Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I Would Do Anything for Love, But I Won't Do That

"God said to Abraham, 'Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.' So Abraham rose early in the morning...

"When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.

"But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, 'Abraham, Abraham!...Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.'

"And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son."
- from Genesis 22 (ESV, adapt.)

On the surface, the Old Testament selection in this week's lectionary is an absolutely appalling story. I simply cannot imagine serving a God who demanded the murderous sacrifice of my child. The event so respulsed Abraham's wife, in fact, that the Scriptures suggest that it caused a permanent rift in that marital relationship (Abraham lived in Beersheba, Sarah at Hebron).

Most interpreters through the centuries have viewed this uncomfortable episode as a test of faithfulness, noting that Abraham kept nothing from God...even his heir. That is certainly a valid explanation. The book of Hebrews makes much of this view.

But I have tended to look at this story through different eyes.

A 1937 commentary entitled The Pentateuch and Haftorahs by Joseph Hertz, a prominent rabbi and scholar, suggests that since child sacrifice was so very common in the ancient Near East, the amazing component of the account isn't the patriarch's faithfulness, but rather that the Lord commands Abraham to cease from killing Isaac. The narrative thus may be in our Bible to teach that child sacrifice is simply an unacceptable practice for the people of God; this would be yet another mark of Israel's uniqueness and holiness among the nations.

What a powerful interpretation!

The repercussions of the "Binding of Isaac" story for the 21st century Church seem clear. We, like ancient Israel, are to reject the sacrifice of children in the face of a culture which seeks to hypersexualize and exploit them. We are called to stand against those movements and societal impulses which would diminish childhood and ultimately harm children. We are to serve as witnesses to God's prevenient grace for all children, and advocate for their safety and wellness. This means to not only provide a "safe sanctuary", but also to champion better education, truly caring family environments, adequate health care, safety and security, and appropriate standards in "entertainment" marketed to children.

Above all else, it means that the Church needs to stop looking at children as "the future", as so many seem eager to do, and instead think of children as "the present", and lovingly invest in them not because someday they will build or save the Church, but rather because right now...today...they are precious souls in the Kingdom who need to know that their Heavenly Father is deeply in love with them.

My prayer is that we as a society and especially as a Church, like Abraham, turn from sacrificing our children to the gods of a culture which is broken and diseased, and that we find ways instead to truly love these treasured young people through the merciful grace of Jesus Christ.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Building Project Dedication

We had a great day at Jefferson church yesterday. Our building project has finally been completed and we dedicated the new facilities as part of our Lord's Day worship. My predecessor at JUMC, the Rev. Dr. Douglas Heagy, who had originally cast the vision for the project, joined us (on loan from First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Greensburg, PA) with his family as part of a wonderful homecoming. Doug brought the word to a full house and did an excellent job. He talked about "taking the long view", noting that we may not often see the fruit that is produced by our faithfulness, but it is important nevertheless to labor for the Kingdom and trust that God has something special in store. Timely words.

We then ventured out of the sanctuary to our new facilities to consecrate and dedicate them for Kingdom use. Joining Doug and I were Trustee chairperson Bud Turner, architect John Kudravy, and fundraising leader Ron Lewis, all three of whom served on our Vision Committee for the project. A time of fellowship followed, with refreshments provided by the Boy Scout troop we sponsor.

In the above pic, you can see on the left some of the improvements to our education building...new roof, new windows, new doors, new siding. You can also see our new corridor which now connects our education building and our worship building for the first time in the 165 year history of JUMC. Some members of our church family are standing in our beautiful new courtyard, which is a lovely setting for fellowship as well as for prayer.

In this pic, you can see one of the blocks in our new corridor. One side is bordered with blocks purchased to help defray the costs of our project; those blocks are dedicated in memory or honor of loved ones. The other side of the corridor is bordered with blocks listing the names of every pastor who has served JUMC since its founding in 1843, along with their dates of service. It is quite an honor to be included in this blessed roll call.

All in all, a terrific day. Our new improvements better equip us to reach out to our community, providing a more efficient, safe, and attractive headquarters for mission to Jefferson Hills and Pleasant Hills (the two communities I consider to be my "primary parish"). It is a true blessing to serve alongside such a neat team of saints, and I thank God that I'm along for this ride.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Headed to Grove City

Tomorrow morning, our kids go to school for about two hours. When they return, we will pack the van and head to Grove City, PA for Western PA Annual Conference 2008. The theme this year is simply (yet profoundly) "Love" . Our son Christian is a lay member of Conference; our daughter Kate will be attending for the first time, and will be there as a page. I'm also providing transportation for two young ladies from a neighboring congregation (Pine Run UMC in Clairton, PA) who will be serving with Kate as pages.

Of course, I covet prayers. I especially ask that our youth and their adult leaders be lifted up in prayer. It is a long, long week, and nothing could be accomplished without their faithfulness, hard work and late hours.

I look forward to connecting with sisters and brothers in Christ...to heartfelt worship...to theological challenges which force me to grow...to the renewing presence of the Holy Spirit...and to returning home on Sunday afternoon.

Almighty and everlasting Father, you have given the Holy Spirit to abide with us for ever: Bless, we pray, with his grace and presence, Bishop Thomas Bickerton and other clergy and the laity soon to be assembled in your Name, that your Church, being preserved in true faith and godly discipline, may fulfill all the mind of him who loved it and gave himself for it, your Son Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
- adapted from The Book of Common Prayer

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Thank you, Penguins

Last night, the Detroit Red Wings beat the Pittsburgh Penguins to win the Stanley Cup. It was the fourth NHL championship in 11 years for this veteran hockey team. Without question, they are the best team in professional hockey in the 2007-2008 season.

But, I want to take a moment to thank the Penguins. This hockey season was one of the most exciting sports rides, in my opinion, in Pittsburgh history. It was a real joy to watch it and, at times, be a part of it. It was a lot of fun, and Pens fans everywhere should be rejoicing today, even as we feel the sting of losing the ultimate hockey prize.

Last season, the young Penguins lost in the first round of the playoffs, but demonstrated that they were a team to watch in the future. Led by 20 year old Sidney Crosby, the best player in the world, the team was poised this year to go deep in the playoffs and make a lot of noise.

Then, starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury got hurt, and was out for months. Miraculously, journeyman goalie Ty Conklin stepped in and did a phenomenal job of filling in. On New Year's Day in the outdoor "Winter Classic" game in Buffalo, Crosby played brilliantly in adverse conditions, winning the game in a shoot-out, even while leading the NHL (at the time) in assists (in the last season, he'd won the league scoring title).

A few weeks later, Crosby was hurt in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. While he recovered, Evgeni Malkin emerged as one of the league's leading scorers and a new superstar. The Penguins just kept overcoming adversity to find success.

Perhaps what has been most special about the Penguins, particularly this season, has been the fact that they have really become a part of the Pittsburgh community, moreso than the Steelers or the Pirates, in my opinion. The Pens have really made an effort to serve their fans and reach out to them. Even yesterday, with the game coming up in just a few hours, I ran into leftwinger Pacsal Dupuis in Giant Eagle, where he was happily signing autographs and shaking hands even while he picked up milk and bread. The Pens have embodied the principle of immanence, and are beloved for it.

The Pens also emerged this season with colorful characters which are a hallmark of Pittsburgh sports. Crosby, Malkin, and Fleury are the uber-talented superstars, of course, but their supporting cast is filled with interesting players loaded not only with talent but with guts and with heart...Hal Gill, Sergei Gonchar, Marian Hossa, Georges Laraque, Ryan Malone, Brooks Orpik, Gary Roberts, Jarkko Ruutu, Jordan Staal, Petr Sykora, and others. Several might sign with other teams for significantly more money in the offseason, but it has been great to have them on this team.

What a season. I was able to enjoy the entire season with my daughter Kate, who became Pens-obsessed, and the rest of my family, who also lived and breathed hockey for the last two months. Though the Pens dominated the Eastern Conference, they lost to a team with veteran skills and talent which earned the title of "champion". The future is bright for the Penguins, though the pain is real today.

I really have no point in this post other than to simply say, "Thank you, Penguins", to thank God for this exciting season, and to look forward to when the puck drops again in October.

And, by the way...the Steelers report to Latrobe for training camp on July 27.