Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Personal Relationship with Jesus is Not . . .

Sometimes I hear people say, "I don't like Paul."  They're referring to the Apostle Paul.  I'll ask, "What is it about Paul you don't like?"  The answers tend to be: he was sexist, homophobic, dogmatic, angry, and judgmental.  Finally, I'll ask, "Is it Paul you don't like or what people have done with Paul you don't like?"  I wonder the same thing about people who have problems with the notion of a "personal relationship with Jesus."  Is it really that you object to the whole notion of people having a personal relationship with Jesus or has that concept been used in ways that you find less than godly?  

When I speak of a personal relationship with Jesus I mean--(1) the choice to follow Jesus is made by the person; (2) the spiritual practices of the individual are real and significant; (3)  Jesus taught that God's reign shoulds influence individual personal behaviors; (4) personal decision-making should be open to Christ's guidance; and (5) the Holy Spirit nurtures the relationship between the person and Christ.  There are some things I don't mean:

1.  A Personal Relationship with Jesus is not emotional.  Christians seem to vacillate between the dogma and dismissal of emotion.  The Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening in American and British religious history was a time of emotional fervor. Sermons were often judged as effective or not on the basis of the emotional reaction. Church membership could also be gained or denied on the believability of a person's experience of coming to faith. D. Bruce Hindmarsh explained in The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England that many 18th-20th centuries churches required a person's testimony along with adherence to the congregation's creeds in order to gain entry into the church's membership. His terse description of this time was, "No narrative; no admittance" (p. 289). Emotion wasn't necessarily required in such cases, but it did add to the believability of the testimony. Even today, I encounter people genuinely concerned about the truth of their own faith because they feel they lack sufficient emotion. Somewhere someone has convinced them that true believers have strong feelings about their faith. It is dogma. The dogma of emotion leads some people to dismiss the value of emotion altogether. Emotions are a part of a person. Some people are feelers and others are not. The Bible does not require emotional responses to Jesus. It also does not dismiss the emotional reaction to Jesus.  I should probably have said, "a personal relationship with Jesus is not necessarily emotional."  But too many modifiers weigh down my sub-headings.  

 2. A Personal Relationship with Jesus is not private. Few expressions get under my skin and expose my judgmental nature quite like referring to communion as "my private time with Jesus."  I serve in a church where communion is passed from person to person in trays. Individual pieces of bread and individual cups. The individual cups did not become our practice through faithful discernment. When some churches abandoned real wine because of the temperance movement, we started using grape juice. In order to avoid the spread of disease (since wine has the natural germ-killing capacity of alcohol), we moved to using individual cups. Disciples, Churches of Christ, and Baptist churches also moved away from requiring an ordained minister to preside at the Lord's table. We preferred the more egalitarian form of elder-presided, deacon-served communion. Yet, these two factors put together mean that people can remain fairly isolated in their pews while remembering the body and blood of Jesus. A private communion is not just an oxymoron it is scripturally moronic.  Yet, we retreat more and more into a practice of faith where we shield ourselves from accountability to another with regard to a commitment to truth, purity in conduct, faithfulness in prayer, and righteousness with decision-making. Such privatization of the personal relationship to Jesus leads to the elevation of the person to become a church in and of his or her self.  

 3. A Personal Relationship with Jesus is not self-serving. It's easy to bend anything that is good and sacred into something that serves the interests of the self. Communal religion isn't immune to this by virtue of its community. Group interest is as powerful as self-interest. The call of Christ is that we would glorify God, make Disciples of Jesus Christ, serve the needs of our neighbor as we do for ourselves. Christian faith beckons us to leave self-serving relgion.  Faith in Jesus calls us to unfold the life folded up on itself.  

Monday, October 17, 2016

This Blog Has Moved

I've been posting on this Blog for 11 years.  Thought it was time for a change.  So, I've got my own personal URL now. come visit me there.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Concerning the Angry Email You Forwarded to Me

We live in the sort of mediated age that no one could have imagined 2000  years ago. Today, we have access to the thoughts and feelings of people around the world.This has opened up a market of angry rants that often make their way to my in-box in the form of a forwarded email from you.  Though Jesus did not function in a world where this free-flow of ideas was possible, I am called to be seek to embody his vision in this age. So,  I feel the need to offer a pastoral word in response to the email you forwarded to me.

One caveat. I have political opinions.  If you've interacted with me often, you likely know what they are.  I'm pretty transparent. My general political opinions are NOT the opinions of a qualified policy, diplomacy, or legal expert.  They are just my opinions.  If I have ever given you the impression that I believe my general political opinions were somehow holier than yours because I am ordained, please accept my apology.  This is not what I believe. 

I also do not believe that my work is politically neutral.  Sometimes people dismiss the political opinions of pastors believing that we should keep the realms of governing and God separate. I would like to gently challenge that perception. There are issues that I as a pastor do feel obligated--in my pastoral role--to speak out about.  There does need to be a distinction between my general political opinions and my more qualified professional opinions that derive from my faithful, pastoral discernment.

I went to a family practice physician several years.  He let me know that he was "to the right of Attila the Hun."  I knew he was exaggerating.  I've listened to Attila's podcast and there's no one to the right of him.  I had been going to this doctor for over a decade when he retired.  He was a nice guy and we were making friendly conversation when he told me what he thought.  I did not confuse my physician's  political opinions with his opinions about my health.  His diagnoses of my bronchitis were qualified opinions.  His attitudes toward liberals were not.  He is entitled to them.  They just don't persuade me.  I did ask him a question regarding a church's sharing prayer concerns and HIPA (Health Information Protection Act) rules.  He shared with me his judgment.  It was a "political" opinion as it had to do with policy and law.  It was a political opinion he was qualified to give.  I would ask for the same understanding. There are legal and political issues that I am qualified to address as a pastor.  There are laws and practices of every government that are so opposed to the will of God that I feel the need to speak out.  We probably need clearer signals to clarify the difference between the moments when I'm just giving my opinion  as a citizen and my opinions as a professional.  Still it's not as simple as keeping the two separate.

Now back to the email you forwarded me.   You know  the one where the really insightful but angry person gave the speech, wrote the blog, or had the conversation that put the people you find frustrating in their place. 

I have tried to engage the content of these before.  I have spent time trying to do some fact-checking.  I once reached out to a Country radio station-manager to seek clarification about song that was supposedly being shut out from the airwaves because it was too patriotic.  Turns out, the station-manager explained, that wasn't the reason.  The country band's own management chooses which songs to release for radio play and the song that everyone loved wasn't the song they chose to push. I have tried providing counter-evidence.  I recently saw pie chart that purported show the difference between the federal government's welfare spending relative to our military spending.  I went looking for better evidence and did my best to wade through the explanations given about how the federal budget actually works and why the graphic was wrong.  I have tried revealing the accuracy of the source.  So much of what comes through as forwarded emails are not correctly attributed.  I have tried interrogating the logic beneath the emails and other content. I have decided that I must stop doing this. 

I must stop not because I am unqualified. At times, I'm very qualified. I must stop this form of argumentation because you know me as a pastor.  I am either your pastor or I am a pastor you've come in contact with.  So, I need to treat your email within the context of that pastoral relationship. In that regard, I have two questions.

First, have you felt that I have pushed my political opinions on you or the church in a heavy-handed and irresponsible way?  If so, please be specific with me about where I've done that. If it's just been a matter of my general opinions leaking out--Please accept my apology.  I recognize that I can be guilty of that, but I also don't think that it's appropriate for me to present my opinions as though they were truth from on-high.

If it's been a situation where I feel I have expressed a qualified opinions as a pastor about a political issue, please let's have an open conversation about this.  My professional opinions can still be wrong, troublesome, and unsettling, but I would hope we could have healthy conversation about that.  In short, if you forwarded me the email in order to indirectly address something between the two of us, I'd ask you to simply find a way to have a direct conversation. 

Second, are you as angry as the forwarded email makes you seem?  Anger is a serious spiritual issue.  Jesus said, "If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment and if you insult a brother or sister you will be liable to the counsel, and if you say, 'you fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire"  Matthew 5:22-23.  These are challenging words that have convicted me over and over again.  This particular section the Sermon on the Mount has several practically impossible commands about anger, lust, divorce, oaths, tolerance and forgiveness.  I believe these teachings have to be counter-balanced with what Jesus also said about God's grace and forgiveness.  Still, Jesus recognized the destructive potential of anger and harsh words.  The book of Ephesians says, "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not make room for the devil" (Ephesians 4:26-27).  Anger is a serious pastoral issue.  I have yet to see an email reduce people's anger.  In fact, I have sent emails where I hoped to reduce people's anger.  In my head, they were carefully worded and soft-spoken but they were heard the opposite way.

If the anger reflected in the email you forwarded is an anger you feel, let's talk. If you sense a common theme, you're right.  It is: let's talk.  You willingly share with me what's going on with you physically.  We recognize that I have no medical qualifications that permit me to respond to your symptoms or their causes. We talk about your physical health because it impacts your spiritual state.  I see political anger in much the same way.   Just as I cannot change your physical health and am not qualified to give my opinions about your physical health, I am usually not qualified to try to persuade you to think differently about government.  Like my response to your physical health challenges, I hold your political frustrations in prayer, I will seek to better understand what you feel is being threatened and I will join you in seeking ways to act redemptively in the face of what is happening politically.

Part of that means maintaining a healthy relationship to your church family.  One of the reasons I find your forwarded email troubling is that I see the other church members with whom you shared it.  Undoubtedly you sent it to some people you know agree with you.  Still, it has the potential to foster divisiveness as it creates a collective understanding about those who are politically different than your tribe.  It creates an "other" within the church.    You may not be aware that when you characterize people who disagree with you as idiots (or other name-calling), or as you imply that the outspoken adherents to the views with which you disagree should sit down and shut up, as you circulate the very humorous caricature of politicians, and as you vicariously vent your frustration through the words of another, you are putting distance between yourself and others in the congregation. I am aware of the people in the congregation who hold the views ridiculed, voted for the politicians caricatured, and feel the heat from this person's venting.  I am aware because I read the emails they've forwarded to me, spoken to them about what they're seeing on the news, and heard them talk about their political opinions.  Let me be clear, the church should be a place of dialogue and discourse.  It should model how people can disagree while remaining in covenant relationship to one another.  Again, it means forwarding (or posting, tweeting, clipping) less and talking more.  I gladly read things sent to me by members as they are frequently insightful and informative.  It's because I take the emails you send me seriously that I am concerned by some of what you've sent to me.  Some of these emails contain more heat than light, and more derision than information.  I want what you are reading and share with me to elevate my understanding and perspective.  Too often, it makes me concerned about how positions in the world are creating camps within the church.  Divisiveness in the church is deadly (see Matthew 18:1-20; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17;   11:17-22; Philippians 2:1-11; 4:2-8).

Let me make some suggestions: 
  1. Let people clarify their positions for themselves.  Many of the angry, ranting forwards are quite simply inaccurate.  They summarize their opponents' positions in ways that their opponents would not recognize.  Use the Internet to its full potential by engaging in some independent fact-checking and follow-up especially with regard to those items with which you agree.  A bad argument made for the sake of a good cause does more harm than good. 
  2. Assess what's connecting with you.  Do you find yourself learning something new or is what you're reading simply confirming what you already believe?  There's nothing wrong with finding someone who gives you a vocabulary to express what you believe, but we should remember that there' still a counter-perspective that deserves to be heard.  If it touches your mind, great; if it raises your blood-pressure, ask questions.  Lots of questions. 
  3. Look for angles.  Anger is profitable.  There's an old saying that goes, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."  There is a class of media professionals who have turned that into a marketing strategy.  They know that if they can creatively attack the people you find frustrating, you'll regard them as "friends" meaning you'll listen, you'll tune in, maybe you'll buy a book, listen to a radio show or podcast or visit a website.  At the end of the line, they aren't interested in participating with you in creating a better world, they want you to be their customer.  If the problem they're ranting about improves, they lose a source of income.  Somehow the story of Paul and Silas in Philippi seems relevant here (Acts 16:16-40). 
  4. Look for hope.  Hope is not wishful thinking.  Hope is the spiritual discipline of keeping our eyes open to the ways we can participate in God's kingdom-work in this world.  Does what you're reading offer you a sense that  you can do something different to improve things and join God in redeeming work?  If not, let it go.   

In the end, our relationship is not defined by your politics or mine.  It is defined by our shared faith in Jesus Christ and the extent to which we can mutually encourage each other to greater faithfulness to his call to serve, bless, and bear witness in the world.   

Friday, July 15, 2016

Pokemon Go Gym

Social experiment today. Our church--First Christian Church 910 S. Collins, Arlington, TX--is a "Pokemon Go gym". I know that a lot of people are concerned about safety, but people are going to keep playing so we need to offer safe, hospitable places. So, I've got water and Gatorade in my car. By 9 am our gym will have people fuel. You can help me by 1.  Getting the word out. 2.  Come sit in the shade and greet people. I'll be out there as much as I can but have a meeting at 11 and need to go to the hospitals at some point. And 3. Bring some cookies or granola bars or other easily eaten foods. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Message of Peace
2 Corinthians 1:3-11
July 10, 2016 (the Sunday following the deadly shooting of 5 officers in Dallas, Texas)

Through all that has taken place I keep having a bizarre recurring memory of drinking from a water hose.  I grew up in the days when we would spend a lot of time outside and when we got hot and thirsty, we’d drink out of the water hose.  I wasn’t supposed to do that.  My mother would get on to me—she was a public health nurse.  She’d insist that if I was thirsty, I could come inside and get a drink.  That's when my other problem developed. If I came inside just to get a drink and then when immediately back outside, my Dad would get on to me for coming in and out too much.  He’d say, “come in and stay in or go out and stay out but enough of this in/out, in/out.”  More than once, I determined it was safer to take my chances drinking from the water hose.  Only you couldn’t turn it on too high or the parents inside would hear, bang on the window and tell me to stop.  So, I’d turn it one just a little and suck what little water I could from the trickling quiet stream.  It was never very satisfying.  Not when you were as dehydrated as I was.  But then there were those times when Mom and Dad weren’t home.  Or I grew up just old enough not to worry about.  OR, you know, last week when it was my hose and my house and I could do whatever I wanted.  And I could turn on the hose full blast the pressure the water coming out of the hose would push its way  into the mouth, down into the stomach, out to the cells in what seemed like a split second reaction.  
The Apostle Paul spoke of God as the Father of mercy or compassion and the God of all comfort.  Yet, for me the comfort and consolation that I feel scripture so often speaks of has been a bit of a trickle.  It feels like a trickle.  And it’s a trickle for the very same reason I was drinking from a trickling hose to begin with—because if you turn it on too high someone will be angry.  If you go inside for a real drink and someone will get mad.  Speak up about a racist system and cultural divides between whites and blacks and Hispanics and Asians and gays and straights and you’ll hear that bang on the window.  Dare to suggest that the systems currently in place favor me and people like me and other people like me may just get their feelings hurt.  There’s nothing wrong with the system the voice inside the house yells.  The problem is, the voice is inside the house. Problems never seem that large from the inside.  There’s no reason to confront any prejudices or bigotry.  In fact don’t even use that word—racism.  Racism is a word that sits outside coiled up like a snake in the dirt and grime.  You don’t know what kinds of bugs and germs have climbed up in that word since it was last turned on.  You put your mouth to that word and God only knows what might be spewing back into you with that water.  –God. Only. Knows.   On the flip side, speak up too forcefully for the police officers and you’ll get pelted theories and elaborations. You know they work for the government don’t you.  Who, the police?  No, I must have slept through civics 101.   You mean our government, our government?  The one of the people, by the people, for the people?  You mean that government?  Yeah, they do what we’ve asked them to do.  We should show a level of grace when they do it.  And then finally seek to express some sense of empathy with the whole of humanity—those who pull to the left and those who pull to the right—and suddenly that cranky old man rears his head again—come in and stay in or go out and stay out but enough of this in/out, in/out.  
I long for the full stream of water.  I long for discourse to be factual and sane and filled with more light and less heat.  I long for a community of trust—not just one where I trust that you won’t shoot me.  I long for a community where we trust what each other says at face value.  A community where
 we aren’t so willing to believe every conspiracy theory about how and why things happen when and where they do.  The first duty we have as Christians is to pray and the second duty of the Christian is to listen.  I long for that--prayers of praise, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication.  We are called to pray for more than ourselves and more than the family members whose illnesses cause us pain.  We are called to pray for those we do not know indeed for those we would rather hate.  Pray for your enemies, those are Jesus’s words not mine.  Part of the reason I made changes to our order of worship this morning to include more prayer is because it feels like we needed to turn that hose on a little stronger.  That our prayers have trickled and they needed to flow.   May our prayers quiet our hearts long enough to listen to each other.    That we may all help one another by our prayers so that many will give thanks for the blessings granted us through the prayers of many. Let this word of God flow like an ever rushing stream.  Let it cleanse my mouth, pour down my dry throat and reach every cell of my body all at once.  
The comfort Paul identifies is not some vague comforting mysticism.  Rather for Paul the comfort for Christians comes in this most unlikely location—the cross of Jesus Christ.  Open up the spigot a few more turns and you’ll see what I mean.  “For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.”  Abundant—that’s Paul’s word for turning on the hose full blast.  The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of Paul’s theology.  The crucifixion of Jesus affirms a few core truths for us.  One:  it assures us that there are indeed mean, brutal and violent people in the world determined to do wrong.  Sometimes they are represented in the criminal class hanging on either side of Christ  and sometimes they are manifest in the powerful system that put Jesus on the cross.  Christ is other than both—he is not like the lawless criminals who taunt him though they themselves are under the same sentence or like government officials who crucify him. Christ is not like the crowd that stands and gawks.  Christ is other. Other  than all who surround his cross he is other than each of them, yet for each of them.  Christ is there singularly and alone.  Yet, he bids us to come, take up our cross and follow him.  And from the cross he demolishes the naïve belief that life is going to be fair just because it’s supposed to be. 
Two:  The cross assures us that innocent people die in the face of the cruelty of others.  And Paul somehow sees comfort in that.  He speaks over and over and over again of being conformed to the Cross.  “That I may know Christ” Paul wrote elsewhere, “becoming like him in death so that somehow I may receive the resurrection.”  “Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus, who took on the form of a servant and became obedient unto death.  Even death on the cross.” “We carry around the death of Christ in our mortal bodies.”  Yet, the comfort there comes in knowing that crucifixion is not conclusion.  It precedes resurrection which is our hope also.   
 And three:  Here is the kicker—those who crucify do not get to interpret the meaning of the crucifixion.   Those who crucify do not get to interpret the meaning of the crucifixion. The word martyr means witness.  It has come to mean for many of us someone who dies because of what they believe in.  But originally the word means witness.  The martyr proclaims for themselves the meaning of their life and their death.  What Pilate meant to be an appeasement of the crowd, turned out to be the most world changing upheaval imaginable.  What Herod meant to be the protection of his kingdom and crown, turned out to be the dawning of a new day and the Kingdom of God.  What the Sanhedrin meant to be a silencing maneuver to keep down this rabble-rousing crowd was in fact a loud and long cry.  And we as Christians have to learn to say that more faithfully and thoughtfully.  The problem is we’ll say the name Jesus like it’s a blunt object.  We’ll use it to pummel people who don’t believe like we do.  That’s not how Jesus intended for us to use his name.  It is to be spoken, yes, but spoken as an invitation in not a door slammed shut.  And it’s not being politically incorrect to speak of Jesus Christ.  We have to stop acting like victims.  The Bible does not imagine the role of victim as a vocational place for anyone.  God has called some to be prophets and some to be apostles and some teachers and some to be healers and God has called all of us to be people of faith, hope and love.  We must be witnesses not whiners.  The dividing line between a martyr and a victim is this:  the martyr leaves behind a witness to what their life and death means.  And the crucifiers do not get to give that interpretation—they will try.  They placed a placard above the head of Jesus on the cross it declared what in their estimation he had claimed that deserved his execution.  They thought it would be the last word on Jesus’s life.   That would-be permanent record did not last.  We know what it said only because the evangelists chose to include it in the witness—an ironic detail slipped in between the verses that said—Unto us is born and He is Risen, He is Risen, Indeed.  I think they kept it there so that for 2000 years we would be able to say—wow, did they ever underestimate Jesus’s significance.  The crucifiers were wrong.  They are always wrong.  
Though they are wrong, it feels as though the crucifiers have come for people in waves—from Charleston to Orlando, from Istanbul to St. Paul, from Dhaka, Bangladesh to Dallas, Texas.  They unleashed their violence to make statements—statements about people’s faith and skin color and orientation and profession.  Statements through terror, intimidation, the abuse of power, and cavalier attitudes.  They have tried to place their placards above those killed by their deeds.  May their efforts fail.  May they fail because we refuse to let the aggressors be the loudest voice in the room.  We refuse to accept the meanings they have assigned to the death they have unleashed.  And while we are at it can we refuse to let meanings be assigned by those who have pre-existing political or financial agenda.  As the people of God, we are entrusted with prayerful listening eyes and ears to see and hear the  the unique imprint of God’s image emblazoned on each life.  Each person is more than a hashtag more than facebook post.   And we are the ones who bear responsibility to listen and reflect and say: this is how God’s Grace has been manifest in our world through their lives.  And the crucifiers interpretation can be relegated to a footnote if we as evangelists permit their voices to be heard at all.  But the Gospel manifest in each person's life will be the main text--the placards can go into the garbage.  
Brent Thompson was a family man dedicated to his children and his grandchildren.  Patrick Zamarripa did three tours in Iraq as a Navy petty officer.  He had a toddler and school-age child.  Next month he would be 33 years old—the same age Jesus was when he died.  Lorne Ahrens was described by a co-worker as a “big guy with an even bigger heart."  Michael Krol was an 8-year veteran of the police department.  An uncle said of his work as a police officer, “He was all in, he was all in.”  Michael Smith had already given 26 years to the protection of Dallas citizens.  These five officers were not victims.  They are martyrs.  They are martyrs in defense of democracy and people’s right to speak out.  They are martyrs in defense of tolerant community and mutual protection.  Let the word victim never be used to sum up beautiful lives.  Let us say rather, “Greater love has no one than this that they lay down their life for their friends.”  This is, for me, what it means to turn on the full stream of water and drink deeply from the living water of Jesus Christ. It is to join with sisters and brother and loudly declare--“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness.  I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus name.  ON Christ the solid rock I stand all other ground is sinking sand.”  If we offer that testimony with humility and grace no one will be surprised.  Yet if we keep silent they too many may  be left dry and desperate for water.  

Monday, July 04, 2016

Never Offend Anyone Ever Again

There’s a formula I have seen used in one too many blog posts.  It goes something like this:  “I have a friend who was going through [Insert difficult life experience.  Could also be chronic challenge].  Someone tried to reach out with them, but made the following mistakes [insert list of clichés which ought not have been used but were].  I’m sure that the person was trying to be helpful, but they weren’t.  And I know because I’m so much better at this kind of thing than everyone else.  You shouldn’t do these things.  They aren’t helpful.”  There are variations on the theme, but you get the idea.  I have a few hunches about these kinds of blog posts.  First hunch: they’re amount to a public scolding of a specific person.  Second hunch:  it’s not what the person said that bugs the blogger as much as the person themselves.  I have found that different people can say the exact same thing to someone and it’s received differently.  One person can say, “How are you really doing?” and it feels like emotional voyeurism.  Another person can ask, “How are you really doing?” and it feels like a welcome opportunity to be vulnerable.  I think it has less to with the question and more to do with how the questioned feels about the questioner.
My problem with these kings of blog post, however, is that they feed disconnection more than they feed connection.  Many people avoid those who are hurting because they’ve heard too many stories about people who tried and failed.  I see a parallel behavior in people who don’t introduce themselves to others at church because they did and were embarrassed to find out that the person they were introducing themselves to had actually been members of the church for some 20 years or something like that.  The complaints about someone trying to help and making mistakes don’t help people avoid making mistakes they simply help people avoid helping.
  There’s one very simple, sure-fire way to never make a mistake when trying to talk to people who are hurting:  don’t talk to people who are hurting.  If you choose to care and choose to act out of caring, you will make mistakes.  You will make yourself the target of a hurting persons misplaced anger.  You will over-reach.  You’ll stick your foot in your mouth.  If you give a damn sometimes you’ll hit a dam sometimes.  Show yourself the same grace you’re trying to show someone else.  Show the same grace to everyone else that you desire for yourself.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Picking the Lock on Heaven's Door

In the late 16th and early 17th Century, William Camden wrote significant historical and antiquities works about Great Britain.  His book Remains Concerning Britain contains essays and shorter works related to his larger Britania.  It contains poems, poem fragments, and proverbs that he had collected from his study of British history.  It includes this epitaph of a Locksmith, “A zealous locksmith died of late/And did arrive at heaven’s gate,/He stood without and would not knock,/Because he meant to pick the lock.” 

            I read things like that and have to wonder about the character of the person they were talking about.  Was this something he said frequently—“I’m not knocking on heaven’s door; I’m picking the lock”?  Did people think he was just that good of a locksmith?  Or that arrogant?  Or did they think that the only way he was getting in is by making his own way in?  There’s no way to know now. 

            I do wonder how many people think they will have to pick the lock on heaven’s gate.  Many people believe that salvation is a product of one’s goodness, capacity to follow the rules, record of good works, or capacity for breaking and entering (undetected of course).  The biblical witness to salvation recognizes that salvation comes by God’s grace and God’s grace alone.  It is not the result of our report card, citizenship record, credit report, or permanent file.  God chooses to forgive and grant access to God to all people because God has designed us for relationship with God’s self.

            One way to understand worship is that it’s a dress rehearsal for eternity.  The people of God gathered around the throne of God praising and worshiping God.  If we imagine worship in this way, are there people who believe that they must pick the lock to get in?  When we come to worship with the conscious awareness that we are there by God’s grace alone the sense that some people have a place of honor on the basis of their service, generosity, or purity dies away.  All of us come to worship because God has thrown open the doors and allows us to come.  The only place of honor in worship belongs to God. 

Thanks for Whoever

            Thanks to whoever . . . someone left a bunch of goodies for a movie night we had in the summer of 2015.  They labeled it “movie night” but didn’t sign it.  Handwriting analysis has proved inconclusive. It got me thinking about all the many people who do things for us around church that we do not thank often enough.

            Thanks to whoever . . . goes around and checks the Sunday School roles each week.  I know who you are but I grateful you do what you do. 

            Thanks to whoever . . . makes the prayer shawls.  I also know who you are and know you don’t do it for the recognition.  They meant a lot to the people who receive them.

            Thanks to whoever . . . gets the communion ready each Sunday morning and clean up communion at the end of the day.  Communion is the most important part of our worship service.  It does not materialize out of thin air.

            Thanks to whoever . . . labels, folds and prepares the newsletters for mailing.  “The Friend Bunch” really are a bunch of friends who brighten our week in more ways than one.

            Thanks to whoever . . . runs the TV ministries, posts the recording to Vimeo and gets it out on our website, prepares the DVDs and sends them to the Beloveds.  It stretch the reach of God’s good news.

            Thanks to whoever . . . sharpens the pencils and refills the offering envelopes. 

            Thanks to whoever . . . sorts and puts back up the library books.  We have the best maintained church library anywhere.

            Thanks to whoever . . . assembles the children’s packets for Sunday morning.

            Thanks to whoever . . . greets people on Sunday morning making sure that people feel welcome here. 

            It’s always a risk when you start thanking people because invariably you leave someone out.  There are many, many more people to thank.  Lots of people serve in big and small ways.  But, please know that your church family is grateful for all that you do.  We are the church, together. 

Would you Pray for Me

            As a young pastor in Irving, I wen tot see one of my members in the hospital.  She was suffering from dementia and other physical problems.  The visit was short.  She couldn’t say much.  I asked her if I could do anything for her.  She asked for prayer.  I took hold of her hand and said things that I had said several times before (I was young but visiting hospitals had already become somewhat routine).  After we said Amen, I asked if there was anything else I could do for her.  She asked for water and I helped her take a few sips of water.  And one last time I asked if she needed anything, she asked for prayer.  My initial instinct was to blame her dementia.  She had forgotten that we had prayed just a couple of minutes earlier, but as I bowed my head, I felt something tap my spiritual shoulder and say, “really pray this time.”  I had “prayed” with her but had not prayed with her.  And there is a difference.

            I think about that often when I find myself or others simply going through the motions of worship.  It’s easy thing to do.  Still, there’s a difference between “going to worship” and actually worshipping.  We can be physically presence and mentally or spiritually somewhere else.  Yet, God continues to call us into worship.  Here I have some suggestions about ways to enter into worship.


1.      Read the biblical texts that are the focus for worship before you arrive.  Make notes or thoughts about what the texts mean to you. 

2.       When you sit down, find a way to sit quietly and pray.  You may want to take time to pray the Lord’s prayer and take time between each line to think and reflect on it’s meaning.

3.      As you sing, contemplate the words of the lyrics.

4.      As you wait for communion to be served, think about your favorite story from the Gospels.  Imagine what draws you to Jesus. 

Once a year, I think all Christians should visit a worship service that is different than their own.  Rather than thinking about what you like or dislike or even how you are greeted and seated.  Simply go with your heart open to God’s presence.  Sometimes this can be enough to draw us out of familiar patterns.  Every now and again, each of us needs a tap on the spiritual shoulder that says, “Really pray this time” Or “Really worship this time.”  Indeed, let’s really worship this Sunday. 

Debts and Debtors

People often ask if I think we should say, “debts/debtors,” “sins/sinned against us,” or “trespasses/those who’ve trespassed against us” whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer.  Short answer—debts/debtors.  Longer answer—debts and debtors is the language actually used in the earliest Greek manuscripts we have.  For Jesus it wasn’t just a metaphor.  He understood the crushing load of debt could mean time in prison (debtors prison) or some form of enslavement.  Jesus prayed for real release from actual debt.  More importantly, we are indebted to God for more than our forgiveness of sins.  God certainly does forgive our sins, but we owe God so much more.  We are indebted to God for the air we breathe, every heart beat, the gravity that keeps us on the ground, the food we eat.  In short, we owe God everything. 

       So, I believe in praying “debts” and “debtors.”  I say this with one really large caveat:  When we pray for God to forgive our debts we need to be thinking more broadly about what we mean.  If we say “debts” but mean “sins” the Jesus’s meaning gets truncated. 

      When we say, “forgive us our debts” and mean “forgive us our sins” we turn our “sins” into “debts.”  This creates a transactional view of Christ’s death on the cross.  It goes something like this:  the righteousness of God demanded a payment for our sins; God’s love provided that payment in the form of Jesus’s death on the cross. There was a hymn I sang growing up that said, “I had a debt I could not pay, He paid the debt He did not owe, I needed someone to wash my sins away.”   Or another one much more familiar, “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe.  Sin had left as crimson stain.  He washed it white as snow.”  The belief is Jesus made a payment to secure my forgiveness.   This is a popular understanding of atonement. 

      When the New Testament uses the word “debts” it means debts—money or obligation owed.  When the New Testament speaks of debtors it does so in financial terms.  The sin=debts equation portrays God as a somewhat ruthless loan shark demanding blood as payment.  When we think of Jesus’s death on the cross as payment for our sin we portray God in an ugly way.  Not really “ the Lord, the Lord gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love . . . forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).  This description of God—which is the most often repeated description of God in the Hebrew Bible—was made before the death of Christ on the cross.  

Religion and Violence

      There were a couple of weeks in the early part of 2015 that I found both confusing and heartbreaking. On February 14-15 a series of shootings took place in Copenhagen.  An attack at a Free Speech rally at café injuring three police officers and killing one person, the shooting of a Jewish man and a guard at a synagogue and then the shooting of the suspect on the morning of the 15th left many grieving and anxious.  The suspected shooter’s religious ideology seems to be part though not all of the cause.  Also on Sunday, Jihadists cruelly beheaded 21 Coptic Christians abducted from Libya last month.  On Monday, a grand jury in North Carolina indicted Craig Hicks with murder charges.  Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salah, young students in the Chapel Hill area, were shot and killed last Tuesday.  The immediate cause of the shootings appears to have been a parking dispute.  However, Hicks had expressed anti-religious sentiment and the victims were Muslim. 

      In each of these cases religion plays a role, but does not account for the whole of people’s motivations.  As people of faith, how do we respond?  Are we so far removed from the places effected that we have no business inserting ourselves?  Is it acceptable for us to be more concerned with the plight of fellow Christians than we are with people of other faiths?  These questions and so many other haunt me.  I don’t pretend to understand the complexity of violence and religion.  But, as I read the news reports and praying for the situations, I tried to keep these things in mind:         

      We are talking about real human beings.  The people who have been killed and the people who killed them have names, personalities, families, and histories.  I believe we must be careful not to turn victims into pawns in our favorite arguments. I have searched for years for ways to talk about the issues that affect people’s lives without diminishing people’s lives into issues.  I have failed more often than I have succeeded.  I continue to believe that people’s lives have integrity and we need to protect that integrity with our speech as much as we protect the lives with our actions.

      Motives are more complicated than we can sort out.  Religion or anti-religious ideologies are rarely the sole cause for violence.  The experiences of scarcity, powerlessness, victimization, and geo-political realities are just a few of the other contributing factors that lead to violent actions.

      Apathy is not an option nor is misguided, partially informed action.  We have learned the lesson time and again that that “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing” (John Stuart Mill in an Address before Students at St. Andrews).  The fuller context of that quotation emphasizes that actions need to follow careful assessment of the situations before us.  History is also full of tragic examples where good people did the wrong thing because they acted without adequate understanding. 

      For now, I pray for the strength to stay engaged and not turn away.  I pray that God will form me into a person who seeks reconciliation.  Christ died in order to tear down the dividing wall of hostility may we live in such a way that Christ’s purposes are manifest in us.