Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Isaiah 6: Who will go for us?, or, "Don't hate me because I'm a heretic."

"And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' Then I said, 'Here am I! Send me.'"
- Isaiah 6:8 (RSV)

Who is the "us" mentioned in Isaiah 6:8?

In traditional Christian theology, this has typically been interpreted as a pre-Incarnation reference to the Holy Trinity. Certainly, John Wesley's Explanatory Notes take this view. While that is certainly a legitimate interpretation, I'm not convinced that it's accurate.

Isaiah of Jerusalem's ministry took place in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. The world was unquestionably pagan at that time. It was taken for granted, in fact, that there existed many, many gods.

Other nations found Israel odd largely because they were at least officially devoted to one god, YHWH. But early Hebrew religion did not claim that YHWH was the only god; the claim was made simply that YHWH was the sovereign god, and that the Hebrews were allowed to worship no other god.

The belief that while there are many gods only one should be worshiped is called "henotheism" by scholars, "monolatry" by theologians. Personally, I prefer the former term, as it seems less aggressive and more merciful to our ancestors in the faith.

I believe that the Hebrews were orginally henotheistic...perhaps the first true henotheists in the world. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses...they all seem to have been willing to accept the idea that other gods existed (or at least other divine beings), but were adamant in their devotion to YHWH as their unique covenantal god.

The first of the Ten Commandments seems fairly henotheistic to me, as the sole worship of YHWH is strongly endorsed without denying the existence of other divine beings. Some of the more repulsive stories of sin in the Old Testament refer to human sacrifice (especially of children) to terrible gods such as Chemosh and Molech...evidence that Israel at times practiced actual polytheism, and not even true henotheism.

In short, I believe that to be a faithful Jew for many centuries meant being a faithful henotheist. Isaiah of Jerusalem certainly qualifies. I believe that when when the prophet hears and records God's words in Isaiah 6:8, he hears them through the lens of henotheism. God revealed his presence, truth, and salvation gradually, preparing us for his Incarnation.

When we read the words, therefore, "...who will go for us...", "us" refers to the other members of the heavenly court...the "hosts of heaven".

This is one reason why one of my favorite titles for God is "YHWH Sabaoth"... "the LORD of hosts" (used powerfully by Martin Luther in verse two of the first great Protestant anthem "A Mighty Fortess Is Our God"), and why I often use Bible translations which retain this translation, such as the RSV, NRSV, and ESV (the NIV and TNIV translate the phrase as "Sovereign LORD" which, while true, doesn't capture the full essence of its meaning).

It's also a reason why perhaps my favorite creation story in the Old Testament is Psalm 89, which is really a masterpiece of henotheistic thought, recounting the tale of "YHWH Elohim Sabaoth", the Divine Warrior, who presides over his heavenly court and defeats the monster of chaos ("Rahab") to construct the world. Very Near Eastern, very mythological, extremely beautiful (though, like the more famous stories in Genesis 1 and 2, not meant to be taken literally).

Henotheism is a very strong part of our faith heritage, but Hebrew religion did not remain henotheistic. At some point, likely during the period of the Babylonian captivity, the Jews made the transition from henotheism to monotheism. Psalm 89, formulated in the Davidic era (but likely perfected at a later date), portrays creation from a henotheistic perspective; the first of the two creation stories in Genesis, largely an Exile era work, is a masterpiece of monotheism.

Even in the Book of Isaiah, we can see the transition. Whereas Isaiah of Jerusalem (or "First Isaiah") operates from a henotheistic weltanschauung, "Second Isaiah" is decidely monotheistic, as these verses demonstrate. By the time Jesus was born, the Jews were strongly monotheistic...the first true monotheistic faith in the world (despite the highly inaccurate claims of Zoroastrianism scholars such as Mary Boyce).

What does this mean for us, practically? Not much. Judaism is today a monotheistic faith, as is Islam. Christianity is a modified monotheistic faith (though Trinitarian is a better term). Henotheism survives today among the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as among Zoroastrians. While a part of our faith history, it is not a part of the Church's present or future.

Still, as a lover of history and as someone who eagerly desires to understand how our faith grew into its current form, henotheism remains a fascinating subject for study.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Isaiah 6: Holy, holy, holy

"In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple.

Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.

And one called to another and said: 'Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.'

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.

And I said: 'Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!'

Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar.

And he touched my mouth, and said: 'Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.'

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' Then I said, 'Here am I! Send me.'"
- Isaiah 6:1-8 (RSV)

The first thing that strikes me about the call of God to Isaiah of Jerusalem (or "First Isaiah" as he is known by contemporary scholars) is that when placed in the presence of Almighty God, the prophet is overcome with a sense of his own inherent sinfulness, unworthiness, and inadequacy. How can a mere sinful human being be in the throne room of heaven, in the very presence of our Creator and Lord?

Isaiah is, after all, only worthy to speak the word of the Lord after his mouth is scorched and cleansed by divine fire.

Christians have historically believed that each Lord's Day as we gather to worship God as the Body of Christ, we are also in the presence of the Almighty, and that our sanctuaries are earthly reflections of that divine throne room.

Does our worship reflect that reverence?

Are we awed by the presence of God?

Are we overcome with unworthiness and inadequacy as we enter into the presence of the Holy One of Israel?

Do we remember that the God who is with us and is immanent is also far beyond and above us and is completely transcendent, entirely different from us, "wholly Other"?

Are we too comfortable with Almighty God?

Is he too much "our buddy" and not enough "the LORD God of hosts", whose very name is too holy to speak?

Too often, we enter worship as a routine...traditional worship gone stale.

Many enter worship gleefully, as if the Super Bowl party is about to begin...contemporary worship gone mad.

While joy and celebration are certainly proper Christian practices, we should never allow our worship to be so "Happy, happy, happy" that we forget "Holy, holy, holy".

Friday, January 26, 2007

Winter at JUMC

"...every single time you see snow, it’s magical."
- Pamela Ribon

One of the treasures of Jefferson UM Church is our little "chapel in the woods". Built by our Boy Scout troop a few years ago, the chapel is situated in the little patch of forest near the church and directly behind the parsonage.

I love our little chapel. My predecessor used it for a personal little prayer spot, and I have as well. As I said, it's a real treasure. In the summertime, it's pretty lush and green; the deer love it year round.

Here are some winter images, taken by my Kate this evening...

Here is the chapel from a side view...

Here it is "head on"...

Here is a view of the South Hills from our chapel. Near the center (slightly to the right) is a shopping plaza which sits near the intersection of Rt. 51/Lebanon Church Road/Curry Hollow Road. Under the thin branches on the left is the Bethel Park area, where my friend John Shaver lives and serves.

This is a neat tree in the chapel area, which I refer to as the "Church tree" (since "Joshua Tree" was already taken). The branches of the tree are so intertwined, yet they maintain their individual identities. A good reminder (for me, anyway) of what the Church is like.

Failed Leadership

Nine years ago today, we witnessed a classic example of how not to lead, when then U.S. President Bill Clinton spoke to the press about rumors of infidelity. Here are a few lessons in Leadership 101...
  • Maintain your moral character/authority (i.e., don't cheat on your wife).
  • Tell the truth, even if the truth hurts.
  • When mistakes are made, come clean, repent, and repair the damage.
Clinton disappointed even his most ardent admirers, and those who still admire him today wince when they review this episode. Even a person as gifted and as charismatic as Bill Clinton can fail miserably if these simple lessons aren't learned and lived.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Insulating Ourselves

I found this notion personally challenging...

"Layers of insulation separate the rich and the poor from truly encountering one another. There are the obvious layers like picket fences and SUVs, and there are the more subtle ones like charity. Tithes, tax-exempt donations, and short-term mission trips, while they accomplish some good, can also function as outlets that allow us to appease our consciences and still remain a safe distance from the poor."

- Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution (Zondervan, 2006), page 157

Sunday's Gospel lesson

"Everyone was speaking well of Jesus and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, 'Is not this Joseph's son?'

And Jesus said to them, 'Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb: Physician, heal thyself. What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.'

And he said, 'Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.

But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land,

and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.

And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.'

When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.

And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.

But passing through their midst, he went away."
- Luke 4:22-30 (ESV, adapt.)

Monday, January 22, 2007

Eucharist Games

A story in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette details the trials of Roman Catholic Archbishop Donald Wuerl since taking his episcopal seat in Washington D.C. Archbishop Wuerl, formerly head of the Pittsburgh Diocese, is taking heat from some conservative Roman Catholics who would like the Archbishop to ban from receiving the Eucharist any Washington politicians who support legal abortions. While in 2004, this debate most often involved Sen. John Kerry, the recent debate has primarily involved new Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Archbishop Wuerl has refused to deny the sacrament to politicians who disregard Roman Catholic teaching regarding abortion.

I applaud Archbishop Wuerl for his stance. The Eucharist is not a weapon to be used to keep Christians in line. It is a truly powerful means of grace through which the Spirit works in and through those who participate in the holy meal. It is "a sacrament of redemption" (as our Articles of Religion state) and should never be used as a means of discipline. Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church has the right to instruct and discipline Rep. Pelosi or Sen. Kerry in any number of appropriate ways, as The United Methodist Church has the right to appropriately instruct and discipline President Bush...but the sacrament is not an appropriate tool.

In point of fact, Archbishop Wuerl may want to take an opposite approach. If the Emmaus account in the Gospel of Luke is to be believed, and Jesus is truly made known "in the breaking of the bread", then the Archbishop should be requiring Rep. Pelosi to commune every day, in the hope that Jesus will be "made known" and the Speaker will begin to believe the teaching of the Church regarding abortion. Bishop John Schol may want to make the same requirement of the President.

In fact, here is a glorious proposal:

The Bishops of the Washington area - United Methodist, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, whatever - should require the Christian servants in the city to celebrate the sacrament together each day. What a difference this could make! Imagine President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Sen. Kerry, and Rep. Pelosi sharing the bread and the cup before beginning their day's work! Imagine a campaign trail where Sen. Clinton, Sen. Obama, Sen. McCain, and Mayor Giuliani communed with one another daily. This may seem impossible, for both ecclesiastical and political reasons, but what a joyful hope!

The Eucharist could make a real difference in our nation's capital...not when used to divide and discipline, but when used to unite and remind these leaders that though they are separated by political beliefs, they are ultimately one in Jesus Christ, which is far, far more important.

Welcome Mike Tomlin

The Pittsburgh Steelers made it official today: Mike Tomlin is their new head coach.

A native of Hampton, Virginia, Coach Tomlin played his college ball at William & Mary and got his NFL start as part of Tony Dungy's staff in Tampa Bay. He spent one year as the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings before the Rooneys hired him today to take over the NFL's finest organization. He is married with three young children, and is, at 34, the youngest head coach not only in the NFL but also in every major American team sports league (NBA, NHL, MLB).

I was able to watch his introductory press conference this afternoon, and Coach Tomlins seems very impressive. He is calm and well spoken, appreciates Steeler-style football, claims to be an historian of the game, and is a sharp guy...he patiently handled the media, was funny when he needed to be, and was very likeable.

Coach Tomlin said, regarding his potential assistant coaches, that he was looking for good men who just happen to be good coaches. As I've mentioned before, character is the top trait needed for leadership, and Coach Tomlin seems to have it in abundance, idolizing such class A folks like Dungy and Lovie Smith. It looks to me as if the Rooneys have chosen another winner.

I hope that the coach and his family have great success in Pittsburgh and that they remain with the team for a long, long time. Our prayers are with them!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Tomlin to Steelers?

Sports Illustrated's Michael Silver is reporting that the Pittsburgh Steelers are hiring Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, as their new head coach.

The Steelers, Tomlin, and ESPN are all denying the report.

For a week, the finalists have been Tomlin, Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, and Steelers offensive line coach Russ Grimm. Hopefully, we'll know something definitive soon.

SUNDAY MORNING UPDATE: As I prepare for worship, ESPN is confirming the hire of Mike Tomlin. On the other hand, the headline in today's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review claims that the Steelers have decided on Russ Grimm. We may know the truth later today.

Farewell Denny Doherty

God bless Denny Doherty (1940-2007),
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member of
the great folk-rock group the Mamas and the Papas

Press "play" to see Denny in action...

Friday, January 19, 2007

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Poor

Without question, Jesus had a special place in his heart for the poor and the oppressed. This week's Gospel lesson from Luke 4:18-19 reminds us of Jesus' mission:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Repeatedly, Jesus ministered to those who existed on the margins of society, those whom the culture and the powerful had rejected. The late Howard Thurman used a word rich in depth and meaning to refer to this group of outcasts..."the disinherited". Jesus recognized that the poor and the oppressed had as much a right to live, to serve, and to enjoy the gift of life as those who had money and power, and Jesus was determined to do something about the imbalances of society.

We must also remember that Jesus did not ignore or neglect the rich. But, when a rich young man approached Jesus, Jesus requested that the man sell all he had and give the proceeds to the poor. In essence, Jesus told the young man, "If you're serious about following me, then become as one of the poor, as one of 'the least of these my brethren'." What a powerful moment.

Poverty in our world is a seemingly overwhelming problem. Billions of people live in poverty, going without water, food, medical care, or very basic education. How do we even begin to solve the great problem of poverty?

While that certainly has to be a concern which weighs heavily on the heart of every Christian disciple, we should not allow the magnitude of the problem to keep us from action. We need to be about the business of bringing good news to the poor...right we are to be faithful followers of Jesus. Nothing should keep us from that call, which, as Jesus makes clear, has its origins in the Spirit.

In fact, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the greatest theologians of the Church, said in Oration 14, “...agape [divine love] is the first and greatest of the Commandments … and its most vital part … is love of the poor.” St. Gregory is saying that we show our love for God by loving the poor. Jesus' harsh and powerful words in Matthew 25 never seem to leave us alone long enough to give us peace!

The truth is that we don't like to be around the poor. We'd much rather give money to someone it the government, the Annual Conference, or another charity...and let them help the poor on our behalf. We don't want to be bothered, especially with people with whom we simply don't want to spend time.

John Jones of Marquette University recalls a scene in one of the greatest novels ever written, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which sums up some of our feelings regarding the poor. The poor Joad family has just purchased gasoline for their vehicle, when they overhear the gas station attendants...
“Jesus, what a hard looking outfit!”
“Them Okies? They’re all hard-lookin.”
“Jesus, I’d hate to start out in a jalopy like that.”
“Well, you and me got sense. Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas.”
We may not say those words, and we may not even consciously think those thoughts, but too often we act that way regarding our poor sisters and brothers.

But Jesus touched the lepers. He loved those who were largely deemed unlovable. He got his hands dirty with and for those in need...and told his disciples to do the same. We need to bring good news to the poor...the good news that God loves them and so do we...the good news that they matter...the good news that Jesus lives that they might know love and redemption...the good news that the Church identifies with them and will stand by them no matter what, in spite of our historic neglect...the good news that they are of cosmic importance to the Kingdom of God.

The poor need us to bring them good news...but we need them, desperately, that we might remember what it is we are all about. In so many ways, our faithfulness in this area (or at least the attempt at faithfulness) represents the difference between being an authentic Christian disciple and merely being a basically nice person. God's vision for the church includes a great emphasis on the poor...whether or not we clearly see his vision.

"Those who shut their ears to the cry of the poor
will also cry out and not be answered."
- Proverbs 21:13

* Read this for an article about a family caught in the cycle of poverty in western Pennsylvania.

Read this for a progress report on poverty in Pennsylvania.

Considering Vision

As we ponder what constitutes a divine vision, we ought to differentiate between the word "vision" as it used (and at times abused) by a broken world and as it used by the Church.

There are a multitude of books by business and political leaders which talk about "vision". Many leaders in these arenas of life refer to "vision". That's a good thing! We want our leaders to be looking toward the future...whether in politics, economics, sports, or other areas.

But "vision" when it comes to the Church is a bit different. When the Scriptures use the word, or more accurately when they use the Hebrew and Greek words we translate as "vision", it always refers to something from God...a special sight or glimpse into heaven (and often into the future), granted in order to further God's salvific work in this world. Vision, for the Church, is always always involves redemption, salvation, the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

This is why it can be a mite dangerous to glean too much from the many books on "vision" written by politicians and business leaders...we run the risk of looking too much like the world we are trying to redeem and transform!

(Zechariah's vision in Luke 1, the Transfiguration in Matthew 17, the experience of the women in Luke 24, the Pentecostal outpouring in Acts 2, the apocalyptic horsemen in Revelation 9...all of these and other examples refer to "vision", and all pointed in some way to the salvation story.)

So, as we consider "vision", and what God's vision might be for us, it is essential that we keep in mind that God's vision...if indeed it be from God...will involve salvation - salvation not only for us but for our neighbors, for our city, for the world. Truly, that can be a vision which potentially is boundless and excitingly big! This is the hope for which we must be in prayer.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


"The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to Jesus,
and unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written:

'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.'

He then rolled up the scroll,
gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
And the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on Him.

He said to them, 'Today, in your hearing, this Scripture is fulfilled.'"
- Luke 4:17-21

At JUMC, we are continuing our discussion about what constitutes a divine vision, as we seek God's vision for our future.

Jesus' own "vision statement" is contained in this week's Gospel lesson, in which Our Lord makes reference to Isaiah 61. One of the interesting aspects of this passage is its counterpart in Mark 6. Mark's Gospel mentions Jesus speaking in Nazareth, but omits the precise passage.

Most scholars agree that Luke utilized Mark as a primary source. Why did Luke, then, add this passage?

We see hear a clear example of the "Lukan gospel". Whereas Mark emphasizes penitence and belief, Luke emphasizes orthopraxis, or "correct practice". Far too often, Christians (especially evangelicals) have emphasized "correct belief" (orthodoxy) at the expense of "correct practice". As a result, those on the margins of Church and/or society have often been neglected or forgotten.

We need orthodoxy and orthopraxis. In my view, historic Methodism embodies this dichotomy beautifully. Certainly John Wesley proclaimed the importance of orthodox Christian belief, and is rightly considered one of the key forefathers of contemporary evangelicalism. But Wesley also placed a great deal of emphasis on the "means of grace", both works of piety (prayer, Bible reading, communion, etc.) and works of mercy (feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, etc.).

Local churches tend to be relatively effective at performing works of piety. Works of mercy are a bit more difficult, though, since they often require us to "step outside of ourselves", roll up our sleeves, and get our hands dirty. The important sacrificial aspect of Christian living can be found in these works of mercy, and we need to be involved in these sacrifices. After all, Jesus makes it clear in Luke's Gospel that what we do is at least as important as what we believe.

As retired Salvation Army officer Henry Gariepy puts it, "Holiness without social concern is as a soul without a body, but social concern without holiness is as a body without a soul. One is a ghost, the other a corpse. Only when they are wedded together do we have a healthy, life-giving gospel."

* Read this for an excellent and concise discussion of orthopraxis and John Wesley.

* Read this for an excellent and concise study of the means of grace in Methodism.

Monday, January 15, 2007

God bless MLK

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood...

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

"I have a dream today.

"I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama...little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

"I have a dream today.

"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together...

"Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania...

"And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"
- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 8/28/63

More than a nice thought?

Here's a thought-provoking and hopefully inspiring quote from the Methodist blogosphere...

"I have also felt very strongly the last several years that the liberal/conservative fight is not going to get us anywhere, and that it is off target. It is a fight over the world that is ending, the modern world and its delineations, not a fight for the place we are going."
- Michelle Hargrave, UM blogger from Minnesota

I agree, and hope that Michelle is correct; the problem is this: how do we stop this fight, solve the impasse, and allow healing? Both sides are so divided...passionately divided...over issues of covenantal faithfulness and sex. I don't think I'm smart enough to come up with the answer.

As we vote this June for those who will represent us at General Conference in 2008, should we be looking for answers? Or should we be looking for grace-filled hearts which are not too affected by political agendas, on the right or on the left?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Incarnational Ministry

I attended the January board meeting of the Cloverleaf Ecumenical Assistance Agency, and was both pleased and concerned.

The board contains representatives from the two area Roman Catholic churches, the two Presbyterian chuches, our church, and the synagogue. (The Baptists, Lutherans, Mormons, and Pentecostals in our area were not represented.) The president of the board is a wonderful older man from the synagogue, and I really appreciated the interfaith unity that was displayed. The rhetoric was predominantly Christian, but he seemed not to mind (I'm sure he's used to it), since the reason we were there was to help those on the margins, not convert one another. The meeting had a kind spirit, and was tolerant in the best sense of the word.

I was also pleased with the work the agency has done over the past year, which we reviewed at the meeting. It would probably breach confidentiality to share specifics, but suffice to say that the agency did a tremendous job serving "the least of these" in 2006, and I look forward to becoming a part of their story in 2007. The food pantry operates each Tuesday; I'll be there.

I must say that I was concerned by the fact that I was the only member of the Christian clergy in attendance, and their records showed that no member of the clergy attended in 2006.

The implication was that the clergy are too busy doing "other things" to participate, though they all gave their blessing. How nice.

What are they (we) busy doing? What is it that we do that's more important than feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, touching those on the margins with the love and grace of Christ? We seem too comfortable saying, "We've got good laity working in that area; we don't need to get too involved in that."

We're teaching Bible studies and working on capital campaigns and attending jurisdictional meetings about Conference budgets and the latest "here's-how-to-fix-your-church" strategy. None of those are necessarily bad things.

But we need to be practicing incarnational ministry...spending more time with those on the margins of the culture (and the church) by feeding the hungry and reaching out to the poor. We as pastors need to be deeply involved in the lives of the poor if we are to, with any credibility, teach this to our parishioners. We need to model this ministry. That's key to character development, key to being a leader, key to leadership development. If we don't do it, neither will they.

We're so sad. And, by "we", I mean me. I haven't done nearly enough for "the least of these". I pray that by the grace of God that me, and for all of us.

I am tired of "pretend ministry". Bigger and better churches and congregations and buildings...higher attendance...Jefferson church is experiencing all of that, but that doesn't make it ministry, certainly not Christian ministry. May God forgive his Church and give us another shot to do it right.

May this be the mission statement for all Christian clergy, as it was for Jesus...

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor...
Today, in your hearing, this scripture has been fulfilled."
- from Luke 4 (NRSV)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

What I'm Reading

Song of Redemption by Lynn Austin
I like to always be reading some fiction; this is the second novel in a series about King Hezekiah, and the first book was a nice read. It helped me to view Hezekiah and the prophets of that day in a new light.

The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne
Claiborne and I seem to be on the same page concerning the problems of institutional Christianity, the importance of social outreach, and the hypocrisy of much of wealthy suburbia. Every pastor and Christian leader should add this to their reading list...very, very challenging stuff.

Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words by Stanley Hauerwas
This is in preparation for Lent, and is written by the most important ethicist of my lifetime.

The Mosaic of Christian Beliefs: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity by Roger Olson
Olson is a solid Arminian/Wesleyan evangelical, equally horrified by extreme Protestant liberalism and fundamentalism. He seems to have written this book to define the "Great Tradition", the essentials of the Christian religion (which could be a presumptuous thing) while also outlining the bounds of heresy. It actually seems to be pretty generous. My criticism (so far) is that is seems strong on orthodoxy (which is all well and good) but weak on orthopraxis (which is at least as important, if not moreso).

Monday, January 08, 2007

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The 2007 inductees were announced today (the birthday of Elvis Presley, appropriately)...

* R.E.M. - the classic "college rock" band and one of the top American pop rock bands ever (along with the Beach Boys, CCR, and Nirvana) their stuff; "losing My Religion" is one of the greatest love songs ever recorded, and songs like "Fall on Me" and "Orange Crush" powerfully dealt with social issues...a great band well deserving of the past 25 years, only U2 and Nirvana can compare in terms of importance

* Van Halen - the best "pop metal" band ever with the ever-changing cast of singers...I gotta think that Diamond Dave is a lock for inclusion, and Sammy Hagar should also be included...let's hope they can all get along for the ceremony

* Patti Smith - the "queen of punk"...I'm not really a big fan, but I know that artists like U2 really like her stuff...maybe Bono will induct her

* Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five - the first big hip hop artist, this induction paves the way for Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and, probably, NWA

* The Ronettes - a Phil Spector 1960s girl group (led by his then-wife Ronnie Spector), they recorded maybe the best record ever made, "Be My Baby" (probably only "Good Vibrations" is on par or greater)...I'm surprised by this induction, since Phil is already in the Hall and he really masterminded this group, but I'm happy, since they did cut that classic, which has influenced every musician who's made a record since

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Cloverleaf, etc.

On Tuesday, I'll be attending my first meeting of the Cloverleaf Area Ecumenical Ministry, which has its headquarters at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Roman Catholic Church in Pleasant Hills. The Cloverleaf ministry is a united ministry of the Jefferson Hills/Pleasant Hills religious groups (even serving parts of West Mifflin Whitehall) and serves over 200 families. There is a weekly food distribution and other outreach ministries such as a clothing distribution, emergency aid, transportation, child care, medical help, and counseling. Formed in 1983 by area churches and the local synagogue, it is a vital ministry and, frankly, is one of the most Christ-like things we do.

An extremely faithful leader of Jefferson church, Carol Kregenow, has been very active in the Cloverleaf ministry (as was her husband Dale, who sadly died a few weeks before we moved to Jefferson Hills), and I look forward to working with her in this ministry. This kind of service ministry has always been among the most fulfilling aspects of my pastorate, and I am anxious to "get on board" and to get Jefferson church more involved in the Cloverleaf agency.

I'm very, very excited! Hallelujah!

This morning, I preached the first in a sermon series on visioncasting, in preparation for our March Church Council meeting when we will "formally" and corporately begin to discern God's vision for JUMC. The sermon was well received, and I think the folks are anxious to experience the process and see what God has in store for us. My personal goal is to have some plans ready for our Church Conference this Fall, but I'm open to whatever timeframe is provided by the Holy Spirit.

My additional hope is that the Cloverleaf ministry plays a key role in our vision, since I believe strongly that a Christian's faithfulness is largely determined by what he or she is doing for "the least of these".

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Epiphany 2007

"Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.

And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.

Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.

Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord."
- Isaiah 60:1-6 (ESV)

Friday, January 05, 2007

Goodbye Coach Cowher

Today, the top story in the sports world has been that Bill Cowher, Head Coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers for 15 years, has resigned. Likely, he will take a year off before returning as a coach elsewhere in 2008.

I have been a Bill Cowher fan from the day he arrived in Pittsburgh to succeed Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll. Despite the fact that he was following a true sports legend, one of the top 5 best coaches in professional football history, Coach Cowher never seemed intimidated; he always seemed comfortable in his own skin and confident with his own God-given gifts and abilities.

I think we can learn a lot about leadership from Bill Cowher's success, and, indeed, from the Pittsburgh Steelers organization as a whole. Things to emphasize:
  • casting a clear vision
  • consistency
  • goal setting
  • hard work
  • honest evaluation
  • loyalty
  • passion
  • perseverance
  • raising up & training other leaders & empowering them
  • relationship building.
Things to avoid:
  • contentment with the status quo
  • denying responsibility
  • getting caught up in minutiae & losing focus on the vision
  • following the latest fads or trends
  • petty squabbling
  • reaching for the "quick fix".

On a personal note, listening on the radio to Coach Cowher's Tuesday press conferences helped to get me through a difficult period of my life, a few years back, and I'll miss those radio moments.

Coach Cowher's 15 years in Pittsburgh will likely land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He gave the folks of western Pennsylvania great joy, and for that, I am grateful. I pray that his "time off" is relaxing and fruitful, and that his future is filled with peace and success. Thank you, God, for Bill Cowher.

The search for his successor will be a key story in the sports world in the weeks ahead, and will likely dominate local media. The two leading candidates for the position are also two leading candidates for the other open coaching jobs in the NFL, which is a testament to Coach Cowher's ability to raise up leaders, since they are both currently on the Steelers' staff.

Ken Whisenhunt is the Steelers Offensive Coordinator. What makes him so impressive to me is that he is able to "tweak" things as a team goes through a season, adapting well and still remaining productive, efficient, and faithful to the vision. Whisenhunt has interviews lined up with several other NFL teams for their top jobs, including Arizona and his native Atlanta. He would make a fine head coach.

Russ Grimm is the Steelers Offensive line coach and Assistant Head Coach. A native of Scottdale, PA in southern Westmoreland County, Grimm won Super Bowls as an offensive lineman for Joe Gibbs' Washington Redskins before entering coaching. He certainly shares Coach Cowher's mindset of "smash mouth", "blue collar" football, which emphasizes hard hits, the running game, and a tough defense. Other teams are interested in Grimm and he has interviews set up in other NFL cities for top jobs. He, too, would make a fine head coach.

There are also other intriguing possibilities...

  • Kirk Ferentz, University of Iowa Head Coach (a Pgh native)
  • Mike Singletary, SF 49ers Asst Coach (a Hall of Fame player)
  • Ron Rivera, Chicago Bears Defensive Coordinator.
My guess is that Russ Grimm gets the job, with Ken Whisenhunt a close second. I also think Whisenhunt will land in either Miami or (more likely) Atlanta. Either man is a fine choice for the Steelers.

Let's hope that the success continues, and that the Steelers remain a contender for years to come.

PS - If Dan Rooney should happen to be reading...I'm available. I'm sure the Bishop would grant me a leave of absence.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Christmas Leftovers

Here are a few pics from the holidays...

Our tree...

Our stockings (all made by Robyn through the years)...

Claire & I asleep on the loveseat after a long Christmas Day
(I don't look very comfortable)...

Praise the Lord for the lovely, simple joys of Christmas. Thank you, Father, for Christmas 2006.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

NFL Rankings - Week 17

1 - San Diego Chargers (last week 1)

2 - Baltimore Ravens (last week 3)

3 - New England Patriots (last week 5)

4 - Chicago Bears (last week 4)

5 - New Orleans Saints (last week 6)

6 - Philadelphia Eagles (last week 7)

7 - Indianapolis Colts (last week 2)

8 - Seattle Seahawks (last week 8)

9 - New York Jets (last week 9)

10 - Kansas City Chiefs (last week unranked)

Honorable mentions:
Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants

Other sports notes:

* I hope we haven't seen the last of Brett Favre...

* I hope we haven't seen the last of Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh, though we probably have...

* The Ford family must be insane to retain Matt Millen, who has been a disaster as a GM, and has made the Lions the laughingstock of the NFL...

* The Colts won't make it very far in the playoffs with that dreadful defense, which is a real shame for Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, and Tony Dungy...

* Watch out for the Patriots, who could surprise everyone by making it back to the Super Bowl...

* After Dallas dumps T.O. in the offseason, other teams would be wise to steer clear of this talented but extremely destructive receiver...

* I think Bill Cowher will land in Carolina in 2008, but, given recent events in Miami, don't be surprised if the Dolphins strongly pursue him next January...

* I really hope the Pittsburgh Penguins figure out a way to survive in Pittsburgh, though my hunch is they'll soon be gone...

* Andy Reid, Jeff Garcia, and the rest of the Philadelphia Eagles deserve great respect for what they've accomplished this season, given the injury to star Donovan McNabb.

Nick Saban & Alabama:

I don't like Coach Saban's dishonesty, and I think he's ruined any future he might have had in the NFL; he'll never be trusted with another top job.

But, Alabama is one of the few college jobs which is "on par" with an NFL job, in terms of prominence and prestige. Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, and maybe a few other positions are NFL-level positions for head coaches, and Coach Saban is actually making a lateral move in many ways.

Much is being said about the fact that he also is a great recruiter and can motivate college-age players more effectively than professionals. I can't blame him for taking the money and security of Alabama. But I wish he'd been more upfront with his players, the media, and, especially, Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, who surely deserved better.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Searching for a Vision

"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem,

saying, 'Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him...'

And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.

When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.

And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh..."

- from Matthew 2

The wise men (or magi) who appear suddenly at the end of the traditional Christmas story must have been remarkable people. They were considered to be among the most learned, respected people of their day. They were students not only of the night sky (and if you've ever enjoyed the wonder of telescopes, you can understand why!), but of the "signs of the times" all around them. Nature, politics, art...for these wise men, all of these and more held great meaning, and they were determined to figure things out.

The mysterious star which appeared during the time of Jesus' infancy caused them no small amount of confusion. Perhaps they had already reached a point in their lives when they felt they had figured it all out amd finally understood the crazy world in which they lived! Then, God threw this star into the mix, which sent the magi scrambling for answers.

Desperately following this miraculous moving star, they soon came to the conclusion, given their learning, that this omen pointed to a great birth, and that a new king - indeed, a new kind of king - had come into the world. Diligently and with great passion and a sense of urgency, they searched for this new king.

God had given them a vision of the future...or at least the promise of a vision, and they were determined to discover that vision. They set out on a journey which upset their routines, causing them to leave all things familiar, knowing that their lives would never again be the same...all out of a desire to see what God had in store for them and their world.

The wise men were remarkable. 2000 years later, we are called to share their life-changing journey...not only at Epiphany, but throughout our lives.

The Church is called to remember that God has given us a vision of the future...or at least the promise of a vision. We are called to set out upon a journey which will undoubtedly upset our routines and those things with which we are familiar, knowing that our lives...and our church...may never be the same. We do this not just for the sake of change or simply to have fun, but to discover what God has in store for us and our world.

Like the wise men, we must recognize the "signs of the times" and recognize that the world has changed...and is still changing! We, too, must set out on a journey, following the light of the Spirit, to find the vision God has for us.

What does the Lord want us to do? Where does he want us to go? How does he want us to get there? Exciting, yet a bit scary! But, as movie icon John Wayne once said, "Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway."

The really exciting part of the story isn't just the search, the journey...which is quite exciting itself...but the end of the search! The wise men found, at the end of their search, Jesus, the new king, like no king before or since. They offered him their gifts and, more importantly, their homage and devotion.

Likewise, Jesus is waiting for us as we search for his vision, for every worthwhile journey leads to him! Hallelujah! Exciting times lay ahead!