Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

America–October 2018

Posted: 2018/11/02 in Christianity, Church

[This was first posted on Facebook on 28 October 2018]

America, October 2018 — division, derision, deceit, & desperation for a better world — Today’s epiphany is that the Church …
… does not exist merely as a retreat and ancient rock of stability in an unstable world,
… does not exist merely to remind us that God loves us and Jesus saves us (if we need weekly reminders, we haven’t been paying attention and need to look at our trust in God),
… does not exist merely to entertain with great music and arts,
… does not exist merely to give preachers a pulpit for eloquent and articulate (and occasionally inspiring) oration,
BUT the Church DOES EXIST in order to SHOW THE WORLD A GLIMPSE OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD…
…where grace, peace, love, community, compassion, care, generosity, courage, truth, forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice are the rule of the day.

BTW – the church is full of real people. One of them may hurt you or at least make you unhappy. Your pastor may not do whatever spirituality you want in the way you want it.
So what! If you claim Christ as your Lord & Savior, then you might try seeing past these to the bigger, more important calling of being part of that glimpse of the Kingdom that offers hope to the world. Just because the world has forgotten forgiveness doesn’t mean that we who follow the crucified Christ have done the same.

Lord, have mercy. Brothers and Sisters, let’s change the world! Lord, have mercy.

Advertisements

 

How shall we respond to the October 27th mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA?  An article on the United Methodist News Service website offered a thought-provoking recommendation by the bishop presiding over the Pittsburgh area:

It will not do for United Methodists to expect God to step in to bring about change after a deadly shooting that killed 11 and wounded six at a Pittsburgh synagogue, said the Pittsburgh Area United Methodist bishop.

“As you pray, I urge you not to suggest to God what you want God to do to bring about change,” said Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi said in a statement. “But rather, I urge you to listen to God so that God can reveal to you what to say and what to do in order to provide comfort to our Jewish sisters and brothers, the first responders and all those for whom this tragedy reignites previous trauma.”   (emphasis mine; see the full article here)

This caught me out because I have a bad habit of telling God what I want God to do about various troublesome things as if God hasn’t been paying attention and I know best.  How weak my own faith if I believe that God has not witnessed the tragedy and is unaware of the suffering!  How presumptuous of my ego to tell God what has to happen in response!

Of course, we pray for God’s grace of healing, comfort, and peace for all affected by the shooting, from the families of those killed to those recovering from their wounds to the congregation and neighborhood of the synagogue to first responders to all who are touched by the tragedy.  But then, I feel an urge to pray that God tweak lawmakers so that how we manage guns in America be made more safe and sane, and that President Trump’s hair fall out for responding to the tragedy by suggesting the victims shared responsibility for the tragedy by failing to have an armed guard in their sacred space.  Whether unrealistic, unreasonable, or simply silly, these last two petitions are hardly worthy of both the God whose vision and wisdom transcend the universe and his humble servant who is often not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

If I understand Bishop Moore-Koikoi’s recommendation correctly, then I agree that the first step in our response is to shut-up and listen for God’s guidance with regard to sharing the comforting and healing love of God with those most directly affected by the shooting.  Our subsequent response is like the first–shut up and listen for God’s guidance for what to do next.  Typically though, this is then the time when our own preferences and politics enter in and we seek to impose our own solutions by having God do our will under our guidance as if we know best.  Worse yet, we might even go a step further asking God to implement our solutions.

Maybe it’s time to simply ask God for what is right and what God wants of us in this situation.  We might also ask for help in shedding our intellectual ego and presumptions so as to more clearly listen for God’s wisdom free of our presumptions, prejudices, preferences, and politics.  And then we might ask God what God wants us to do rather than telling God what we want God to do.  After all, we’re here to continue the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world.

The shootings at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue are horrific and tragic.
Now then, what, God, do you want us to do?

Be Advised:  The following is not happy-to-glad and warm-and-fuzzy.  It is an unfortunate expression of my annoyance with my denomination.  If no one reads this, I’ll understand.

I’m torqued-off at my denomination, The United Methodist Church (UMC).  Yes, it’s about the UMC’s almost obsessive focus and arguments on issues around homosexuality.  And, yes, it’s about where the UMC is headed and the position it will put pastors like me in when we get there.

My primary annoyance is with the UMs’ focus on issues around homosexuality, as if we have nothing more important to get sorted.  For example, UMs have no consistent and consensual Christology.  Down into the heart of what it means to be a Christian, we have wildly differing views of Jesus Christ.  There are those of us who hold a traditional, orthodox belief in Christ, which includes acceptance of a virginal conception, the performance of supernatural works, and whole-person resurrection.  Across the spectrum, others of us take a liberal, “Quest for the Historical Jesus” view that posits Jesus as a metaphorical element at the center of a religious-political narrative of a sect of 1st century Jews in and around the Roman province of Palestine.  We don’t talk about this rather important difference of opinion of core belief, yet we are now ready to divide the UMC over an issue the Bible gives almost no ink to and Jesus himself said nothing about directly.  This tells me that we are a denomination that is defining itself on its opinion about a minor issue a long way outside the center of our faith.

My other annoyance is with the options for how the UMC moves forward that will be considered at a special General Conference schedule for February 2019.  One option creates three large conferences bordered not by geography but by belief in and around homosexuality.  If the decision regarding conference membership is pushed down to the local church level, then that will force pastors and congregations to expend a great deal of time, effort, and internal conflict deciding with which conference to affiliate.   At the local church, we have more important things to do.

There are two other, more likely options up for consideration, and they are just as problematic, if not more.  The first is called the Traditionalist Plan, which calls for a strict adherence to UM church law as it stands today and narrows it even further, specifically to declare that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian doctrine and thus clerical leadership, that same-sex marriage is prohibited, and that marriage can only be between two persons of different genders.  An off-ramp is proposed to allow churches who differ with this to exit the UMC with their church property.  In effect, the Traditionalist Plan would split the existing UMC into the UMC and whatever-it-calls-itself-MC.  My problem with this is that it would force me and my congregation to decide which Methodist denomination we would belong to based on our view of homosexuality.  To the outside world we would be a church known not by our proclamation of the Gospel and discipleship to Jesus Christ, but a church within either the homosexual-accepting or homosexual-hating denomination.  How can I and my congregation make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world if we are perceived primarily in these terms by the very people we need to reach for Jesus?!?

The other plan, the one favored by the study group that is reporting to the special General Conference, known as the One Church Plan, would also make my job way more difficult than it already is.  That plan pushes the decisions about issues around homosexuality down to pastors in each church.  I would have to choose, and be responsible, for whether I marry a homosexual couple, for example.  Congregations are rarely of one mind about anything, let alone homosexuality.  If, for example, I chose to marry the gay couple, I would surely anger some of my congregation and, likely, damage my pastoral relationship with them.  Should I refuse to officiate the same wedding, I would similarly anger and alienate others in my congregation.  Today, I can refer back to church law, which thus protects my ability to have a functional relationship with my congregation because they cannot hold me personally responsible.  Having to make decisions about issues around homosexuality without church law as a guide (or shield) would make me personally responsible and the focus of the conflict that might be precipitated from those decisions.  And again, to the world outside our walls, we run the risk of being defined by how we are perceived to embrace or exclude homosexuals.

As always, I put my trust in God to help us get things sorted.  I just hope God has been invited into the conversation.  My fear is that we are either ignoring or speaking over God as we discuss where to take the UMC.

I wonder what Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, would say if he was alive today.  Not only did he claim that “the world is my parish,” but he also argued the validity and necessity of interpreting the world through the Bible, claiming that he preached with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  Though the bulk of his sermons focused on a myriad of theological topics, he had much to say about wealth, economics, and the plight of the poor.  As a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, it does indeed feel natural to, like Wesley did, interpret the world through the Bible (and the teachings of the Church).  But in 2018’s world of extreme partisanship and drastic change, in which social and political norms are in radical flux, and those changes are perceived most often through tribal loyalty rather than dispassionate analysis, interpreting the world through the Bible and church teaching has become difficult and dangerous.

The trouble has nothing to do with the source material.  In fact, our Bible’s venerable prophets would be as busy as ever today.  Just today, in fact, the president of the U.S.A. gave an interview to the U.K.’s Sun newspaper excoriating the British Prime Minister, only to claim later in the day, while standing next to the Primer Minister, that he had not uttered any criticism at all.  Such an action by the leader of the U.S.A. begs a reflection on the sin of deceit, the very first one demonstrated in the Bible.  But should I do so, with a call to my congregation to seek a more excellent way of truthful public discourse by our leaders and representatives, I will alienate and surely anger those I pastor who support our president.  The sin will become less relevant than my apparent partisanship.

For the record, I don’t care who is in office or which party they belong to.  If their behavior fails to honor their leadership position or their decisions cause harm, then I will be critical of their behavior or policies.

But the question remains: How do I, as a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, speak to issues that surround and affect us today and yet continue to be pastor to those whose loyalties and perspectives would be offended by my preaching?  To let anything get in the way of preaching Christ and the Gospel is wrong.  Yet Christ is not divorced from the world.  If we as Christ-followers are to be relevant to the world, then we must engage with it and, if needed, call out that which ought not to be or could be better.  After all, as  United Methodists, we are in the business of “making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.”

I don’t have an answer, so I guess I will continue to do as I do now by preaching along the razor’s edge.

Text:  Mark 6:53-56
People immediately recognized Jesus and ran around that whole region bringing sick people on their mats to wherever they heard he was.

So far, Jesus had performed exorcisms, healed many sick people, fed 5,000+ people, calmed two storms over the Sea of Galilee, ate with tax collectors and “sinners,” and baffled people with parables.  Along the way he had preached the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom.  He had become famous in Galilee and crowds flocked to see him, but they did not come to Jesus to hear him preach or learn the finer points of their religion.  They came bringing their sick hoping for healing.

Today’s reading is grounding.  It reminds me that as fascinated as I am by Christian theology, Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology, that fascination is rarely shared by the people I serve as pastor.  Rather, their interests are more down to earth and practical.  They want to know how to live as people of good character who do good in the world, find strength and guidance for the day, and healing in times of suffering.

I have sometimes groused that it seems that too many people come to Christianity and church for free therapy.  They want to an uplifting experience that makes them feel better.  But the stress and anxiety brought on by national and world events over the last year or two have made me more aware that life can be difficult and our need for healing frequent.

Jesus never groused about people coming to him for healing.  He responded to them, not with theologically-centered sermons but with compassion by healing them.  He met needs no one else could meet.  We who serve as pastors would do well to get our heads out of our “-ologies”, offer Jesus’ healing to individuals, and lead our congregations to do works of compassion that bring healing to our world.

Text:  Mark 4:35-41    “Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

Today’s reading–an account of Jesus calming a storm that was swamping the boat he and his disciples were in–resonates at a variety of frequencies.  Maybe the one with the most amplitude is that of the chaotic noise of the world in 2017-2018.  I’ve not lived through a time that has felt more turbulent and chaotic.  Current events have gone from a continuum with “that’s interesting” on one end to “who cares” on the other to constant exhausting tension.  It’s like moving from recognizable melody and harmony to a screeching mix of white noise, thrash-metal, and screaming punk.

Today’s reading reminds us that no matter how chaotic the world around us gets, our God is still the one who brings order.  When the Pauline writer of Colossians 1.17 tells us that “[Jesus Christ] existed before all things, and all things are held together in him,” he reminds us that Christ is Lord over the Universe.

These reminders alone do not offer comfort if our expectation of God’s sovereignty is that God will magically or instantly calm the storms of our time and one day we’ll wake up to a world in which all the big problems have disappeared.  God doesn’t work that way.  Jesus calmed the storm from the back of the boat because he was in the boat at the time.  Today, it’s not Jesus in the boat but the Body of Christ, commissioned by Jesus to continue his ministry in the world.  It is we who are parts of the Body who need to stand up and do what we can to calm the storm . . . and there is a lot more we can do than we are doing.  We may not be able to order the wind and waves to obey us, but what might the world around us be like if we –

  • kept strong in our faith in God, especially by doing those things that keep us close to God: prayer, Bible, worship, fellowship with other Christians (important: this step makes the following ones possible)
  • decreased the volume of our own response to the world’s chaos, thus being a low-anxiety presence for everyone else
  • intentionally find constructive ways to address the things we are passionate about (constant shouting, trolling, inflammatory tweeting, and so forth do little but to raise stress levels)
  • interact with others with flexibility and grace, whether face to face or on social media

 

Text:  Romans 15:7-13

“So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory.”

On the eve of Epiphany Sunday, which will be highlighted by worship that features Holy Communion, today’s reading strikes an encouraging, energizing resonance (like the last part of Pat Metheny’s “(Cross) The Heartland” from American Garage, where the major progression melody blows back in).  As a UM church, our communion table is an open table.  The default is welcome to the table, which is different than many other denominations which insist on membership before one can participate in communion.

The point of this is not to criticize other denominations’ polities.  Each has developed their own approach to the sacraments that fit within their own larger ecclesiology.  So be it.

Paul’s admonition to welcome, simple and obvious as it sounds, was controversial.  Among fellow Jewish Christians, there was a parochial exclusivity that insisted on becoming a Jew first, then one could follow Christ as a disciple rather than a fringe follower.  Paul renounced and denounced this, and eventually won his argument (see Acts 15), but surely pockets of resistance among the Jewish Christian conservatives of his day remained at the time he wrote to the church in Rome.  So, as he had done so many years earlier in his correspondence to the church in Galatia,  Paul called for unqualified openness and welcome using Christ himself as the model.

Whether at the communion table or at the church door (or anywhere we gather), how can we not open our arms to any and all who seek God through Jesus Christ?