Thursday, August 30, 2007

Our Christian subculture

Robyn's van is getting new brake pads and rotors put on, so today I had to take her to work and pick her up at the end of her shift. I arrived in the Waterfront in Homestead a little early, so I went to the nearby Barnes & Noble bookstore to hang out for a while. I love bookstores.

One of my first stops in the bookstore was the Religion section. Secular bookstores rarely have Bibles stocked for a "Bible geek", so it didn't take long to exhaust my interest in that book rack. There were three additional racks marked "Christianity", though, so I figured I might find something.

I was saddened and surprised. The racks contained so much of what I would term "pop theology lite". I won't mention names or specific titles, but it was mostly fluffy crap. There as some stuff about the end of the world (it's soon, in case you didn't know), some stuff about how to be really, really happy (complete with pictures of the most lily-white, bright-toothed smiling people you've ever seen), and some stuff about how to get rich...the Jesus way (never mind the fact that Jesus lived a life of itinerant poverty and died seemingly quite poor). Many of the books were from folks of whom I've never heard...apparently self-appointed "experts" out to share their particular version of the gospel.

Is that Christianity? I don't think so; I certainly hope not. Despite my clergy status and love for traditional liturgics, I haven't really been immersed in the "Christian culture" in some time; I almost feel at times that it was a part of my youth which I've since outgrown.

One thing I know for sure is that what I saw on the multitude of racks at the bookstore does not match up well with the Christian faith as taught in the Bible (which, again, had only one rack) or in the writings of the early Church fathers, the Reformers, the Book of Common Prayer, John Wesley, or our hymnody at its best.

Somebody must like this stuff. But I can't imagine who that might be (I watched for a while, but none of those books were purchased while I was there).

It was just bizarre to me that these books and authors represented Christianity. And if I was put off, I can only imagine what non-Church people must think.

A quote came to which I've carried with me for a year. A friend recommended a book to me which was a good read, and this particular quote has stayed with me...

"Jesus and his teachings will not seem as strange or repellant to non-Christians as will the Christian subculture we have created."- Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church, p. 82.
This is what I was witnessing at the bookstore. People think that these books and authors actually represent Christianity. No wonder the mainline Church is in trouble.

I don't have any answers to this dilemma. I'm sure a rack of books including the Book of Common Prayer, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Resident Aliens, City of God, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, and Against Heresies wouldn't have fared much better, even if the theological depth of the selections would have increased a thousandfold.

My point is that Kimball's indictment is real. And I'm guilty, too; all I bought was the latest issue of "Christianity Today".

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Gospel truth

A paraphrase of Jesus' words in Luke 12:54-56 by St. Bob

Monday, August 27, 2007

Sunday review

What a tremendous day we had on Sunday at JUMC!

The day began for us with worship at Round Hill Park (in nearby Elizabeth, PA). This was the first time we held our Sunday morning worship service outside of our church facilities, and it was great! Attendance exceeded our expectations...a full house in our rather large outdoor pavilion! It was a somewhat "contemporary" service in comparison to our usual traditional/blended service (actually, more of a "folk" thing than a "rock and roll" thing). I played guitar and we sang a variety of hymns and non-hymnal selections, preached, and focused on a very informal, conversational, celebratory tone. One young man said it was the first time he'd seen a pastor preach in a t-shirt and shorts!

After that great worship experience, we enjoyed our annual church picnic and had a phenomenal time. The weather was perfect, and the food was delicious. friendly auction...lots of games for the kids, who also played in the nearby forest and playground...and great fellowship. What an afternoon we had!

Had the day ended there, it would have been a blessing. But, at 6 PM, we took part in a very special service that I believe will bear much fruit in our area.

One of the first things I did after arriving at JUMC is contact other area clergy in the hopes of forming a ministerium or some sort of cooperative ministry. It took a while, but last evening, 12 of 13 congregations in West Jefferson Hills School District gathered in the Thomas Jefferson High School auditorium for a "back to school" service of prayer and blessing. There we stood...Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, United Methodists, and independents...praying with and for one another and for the upcoming school year. It was a moment filled with hope and "pregnant with possibility". Several in attendance shed tears of joy, not merely for the school prayers, but for the fact that the Christians were united. It was a true blessing.

If my sisters and brothers in ministry haven't made ecumenical activity a priority, I would urge them to do so. Surely, Jesus' prayer in John 17 is reason enough to actively work toward Christian unity, but the fruit can be among the sweetest we taste as clergy. I have been blessed by these activities in each of my parish appointments.

Finally, we returned home, got the kids ready for their first day of school (Hallelujah!), and watched the Steelers play...a fine end to a lovely day.

How blessed I am to be a part of JUMC. Such wonderful people. Such great opportunity for ministry. God is so very, very good.

Today, the kids went to school (see the "Hallelujah" above), and Robyn is experiencing her first day of work at Bravo at The Waterfront. We've been happy to sacrifice over time so that Robyn could be at home with the kids...and that's been 15 years. I've been blessed to have such a wonderful wife who is so committed as a mom. She's excited and anxious about re-entering the work force outside the home. I told her that if it doesn't work out, that's just fine. I ask for prayers for Robyn as she makes this transition.

Meanwhile, work continues on our education building. The framework for the new roof should be completed this week, with the rest to follow relatively quickly. The new windows and doors are about two weeks away, and the new corridor which will connect our education building to our church building will be the final piece of the puzzle. I'll try and post some pictures of the work in progress. What a mighty God we serve!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Willimon quote

"Reaching out to speak to the world, we fell in face down. Too troubled by our expectations of what our audience could and could not hear, we reduced the gospel to a set of sappy platitudes anybody could accept and no sensitive, thinking person could resist. 'Open minds, Open hearts, Open doors.' Our testimony got reduced to whatever the market could bear. In the process of such 'preaching', distinctive Christian speech was jettisoned and the discourse of instrumental, utilitarian, therapeutic Deism is the dominant homiletic mode. Finney’s pragmatism triumphs. A-theistic, simplified wisdom now dominates popular preaching (Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life) because preaching is no longer an expression of the peculiar actions of a Triune God."
- Bishop William Willimon of North Alabama Conference

Thanks to John Meunier for directing me to the Bishop's post, "What if Wesley Was Right?" )

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

It's No Fun Being An Illegal Alien

A little over a year ago, Elvira Arellano, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, took refuge in Chicago's Adalberto United Methodist Church with her 8 year old son Saul, who is an American citizen. Ms. Arellano sought "sanctuary" rather than be deported. Several days ago, she left Chicago to participate in an activist event in Los Angeles, where she was arrested. I believe (but am not entirely certain) that she has already been deported to Mexico. The UMNS news story can be found here.

The debate over immigration, particularly regarding those who enter the United States illegally (as Ms. Arellano did a decade ago), has become extremely divisive in this nation. Undoubtedly, along with the so-called "War on Terror" (specifically its Iraqi phase), the issue will continue to be a dominant one until we reach the November 2008 Presidential/Congressional election.

The questions I've wrestled with regarding the immigration issue are, "What should my opinion be?" and "What should we as the Church do about this issue?"

There is no official doctrine regarding this issue in The United Methodist Church, nor should there be. There are a few resolutions (118, 119, 265, 266, 302) in our Book of Resolutions which deal with the issue, though these will likely be amended and broadened at General Conference 2008. Additionally, while these reflect the official position of the Church, United Methodists are not bound to support these opinions; they are not doctrinal standards to which we must adhere.

The Bible contains numerous passages about showing mercy to the alien or "sojourner" in our midst. Certainly, the Church is bound by these admonitions. And, when laws are unjust, civil disobedience is a viable option and, at times, a responsibility; God's expectations trump any expectations from the State. Many Americans also make it relatively easy for illegal immigrants to enter the United States, by indiscriminately offering jobs and aid.

At the same time, there are legal means for people to enter the United States, and those who break the law should not be favored over those who are attempting to obey the law. That's entirely unjust.

So, here's where I am, with recognition that my position is prayerfully fluid and may change completely tomorrow...

* The Church is not an American institution; Christians are first and foremost disciples of Jesus Christ and citizens of his Kingdom, and only secondarily citizens of any secular state. Our ultimate allegiance belongs to Jesus, not to any worldly nation. If the demands of discipleship conflict with American interests, faith must come first.

* I believe the Church has the sacred right to offer sanctuary to anyone who asks for it, whether that person be an illegal immigrant, an accused child molester, an escaped murderer, or Osama Bin Laden. If nothing else, it gives us the opportunity to defuse a potentially explosive situation, seek justice as well as mercy, and provide a witness for Christ to all involved.

* The current debate has displayed ugly inferences of racism from every side; the Church needs to stand against racism and try to inspire language that does not drip of this venom.

* It's likely that immigration laws need to allow more immigrants entrance in a legal fashion and that their entry should be expedited, not caught up in "red tape" for great lengths of time.

* I'm not sure any border fence will work, and it's such an ugly symbol.

* American leaders should demand that Mexican leaders patrol their side of the border more diligently, and end practices in that nation which encourage illegal immigration. Additionally, companies which employ illegal immigrants in America should be severely penalized, perhaps to the point of being forced out of business. It seems to me that in many cases, these are the real criminals. If this temporarily hurts the American economy, so be it; there will be recovery, and probably a very quick recovery, as other companies move in to replace those damaged by illegal employment.

* Parents should not be separated from their children, as a general rule. On the other hand, any parent who knowingly commits a criminal act has already shown a willingness to endure separation, whether that crime is shoplifting, murder, or illegal immigration. It seems to me that Ms. Arellano made her decision some time ago. While I truly feel for her and her situation, and especially for her son, she knowingly and willingly committed a crime. Sadly, I'm not sure that Church officials - Bishops, pastors, and laity - did anything more than encourage her to do so. That's a bad witness on our part.

* We need to remember that most of us have roots in illegal immigration. many of our ancestors (such as those of my wife...and thus my children) came to the "new world" as explorers, colonists, and "pioneers", and were surely "illegal immigrants" in the eyes of native Americans. More importantly, Abraham journeyed from Mesopotamia to the "promised land", whether the inhabitants wanted him there or not; the Hebrews, after the exodus from Egypt, entered Palestine much to the chagrin of the Canaanites. If not for these "illegal immigrants", our faith history would be very different. And, lest we forget, God sanctioned and at times even commanded these actions.

Given this, the Church needs to find a way to welcome the alien, show mercy, and work for more open immigration policies in America while also strongly encouraging adherence to the law. Should a situation arise again such as the sad case of the Arellano family, we should find a way to offer sanctuary while doing all we can do to find a legal and just resolution. Perhaps those involved did their best, but my impression has been that they seemed tied more to political partisanship than to any sense of real resolution.

Every time someone on TV, the radio, or the Internet screams about immigration policy, whether on the Right or the Left, we should pray, pray, pray. And until we hear a definitive word from above regarding American immigration policy, we should probably err on the side of mercy and grace.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Prayer Collect for the People of Jamaica

Gracious Heavenly Father, who desires mercy for all people, we pray tonight for the people of Jamaica and the islands of the Caribbean, who are suffering in the face of Hurricane Dean. Be with all those in the path of this horrific storm, that the winds may slow and the waters may recede. By the power of your Holy Spirit, strengthen all who are afflicted by the tempest and all those who, in the days and weeks ahead, will be working faithfully to bring relief and help to those in need. In some miraculous way, help your holy Church to embody your compassion, through word and deed, for those who hurt, that the name of your Son might be known more fully as the true name of love; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Monday, August 13, 2007

How in the world are you?

"Jesus said, 'I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already blazing! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!
"Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.'
"He also said to the crowds, 'When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, It is going to rain; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, There will be scorching heat; and it happens.
"You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?'"
- Luke 12:49-56 (NRSV, adapt.)

Many like to think of Jesus as someone who unites, who brings people together, who can heal broken relationships and reconcile estranged sisters and brothers. Given this image, many Christian leaders, particularly Bishops and other institutional figures, model their own ministries on this model. After all, as United Methodist Elder Thomas Hawkins wrote in Faithful Leadership (1999), "How we lead is how we see Jesus."

But there is another side to Jesus' ministry concerning which we don't always like to focus. Jesus didn't speak very often of uniting, but he did speak powerfully about his role as the 'Great Divider'. When it comes to Jesus, families, friends, and communities will be torn asunder, and society itself will be (at times) violently opposed to the One who is God Incarnate.

As I am someone who unapologetically supports aggressive Christian non-violence, you might think Luke 12 to be problematic for me. Far from it. My favorite image of creation in the Old Testament isn't the wonderfully majestic litany of Genesis 1, nor is it the intimate "campire tale" in Genesis 2; rather, I truly love the image of YHWH the rather violent 'Divine Warrior' subduing the monsters of chaos we find in places like Psalm 74, Psalm 89, and Isaiah 51. I (usually) don't take the warrior motif literally, of course, but I understand its great power, particularly for our ancestors in the faith. We as Jesus' disciples may be called to nonviolence, but there's no denying that violent imagery is part of who we are as fallen human beings living in a broken world.

In this vein, Jesus' talk of aggressive division speaks to me of a significant spiritual truth. According to John 15, Jesus said, "Servants are not greater than their master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also." Just as Jesus divided people and suffered for it, we should expect the same. How can the Church expect to be a uniting force in a culture steeped in brokenness and sin, which is utterly opposed to Jesus and all for which he stands?

In Luke 6, we read, "Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets." This is what we should expect as the people of God, called to love our enemies, to proclaim salvation, to refuse to honor violence, to care for "the least of these", and to live for Jesus.

The Church ought to be rather stubborn when it comes to being the Church. "Open hearts, open minds, and open doors" may be a catchy advertizing slogan, but would make for a pretty faulty mission statement. We're simply far too obstinate. Pliny, a Roman governor of long ago, once wrote to Emperor Trajan upon executing some Christians who refused to worship Caesar and stop caring for the poor in ways deemed 'un-Roman', "Whatever the nature of their creed, a stubbornly disobedient and inflexible obstinacy certainly deserved punishment."

Winston Churchill once said, "You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something sometime in your life."

French theologian Jacques Ellul once wrote, "Christians should be troublemakers, creators of uncertainty, agents of a dimension incompatible with society."

I don't often quote dispensationalists, as I find their theology to be distressingly bizarre and eisegetically unorthodox, but radio commentator J. Vernon McGee began his Bible programs with the wonderful question, "How in the world are you?" That's a question we should ask ourselves often as the Church. Are we so "in the world", so friendly with the world, so enamored with culture, that we are no longer the countercultural voice of the gospel? Jesus ate with sinners, hung out in places deemed unworthy of religious people, and did things in a way that shocked the establishment...but, at the end of the day, it was determined that he was so unfriendly toward the culture that he needed to die. Painfully.

As the Church, let's not get so comfortable with culture that we forget that we are called to be the most powerful countercultural agent on the planet, at times as divisive as our fire-bringing Lord.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Gentlemen Don't Prefer Bonds

What is there to say about the biggest news story this week?

Former Pittsburgh Pirate Barry Bonds hit the 756th home run of his career, making him baseball's all-time home run king. Regardless of how long his record stands (probably not for long, given the relative youth of Alex Rodriguez), he will surely go down in history as the greatest home run hitter of his era, as Henry Aaron and Babe Ruth were in their own respective eras.

I understand that the home run record is probably the most sacred record in all of sports, and that generations of ball players (and kids on playgrounds across America) defined their play in the light of Aaron and Ruth. Still, my comment on Bonds' achievement is this: big deal.

Henry Aaron was not only a great athlete, he is a man filled with dignity and integrity. One of the most famous men on the planet, he nevertheless lives a relatively quiet, subdued life. He has been a committed husband and father, civil rights pioneer, and humanitarian. He has also been one of the finest ambassadors baseball has ever known. Henry Aaron gives children of all ages someone to admire for more than simply hitting a ball; he is an exceptional man.

Barry Bonds hits home runs. Famously temperamental and at times even mean, his career has been mired in controversy and scandal involving allegations of steroid use and perjury. Many believe that given the high probablity of steroid use, Bonds' achievement this week is the result of cheating, and should not be compared to the authentic achievements of Aaron and Ruth.

I should note that to date nothing has been definitively proven regarding the allegations against Bonds. The courts and baseball officials are still in the process of pursuing the charges, which may turn out to be completely false or at least unprovable. And, to be fair, Bonds' public persona may be very different from his private life; one hopes this is the case.

But, there's a lesson which remains for us to learn. Records and achievements at work are fine, whether home run records, Super Bowl rings, money earned, or Sunday worship numbers. But, at the end of the day, what really matters is what kind of person we are. How do we treat others? Our spouses? Our children? Sisters and brothers in Christ? Strangers? The "least of these"? Henry Aaron is beloved not simply for his home runs, but for the kind of man he is; Barry Bonds is derided, fairly or unfairly, for the same reason.

To celebrate achievements such as this is not necessarily a bad thing, but there are other aspects of our lives which are of far greater import, which matter more to God and to those whom we love.

So, today I'll make a nice chicken dinner for my wife and then take the family to a movie. That one extra hour working on my sermon and that one extra visit I could make and those extra moments I could spend planning can all wait. I'm off to help forge a real legacy.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Sunday's preaching text

"Now faith is
being sure of
what we hope for
and certain of
what we do not see.
This is what the ancients
were commended for.
By faith we understand
that the universe
was formed
at God's command,
so that what is seen was not made
out of what was visible."
- Hebrews 11:1-3 (TNIV)

Monday, August 06, 2007

62 years from Hell

62 years ago today, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, another was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

Without question, fascism needs to be opposed, and the Church has powerful and nonviolent ways to do so. But Americans tend to canonize World War Two, as if it really were a good example of "just war". We forget that this war violated "just war" principles...first by demanding "unconditional surrender", then, of course, by dropping atomic bombs on Japan. Many Americans remark that had the bombs not been dropped, forcing Japanese surrender, an invasion might have cost a million or more American lives, as if those lives were somehow of greater value than the tens of thousands...hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives which were ended.

One of the great problems of "just war" thinking is that once we allow that little compromise from Jesus' directives, the next steps are unconditional surrender, to the internment of Asian-Americans, to cluster bombs in Kosovo, to Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, to Auschwitz and Birkenau, to the dropping of nuclear weapons. For the Church, there can be no compromise when it comes to Jesus' commands, because when we compromise (or simply ignore) our Lord, millions may die.

May God forgive all those responsible for the atomic attacks on Japan, as well as all those who helped to create those conditions; may God forgive Jesus' Church, which failed to be a voice for peace during the 1940s, and continues that failure into the 21st century; may God have mercy on victims of war throughout the world.

May God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, help his people to be more peaceful and his Church to be more obedient to Jesus Christ, Lord of the Church and Lord of All.

"Just War: a secular version of “holy war”,
our religion: Righteous Indignation.

Just wait till March when we march,
gas masks our featureless faces.

Just wait till April when we shower
like rain on the just and unjust.

Propaganda? The biggest lie
is “civilians won’t die.”

Jesus didn’t say, “Do unto others,
before they do unto you.”

Why do we both have God on our side?
Could it be that God just loves a good fight?

And here we insert the societal shrug,
askance, resigned:

It’s only human nature;
it’s just war." - Bruce Niedt

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Dreamer

Click to view my Personality Profile page

INFP - The "Dreamer"

INFPs are introspective, private, creative and highly idealistic individuals that have a constant desire to be on a meaningful path. They are driven by their values and seek peace. Empathetic and compassionate, they want to help others and humanity as a whole. INFPs are imaginative, artistic and often have a talent for language and writing. They can also be described as easygoing, selfless, guarded, adaptable, patient and loyal.

Temperament: NF (Visionary)
INFP Population Total: 2%

"...the King's Champion or Defender of the Faith..." - The Portrait of a Healer Idealist (Keirsey)

"...on a continuous mission to find the truth and meaning underlying things. Every encounter and every piece of knowledge gained gets sifted through the INFP's value system, and is evaluated to see if it has any potential to help the INFP define or refine their own path in life." - Portrait of an INFP (The Personality Page)

"Highly creative, artistic and spiritual, they can produce wonderful works of art, music and literature. INFPs are natural artists. They will find great satisfaction if they encourage and develop their artistic abilities. That doesn't mean that an INFP has to be a famous writer or painter in order to be content. Simply the act of "creating" will be a fulfilling source of renewal and refreshment to the INFP. An INFP should allow himself or herself some artistic outlet, because it will add enrichment and positive energy to their life." - INFP Personal Growth (The Personality Page)

"Their job must be fun, although not racous, and it must be meaningful to them. They need a strong purpose in their work." - INFP - The Dreamer (Lifexplore)

Friday, August 03, 2007


"Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.'

"But Jesus answered,
'Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?' "And he said to them, 'Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.' "Then he told them a parable: 'The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? Then he said, I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.

"But God said to him,
You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?

"So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.'"
- Luke 12:13-21 (NRSV)

I've noticed that in almost every community I encounter on my journey, there are "storage units" being built. These are for folks who simply have so much "stuff" that they can't fit it all in their home.

Now, I can see the need for these if a person or a family is in transition and needs some temporary extra space as they move from one home to another. But, my guess is that much (perhaps most) of these storgae units are for folks who have simply gathered more than will fit comfortably in their homes.

What a strange world in which we live!

The rich man in Jesus' parable simply had too much, and needed extra storage space. This is a concept foreign to much of our culture; we are taught that one can never have too much.

Part of the problem, of course, is discerning what is of real value and what can be discarded. Certainly, people and relationships are what truly matter. And, we all have some precious mementos which we would find it difficult to of family or friends, cherished editions of the Bible, old love letters, Beatles records...the list can go on.

I am convinced that we all need a certain measure of the spiritual gift of discernment. As disciples of Jesus the parable-teller, we need to discern what truly has value and what can be discarded. This is true not only for our material life, but our spiritual life as well. What "stuff" have I collected through the years in my heart, in my spirit, that I simply need to discard? I don't need more storage, and if I can get rid of things which don't matter too much, I have more room for love...for grace...for compassion...for Robyn...for Jesus.

My prayer is that I can go on to perfection and learn to "travel light" as I continue on this journey of faith.