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