Lent and the Mid-Life Crisis

  The father of Abram had made a good living in Ur. Ur sat on the banks of the Euphrates not far from the Persian Gulf. Today this is southern Iraq. Nevertheless, silt deposits had made naviga…

Source: Lent and the Mid-Life Crisis

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Fixing the Problem not the blame

Living in harmony

Living in harmony

Before there is a divorce there are warning signs. Rarely do we end up dividing the furniture and arguing over who gets the children for Christmas Eve without telegraphing something is wrong. The signs might be in late night conversations or arguments; it may be passive-aggressive behavior toward the in-laws, or picking at age old marital wounds. While these decisions usher in pain for ourselves and others, they mostly make us feel again. We’d rather feel something than be numb. A dysfunctional relationship is fighting off boredom and numbness by expressing ourselves with passion. However, if the passionate, attention-getting behavior and tension does not light a fire under us to mend our relationship, the next step will be calling an attorney.

The prelude to divorce is necessary. During this prelude problems can be tackled, concerns can be addressed, and fears can be faced. Often they are. Many couples have examined their marriage and their love for each other.   They have looked at the big picture, the time invested, and the emotional attachment and decided  making the necessary changes are worth the work. Of course others, possibly due to apathy, decide the necessary changes are too high of a price. They’d rather have one more big fight (or so they think), write a check (usually more than one), and start over in an apartment.

Currently we are in the midst of the prelude to divorce between the races. In recent weeks a series of events have taken place revealing how fragile our relationship has become. The shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Michael Brown in Missouri, and the death in police custody of Eric Garner are only the most recent concerns. Much has been written about what happened and who is to blame. This is exactly how a divorce happens. “You should have known better.” “It’s all your fault.” Blaming and finger pointing are the universal signs for divorce.  We could go on and on about not resisting arrest or not hassling people for selling “looseies,” about proper police procedure or about not walking toward an officer, or why would you point a toy gun at people, to why would you  fire on a suspect/citizen/child  like it was a drive-by shooting. At the end of the day such statements only lead  to divorce court. We are experts at fixing the blame. However, if we want to avoid divorce we need to fix the problem, not the blame.

Is the problem police brutality, poor police training, criminal behavior, a flawed judicial system, or racism? Or the problem may be all of these, or various different combinations, depending on the story. Divorce rarely happens because on one occasion a person does the wrong thing. “You embarrassed me in front of my friends!” is deserving of a lecture, but not divorce. “You undermine me with the children.” Again, this issue has to be addressed,  but divorce?  Even if the problems were bigger (such as infidelity or excessive drinking) moving the needle from an argument to divorce would demand a pattern, not just a one time lapse of judgment. Divorce happens because the weight of the problem indicates one or both parties are no longer trying. Somebody has given up, there is too much of . . . you name it, so you call the lawyer.

With all that’s happen in recent weeks, it’s hard not to think the weight is getting  heavy. Commentators, who champion one view point, use words like “you” and “I” and work to divide the teams into manageable caricatures. We are not two teams.  We are not even two races. We are one team and one race and it is the language of “us” and “we” that can save this marriage.

The only division is between those who want to solve the problem and those who want to perpetuate the crisis. Marriages are not healed by creating two teams. Marriages are healed when we are reminded there is only one team, OUR team.

For marriages to be revived we don’t need perfection. We need effort. We need for the apathy to be replaced with “I care.” We need for the “I” and “you” statement to be replaced with “we” statements. We need for “every person for themselves” to be replaced with “we are all in this together.” Effort while not perfect communicates we care about the same thing.

We care about every life. No matter the color of our skin, we matter. ALL people are made in the image of God and are to be treated with dignity and respect.

We care about public safety. No one should have to work in a convenient store, be walking in or out of one, and not feel safe. No one should do physical harm to another without legal consequences. No policeman should be slandered for doing his/her job. So we believe cameras mounted on policemen would protect both the police from undue criticism and civilians from unwarranted use of force.

We care about justice. Justice is not always easy or speedy, and it is often uphill. Demanding action not words. Police forces should represent the communities they serve. Minorities should be hired by law enforcement not as a public relations maneuver, but to get buy-in from the entire community. We want to see the just thing done.

We want every voice heard. If we can do it peacefully all are welcome to march, call their Senator, write letters to editors, and even block traffic. We can have our voices heard.  But when protesting, let’s remember others. The person we are holding up in traffic has done nothing wrong.  We may want to raise awareness, but let’s not make others late for work. We can raise our voice against injustice, but the business we are marching by has been in business 80 years and sold electronics to anyone who came in with money.  So let’s not vent our anger on the innocent. And as we listen to other voices that are raised, let’s not lose our patience with those who march, that could be our own son or daughter carrying the sign.

Tension does not have to lead to divorce, but it must lead to solutions. For many these changes need to happen NOW, for others the chorus is always WAIT.  Too often in marriage “wait” doesn’t mean later, it means certainly not. Too often in marriage “now” means without any thought or deliberation. Our actions need to be done with deliberation but without hesitation. A message needs to be sent that we love and need each other because divorce is not just painful; it’s at a great expense.

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The Church in Transition

A Good Question
A sincere disciple of Christ asked me recently, “What’s the future for the church?” He was not speaking of our local embodiment of Christ but of the Church. I have a ready-made answer for the question about our church. I have a pretty good idea about our local congregation but I was taken by surprise by his question. I sometimes wonder what is going on at headquarters myself. Nevertheless I began to look into his question, and here is what I have discovered.

Bad News for the Good News Business
I already had an idea the church had a fever. We weren’t running on all cylinders, but what does the research say. According to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey the NONES, those who claim to have no religious affiliation rose from 8 to 15 percent, since 1990. This group almost doubled in roughly twenty years. In the same period of time those who identified themselves as Christians dropped from 86% to 76% according to the ARIS report.

According to the Pew Forum Religious Landscape Study of 2008, 28% of the U.S. population have changed religious affiliation from the one they were raised. The best retention rate in the religious universe is among the Hindu who hold on to 84% of their childhood member. Catholics retain 68% and Baptist and Lutherans are at the top of the leader board among Protestants at 60%.
The Gallup poll, and other researchers, have indicated the number of people attending church is almost 40%. Considering the times we live in this is or would be a respectable number. But 40% is not the truth. In another study, published in 2005 by Hadaway and Marler reveal the number is closer to 50 million weekly in attendance which is less than 20% of the population. So on any given Sunday only one in five people will be in worship.*

Twenty percent is disappointing. Mainly because we thought we had 40%. Now if we want to polish this bad news we might argue that each week devoted believers from coast to coast get sick or travel, so the real number could be slightly higher considering these devoted but absentee souls.

How can we explain these numbers? Losing children raised in the faith, losing people in weekly attendance, and the rise of the NONES, is not good news for a church in the business of good news.

I finally have some room on my pew
Why is there room on my pew? Let’s spend a moment considering what the church has been or should be.

There are people who think the churches primary task is to be the moral police. There is a honest difference of opinion among believers. Some think a good metaphor for the church is the police, the people who keep society in check. As more and more think our nation is becoming a police state with big brother watching even when we are blandly sitting in front of our ipad looking for next evenings recipe, so naturally the general public would view the church as gluten or fat, as something to avoid. Others believe a better metaphor might be the fire department, the people who come to your aid when life or your own stupidity is bringing pain and destruction. Those who consider this the primary task of the church think we are in the rescuing business not the policing business.

In my modest opinion I think being the moral police has undermined our purpose and called us away from our primary task. So if our primary task is to be ready to rescue (like the fire department), what’s the problem? People are people, we will always be swimming out in water that is over our head (maybe we are lifeguards not firemen). So why would we ever have a slowdown in business if people are always going to need rescuing?

Consider the Coca-Cola Company
If we were to ask what is the business of Coca-Cola? Some would answer the beverage business. Others might say the making money business. Both would be correct. A business that last is always in the trend business. They watch trends and take advantage of trends. Years ago when people started thinking about the sugar in Coke, Coke introduced Tab. Years later when Coke recognized parents and the population at large were trying to shake their coke addiction they got in the Minute Made orange juice and Dasani water business. It’s not Coke, but it is still a beverage. From Nestea to Bacardi, Coke added brands and developed lines to continue to make money but most importantly to continue to be relevant.

Coke did not see themselves tied to one product in a red can. They paid attention to the trends realizing people would always be thirsty, but not always thirsty for a product that made you more thirsty. It was fruitless to complain “Why are the people drinking more water?” or “Why are sports drinks so popular?”(Coke now owns Poweraide). It is futile to argue with numbers, the people were clearly moving away from sugary drinks called colas. Coke’s leaders decided like all good leaders to adjust the sails not curse the wind. The church, often (okay always) curses the wind.

Already the reasons we aren’t Coke are running through your head and some our spilling out your mouth. “We are not a business.” “We can’t change our message.” While the first is true, the second needs to be investigated.

Numbers Don’t Lie
Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer are researchers for Southern Baptist. Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research Division. LifeWay produces bible study literature for Southern Baptist Churches. Rainer is President of LifeWay Christian Resources. Southern Baptist, for many years wrote the book on how to do church and how to reach people. Now, Rainer and Stetzer are crunching the numbers and looking for trends. Annually Southern Baptist churches report to the denominational office key indicators; baptisms, attendance, financial mission support, etc. From these reports LifeWay produces an Annual Profile of Churches. Statistics are almost as Baptist as fried chicken.

Southern Baptist hit a numerical high in 2005 with 16.6 million members. In 2012 the number had shrunk to 15.8 million. That’s practically a million members lost in less than a decade. Southern Baptist are to Christianity in America what the Yankees are to baseball. If the Yankees are struggling we are all struggling. By the way from 2005 to 2012 the U.S. population grew by 18 million.

Baptisms like batting averages are a vital statistic among Baptist. While the past thirty years have not been stellar, the most recent high point was 1999 when 419,000 people were baptized. In 2012 Southern Baptist churches reported only 315,000 baptisms. According to the annual church profile provided by Southern Baptist there has been a 25% drop in 13 years.

Stetzer’s research has indicated things are not good for the patient called the church. He came short of saying it was dying, but he went as far as to say it was in transition. Certainly this mild tone reflects Stetzer own hopefulness that with God nothing is impossible. To the cynic it may just sound like someone clinging to a final, unreasonable hope. Do you prefer your doctors to tell the truth in a cold way, “This does not look good, you will die from this.” Or do you like the truth warmed a bit, “Well what’s happening is your body is transitioning from a healthy state to a sick state.” I think I like the warm method myself, but the cold method has its merits.

* C. Kirk Hardaway and Penny Long Marler, “How Many Americans Attend Worship Each Week? An Alternative Approach to Measurement.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2005).

 

 

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I Thought Winter would never leave

 

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Fading

 

Now all the Hindus and Muslims, agnostics and Buddhist were coming near to listen to him. And the preachers and believers were irritated, “This Jesus welcomes non-Christians and eats with them.” So he told this parable . . .

I thought that would get your attention. Of course the scripture uses the words “tax collectors and sinners.” These words would have little effect on us, although they would have been offensive to Jesus’ original crowd. The words I said—-may have been a bit offensive—-but for the punch line to have the same punch, the set up line needs to be equally offensive.

What does it mean to be a Christian in a multi-faith world? Some say we need to defend our faith, this is referred to as Apologetic. Make our case against those who disagree with our views. Have you ever known a person to change their mind because you made your point? Does our faith demand we stand against the Sikh, Jew, or Buddhist or simply stand faithful to what has been entrusted to us? Is apologetics the answer or is it to love?

I was born in a Christian home. Yet there was a point where I chose to follow Christ. I decided Christianity made sense to me and this is where I wanted to invest my life. For all the good we do we still have shortcomings as a people. We can bit oppressive, to others who don’t share our values. Further I am aware of the sex scandals in the Catholic side of our church, so we are an imperfect association of souls. Nevertheless the call to love our neighbors, live faithfully and sacrificially, to forgive and live lives full of the spirit sounds healthy and good to me.

My eyes though are wide open. There is something wrong with my faith, we have a vague hostility toward the cherished religions of our non- Christians neighbors.  We learn of a pastors imprisonment in Egypt and we say a prayer, and we should. Then we read of a Muslim child being ridiculed by classmates in Texas and we turn to the sports section. Isn’t this child deserving of God’s protection as long as their faith is practiced without malice toward others? My hostility is not aggressive, but apathy is the worst kind of hostility, it is to look the other way.

I have never read Anne Rice novels, but I have followed her career. She has lived a bit louder than most writers. Born and raised a Catholic she left the faith at 18. She eventually arrived at atheism and lived there until her fifties. In her fifties she returned to her Catholic roots, then in 2011 she announced she no longer wanted to be referred to as a Christian.

She writes to belong to those called Christian it would appear you need to be “quarrelsome, hostile . . . anti gay . . . anti feminist. . . anti science.”   I know the Catholic church from which she came can be a bit “anti”.  In 1633 they  put Galileo under house arrest for following the best science of his day. So there is some merit to her complaint.

But that’s not the whole story. In fact it is only the headline, Anne goes on to write, “My faith in Christ is central to my life . . . I remain an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God, but following Christ does not mean following his followers.” It appears she has rejected the middleman–not the source of our faith. This may say something about why other people struggle with being identified with Christianity. They may like Jesus but find some of our behavior to be contradictory to our saviors.

I can’t tell you the number of blogs or books I have read where people who believe and practice our faith now desire to be called “a Jesus follower,” ” a person of the way,” or a “lover of God,” anything but Christian.  There is some re-branding going on.

We are not the only faith trying to figure out the future and insulate ourselves from our crazy faith cousins. Muslims are working overtime to find new ways to describe their faith. A quick internet search reveals that their approach is to add adjectives to their name—–Progressive Muslims, Non-Middle Eastern Muslims, Peace advocating Muslims, and Moderate Muslims are just a few ways they are trying to distance themselves from their more extreme members.

We’ve got our own crazy faith cousins, who give the people of God, those called to love and forgive a bad name. There’s the pastor in Florida who burns the Quran. Then the television preacher who describes the Haitian earthquake as God’s punishment for Haitian sins. Then there is the bizarre sect that sends protesters to military funerals.

Okay—we’ve all got crazy cousins. So what do we do as Christians? Some want to change our name, yet to me the real issue appears to be—-our identity. Identity is often formed in any group by what we are against. Sadly it is by giving people a common enemy that identity is formed.  The radical Muslims are energized by their enemy “The West.” Political parties form identity not by being for something but by having an enemy. Labor knows who they are because of management. Clemson has the Gamecocks. But who is Christianities enemy? Especially since our founder told us to “love our enemies” thereby turning them into anything but enemies. Usually we have chosen a sin as our enemy? For a while we chose the abuse of alcohol.  Some have chosen to make war the enemy and promote the cause of peace. Yet others have chosen immorality as the enemy.  As surprising as it may sound—-Christians or Jesus followers are not very good at conflict. After all our founder brought a prayer to a sword fight. We lost the war with probation, the world continues to wage war, and as far as immorality goes as long as there is profit in it our cries will be drowned out by the sound of a soaring stock market.

It seems any public crusade makes believers appear like the moral police. To those who need to hear good news, we sound like the evening news reporting only what is wrong. We seem like narrow minded judgmental souls wanting to pour cold water on everyone’s fun.

If the Bible only provided us direction on how to be light and how to bear witness to the life we have found?  If we only knew how to live in a pluralistic society? If scripture only gave us specific directions about how to influence behavior in a diverse world? With other religions watching if there was a way to identify ourselves as Christ followers without having to be “anti” this or opposed to that?

Do you remember Matthew 25?

I was a stranger . . . YOU took me in

I was hungry . . .YOU gave me food

I was in prison . . . YOU came to me

I was sick . . . YOU visited me

When other faiths come to our shores, when people resist our message and call us names what is our response? Did Jesus say we are to preach to them—-no.  Did Jesus ask us to make laws to enforce  our code of conduct—–no.  Did Jesus ask us to bomb them—-no.  Did Jesus ask us to ridicule or minimize their faith? Did Jesus say when the stranger comes to your country make them fell unwanted? Did Jesus instruct us to ignore sickness and suffering? Of course he didn’t. In a word we  are instructed to “welcome” the stranger, the prisoner, the sojourner and those cursed with hunger.

Religion reacts with hostility, but the followers of Christ are to react with hospitality. Hostility and hospitality are historically related–so close but so far away. Hostility sees every cause, ever sin, and certain people as an enemy. The stranger can’t be trusted. The sick should have taken better care of themselves. They are the problem. The “other” must be kept at a safe distance. Hostility is an attitude of exclusion and repugnance and if you read the whole parable the people who practice such don’t have a promising future. Hospitality is to give water, make welcome, and love.

Jesus’ point was hostility is the enemy. Seeing people different from yourself and separating yourself from them is not the answer—it’s the problem. But when we see others; the immigrant, the Hindu, the hungry and do for them, we are seeing and doing it to Jesus. Hospitality is the way to be God’s people to others.

“Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to ME (Matthew 25:40).

We can’t maintain hostility against the other when the other is Jesus.

The tax collectors and sinners were all seeking his company to hear what he had to say—–and he welcomed them. Can we really believe Jesus would not welcome the Sikh, the agnostic, or the sojourner from another country? Making enemies is counterproductive. Jesus took strangers and made them friends. The tax collector became Jesus disciple and the Pharisee gave Jesus his tomb. Jesus never gave them time to become enemies. A welcome does not imply agreement, but it does imply friendship and safety.

One of our own members shared this story with me. He was shopping during Christmas and he encountered this sales person who was condescending, and in a word, ugly. He reported to me that he felt like he had the right to tell her how she was coming off and to speak his mind, it’s a free country.  But before he could say anything he found himself acting Christian, “wishing her a Merry Christmas and telling her that he hoped this was her best Christmas ever.”  He was caring for one of the least of these—and didn’t even know it. The woman’s attitude changed. her whole personality changed. He went on to say—“saying what was on my mind may have been my right but there is a higher law that ask me to treat others with kindness and love.” We don’t have to preach but we do have to love. We don’t have to argue but we do have to love in the name of the one who loved first.

Announcing that God is sending earthquakes on poor Haitians is foolish to say, it makes God look bad and Christianity look hostile toward the poor, but is easier to say it than to welcome the “other.”

Burning the Quran is not a bold or brave thing to do in Florida. It’s not prophetic or loving, but it is easier to do than to welcome the “other.”

There are those who think the preachers job is to chastise people. Some  would prefer if we preached to those not here. Calling out the sins of those who avoid the church and give those who come a pat on the back. Why? To begin with why preach to people not here. Second —we can’t bring God’s kingdom with hostility, but we can with hospitality, Jesus did. So I speak to us—the gathered family of God. To warn us of how far we have fallen from our original purpose of welcoming, visiting, clothing, feeding, and building wells like we are doing it to Jesus.

We are familiar with the fading of colors. A shirt which was once bright red, over time becomes a pink or mauve. Washing and wear has its effects. So it is with God’s message of welcome and changing the world by giving water, feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger. Before you know it we have traded compassion for arguments over the age of the earth, righteousness for arguing over Hollywood’s interpretation of the Noah story. Our identity has faded and we have turned the faith of loving our neighbors and enemies into the faith of building fences and making laws.

I began this message with a question, “What does it mean to be a Christian in a multi-faith world? Do we need to embrace  apologetics (defending our faith) or practice Jesus style love?”I should confess it is a trick question. Loving in Jesus name is the way we defend our faith.

In the 10th chapter of John Jesus is quoted by John as saying, “Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold; them I also I must bring and they will hear my voice (John 10:15-16). Love is our apologetics, later in John’s gospel Jesus says, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”[i]

Two things I have learned from Jesus’ humble words. First–Jesus has laid down his life, that’s love, and love is a more convincing defense than any verbal defense. Second, there are other sheep I know nothing about. So I’d be smart to live my faith and love as my savior ask me.  Peter summed up this way in the book of Acts, “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by him” (Acts 10:34-35).

 

[i] John 13:35

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An Open Letter to Clive

The fall of 1967 is when the schools in Jefferson County were fully integrated. That same fall the number of private schools in Alabama went from 35 to over a 130.

In the fall of 1970 I entered the first grade. I was a member of the 4th fully integrated class. As I recall my mother did not mention this to me or mention to me that school had not always been this way. As far as I was concerned schools had always contained children, some were white and others were black, but I was blissfully unaware of any prior arrangement.

For twelve years I went to school with African-Americans. My mother worked at the school in the lunch room. To my memory I can never remember her saying any of the derogatory words used by others to describe African-Americans. I am not so naive to believe she never used these distasteful words, but I am fully aware she never used them in front of me.

It was only later in life that I realized how revolutionary these times were. I can recall with fondness the names of many of my African-American classmates. I cannot remember at any time having a negative experience  with any of these classmates because their skin was a different color.

While this was a wonderful introduction to another race, it certainly has not been my last. My experience with people of different races, African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, and others has been positive and rewarding.

This is why I remain shocked when people like Donald Sterling and you still exist. I’m sure African-Americans are not shocked, and maybe I shouldn’t be.

I once preached a sermon it was 1992 or 1993. In it I mention how judging another by the color of their skin and being prejudice was sinful. Frankly I did not think the sermon was “news” it was  25 years after integration.  I greeted a man at the door and he said to me, “I never knew being a racist was sinful.” I wish I was making this up.

I’m never sure why things work out for me as they do. Maybe the positive environment in which I was raised had something to do with it? Maybe I have rubbed elbows with good people? Maybe I simply look for the good in others? Maybe it was God’s grace?

Clive and Donald it’s not  complicated. Jesus made it simple—- “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31).

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Hospitality, Naive or Difficult?

Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. (Chesterton)
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares
–Hebrews 13:2

Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.
–I Peter 4:9

Too often “hospitality” is translated in our experience as either “southern hospitality,” a cold beverage and clean sheets, or “individual hospitality,” caring for my neighbor or fellow church member (who is already like me).

If we were to turn our attention to the act of Christian hospitality as a way of welcoming the stranger, the other, the different, how would this modify our behavior toward immigrants (legal or illegal)? Could hospitality replace hostility as an answer for international crisis? How would this look like in a political conversation or a theological issue? Is hospitality a naive approach to conflict and relationships or is it neglected because it is difficult?

In my experience, what I have witnessed is we greet those we know and like with hospitality bordering on excess. While we greet the stranger with suspicion and reservations. Of course the argument could be supported that this is biological, and indeed it could be. But when we hear scripture it seems to say —-love your enemy–which of course is a step beyond the stranger. So if we are to love the enemy can you imagine what we are to do for the non-enemy who happens to be a stranger?

A member of a hate group shot two Methodist, he suspected they were Jewish. Ironically he believed himself to be furthering the cause of Christ by disobeying both a Jewish commandment and something forbidden by Jesus. In Fort Hood a dispute turns into an opportunity for a mass shootings. Current evidence indicates it is more likely our response to conflict will be hostility than hospitality.

In addition to these domestic conflicts we have tension in the Ukraine and Syria where hostility is the default position. These are not our conflicts, yet they are symbols of the global neglect of hospitality?

Let’s begin with a story from the Ancient Hebrews, about how not to do hospitality (Deuteronomy 20:14-18).

 Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, ‘Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the adversity that has befallen us:15how our ancestors went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt for a long time; and the Egyptians oppressed us and our ancestors; 16and when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice, and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt; and here we are in Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. 17Now let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from any well; we will go along the King’s Highway, not turning aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.’

18 But Edom said to him, ‘You shall not pass through, or we will come out with the sword against you.’ The Israelites said to him, ‘We will stay on the highway; and if we drink of your water, we and our livestock, then we will pay for it. It is only a small matter; just let us pass through on foot.’ But he said, ‘You shall not pass through.’ And Edom came out against them with a large force, heavily armed. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through their territory; so Israel turned away from them.

I suspect at first glance it is not too surprising. The default position for most cultures is always suspicion and hostility, to be otherwise is to be naive and quickly enslaved or defeated. We often speak of the hospitality of Abraham or other Middle Eastern cultures but this hospitality was often reserve for small groups of travelers. We have always been more frightened of large  movements of people than we have small groups.

Southerners, at least the ones I know, did not mind the individual African-American and were often  supportive and hospitable to them. What drove southern fear and hostility of African Americans were marches and rallies’. Of course change may  never have come without such movements and marches, but nevertheless it is predictable that large numbers produce fear and hostility.

The Hebrews promise the leaders of Edom that they are only traveling through no interest your land or livestock. But promises mean nothing where there is no faith to begin with. This is being relived today in Ukraine. The words of the Russians mean nothing to Ukrainians because there is no trust.

The Edomites name meant “red.” They had received this land from God. After all these were children of Abraham as well. The offspring of Esau, who traded his birthright for “red pottage.” Since Jacob had tricked Esau there was not much trust between these two groups. The Edomites where afraid their cousins were up to no good.

In Deuteronomy chapter 2 God warns the Hebrews not to steal from the Edomites. To pay for water or for grain. Even in this chapter God seems to prefer the Hebrews take the long way around if confronted with hostility with Edom, “do not provoke them” is God’s warning.

The problem is the lack of trust. At least in the biblical tale. But how do we move beyond—no trust to a place where we can show and be shown hospitality to resolve personal, communal, national, and international disputes?

Heaven is for Real is a current movie. I recently read a pastor’s critique of this genre of books and movies. He did not care much for it. His bottom line was, just not biblical enough for him. I haven’t seen the movie or read the book. I wouldn’t see it expecting it to be biblical, the bible mentions heaven but the details are sparse. My question is why be upset over this? Why feel the need to be non-hospitable? Why not let it be?

Just as the Edomites would not allow the Hebrews to trespass, everyone feels a responsibility to protect their land. The default way we know to protect what we love or want is to be hostile. While the author was polite he clearly was not hospitable (Heaven is for Real cannot be welcomed at the table of faith). He was hostile toward welcoming even something like Heaven is for Real.

If the lack of faith and the desire to protect is what often produces the hostility, what can move us beyond hostility toward hospitality toward the “other?” There may be many options, I imagine so, but I concentrate the time I have remaining on the first step—-courage. Possibly active courage is a way to move our relationships from hostility toward hospitality.

In Matthew 5:38 Jesus says, “if someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other cheek.” When another person, another country, another organization, when anyone steps forward to answer us with hostility—Jesus says “turn the other cheek.”

The traditional response to such a slap is to slap back, but this leads . . . well you know where this leads. A man loads a gun and shoots co-workers. Or a person brings a law suit. Jesus is saying something different from our traditional response but he is not saying what we think he is saying.

If someone has slapped you on the right cheek they have done so with their right hand. Further they have slapped me with the back of their hand, a sign they believe me to be inferior. Instead of running or hitting back Jesus says “turn the other cheek,” he is saying step INTO the punch. To turn the cheek is to step forward. Now in the culture of the day the “slapper” could not use their left hand. The left hand was reserved for unclean duties, think bodily functions. So if the aggressor was to slap you again he would have to use the right hand. Because you have turned they can no longer back slap you. So they are left with an awkward option, either slap with an open hand or a fist (which would be a sign of equality) or they could discontinue their aggression. By turning the cheek (not running and not throwing a punch) you have embarrassed and confronted them. We consider the biological options to conflict, as fight or flight, but by practicing courage you have allowed the conflict to move away from hostility toward hospitality. Courage is not hospitality but there is no hospitality without it.

What we witnessed in Boston in the running of the 2014 Boston Marathon is a group exhibition of courage. “Boston Strong” is a way of saying we are turning the other cheek, we are not going anywhere. Hostility is what was visited on Boston, but their response has not been paralyzing fear.

The argument is made this approach is naive. We have been using hostility for thousands of years and while it does produce a winner, it also produces widows, orphans, and poverty. Further it never produces lasting peace. Can hospitality do much worse? Standing strong and being courageous without being aggressive provides the opportunity to show hospitality. Indeed this could be naive or Chesterton could be correct.

 

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Lent and the Mid-Life Crisis

 

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The father of Abram had made a good living in Ur. Ur sat on the banks of the Euphrates not far from the Persian Gulf. Today this is southern Iraq. Nevertheless, silt deposits had made navigating the river difficult and the economy was in trouble. So Abram’s father decides to move the family to protect the prosperity. So Abram and his wife Sarai, along with Abram’s brother’s family, and Abram’s nephew Lot, from the son of his dead brother, move, along with their dad and settle in Haran. Which is now on the Turkey-Syrian border.

In Haran, the patriarch dies. Now Abram turns his attention to his legacy. He already had wealth and success, but he had no legacy. He and Sarai had been unable to have a child, so a legacy would involve more than an heir. Abram longed to leave behind something larger than the sum of his possessions. When we stand at crossroads in life, like Abram we begin to listen again. When we are busy we speak but when we are at a lost, we tend to listen. And this is what Abram heard.

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.[i]

The future was calling. It is hard to hear tomorrow when we are obsessed with today and yesterday. Abram was as guilty as the rest of us. It’s especially hard to hear when “here and now” is good. Abram had contributed to his father’s prosperity. Most men would have traded places with Abram. But like his father before him who left Ur for Haran, Abram would build his future elsewhere.

The Lord as the scripture says had summoned Abram to an unknown destination. It would appear leaving was more important than arriving. Leave behind the comforts, the safety, the familiarity, get out of town. So Abram set out, not knowing where he was going, except that God had authorized the travel plans. Inertia, the resistance to change, is a law of physics. Human nature tells us to sit still, to not rock the boat, play it safe, don’t show your cards, be prudent—-so it would appear that inertia can, at least, be overcome by a mystical experience with God. Because against his human nature and the social pressures of the day, not to mention the pleadings of Sarai. Abram “loaded up the truck” and moved . . . well, he got moving.

The natural order of things is to move from the unknown to the known. It is our nature to make decisions which bring relief not distress. In high school, we are relieved when we move from the unknown (I don’t know where I am going to college) to the known (I’ve been accepted at). After college, we are relieved when we move from the unknown (unemployment) to the known (I got a job). They ran a test at the doctor on Wednesday (the unknown) then we were relieved when the doctor called with the results (the known). The irony should not be missed—-we need certainty and  answers. Yet Abram’s journey begins with uncertainty and questions, like all pilgrimages of faith.

Where is the “promised land?” The short answer is, not the land where God dwells but the land God calls us toward. The promised land is a spiritual destination. A place where we follow without reservations and with great joy. Of course, it is a moving target.

Naomi Rosenblatt describes our role models for this journey;

Abraham and Sarah remain such fitting role models for us today. They were born to a Babylonian culture, not unlike our own—one that worships materialism and neglects the life of the spirit. But having exhausted the limits of materialism and rejected it for a more spiritual life. Abraham and Sarah do not take a vow of poverty. . . when they go forth . . .Abraham and Sarah take their worldly goods with them[ii]

Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran;[iii]

Because now, while they have wealth they are unencumbered by their possessions, instead of being treasures the wealth is a tool to further the mission. Same amount of money but a different relationship with it.

Years ago,  I knew a couple named Ray and Karen Morris. Ray’s father had a great deal of wealth. When he was in his 20’s Ray’s dad borrowed money from the bank to buy a small office supply and copying business. By the time Ray and his sisters were teenagers the business had increased to over 10 stores. When the kids returned from college, their dad offered the business to them and he moved to the country. In retirement this father-entrepreneur started building and operating coined operated car washes, just to have something to keep him busy. Years later he would sell this business that composed of 7 coined operated car washes. But back to Ray. Ray was the oldest of the kids and in addition to the operations of the copy business, which now had over 24 locations, Ray owned and operated a cabinet making business.

A few years back I get a note from Ray and his Karen. They are telling me they are walking away from the copy business and from their beautiful house that sits by the lake, with the driveway that is a quarter of a mile long. They have decided to go to Singapore to be missionaries. Ray’s going to build homes for the people and they are going to live among the people and share Christ love, and if need be they will use words, but, at first, they will use hammers. Like Abram, they heard a call to leave their father, to leave the comfortable life they had always known. They were going to use their money not be imprisoned by it.

God’s call upon Abram’s life is a call offered to each of us today. It’s a call that challenges conventional wisdom. God calls us to move beyond three very human, powerful and deep-seated fears —

The fear of the unknown. We prefer the known but God calls us forward, he calls us away. Moving forward and moving away we naturally move toward the unknown. God called David from a field to the seat of leadership, he was unfamiliar with the art of leadership. God called Moses from a similar place to be a community organizer, but what did Moses even know about people, much less organization, he was a self-employed herder. God called Paul from the prosecutions chair to the defense chair, but he was also unaccustomed  to the work of a missionary. Of course, God called Abram from a nice house in Haran to a tent in the desert, Abram is called to the unknown.

The second fear, natural to our species, is the fear of others who are different from us. Abram’s life had been spent with his family, his kind of people. His kind were settled business types, people who were respectable business leaders. Now Abram is sent into the world of the nomad. He meets new people, different people, people like those of Sodom. But if all you ever do is stay with people you are comfortable with you’ll rarely leave your home. To be the blessing, Abram would need to accept, embrace, respect, and love those different from him.

The third fear native to us is the fear of being powerlessness. We don’t like impossible situations where the odds are stacked against us. No one likes to fail. Certainly  no one likes to fail after they have had so much success. Abram is old, Sarai is old, and from them will come a seed that will be like sands on the seashore. Talk about your uphill situation. Well, that would be like starting a logging business with a single truck, or moving to New Guinea without speaking the language, or deciding to open up a free clinic without being a doctor, or walking to a boat on top of the water, or feeding a large crowd with a catfish platter. What makes it a challenge is the risk, not the reward.

What we have here is a man late into middle age who has none of the advantages of youth. He is no longer naïve and innocent or strong and quick. Age, however, has offered him an exchange for his youthful vigor. He has a higher goal than money, a more noble purpose. Like Oskar Schindler, who rescued Jews from their German persecutors, youth was only preparation, now is the time to live.

Abram’s midlife crisis is typical; women and men, wealthy and economically challenged from the America’s to Africa have experienced a similar feeling. It’s Abram’s response which is not typical. Most of us go as far as griping (that’s a big risk) about our lives and dream of starting over. Yet most  of us turn a deaf ear to the “spirit’s call.” Instead, we protect what have built and save for a rainy day.[iv]

The longest and hardest journey is not the exterior journey but the interior journey. The hardest journey is not moving from here to there it’s moving from making it, to accepting a new challenge. The promised land for us is not a place on a map, instead, it is a place where the world’s great need is touched by our hand.

Lent, is not merely about giving up chocolate, meat, or alcohol. Those are only external reminders of an internal transformation that we seek. Lent goes beyond the sins we commit to the faithfulness we omit. Our ultimate journey is to move from our 

 exclusive, timid tendency to live boldly allowing God to lead us into the unknown, courageously loving those different from us, and to bravely stand faithful in impossible situations. Lent calls us to get our hands out of our pockets and use them to touch someone. I’m not asking have we heard God’s call. Instead, I’m asking isn’t it time you responded to God’s call

 


[i] Genesis 12:1,2

[ii]  Wrestling with Angels, Naomi Rosenblatt, p.103.

[iii] Genesis 12:5

[iv] Wrestling with Angels, Naomi Rosenblatt, p.105.

 

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March 4, 2013 · 8:48 am

Someone Attacked God

In times of tragedy the pastor often plays the role of comforter. And we should, reminding people that in the midst of the pain of life God is there.

But in times of tragedy there are times when the people need to hear a prophet. They need someone to have righteous indignation at what we are becoming. Yet to do such runs the risk of being viewed as a political hack for the right or the left. But I do want to say something—bold, something which needs to be heard, I want to do more than simply comfort.

If all the church ever is, is the comforting, hand holding, carrying a casserole bunch then I’m afraid the world is in trouble. Our casserole will arrive with the funeral home director, after the need for help has passed. If all we bring is comfort and a casserole then we can be replaced with a Hallmark card and a call to the restaurant.

If we ever hope to be the fireman running into the burning house to actually save people from these perilous times we need more boldness. As the church, and the clergy, we need to start bringing more than comfort, we need to start bringing some truth.

Someone attacked my God this week. They sent it in a Facebook post. It was also on the evening news and on the internet. I imagine it was an accident, because these were nice folks and the kind who usually protect God.  It was just someone trying to offer a reasonable explanation for the massacre of the innocents last week. When you think God controls everything and something like this happens you feel as if you have to defend God. So these well meaning folks were saying that this troubled man shot and killed these innocent children because God had been locked out of the school. God was too much of a gentleman to go where he was not wanted.

I have two words. Christmas and Emmanuel. God is with us. God was so unwanted that when he sent his son, we first marginalized him, then we suppressed his message, then we spread rumors about him, then we imprisoned him, and eventually he was so unwanted we killed him. God loved us so much he sent his son and then when we killed him, he sent him again! God’s been going where God’s not wanted since the beginning of time and we can’t stop God not even with a cross and nails.

If Christmas reminds me of anything it is that God is with us. With us in a stable, with us on a donkey, with us in our sorrow, and with us in our schools.

So—what happened last Friday had nothing to do with the absence of God. God was the first responder—-he cried first. Please don’t say God was not there or that God has been locked out of anywhere. The God I’m familiar with goes to the hypocrites, the whores, the tax collectors, the Pharisees, the children, the sick, and the mourning. You can try but you can’t get away from this God, if you roam away God will wait, and if you hide behind locked doors he’ll come through the wall. God can’t be kept out.

As the Psalmist wrote, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139:8).

Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit.

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Love All

WORSHIP FULLY
SPEND LESS
GIVE MORE
LOVE ALL

8 words. Last week we concentrated on the first of these 8 words “worship fully.” We also introduced our Advent Mission Offering which is going to the relief work in NYC after Superstorm Sandy.

Several of you said last week was the first time you had ever connected worship to the way you serve Christ. I’m sorry it took me so long to bring it up. As is written in scripture,  when you visit the sick, give a cup of water, or box groceries at the crisis center you are doing this to Jesus. You are not doing whatever you are doing for yourself but for the greater work of God, this is worship. To worship fully is to see our lives are the offering.

This week we turn our attention to the last two words LOVE ALL.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (I John 3:15-16)

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. (I Peter 4:8)

There is a great deal in the Bible we don’t understand. In one place it says this, in another place it says this—but there are some things that the Bible speaks loudly and frequently about and love is one of them.

Love covers sin. Love calls us to lay down our lives for others. They will know who we belong to by our love. I suspect even in our diverse crowd we all agree God has called us to love. It’s not the first word in the phrase we struggle with—it’s the second word “Love all.”

Once when Jesus answered a lawyer’s question the lawyer tried to limit his responsibilities by asking Jesus “who is my neighbor?” Of course the lawyer knew Jesus was calling him to love—and he is willing to do that—to a point, but he wants or needs some boundaries. Jesus you said I should “love my neighbor as myself, well who is my neighbor?” Good question we would not want to love anyone we did not absolutely have to. Jesus then proceeds with a story about a man who is robbed and beaten. Three men have the opportunity to help this wounded man. Two bypass the wounded man, only one is willing to give time and money to move the crime victim from the gutter back to work. Only one is willing to spend any sweat on this victim of circumstances. Jesus asked the lawyer, “tell me, you’ve heard my yarn which of these three was neighborly to the victim?” The man who gave compassion was the lawyer’s answer.

Jesus was saying, I want tell you who your neighbor is, but I will show you what being a neighbor is—it is having compassion—not for the person next door, but having compassion to whomever is in need of compassion.

In a similar fashion, we trying to justify the people we don’t love might ask at this hour, “But Lord what do you mean by all?”

I’m with you, we like to parse words. We’ve all got a list of people we don’t like. In some cases there may be actual names on our list—–Mary, Nancy, Donald, or Mitch. But most of the time it is just a specific but unnamed group of people—–people who brag, people who take advantage of other people, people who are snobs, people who are Muslim. Now, our list is not too long, but we all have this list. It’s not written down, but it is a list.

I ask myself “why do I have a list?” As I did some Advent soul searching what became apparent is my list is my security blanket. I only know who I am—if I have a “them” someone I stand against. I must have a list, it is a mark of self-identification. The “them” must be my opposition—or even my enemy. What am I without someone or something I hate? Can I stand for something and not have an enemy?

Now some of you may think hate is too strong a word. I agree, it is unpleasant sounding. In our minds we divide our social relationships into sub sets—–family (people I must love, but sometimes I don’t even like), friends (people who usually agree with me on most things, easy to be around) folks (people who I have no emotional attachment to but I must speak to when I see them) strangers (people I don’t want to know and will not go to the trouble of knowing until I need something they have) people who do things I don’t like (they drink too much, they are lazy, etc). Notice how we don’t have anybody we hate. In our social divisions we make it clear—we would like you if you didn’t behave that way. It’s not you, it’s your behavior. We are not at odds with you but with your behavior. I suspect this is really just a way to justify our feelings.

We know it’s not healthy or “permitted” in our faith to hate so we replace hate with the softer “we don’t like their behavior.”

Yet the question remains does God want me to love ALL people. “For God so love the world.” The implication is God loves all people but does this apply to me? While we are imperfect, flawed, and sinful we are called to love ALL. It may never happen, but it is nonetheless our standard. We are followers of Jesus—Jesus loved all, we are asked to do the same.

Now I know we still have our list, but it is time to start narrowing this list down.

Who’s on your list? Your sister-in-law, your boss, people of other faiths, homosexuals, young people, old people, overweight people, people who smoke, people who are arrogant, religious fanatics, non-religious fanatics. I want answer for your list and you will not be held accountable for my list—but the scripture does say—-  just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. We are loved unconditionally and we are ask to love in the same fashion.

This Christmas let’s start erasing our list. This Christmas let’s give the gift of love. You can think about groups if you like but I ask, is there someone you struggle with? Someone you have a hard time loving?  Do something loving for them. It doesn’t need to be a purchased gift, it can be a card, a note, or a dutch lunch, but take a step to “loving one more another” who knows what might happen.

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