together" (Supremes), Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (Simon & Garfunkel), "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" (Nancy Sinatra), "Suspicious Minds" (Elvis Presley), "Then He Kissed Me" (Phil Spector/Crystals), "Danke Schoen" (Wayne Newton), "La Bamba" (Ritchie Valens), "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" (Phil Spector/Righteous Brothers) , "Light My Fire" (Doors), "I Can't Help Myself" (Four Tops), and "I Was Made to Love Her" (Stevie Wonder). Why is she not in the Hall of Fame as one of history's greatest session muiscians?

* The Monkees - Arguably the most successful artist not to be in the Hall. My prayer is that they make it in before they start dying off.

Also, where are ABBA, the B-52s, the Cars, Chubby Checker, Joe Cocker, the Commodores, Dire Straits, the Doobie Brothers, the Go-Gos, Tommy James and the Shondells, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Ben E. King, the Moody Blues, Willie Nelson, the Pointer Sisters, Billy Preston, the Small Faces, Cat Stevens, T. Rex, Three Dog Night, the Tokens, War, Mary Wells, Larry Williams, Weird Al Yankovic...not to mention Bad Company, Badfinger, Chicago, Donovan, Electric Light Orchestra, the Guess Who, Herman's Hermits, Huey Lewis and the News, Judas Priest, REO Speedwagon, Sonny and Cher, Split Enz, Squeeze, Ringo Starr, Pete Townshend, the Turtles, XTC, and the Zombies?

I also hope that this is the year that Elvis Presley's drummer D.J. Fontana is inducted as a sideman, songwriter Bernie Taupin is inducted as a non-performer (if Leonard Cohen is being considred, surely Bernie, who is Elton John's lyricist, deserves something), and that Beatles manager Brian Epstein gets some respect.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Always Something There to Remind Me...

"There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.

"The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom.

"And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.'

"But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.'

"So the rich man said, 'Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.'

"But Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.'

"The rich man said, 'No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.'

"And Abraham said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'"
(Luke 16:19-31, RSV, adapt.)

As Jesus does so often, he painfully helps us to refocus on one of his great passions: ministry to, for, and with the poor. This time, in the midst of a conversation about financial stewardship and keeping the law, he proclaims in brilliant parabolic form that serving the poor can have an impact on our eternal destiny.

This is not simply a parable about heaven and hell; it's a terrifying parable about sins of omission.

Jesus doesn't tell us that the rich man deliberately mistreated Lazarus; he teaches us that the rich man simply went about his life while poor Lazarus suffered. The rich man's failure to help Lazarus landed him in Hades.

I am convinced that the Church is represented in this parable by the rich man. We are so preoccupied with so many things...good things...and we simply go about our lives...while Lazarus suffers. How many people in need did you drive past or near this week? What gives us the right to simply drive by while someone is suffering? I ask these questions as a guilty sinner.

We talk about growing churches...through evangelistic services, additional worship opportunities, new Bible studies, added technology...and I am guilty as charged. What if I could engage myself in ministry with the poor with the same vigor and passion I have for other aspects of ministry?

This passage, from the lectionary selections for the week, reminds me that Jesus never addressed building projects, technology, or additional worship opportunities. He never seemed to care how many people showed up for an event. But he was passionate about helping the poor, and in compelling those who would be his disciples to do the same.

Heavenly Father, I pray that by the power of the Holy Spirit you would gift me, Jefferson church, and Western PA Conference with the same compulsion your Son had for helping the poor, that we would be known not as people with open hearts, minds or doors, not as people on the cutting edge of technology, but as people who are passionate about serving those to whom the Messiah referred as "the least of these" in our world, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.