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Category Archives: Christianity

Reading James Through an American Lens

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A Reading of James 2: 14-17 with a 21st Century,

United States Gun Violence Hermeneutic:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t act on it? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is a victim in a mass shooting, or has had a child shot to death at school, and one of you says to them, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” and you do nothing to oppose the senseless madness of such horrific violence, allowing more madmen to easily acquire weapons of mass destruction, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it doesn’t lead to action, is dead.

Stop Offering Rancid Casseroles as Comfort Food

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An entrenched and growing peeve of mine is the manner in which too many people attempt to trivialize, minimize, and sanitize the great power of death and the terrible mess people can find themselves experiencing in the wake of the death of someone they’ve loved.  “Why, God must have needed another angel in heaven to watch over us,” they say to a parent whose child died after a tragic accident.  “It’s God’s time and God’s plan, and today he’s in a better place,” they say to a wife whose husband died after a prolonged bout of suffering.  It’s both saddening and infuriating to see people who do this as an attempt to offer comfort and support to a grieving survivor.  To hear them talk you’d think they had gotten themselves some sort of crystal ball, through which they can see the blueprint of the universe with such wisdom that they can zero in on that part of the plan that relates to the life and death of people in a particular time and place.  But when you dig down underneath their comments–and believe me, you don’t have to dig much–you find, time and again, someone gleaning some image of heaven from the most superficial and deviant encounters with the Bible and Christian tradition.

Such folks fail to realize that their attempts at “comfort” actually bring an unsettling sort of pain, because the person receiving their platitudes has to now deal with both the death of the loved one and the misguided person in their company, who is spouting the very worst thing to say at the very worst time.  Seriously.  It’s in the exact same ballpark where you find the notion that “he/she deserved to die; he/she had it coming.”  And think about the image of God conveyed in those messages saying, “God must have needed another angel.”  Evidently God reached down from his throne, caused the man driving the SUV to go into a sudden seizure, and sent him into the oncoming traffic lane to hit head-on your son coming home late from his high school jazz band practice.  That is God, the God whose “providence” also inspires the heretical saying, “He doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”  That is the God shared in an attempt to comfort this mother who has just had her only child ripped away in a senseless, violent car collision.

When you think about it though, the person saying such a thing really doesn’t have comfort in mind, comfort for the other person, that is.  It’s more about coming up with something that will bring self-comfort, because it’s tough to be in the immediate company of one so wounded by tragic death.  Our senses and sensitivities are drawn into their despair and grief, and before we know it, if we’re not careful, we find ourselves drawn into that grief with the gravitational force of a black hole–unchecked compassion can have such effects.  And this is unbearable for folks whose main hope for their lives is that there is a plan, there is order, THERE IS A REASON FOR EVERYTHING!! THERE MUST BE!!  So in this place of uncertainty, and the fearsome discombobulation that comes with it, too many people find themselves offering a painful platitude as a magic pill so that their own pain might be abated.  Sort of like those folks who once offered sour wine on a sponge to a guy in extreme pain.

Leon_Bonnat_-_The_Crucifixion

“The Crucifixion,” Leon Bonnat

When you dare to go deeper into the Christian faith tradition, you find yourself at the foot of a cross, where the sky is dark, the wind is howling, and the suffering One hanging there cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Most of us are like those 12 fellas Jesus called to follow Him; we’d rather be anywhere but there, at that intersection where death thrusts its jagged blade into the mortal flesh of life.  The place where there is nobody coming to “save the day,”  because death is blotting out the day in an unstoppable way.  Yet this is the place in our faith where we truly find Emmanuel, “God with us.”  We discover that God has become incarnate to do much more than show us how human beings should live, and then die in a gruesome way so that some sense of divine righteousness might be appeased.  Stand near the foot of the cross and see how God has come to endure the pain and isolation of our human death, and to share in the grief that death brings.  It’s remarkable to think that the Almighty Creator of the universe, the Alpha and the Omega, could lack for anything.  But our gospel suggests that was exactly the case; that God lacked one thing, the experience of suffering as we suffer, the experience of suffering with us and dying as we die.  And in all these things, the gospel tells us that the God who experiences suffering and death is able to guide us to the place we need to be when called upon to offer support and comfort to people who have been vandalized by death.  We stand with them, like  those few hardy souls who stood at the foot of the cross, bearing witness to suffering and offering the very best we have to offer–our presence, our compassion, our own hearts, that we’ve allowed to be pulled into this grief of our friends, our family, and even those whom we do not know.  We set our words on the shelf, for the most part, because what has happened is beyond the scope of words to frame and explain.   Death is too big for us.  Life is too big for us.  And somewhere, somehow, some way, hopefully, God is.  Strip all the varnish away, and that’s what we’ve got.  That’s what we find when we journey to the foot of the cross.  That’s what we find when we journey into the life of someone who has been clobbered by the fearsome strength of death.  Don’t be afraid to make that journey, to offer the most basic companionship in the midst of utter abandonment and desolation.  And for those who insist on jumping pell-mell into their own warped, twisted and shallow understandings of life, death and God, let them use all their bromides on themselves as suppositories–because that is where such things truly belong.

 

 

 

Oh, Come, Oh, Come Emmanuel

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O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

This hauntingly beautiful 12th century hymn hits me where I live this Advent season.  The sojourn in this remote mountain village of Northern California has felt like lonely exile more often than not.  I’ve realized too late that there is a formidable disease at work to destroy the business I came to help build up.  It’s a disease that practically all of us have experienced in our lives, one way or another.   Many of us first find ourselves trying to cope with its damage to our households while we’re yet children, doing our best to navigate life while mom or dad is drunk out of their minds.  We learn early on that “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” isn’t so much fantasy as the reality of what happens when Mommy or the Old Man gets home from the store with a case of beer or a jug of wine.  The disease takes hold of them and also grabs everyone else in the household in one way or another.  Some turn into a slobberingly happy caricature of a person, others become more arrogant, bitter and angry.  Either way they are caught up in their own self-destruction and can’t help but pull those around them into the spiraling descent of alcoholic decay.  Children find themselves trapped and helpless, and do what they must to survive the surrealities of home life and the challenging realities of life on the outside.

This new experience of the disease, made manifest in someone I trusted, someone whose salesmanship was key in my decision to move to the remote mountain village, this experience has conjured up those old childhood memories.  The way I dealt with the disease back then was to retreat to a place I’d made for myself in my own mind.  Fantasy and imagination were my best friends back when I was growing up.  I also found peace and inspiration in the comedians I saw on television, especially Johnny Carson.  I’d fake being asleep then get up, flip on the little B&W TV I had in my room, and watch the Tonight Show, with the coolest guy in show business interviewing and showcasing the amazing talent of the time.  Then I discovered Don Rickles, whose earliest insult-laden routines were funny in a shocking sort of way.  But Rickles’ manic material also touched an anger I’d been harboring, anger born of being held captive in my own home, by a disease I had no way of overcoming, a disease that left its mark on me in ways that it has taken years to discern.

Those of us who have experienced this captivity as children know that the divorce of parents can be a release and a blessing, if it means that Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde no longer lives under the same roof as you do.  Then you no longer have to tiptoe around your own home with dread and trepidation, worried that you might set off some sort of episode that you know has no business playing out in your home at all.

Now, many years and many miles removed from that experience, I find myself in a new sort of captivity, with chains that are all too familiar.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

This is a good prayer right now.  I look back and see that God did deliver me out of the first captivity.  God also brought repentance and its healing effects into the life of the parent that had been consumed by the disease.  The liberation from tyranny and rescue from despair’s dark pit does come, it has come, and it shall come again.

The disease is as powerful as it ever was.  The man it is ruining can barely tell that the disease steals a little piece of him every time he gives in and drinks something he thinks will make him better.  The man is becoming a cruel distortion of the boy his family once knew as kind, thoughtful, smart and caring.  The boy manipulates and denies; he chucks responsibility aside even as he whines about responsibility’s crushing effects on his life.

And he’s very, very good at getting those around him to divert energy and resources his way, convincing them that he’s in control of the disease, despite growing evidence to the contrary.

I, for my part, have had a hit-and-miss way of dealing with him, with myself, and with this deteriorating situation.  I’ve found myself slipping back into the old role of enabler and defender; I’ve increasingly withdrawn into a place where I can’t be disturbed, whether it’s watching TV or surfing the internet, or taking a drive by myself.  It hasn’t been good for the health of the marriage, but I’m married to an amazing and patient woman who manages to pull me out of these places and back into her company, where life is good.

At the bar-lodging-restaurant business, life is anything but good.  It was closed one recent weekend when it should have been open for business.  The official reason was that a refrigerator went out in the restaurant and the business couldn’t operate without it.  Never mind that there were other refrigerators available on the premises.  The real reason was that the boy had been playing in the bar again, was feeling tired and overwhelmed by his responsibilities, and thought it best if he got himself a little rest away from the action.  So he stayed in the upstairs apartment, kept the place closed and kept on drinking those liquids that strengthen the disease.  Meanwhile, people including myself were without work that weekend, and without the needed pay that comes from that work.  Business hasn’t been all that great, and the thought of turning away any prospective customers was inconceivable.  The village economy is mostly a subsistence economy, and most folks, myself included, need every dime we can make.  The small group of folks who wanted to come spend a few dimes and a few dollars were met by a dark and locked building.   I tried every persuasive technique I knew to keep the place open–without effect.  The boy’s business is his business (for the time being, anyway) and he will do what he wants to do.   And what he wants to do, he says, is to have fun at this place where he can have a few drinks with his friends and then join in on some home made music making.  When I compare this to the vision he gave me when I was considering a move out here, I find a distorted and false picture has taken over, much like the field of vision that takes over when one takes a drink and finds oneself looking through the bottom of a glass.

 O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

I’m needing the cheer of Day-Spring in this cold, gray mountain village.  And there are hints that it’s coming. Over the years I’ve developed an appreciation and love for the Advent season.  I find the themes of preparation and waiting have less to do with our observance of Christmas and more to do with the ongoing encounters and experiences with the God who rescues and brings new life in the midst of hopelessness and despair.  In some respects, Advent is suited well to the Jewish observance of Hanukkah.  Prepare, wait, and believe that God is at hand.  And even though the circumstances would speak to a hopeless situation, God indeed brings hope and changes those circumstances through the sheer power of redemptive love.   This is the true message of Christmas, that God knows our infirmities and diseases very well, and God is not willing to let these awful things claim us and our lives.   In fact, God dwells among us and within us, and God’s energy is light and life.  Good news for me and for the one who would hold the keys to this latest captivity.

I hold on to the words of another song as well, one written within my lifetime, one that helped me navigate life in that first captivity.

Now the darkness only stays the night-time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good at arriving at the right time
It’s not always going to be this grey.

All things must pass
All things must pass away
All things must pass
All things must pass away.

This is my music this Advent season.  Emmanuel has come and is coming again.  As we prepare for this guest, we might even find the guest is already with us, waiting with us, preparing with us for the next stage of the journey, one that leads us through disease and despair,  from darkness toward an inextinguishable light.

 

Barna: Youth Leaving Church After High School is a RECENT Trend

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So says the Barna Group, in its report, “Five Myths About Young Adult Church Dropouts.”     What some have decided is a normative part of transitioning to adulthood is actually a myth, the Barna Group says.  Instead, they trace this trend of youth leaving church to become prodigals, exiles or nomads back to the Boomer Generation:

Evidence exists that during the first half of the 1900s, young adults were not less churched than were older adults. In fact, Boomers appear to be the first American generation that dropped out of church participation in significant numbers when they became young adults. So, in one sense, the Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) were part of the evolution of the church dropout phenomenon during the rise of youth culture of the 1960s….Today’s young adults who drop out of faith are continuing something the Boomers began as a generation of spiritual free agents. Yet, today’s dropout phenomenon is a more intractable, complex problem.

Why the Boomers?  I’ve had a few thoughts on this. 

Another issue Barna addresses is the explosion in communications technology and its widespread availability.   As was the case in the Reformation, people have discovered that they’re able to bypass established channels of communication with new, internet based, wireless technology.  On the big-ticket issues and news of the day people can now  engage in two-way communication rather than remain the recipients of one-way communication.  Also resembling the Reformation is the widespread awareness that institutions have become so corrupted that they no longer behave in ways that reflect the best interests of the citizenry, whether it be a branch of government, a financial institution, an established media channel for news, or an institutional incarnation of church.   Combine these two trends and you quickly realize that the Church can’t continue to stake out the same old ground.  The Church can’t continue to operate under the assumption that people will come to the building and want to join the group there, trusting that this is the best way of finding some higher spiritual truth.   Nor can the Church assume that youth are destined to leave after high school, or that they won’t find any meaningful spiritual growth after they do.

Blessings Received in this Interim Transition Time

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I’m nearing the conclusion of an interim ministry at a Denver church that began only a couple of months ago.   It’s a short one, as interim ministries go, but it’s been one that has blessed me in some unexpected ways.    This is a medium sized congregation worshiping around 200-250 on Sunday, counting both services.  The first service is more of a traditional service, though upbeat in the music and liturgy selected.  The second service is what I describe as contemporary liturgical, with a band and vocalists leading the singing.   There is a healthy mix of young and old coming to worship together every Sunday and there is also a healthy representation of people who have varying social outlooks, from liberal to conservative.  This is unique in my experience, where churches have tended to gravitate toward a like-minded, conservative mindset.

The most striking feature of congregational life here is the obvious commitment to young people and the actions that the church takes to bring that commitment to life.    How does that show itself, you ask?  To me the most powerful display comes during Holy Communion, where children come forward with adults to the altar, where the outstretched hands of  the 82-year-old wait alongside the outstretched hands of the 2-year-old.    It’s one thing to talk about the importance of sacramental identity in the lives of the baptized, it’s another thing to see that identity lived out like this, Sunday after Sunday.   Speaking of baptism, the tradition here is to invite children to gather along with the baptismal group around the font, and so they come to sit on the floor and watch as a new brother or sister is welcomed into the family of God in Christ.

There is also a children’s sermon at each service, and there are times when Sunday School craft tables are moved into the main hallway so that the kids are visibly in the mix of church activity.  They need to do this sometimes to get some needed extra space, and they’re not necessarily thinking about the significance of kids making Noah’s ark decorations adjacent to adults in fellowship conversations.   But it is significant and speaks to an unconscious competence in making sure that children know they are a valued part of the church community–and that the adult community knows this as well.

At yesterday morning’s early Sunday service, a bell choir provided special music, and I remember it as having one or two young people ringing bells with the group.  The difference in worship styles between early and second service is truly life-giving.   I come out of the first service feeling full, because I’ve participated in rich worship rooted solidly in our Lutheran tradition.  I come out of the second service with a good spirit-buzz; the band plays the “Now the Feast and Celebration” with a strong back beat and some solid guitar licks.

It’s been a surprising time of blessing for me to serve as pastor there while their pastor is on sabbatical leave.  When I say blessing, I think I also mean healing.  I’d not considered the ways in which I’d been knocked around and down in my earlier experiences.

I’ve had what can best be described as positive mirror images to some unhealthy, negative experiences that came my way practically from the moment I came out of the seminary chute and into my first call.   They’ve affirmed that the church can be a healthy, vibrant place and also that I can be a healthy, vibrant pastor.

My preaching is getting better; and I’m enjoying it again, from the preparation phase all the way to the delivery on Sunday.   Bible studies are as fun as they’ve ever been, and the folks who come are well-read, curious and insightful in their own right.  Our studies have become collaborative journeys involving the whole group, by far my favorite way to do it.

Back to preaching.  I think I’m growing in the ability to proclaim grace in the framework of law and gospel, and do it in ways that respect and honor the diversity of folks gathered for worship.     I’m also becoming more spontaneous and this has helped me shape the message in different ways so that the early risers hear something a little different from the second service folks.

At the moment, I don’t know what’s next for me after this interim ends at the end of the month.   It’s easy to allow that uncertainty to grab hold of me in negative and fearful ways.  So I focus on the blessings at hand and the blessings in hand.  And in faith, I go forward into whatever God might offer me next.

A Clashing of Powers, A Parable About Two Sons and A Vineyard

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Here’s this coming Sunday’s lectionary gospel text along with thoughts it inspired.   Maybe, just maybe, there’s a community of faith out there somewhere that would appreciate hearing a message based on my preliminary  impressions.  My inner cynic tells me it’s doubtful such a place exists; another small voice tells me to hang in there and have faith.  We’ll see.

Matthew 21:23–32 (NRSV)

(Mk 11:27–33; Lk 20:1–8)

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

The question remains, “What exactly is the vineyard?” Bundled into that question is another, “What exactly WAS the vineyard?” Jesus tells a story about about a father, two sons, and a vineyard that needs attention. To folks in the audience, the vineyard would resonate on several levels. One, it’s a dominant symbol of the agricultural economy. Lots and lots of folks make a living in the vineyard. Two, it’s a symbol and metaphor used by their prophets, especially around the time of the conquest of Israel and Judah, the Babylonian exile and the return from exile. Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard” lays it out plainly:

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,

and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;

he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;

righteousness, but heard a cry!          Is 51: v. 8

The parable of the two sons, the dad and the vineyard is told in the context of the Jerusalem Temple, one of the great marvels of the ancient world. If God Almighty had a mailbox on earth, it was there.

The story is told in the midst of an audience that had been steeped in the religious/social/political/economic cultural traditions that basically held that God had chosen this particular group of people to be first among all the ethnic peoples of the world, had given them this geography as sacred geography, and had called them to be a light for the nations. Ummm, do we find similarly held assumptions in our time and place?

Isn’t our geography seen as the land that has been given by God to God’s chosen people, who are of a particular ethnicity and religion? (The Patriot’s Bible, anyone?)

When Jesus uses the vineyard touchstone to make his point, he is certainly calling on the prophetic understandings of justice and injustice that are wrapped in the vineyard metaphor.  And he was speaking to a nation and within a nation about how the prevailing powers and authorities had become opposed to the new power and authority–and righteousness–he came to reveal.  For 2000 years, Jesus has continued the revelation, shocking and pissing off those whose power and status quo are threatened, to the extent that they find ways to crucify him again and again.   But the power of the resurrection keeps overcoming those powers, again and again.  His word to the chief priests and elders packs the same wallop today as it did back then, as does the word of the prophet Isaiah to a nation and people that lost its way.

Don’t believe me?

What happens if you read the Isaiah passage outside the Georgia state execution chamber immediately after Troy Davis is killed by the state? What happens if you read this passage at the Wall St. sit-in? What happens if you read this passage alongside a poster-sized photo of the children executed by U.S. soldiers during a house raid in Iraq?

Who are the chief priests and elders of our culture? Likewise, who would be the tax collectors and the prostitutes, and what exactly is it that makes them first in the kingdom of God?

And finally, what exactly is the Kingdom of Heaven and how might we find the wiring that connects all these questions to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount?

We can do a nice little 8-minute piece on the vineyard and the kingdom focusing on the church and its need to replenish a food pantry or provide coats for a coat drive. We can preach a nice, tidy little piece on the importance of repentance (metanoia) and how piety can often get in the way of growing in authentic faith.

But will it mean a heckuva lot when Monday comes and life keeps going down the same destructive path?

Maybe, just maybe, the tax collectors and prostitutes in our time are those folks who wouldn’t call themselves at all religious, maybe not even very spiritual. But they’re standing outside the execution chamber and they’re sitting in on Wall St., and they’re burning the midnight oil developing just alternatives to the injustices that bear down on and crush more and more people everyday. Perhaps it’s the gay teen who tragically committed suicide because he just couldn’t take the destructive bullying anymore.

Maybe these are first, like the first son in the parable, or a bit like those surprised sheep we find in the apocalyptic parable in Matthew 25.

What’s the vineyard? What’s the kingdom? Who’s first? Who deserves Jesus’ bitch-slap, like the one he laid on those chief priests and elders?

Would Your Church Offer This Welcome?

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Evidently, a few progressive churches wouldn’t, given the rejection this video received from Sojourners online.