Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Christmas Gospel

I was watching one of those holiday movies that depict the events around the birth of Christ. There have been lots of cheesy ones but this one was pretty good. It seemed to be based on some solid study of the Bible and sound historical research. Herod was portrayed as the villain which he was. He didn't think twice about killing members of his family who he deemed threats to his throne. In the opening scenes Herod threatens another one of his sons if he does not put down a rival to his throne. In particular, he is concerned about rumors he has heard about a prophecy telling of a Jewish Messiah. The film begins with the Herod ordered massacre of children under the age of two in Bethlehem - just to make sure there were no young Messiahs. Herod always had in the back of his mind that Somewhere, Someone was out to take his throne from him.

After the opening scene of the chilling Bethlehem massacre, the action shifts to Nazareth where Joseph and Mary lived. They are very young. Mary is sowing seed in a field with some other girls and boys. They take off on a run throwing seed at each other. Mary's mother yells at her to keep her mind focused on her work. Her family can ill afford such play when times are so hard. Joseph is seen doing some very rough carpentry without a shop or proper tools. These are poor, simple folk. Then some Roman soldiers come riding into the village interrupting the daily chores. Some one shouts: they have come to collect taxes. The Romans are big, well armored, with swords and spears. They talk loudly and most of the people scurry out of the way, obviously frightened by this display of power. It's clear the villagers have seen this before and know what is coming next. The men line up to pay their taxes; the women shield their daughters from the soldiers leering eyes. A few of the men pay their taxes; some cannot. One man begs a soldier for more time. He laughs and takes control of another third of his land for Herod in lieu of tax payment. Another man who cannot pay all his tax has his donkey confiscated by the soldiers. And a third man watches as his daughter is snatched out of his wife's arms to work on one of Herod's building projects that demands a large slave labor force.

The scene abruptly shifts to a massive building project at Masada in the south of Palestine. Here Herod's winter palace is under construction. Israeli slaves are hauling huge blocks of stone up the steep slopes to the mountain top where the palace - fortress will be.

So, Messiah was much on people's minds and hearts. When Messiah comes, he will deliver us. When Messiah comes, we will have our revenge on these hated oppressors. When Messiah comes there will be justice and prosperity again.

Passionate times. Feelings ran hot; anger, sorrow, anxiety and fear were daily companions of these believing Jews. We often miss those feelings at our church Christmas celebrations. We are thinking more of the wonder surrounding the birth of Christ and in our warm, well lit, beautifully decorated sanctuaries we are literally and figuratively far removed from the daily grind of most people at the time Jesus was born. Sometimes, our thoughts are overwhelmed by the commercialization of the season so uppermost on our minds is the gift giving and partying that mark the holidays.

Dorothee Soelle had a hard time with Christmas. She was familiar with the poor and oppressed of the world because of her work as an advocate for homeless people and others living on the edges of society. She said the birth story of Jesus in the Bible seemed like a museum piece to her. She could not see what it had to say to people today, especially those who lived marginal existences. Christmas seemed to be for the well off who could afford to give gifts and go to parties. Then, she had a breakthrough; she began to read the Christmas story in its historical and political context. She began to wonder about the conditions in which the people of Galilee lived; and she wondered why she had never realized before how many sick people appear in the gospels. And she wondered what made them sick and why they could not be treated. She began to understand the political oppression, economic plunder and legal degradation - she said - that was implicit in the gospel stories. Luke tells us "everyone had to go .. to be registered", so he is telling us about the coercive measures of the Romans. These Jewish peasants had no choice but to go to be counted. She understood that the "peace on earth" the angels heralded and Jesus ushered in was in direct opposition to the Pax Romana - the so-called peace of Rome - which was no peace at all for most non- Romans. I understood for the first time the propaganda terms of pax (peace) and jus ( justice) that the Roman writers used were a cover for the manipulation of grain prices and militarization of the earth - she wrote. When she saw the boot of the empire crushing everything in its path from Bethlehem to Golgotha - she could understand how the words of the gospel spoke to the poor and oppressed she worked with today. " In Paul, these causes of misery are called the reign of sin... " "Into this darkness, the light of Christmas shines... " "The frightened shepherds become God's messengers. They organize, make haste, find others, and speak with them. Do we not all want to become shepherds and catch sight of the angel? I think so. Without the perspective of the poor, we see nothing, not even an angel. When we approach the poor, our values and goals change. The child appears in many other children. Mary also seeks sanctuary among us. Because the angels sing, the shepherds rise, leave their fears behind, and set out for Bethlehem, wherever it is situated these days." (from an entry by Dorothee Soelle in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Community

Pauline was a member of the church I pastored. I don't know if she ever officially joined but she was as much a member as anyone else. This church was her family and she loved us. She would tell us that almost every Sunday. She lived right next door to the church in a room of a house with other social misfits. Pauline was not "normal" and neither were her housemates. There was a Down Syndrome young man and assorted other persons who did not readily fit in anywhere else. It was a good place to live. A woman who came to our church was the director. Her husband was paralyzed himself after several strokes, one while driving his car. He was hard to understand and I couldn't always make sense of what he was saying but he liked baseball and sometimes we watched the Yankees together in the summer. Later, she and her husband adopted two special needs children from India. They were adopted by the church family, too.

Pauline was institutionalized until she was about 70. Her parents had abandoned her to the institution when she was a child believing she was retarded. She told us her father was a rabbi in New York City. Pauline was not retarded but being institutionalized for so long retarded her social skills. She didn't have any. When she was younger she had frequent seizures during which she fell flat on her face. Most of the bones in her face had been broken and then had healed on their own. Her nose was squished in, her mouth was askew and opened widely, showing a toothless grin and showering you with spit as she talked. After church, you were likely to be the recipient of a huge, slobbery kiss along with an enthusiastic bear hug. I love you, she would shout. She was not shy in the least. She always stood up at the church's prayer time with a testimony or a need for prayer. During the service from her front row seat, she could be heard chomping on her gums (not gum, but gums). She liked to wear dresses and dance around like a little girl. We were her family. Most of the people in town knew her and she would run errands for businesses to earn a little spending money.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving the church put on a turkey dinner with all the trimmings for the people who lived next door. At that time, we would each take a name of a person who had listed what they wanted for Christmas. The usual items were things like kleenex, writing paper, a pen, toothbrush and maybe slippers or cologne. The young man with Down Syndrome loved matchbox cars so that was on his list year after year. On the Sunday before Christmas the people of the home next door to the church would invite us over for Christmas punch, and cookies; we would sing some carols together and then we would hand out the gifts. It was a time filled with laughter and much joy.

In a few years, the home was sold to another company that manages those kinds of homes. The director was let go and a new supervisor was brought in. Policies were reviewed and new ones put in place. The home was brought up to state standards which meant our informal gatherings with the home came to an end. Pauline and a couple other residents still attended the church until she died a few years later.

I thought of Pauline today as I read a book about the L'Arche communities for the mentally and physically disabled, and the work of Jean Vanier who said "a fundamental text for L'Arche is I Corinthians 12, which is about the body of Christ, the church, and Paul says that those parts of the body that are the weakest and least presentable are the most necessary to the body and should be honored. Often the parts that are weakest and least presentable are the ones we hide away in institutions or try to get rid of (Vanier says that in France where he lives within a few years there will be no more children with Down Syndrome because they will all have been aborted.)

Pauline could become jealous and angry if she did not get her own way. She was like a child in many ways. But she was a child of God's, deeply loved and valued by her heavenly Father, and a member of the body of Christ, who reminded all of us we were too.

The Advent Conspiracy

There's a group called the Advent Conspiracy. It was started by a few pastors in the Portland, OR area who were sick of Christmas - I mean all the commercialization of said holiday. You know, it is not politically correct to say Merry Christmas, according to Walmart, anyway ( I understand Focus on the Family has a list of Christmas friendly stores so you can shop at places where Merry Christmas is still heard). Bill O'Reilly of Fox News is a big fan of Christmas. He said that every company in America ought to get down on their knees and thank Jesus for coming to earth because they would be far less profitable if he had not!. Well, uh.... Someone is missing the point here. Would Christmas be better if the Walmart greeter said Merry Christmas to you?

One of the Advent Conspiracy founding pastors said Christmas is our story so why should we be upset if Walmart can't tell it? Or something like that. But that is exactly right. We have allowed the culture to pretty much co-opt Christmas. And we in the church, playing catch up, try to get our two cents in when we can. The Advent Conspiracy does not challenge us to opt out of Christmas altogether but it does challenge us to ramp it down a bit. Less money spent, fewer gifts, more attention to justice and world poverty issues - in a few words, keep our Christmas celebrations more in line with the Spirit of the season.

Few would argue that Christmas is out of control. There is barely a hint anymore of the "real meaning of Christmas" in our cultural celebrations. This year the focus is on spending ourselves out of the recession. That is our Christmas hope. The top ten countdown of Christmas songs at our local school is this week and Christmas carols are on the banned list. But, Christmas is our story so why should we expect the school to tell it. Not their job.

Question is how are we telling it? How are we living it? How are our Christmas celebrations any different from those we see in our culture. If you are tired of the Christmas Rush; if you are looking for some suggestions to keep the real Jesus in Christmas and celebrate it more in keeping with his way of life, check out

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Good Reading, 2009

2009 was a good year for reading. In spite of the global recession now in its second year, and the predictions of the end of the publishing industry as we have known it, there were lots of books published. Some of them pretty good although most of my reading for the year was not in new books. I am still trying to catch up with years of neglected reading. C. S. Lewis, and more recently, Eugene Peterson have convinced me to read old books, which because they are old, and still in print, are called classics. I did not read many old books in the sense they are talking about but I read older books, and one or two that I would put on my personal classics list. Book lists are obviously personal. What I might like, you might not. In fact, one of the difficulties in reading good books, is finding them. Especially older ones that are worth your time. Eugene Peterson has a good book of book lists arranged by topic, entitled, Take and Read. I have taken many of them and read them and found him to be a very good guide. On the other hand, I often read book reviews in the New York Times and have not found the Times to be a particularly good guide. Early in 2009 I came across a book recommendation page for pastors that Calvin Theological Seminary published. Given the name you might think it would be heavy on theological books, especially Calvin's. But, you won't find many theology books on the list and none by Calvin! Calvin Seminary believes pastors should read widely in many genres, including, fiction and poetry. I know some pastors who think reading fiction is a waste of precious time. I don't agree. I think fiction can be very good theology as it shows us how doctrines like those of sin, grace, salvation are worked out in daily life. I find myself reading more fiction, less theology as I get older. So, once I discovered this list of good recommended fiction (not just for pastors, but especially for pastors) I dug in with enthusiasm. And I read a lot of fiction this year.

One of my favorite works of fiction is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and I read a book this year that I liked every bit as much. It was The Miracle of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall. Set in Arizona, Edgar begins life with much adversity but he finds his purpose and pursues it with determination. Great story. On my classics list.

Another book I would add to my classics list was by E.P. Jones who wrote a story of historical fiction set in Virginia just before the civil war. It is called, The Known World, and its a powerful story about Black slaves and Black slaveowners who are making their way in an unknown White world where power shifts precariously, and suddenly. Jones is a wonderful writer.

I happened on David James Duncan this year. I was put onto it by my son Mark who was in a group at college where it was read and discussed. Later on in the year he would read (and so would I) Duncan's earlier book, The River Why. It really was a Duncan year. After I mentioned Duncan's book, Brothers K, in a sermon, a man at church told me I had to read, The River Why, which he said was better than Brothers K. After I read The River Why, I could see why he said that. He is a fisherman and that's the setting of The River Why. I loved Brothers K. It is a great bouillabaisse of a book (a phrase I heard first used by Eugene Peterson describing The Brothers Karamazov which Duncan models his book after). It's about baseball, family, Christianity, the Viet Nam war - its about life and making one's way through it. On my classics list, as well.

Two books were more personal because they dealt in very thoughtful ways with pastors and their lives. Come Sunday by Isla Marley is about a pastor's wife who loses and then regains her faith after a family tragedy. Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout is about a pastor who loses his wife, retains his faith through a church community that, while unsure of him at first, grew to love him.

There was more fiction but I read other things, as well. Two history books by Tim Egan were winners. One was The Worst Hard Time which told the story of the dustbowl years in the West. Egan tells the story from the point of view of people who were there. Makes our own hard times look pretty easy in comparison. In The Big Burn he tells the story of Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and the beginnings of the US Forest Service. It took a terrible fire burning through Washington, Idaho and Montana to get people to catch Roosevelt's and Pinchot's vision. Great first person stories. Good insights into Roosevelt and Pinchot, too.

Two books that should be read together were Mark Noll's The New Shape of World Christianity and Soong - Chan Rah's The New Evangelicalism. In case you haven't looked the face of Global Christianity is changing. It is looking much more Asian, Hispanic and Black. The fantastic growth of Global Christianity is having a profound impact on the US. Most of the growing churches in the US today are non-white.

I read some sports books: a Yankee fan who is morphing into a Mariners fan after living ten years in the West, I read Joe Torre's book and the book on A-Rod by Selena Roberts. Nuff said.

N.T. Wright continues to put out some very important books for Christians who value the study of God's word. Surprised by Hope, about our glorious hope of resurrection - and Justification which is about the foundation of our relationship with God through the life and death of Christ, are both important books to study and discuss.

Eugene Peterson is working on his five volume spiritual theology. This year I read volume four, Tell It Slant. Peterson feeds my soul.

A final book I would mention is Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I had not been a Miller fan. My college aged friends and family members love this guy. Blue Like Jazz was a best seller among young Christians. I thought I was too old to get it. Then, I picked up this latest book and I got it. Here's a quote: " We get robbed of the glory of life because we aren't capable of remembering how we got here. When you are born, you wake up slowly to everything. Your brain doesn't stop growing until you turn twenty six, so from birth to twenty six God is slowly turning the lights on, and you are groggy, and pointing at things saying, circle, and blue, and car, and then sex, and job, health care. The experience is so slow you could easily come to believe life isn't that big of a deal, that life isn't staggering. What I am saying is I think life is staggering and we are just used to it. We are all like spoiled children no longer impressed with the gifts we're given - it's just another sunset, just another rainstorm moving in over the mountains, just another child being born, just another funeral" Miller's book will awaken in you a profound gratitude for the Story you are in.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Blindside is a new movie out now and selling a lot of tickets. It's second to the vampire movie that is part of a series that is wildly popular for some reason I don't think I would ever understand. I do understand football and The Blind Side by Michael Lewis was a good football read before it was a movie. I have not seen the movie but I am almost finished with the book. Not only is Blindside a good football book, it is a good story about a current NFL football player, Michael Oher(pronounced Oar) who plays offensive line for the Baltimore Ravens. Before that he starred at Ole Miss and was a first round draft pick. Before that, well, that's the story told in the book. Michael's future would have been very different if his life path had not crossed that of the Tuohy family of Memphis, TN. That is the white, rich, Christian, Tuohy family. Sean Tuohy was an outstanding athlete at Ole Miss and owns a lot of Taco Bells in the Memphis area. The Tuohy kids go to Briercrest Christian School outside Memphis, a school that was founded when school integration came to Memphis in the early 70s. When that happened parents yanked 7,000 kids out of the Memphis public schools and a whole new private school system sprung up overnight. Briercrest became one of the biggest and best. It certainly was one of the most well funded. For instance, the Briercrest football team meets in a million dollar field house. The head coach has a paid staff of six assistant coaches as well as several volunteers. He could charter a jet for away game travel but doesn't because it might look like the football program was too rich. They were good; Briercrest has won five Tennessee state championships in the 2000s. Briercrest and one other large Memphis area Christian school were perennial state powers.

Back to the story. Michael is an almost homeless black kid from the poorest part of Memphis. He is being raised by Big Tony. His mother is living but she is an alcoholic. His father is non-existent. The public school is just passing him along. He has learned nothing by the time he is in high school and meets the Tuohys. They take him in. They supply all his needs and wants just like he was one of their own kids. They advocate for him. He is a huge, athletic kid who has the college football powers drooling over him. He gets scholarship offers from every major Division 1 college. He can go anywhere he wants on a full ride. He is taken in by the Tuohy family. They genuinely treat him as part of their family. He feels loved as if he was born into their family. Like I said, it's a great story. Michael Lewis is a great sportswriter.

Christianity is part of the story, too. The Tuohys are Christians. Briercrest is a Christian school. You have to take Bible courses there. In it's early days it was called Briercrest Baptist School and met in a number of Baptist Churches. If you were not a Christian reading this book, here is what you would learn about Christians: they are white, rich, anti-gay, and take their football very seriously. It is very important that they are the top school academically and athletically. Christians are winners.

Christian schools are so big in Tennessee that when Briercrest met Evangelical Christian school for the state championship it was called the Jesus Bowl and Lewis comments that "Jesus was keeping his distance". There was profanity, and fighting and all the "kick butt" attitudes you would expect at any big time football game.

Lewis was not writing a "Christian" book; he was telling a good story. I was thinking, however, about that comment. Our Christianity can become so enmeshed in our cultural preferences that Jesus does keep his distance. How much of what we profess to be "Christian" is really not at all. It is just people doing what they want to do, and because they are "Christian" they believe God is blessing what they do, and Jesus is in it.

When Jesus came into our world, there were no bright lights except for one star and the "glory of the Lord shining all around" when the angels showed up. The audience was some miserably poor losers who worked the fields as shepherds. Jesus took his first breath in a smelly stable. His parents could not afford better accommodations. His followers have come a long way since then, haven't they? But, is that what he wanted?

A couple other thoughts: The Blind Side is about the side of the quarter back that is vulnerable because he is facing the other way. For a right handed QB that is his left side. NFL pass rushers are so big, fast and vicious that one hit from the blind side can put a QB away for the season. So, the big powerful man who plays left tackle and is responsible for protecting his QB's blind side is pretty important and gets paid big bucks. Often, he is the highest paid player on the team! So colleges with big time football programs as well as NFL teams are looking for big, quick, and tough offensive linemen. Sometimes, these prime players only stay in college a couple of years before they enter the Pro draft. Isn't it time we recognize big time college football programs for what they are: the minor leagues of the NFL. Colleges are making big money off these talented kids and paying them nothing ( a full scholarship is far, far below their worth to these schools). Many big time college football programs graduate 50% or less of their football players. They are not there for their education. Football generates enormous income for these schools. How else could the University of Florida pay their football coach 4 million a year! It's about time these colleges paid their big time performers to play instead of using their talents to make other people rich.

Michael Oher's story is inspiring. The Tuohy family deserves a lot of credit for all they did for him. But, as Lewis points out, Michael wondered if they would have done it if they found him in a ditch and his only future prospects were flipping hamburgs at McDonalds. The NCAA investigated the Tuohy family for that reason. Why were they giving Michael so much? Was it so he would go to Ole Miss which was their alma mater and of which they were big boosters. It happens. The world of sports brings out the best and worst in people. Oher's high school coach used Michael to get himself an assistant coaching job at Ole Miss. Michael nicknamed him "the snake".

Michael needed so much. He was so far behind after spending nine years in the Memphis public schools. He was basically homeless. How many other Michaels are there? And who is going to advocate for them especially if they do not hold the promising athletic future Michael did?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Give Like Scrooge

With Christmas on the way, all kinds of local holiday treats are planned. Scrooge, the play, will be held at the school auditorium the next two weekends. The new Disney movie starring Jim Carrey as Scrooge will be playing at the theater around Christmas, too. Charles Dicken's story of Scrooge is a holiday classic. But did he write it to embrace a Victorian era Christmas or as a piece of social criticism?

Dicken's London world of the 1840s was a harsh and brutal world. Especially for children. London was a literal cesspool with human and animal filth running down the streets. It was the poor who cleaned it up and were covered with it as the carriages of the richer class sped by. London's society was rigidly separated by class. Most of the people were poor, divided into the working poor and "undeserving" poor. There were poor laws that created poor houses that no poor person wanted to go to. There was a law that permitted the bodies of the poor who died in poor houses to be dissected in the local medical schools ( the Anatomy Act). The richer class escaped dreary London with its coal - smoke filled air by living in the country and coming into the city when they needed to do business.

About three quarters of the people in the city made up the working class. Every member of an extended family was needed to work to make a living wage. And even then, good jobs were few and rents were high. There were no child labor protections and this was one of Dicken's reasons for writing Scrooge. Children were on the street selling flowers and matches. Dickens worked as a child to support his own family while his parents were stuck in a debtor's prison.

Dicken's main character, Ebenezeer Scrooge, is a member of this isolated aristocracy who is unaware of the suffering of the poor. Even among his own employees. His awakening comes when the third ghost visits him on Christmas eve. When he is taken to his own grave, he realizes his future death is coming without hope of redemption. When he wakes up on Christmas day, he knows he still has a chance to live - and he embraces life with a passion to live differently, and rightly. First, he delivers a Christmas meal to his employee and family, Bob Cratchit. It is a hopeful scene as at least one member of London's rich aristocracy has had his conscience aroused to the needs of the poor around him.

Today, our world seems like it has come a long way from London in the 1840s. However, we still see stories about brutal child labor practices throughout the world. We read about how children are exploited for profit. We read about the sexual trafficking of the young. Even, in our country, and in our community, a recent news report highlighted startling statistics about the growing number of children living below the poverty line, and eligible for food stamps. However, the report also mentioned that only about 2/3 of those eligible ever apply. We hear about food banks being depleted, and shelters full. We know there are clothing drives and food drives. We know people out of work whose family's are struggling.

The first Christmas card was designed in 1843, the same year Scrooge was published, and it reminded those who were materially blessed to give so that those who were not could be clothed and fed. This Christmas, as we watch Scrooge, it can do the work Dickens meant it to - if it reminds us of the needs of so many children in our community and around the world - and if it prompts us to remember those children, especially, in our gift giving. The bulletin board at church offers some concrete and practical ways to "give like Scrooge" eventually learned how to give.
(this blog is based on an article in Christianity Today online called The Darker Side of A Christmas Carol by Lisa Toland)

Friday, November 20, 2009


So how will you spend Thanksgiving? Our family usually had a big meal with turkey and all the trimmings. We watched football and played games. We put some money in a pot which paid off every quarter of the football game to the one who had bought the right square that corresponded to the score at the end of that quarter. It mildly troubled my mother that we were betting and she thought her family which was comprised of a youth pastor, a senior pastor and assorted church officials had been raised better than that. Some of us went hunting in the morning; all of us went for walks. We ate a late night snack of turkey sandwiches and a second piece of pie and went to bed. On Friday, we hit the malls to shop or see a new holiday movie release. A church service was not in the picture although my sister would always have everyone share what they were thankful for and my father would lead in prayer. All in all, it was a satisfying way to spend a holiday.

I felt some guilt, perhaps due to my mother's influence, that our Thanksgiving celebration was too secular. Maybe an hour or so at church would have helped me get over it. Somehow we have the idea that in order to enjoy ourselves we should pay our dues and spend some time in church first. It is interesting to view our Thanksgiving celebrations in light of the first one. The Pilgrims who lived at Plymouth in 1620 were not big on holidays. The big three were the weekly Sabbath, the Day of Humiliation and Fasting and the Day of Thanksgiving and Praise. The two "Days" were floating holidays depending on the growing cycle. The Thanksgiving Day we call the First Thanksgiving was not an official holiday at all.

Edward Winslow, who was present, wrote, " our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men fowling... the four killed as much fowl as needed to serve our company almost a week. At which time our other recreations were exercising our arms (not in the sense of going to the gym but firing their weapons). Many of the Indians (90 Wampanoags joined 50 colonists in this time of feasting) along with their greatest, Massasoit, with whom we entertained and feasted for three days went out and killed five deer which they gave to our governor, and the captain, and others. And although it had not always been so plentiful as it was at that time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

In the Puritan worldveiw, Leland Ryken wrote, "all of life is God's. The Puritans lived simultaneously in two worlds - the invisible spiritual world and the physical world of earthly existence. For the Puritans, both worlds were equally real, and there was no cleavage of life into sacred and secular. All of life was sacred." (from Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were)

However you spend Thanksgiving, enjoy the day the Lord has given to you.

The Earth is the Lord's and Everything in it. Ps 24:1 and 1 Cor 10:26

Spiritual Counsel

If there is major ongoing sin in your life, cut it out... at least want to cut it out... cultivate repentance by thinking on the glory and compassion of God and your squandering of that love.

Look for a spiritual mother or father. For some Christians this is their pastor or priest. To talk with someone about one's spiritual life is a good antidote to spiritual pride.

Attend worship. Confess your sins... there is great solace in speaking your sins out loud and hearing the words of forgiveness.

Pray, fast, give alms. Give a tenth of your income if you can. If not, work up to that. Give wisely.

Serve those in sorrow and need. In person, if possible, personal contact will affect you in ways not gained through writing a check. The scriptures presume all charity is taking place in the context of personal relationships.

Practice Agape (long suffering, self giving love) in every context ( and it does take a lot of practice). Every person you meet gives you a God appointed opportunity to die to self. The six or ten people you deal with today are meant to furnish your own personal "Roman Coliseum" where you can battle against self-will till your last breath.

Avoid excessive sleeping and leave the table before you feel full. Overeating undermines the ability to maintain constant prayer. Continually stretch yourself with small challenges in all areas of your preferences and desires, cutting away little pleasures that you think you cannot live without. But don't go overboard with a sudden, possibly prideful, attempt at excessive asceticism. One needs to get used to moderation gradually.

Expect that you will have sorrow and that you will suffer injustice. Expect this and it won't shatter your faith. Believe firmly that all your joy is with Christ and you will be able to bear it if other resources of joy prove temporary or are never found at all. Pain may be inevitable but it also temporary; pain is mandatory but misery is optional.

Humility is of more value than the greatest asceticism. Pride can be hard to detect because it disguises itself in innumerable ways. It appears most often in relationships because pride springs up when comparing yourself to other people. Instead compare yourself with God and with what God is calling you and enabling you to be, then humility is not so hard to feel.

Avoid anger at all costs. It shows up when pride has been dealt a wound. Anger poisons the soul; it is an acid that destroys its container. Consider yourself too immature to handle so-called "righteous anger". Most often it turns out to be self-righteous anger. Jesus was righteously angry but he had certain spiritual advantages that we don't.

This is a long list and no one will do it perfectly. But we should keep pressing onward. Every failure can be turned to gold, if it increases your humility.

From The Jesus Prayer by Frederica Matthewes - Green, pages 52-54

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


The pigeons are back. Or, at least, they made a guest appearance on the roof of our church this past Sunday. They are a distraction. When they land and take off, it sounds like the roof is caving in on us. Not too subtle, those pigeons. They have been away for almost a year. I don't know why they came back now or why they like to roost on our roof. Maybe they were asked to leave their previous church. There is a rumor they are following around one or two of our members who have been known to feed them. Maybe it's a warm place to sit for awhile now that the weather is getting colder. Have I said they are a distraction? I guess we need to remind ourselves going in to service, turn off your cell phones, and prepare yourself for our roof top visitors when they come. There are many distractions in the life of discipleship. This is but a reminder. Anyone for squab?

World Series, game 6

The world series is coming down to its final games. One, maybe two more. Andy Petitte will pitch for NY. He's a gamer but will his older arm (he has not thrown on only three days rest for several years) hold up. Burnett discovered last night that no matter how much your heart is in it you still have to throw strikes. His control was not there and his breaking ball was not breaking.It gave the Phillies a chance to get back into it although they almost gave it up at the end. Charlie Manuel does not have a good choice for closer. So, I still give NY the edge in 6. Howard, the Phillies big threat is not hitting lefties at all. If NY can get to the 8th or 9th with a lead, Rivera is as sure a bet as there is. It will be interesting to see who Manuel goes to in game 6. Does Martinez have another big game in him? I doubt it. NY will figure him out this time. Once NY gets back to the Bronx they will have Posada and Matsui back in the lineup. I would like it to go 7 but I think NY takes game 6.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Get Ready for the Holidays

This week is Halloween. So it starts, the Fall Rush to the end of the year. Next up is Thanksgiving, and then the mad dash to Christmas. I don't really look forward to it. But, I don't have to live by that calendar. We are so aware of Time. Every where we look we are reminded of the time. It is on the bottom of our computers and on the face of our phones. It stares at us from the dashboard of our cars. Someone has called it the Tyranny of Time. Days fly by, we say. Or, Time drags if we don't have enough to do or are in pain. Some of us live weekend to weekend and look forward to the next time we get "off island". Which is often at holiday time. For Holidays, we live by the world's calendar. Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc, and we let the expectations of the holiday seasons set our clocks. We go through the motions like we are punching a time clock for a job we don't really like.

There is an alternative. Some Christians since the early days of the church have set their clocks differently. The calendar of the Church Year follows the life of Christ. Conforming our days to that calendar was seen as a way to help us conform our lives to Christ. So, it is not Halloween this week; it is All Saints Day. Thanksgiving is every day. The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the first Sunday of Advent which is our preparation time for Christmas. The last Sunday of November is the first Sunday of the new year, not January 2. According to the Church Calendar, we have a whole month to wait for the Birth of Jesus. That is what we are doing in December instead of frantically preparing for the secular celebration of Christmas which drains our budgets as well as our energies. Then, it is Epiphany, which is followed by Lent which leads us to the celebration of the great saving event of the death and resurrection of Jesus ( no, there is no time for an easter bunny). After Easter, there is Pentecost and the Pentecost season which runs for six months and is a time for going deeper into the Bible's teachings about who we are supposed to be, and what we are supposed to do, as the church.

Am I saying we should abandon the secular holidays. No, not completely. Halloween can be a fun party time with costumes and games and goodies. My brother in law, who is a pastor, loves to play around with Halloween dressing up in outrageous costumes and "scaring" kids who come to his house for treats. Thanksgiving can be a low key holiday spent with friends and family; a time to be grateful for God's gifts of people in our lives. Christmas can be a time to focus on the Gifts God has given to us in Christ and a time to give gifts to others, mostly to those who need them. We can think about what these celebrations mean and who we are taking our cues from for their meaning. Does walking into Walmart start us thinking about what we have to do, what we have to buy to fulfill Walmart's expectation of what the season means. Or do we control how we spend the holiday, and what we spend our time and money on?

This year may be time for a change so you have time for a change. Spend Halloween night at the party at church enjoying the costumed children at their games. Play games and laugh with them. Get involved in the cakewalk or leading a game. Charlaine was always there painting faces until she moved. Any face painters in the area? Have a simple meal for Thanksgiving so you don't spend all week getting ready for it. Invite over some people who don't have family to gather with this time of year. Share your lives. Play some games. Think about how you can make some changes to get on God's Time this Christmas instead of running, and spending to stay on the world's Christmas timetable. Make church attendance and scripture reading a priority. Practice letting some things go.... no Christmas letter this year... or less decorating ... less buying. How can time be used as a gift from God? This year the church is hosting Ten Thousand Villages in early December. At this bazaar third world craftspersons sell their wares. It provides a market so these people can feed their families. Buy your gifts from places like this. The first Friday after Christmas is a day of prayer at the church. Wouldn't it be nice to enjoy more time for prayer and reading during the holidays? No reason why you cannot, is there. Wouldn't it be nice to have more money to give away during the holidays? No reason why you cannot, is there?

Where is God in your plans this holiday season? A good resource for shaping our lives according to the life of Christ as we follow the Church Calendar is Robert Webber's Ancient Future Time.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Worship Renewal

Most of what we do in the church has deep roots, in many cases going all the way back to the earliest days of the church. The word for church body (building) comes from a Latin word meaning ship (nave). From early days (375 A.D.) the church was likened to a ship with the pastor/bishop as the captain, the deacons as the sailors and the laity the passengers. Often, the bishop's throne would be placed in the middle. At times, the laity would stand in the aisles while the elders and the presiding bishop were center stage. In the Middle Ages, churches were often used for secular gatherings where there was drinking, dancing and the performing of plays.

The Pulpit which is front and center in many Protestant churches has a Biblical reference in Neh 8:4 from which Ezra the scribe addressed the people. But there is little evidence that the sermon was given from a pulpit in the early days of the church. Later on, the bishop usually gave his sermon while seated on his throne (cathedra). Pulpits seem to come into use in the church in England around the thirteenth century. They were usually found on the side of the church. After the Reformation which centered on preaching the word of God, pulpits became more prevalent. In the 18th century, three -decker pulpits were popular. On one level was the church clerk, then the lector and up top was the preacher. Pulpits are pretty much front and center in a lot of churches today although more and more modern churches are forsaking the pulpit for lecterns or just a stool on which the preacher sits. Funny, how when we think we are on the cutting edge we are often just going back to the way it used to be!

Of course, most of the congregations in the early days stood. It seems the only person(s) seated were the leaders. Sometimes church buildings had stone ledges around the sides where the weakest members could find a seat. Eastern churches still mostly stand for the service today. In the Western Churches, seating was introduced around the end of the thirteenth century. The first seats were backless benches. In the 15th and 16th century, wood carvers took great pride in crafting pews which were situated in the center of the sanctuary allowing ample room for movement. Later on, after the Reformation, box-pews (high pews) filled the sanctuary and cut people off from one another. By the 19th century these high pews were gone and replaced by smaller bench pews. Pews are still common today but newer churches are using chairs and auditorium type seating. In poorer churches, people use backless benches or stand. What matters is that people are there to worship and what they are sitting on or even whether they are sitting - has changed a lot over the years.

It seems clear that what people were there for - at least in the beginning is what we call Communion or the Lord's Supper but was originally called the Eucharist which means Thanksgiving and entailed the distribution and participation in the body and blood of Jesus. In the early days of the church, people received the bread in their hands but did not touch the chalice which was lifted up to their lips. People always approached the altar to be served. Later on, many small changes occurred so that people could hold the chalice or sometimes dip the bread into a chalice (intinction -which was condemned by the western church in the thirteenth century for some reason). In England the Puritans changed the means of distribution by bringing the elements to the people. Most congregations have stood for communion while some kneel and some sit. The communion table seems to have shown up in churches after the Reformation, the Reformers being uncomfortable with the Roman Catholic altar. A Table seems to better present the idea of the fellowship of the body of Christ at communion, as well. At first, the worship service seems to have been built around the Eucharist. It was celebrated every Sunday. Before the distribution of the elements there was prayer, a scripture reading, sermon and the kiss of peace as a sign of fellowship. An offering for the needy was taken afterward. Originally it seems the church offering was an offering of the bread and the wine and gifts which were distributed to the poor. Many churches had lists of the poor and widows that they were responsible for. Potlucks ( called agape meals) were usually held on Sunday evenings. They were kind of a combination of a potluck and a Sunday night service with scripture and sermon and communion. An offering was normally taken for the poor. You can see how the Lord's Table was the central act of worship not the sermon (and the sermon was never at the end of worship - that is a carryover from the revival days in America so an altar call could be given right after an evangelistic sermon.). You can also see how the church's offerings were used primarily for the care of the poor in our midst.

Music is an important part of worship, too. Choirs were an important part of OT worship. The tradition of the Temple Choir was maintained until the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D. Christian choirs were quite popular after the era of the persecution of the church was over. Both Judaism and Christianity insisted on a certain level of training and skill for those who served in the choir. The Council of Laodicea (360 A.D.) even forbade singing in church except for the trained choir members! That prohibition did not last long but by 600 clear principles were in place to govern singing in the church. The congregation was given simple melodies while the choir was expected to sing more elaborate ones, and provide soloists. Luther took a bold step at the time of the Reformation to encourage more singing from the people and used secular tunes to do so. Calvin introduced metrical psalm singing. Both Reformers, however, saw the value of a trained choir and kept them intact. Calvin who was fearful of the potential for the emotional abuse of music had the organ in Geneva removed from the church. After the Reformation, the role of choirs changed. They were no longer seen as performers for the congregation but the leaders of congregational singing. Worship teams have taken the place of choirs in many churches today and they need to be reminded that their role in worship is leading the congregational singing not performing.

Standing, kneeling, sitting and raising our arms are all postures that are seen in churches today. We tend to identify certain postures with certain church traditions, ie, kneeling in Lutheran/Episcopalian/Roman Catholic churches and raising one's arms in Charismatic churches. But all of those postures were present in the early days of the church. Bowing the head was common during certain acts of worship. Kneeling was a common posture for prayer. So was standing with arms outstretched. For well over a thousand years in the church the congregation stood (only the clergy sat) except when they knelt for certain times of prayer. The widespread custom of sitting in church never really took hold until after the Reformation. Today, things are reversed: clergy stand and the congregation sits.

The Lord's Prayer and the Doxology have pretty much been in continual use in church services since the earliest days of Christian worship. They were often used in the context of the Lord's Supper.
Candles originally were purely functional. They were needed to provide light for worshippers at night time vigil services. By the 4th century candles and lamps were regularly used in worship. Using candlesticks on the altar was not a common practice for over 1000 yrs. There was much discussion in the late middle ages up to the 18th century about the proper use of candles in the church.

Amen! is commonly heard in African American churches but not so much elsewhere. It was a common response in the early churches. Amen comes from a Hebrew word meaning certainly or assuredly. It was often said by Jesus but at the beginning of his words rather than at the end signifying that these words were true and trustworthy. It was taken up in the early church as a response of the people indicating agreement and trust in the worship words that were spoken.

So what do I take from this brief sample from the history of Christian worship. It is good to know that all these years down the road we are still worshipping in the same stream with the saints who have gone before us. No matter what the brand name on the church, there are certain fundamentals that have proven the test of time in all times and all places. When we talk about being faithful to the ancient (first) practices of the Church, what are we talking about? Should we stand or kneel? They did both. Should we raise our hands or bow our heads? They did both.

What does stand out is the Eucharist ( Lord's Supper or Communion). Where our worship needs renewing is replacing the pastor/sermon with the Lord's Table as the central act of our worship. The first acts of worship, ie, prayer, singing, scripture and sermon lead up to the Lord's Table and the other acts of worship such as the Lord's Prayer, Doxology, Intercessory Prayers and Offering follow as our responses. Our Deacon's Fund Offering is an important response as well so we can care for those in our midst who need financial help. If we are serious about worship renewal it seems like this is the place to start.

For Those Who Care: World Series Preview

Ok, so today is game 5 of the ALCS championship series. If the Angels somehow manage to pull out a win, the Yankees still win the series in 6 or 7. C.C. Sabbathia is the best pitcher on the planet right now and if the Angels get to game 7, that is who they will have to face. He totally dominated their lineup on 3 days rest and game 7 will be on full rest. Phillies won last night which was good since they may the only team in baseball right now that can match up with the Yankees. It should be a great series. I still pick NY in 7 because Sabbathia can pitch 3 games. The Phillies have Cliff Lee and when Sabbathia and Lee go arm to arm, it should be an epic pitchers duel. Beyond those two both pitching staffs drop off quite a bit. Hamels and Burnett are good but can have lapses when they can't throw strikes. Petitte has trouble getting beyond 5 or 6 innings. Which is ok because NY has the stronger bullpen by far. The lineups match up pretty well. The Phillies have hit almost as many home runs as NY and they were flying out of the Phillies park last night just like they have been flying out of the new Yankee Stadium all season. The edge has to go to NY though because ARod is hitting like he can and erasing memories of his postseason power outages of the past. Texiera is looking like ARod of postseasons past but he is always a threat to wake up and win a game with a home run. Jeter is playing like Jeter which means like the MVP of postseason play. But the Phillies have a good lineup that combines speed with power. They are scrappy and won't be intimidated by the Yankees. They will be helped by the DH rule in the world series. Matsui is always a dangerous hitter and he could be out for 3 games. The other intangibles are the weather and the umpiring. Both, have been equally bad this postseason. The weather on the east coast in late Fall can be like Kodiak baseball weather: raw with rain and wind. The umpiring has been amazingly bad for what is supposed to be the best crews in the game. Fortunately, it does not seem to have actually cost any team a game although the Twins could argue Mauer's fair/foul ball bad call did. In the last Angels/Yankees game Tim McClelland who was the third base ump made two of the worst calls I have ever seen. With two Yankee runners stranded in no - mans land off third base and both tagged out by the Angels catcher, he called a fielders choice and awarded one of the runners third base! The other call went against NY when he called Swisher out for leaving third too soon after a caught fly ball in the outfield. Swisher tagged and scored. The Angels appealed and McClelland called Swisher out. Swisher was caught on camera with a look of total amazement as the replay clearly showed that not only did he not leave early but the ump was not even looking at the play at third! Later, after watching replay, he admitted he did not see it, but in one of the classic lines of baseball lore, he said, I felt in my heart he left early. The only way the Angels win this series with the Yankees is if McClelland is behind the plate and he feels in his heart they should win!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Health Care Reform

Last week I preached on Job. This week it's the blind man called Bartimaeus in Mark's gospel. Jesus healed Bart and he became a follower of Jesus. Job suffered, too, before his life got much better. He gave God the credit. Christians have led the way in health care initiatives in the past. Rodney Stark in his book, The Expansion of Christianity, says the growth of Christianity in its earliest days is explained by the sacrificial care during crisis times demonstrated by Christians for their neighbors. Throughout the globe, Christians were often first on the scene providing relief for human need by prayer and action, meaning in many cases missionary doctors and hospitals. Thomas Cahill in his book, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus, comments that "humanists do not run leprosariums" but Christians have and do. St Francis and Mother Teresa are arguably much better testimonies to the reality of the Christian faith than countless sermons.

Given, then, the influential involvement of Christians in health care, why is it so hard to hear a Christian voice in the present debate. We know what the Republicans think. Or do we? Seems like we know that they think they don't like what the Democrats think. We know what the Democrats think. They think we need health care reform. We know what the insurance companies and their army of lobbyists think. The entire debate has become politicized and most Christians I have talked to have staked out their position along political lines.

What do uninsured people think? If they are healthy now, they may think I just hope I don't get sick because I don't know what I will do. If they are sick, they may be frightened or panicked. If they are elderly, they may not be able to afford the medications their doctors say they need. They may have a hard time finding a doctor who will take medicare. They may live in fear of getting sick, too.

Health care is expensive. No one can afford it. Even with insurance, serious illness and long term treatment can wipe out a person's savings. The health care reform debate is complicated. I don't pretend to understand it or which program is the best one.

There was no health care industry in Job's day and Jesus was the health care industry in his day. He told a story about health care reform. We call it the Good Samaritan. Helmut Thielicke, the German preacher/theologian of 50 years ago, said if you are the broken man on the side of the road you can think of plenty of reasons why every person should stop and help you but if you are the one passing by you can think of plenty of reasons why the broken person is someone else's responsibility.

We are blessed with a tremendous health care system in this country. We often take it for granted every time we go to the doctor and someone pays the bill for us. Millions of people have no access to that kind of quality care. You can find them in every community. They are the broken people sitting beside the road. What would Jesus have us do?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Palin's Life Story and Ours

Sarah Palin, former vice-presidential candidate, who is currently a best selling author of a book that has not been published yet, has set some kind of a record for writing an autobiography in the shortest amount of time ( of course, she did not actually write the book but she provided the material for it and that takes time, too). Judging by the number of prepub sales lots of books are going to be sold but how many will be read. I didn't think that many people still read any kind of books! I wish her well. I know she has legal fees to pay and her husband quit his job on the slope.

It's a curious fact in this facebook/twitter age how many people want others to read their autobiographical details. Put together many facebook comments about oneself or tweets and anyone could come up with an autobiography in record time. But, again, who would read it? I have been thinking about my life and how it would look in book form. I think I could finish it in about 3 days if I had one of those days off. Of course, like Palin, I would have to find a really good ghostwriter to make my life sound more exciting than it is. I know people like John McCain are waiting anxiously to see what she will have to say about their campaign infighting and others are genuinely interested in her political perspectives (although far fewer people than before the campaign and her subsequent retirement from the AK state job she held). I can't think of too many people who would hold their breath waiting to see how I turned a phrase or two about the relationships in my life. Maybe my Mom. We had some battles. She used to bait me about my favorite baseball player, Mickey Mantle, and I fell for it every time. I think she would still get a kick out of it, if she thought of it.

Still you have to wonder about the desire these days to get yourself out in front of other people. I mean, the real personal stuff like the days you have a headache or feel bad about your favorite team losing a game. This stuff does not make for riveting reading. Maybe that is why we do it. Our lives are most interesting to those who love us. It is wonderful to have a spouse or a child or a Mom or a friend who cares, really cares, about your aches and pains, and your successes. And we know that the closest thing we will ever get to someone reading our autobiography is a facebook comment that takes even less time to write than Palin's autobiography. While she has no idea who is reading her book among the thousands who are buying one, we know our friends who are waiting with bated breath to read our next facebook comment. That's no small consolation in this life.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Youth Groups

When I was a kid it was very important for my parents to know we were attending a church with a good youth group. Sometimes just having a youth group was as good as it got. We lived in some pretty small towns. Once, my parents drove us over an hour away every Sunday evening so we could attend youth group. Needless to say, we could never be too involved in it.

It is very important for churches to know they are providing a youth group for teens. Somehow, they feel like a failure if this program is not in place. Even small churches struggle to make sure they have a youth group. Youth groups are important and everywhere I have pastored I have tried to make sure we had one. But more important is the issue of what happens in youth group and how that is incorporated into the larger question of how youth group fits into the church as a whole. It is important for youth to feel like they belong to the whole church.

Some surprising new studies are saying that as many as 70% of young people leave church by the time they are 22. One problem is the segmentation of age groups that has increased over the years. Youth groups have become so big and important in themselves that many youth attend them as their church. They do not participate or have a sense of belonging to the church as a whole. So, when they graduate from youth group and head off to somewhere else on their own they don't have a clue what to look for in a church.

Kara Powell of the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Seminary is studying this trend. She says that we have become so youth oriented we have segregated youth from the rest of the church. We have youth pastors and youth worship teams and youth worship services and youth mission trips and young people almost never get a chance to interact with other aged people. They never get a chance to serve other people in the church. They never get to participate in a meaningful way with the whole congregation. Two things, she says, help young people stay involved in church after they graduate: intergenerational worship and relationships. We need to involve kids in the worship of the church on Sundays as greeters, ushers, worship leaders, scripture readers, etc. And young people need to participate in events where they can engage older Christians in meaningful ways and vice-versa. We can have short term intergenerational Sunday School classes, work days and mission projects. Kara sees smaller churches of around 100 having a real advantage here.

So do I. As I look at our church I see us doing some of what she is talking about. We have a good youth group but we are also involving kids in meaningful ways in worship and in relationships with other Believers. We need to be encouraged to continue to find ways to be involved in our teens lives. Kara says she encourages churches to practice a ratio of 5 to 1. That is, 5 adults to one young person. 5 adults in the church who care about each and every young person. Those adults know something about that one young person so they can ask weekly how things are going and are aware when the young person has a big event or test coming up. The adults pray for this young person daily. Each adult can make one young person in church a special focus.

We still have work to do. We need to continue to find other ways to involve our youth in worship and other church events. We could plan a month of intergenerational Sunday School or a mission event. Jared and Michelle, our youth leaders, are doing some creative things with our youth. One Tuesday a month they plan a tenabrae service. It would be cool if more adults came to their! worship service!

Smaller churches do have many advantages in our increasingly segmented society. Smaller churches are usually more relational than large ones. We can all be "youth workers" as we care for the youth in our midst and encourage their involvement in church life. In this way, they will know that they have a place in church now and when they move on.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mirror to the Church

Emmanuel Katongole is a Ugandan born of Rwandan immigrant parents. His father was a poor Tutsi who worked for a wealthy Hutu which is the opposite of the stereotypical images of Tutis as rich and Hutus as poor. He married a Christian Hutu and converted. Then they moved to Uganda. His father died when Emmanuel was 12 but he was raised in the evangelical faith of his parents. Later on he became a priest in Ugandan Catholic Church. For the past 6 years he has taught theology at Duke and co-directed the Duke Center of Reconciliation. In particular, he has been involved in the reconciliation movement in Rwanda. He believes what happened in Rwanda poses serious questions for the whole church. That's why he called his book Mirror to the Church. He tells the story of the Catholic Cardinal Roger Etchegaray who visited Rwanda on behalf of the pope in 1994. He asked the assembled church leaders if the blood of tribalism was deeper than the waters of baptism. One leader answered, "yes, it is." That is the challenge.

Emmanuel says he sees many American Christians who are eager to go to Africa to do mission work. They are coming to Africa to "save" it. He says they miss the point. Christian mission is not about delivering sermons or aid or services but it is about the transformation of identity. "We learn who we are as we walk together in the way of Jesus." Rwanda teaches that our mission is to be a new community that bears witness to the fact that in Christ there is a new identity. It is only by being such a unique people "from every tribe and nation and language (Rev. 5:9) that we can both name and resist the spells that want us to live as tribalized people.

Much has been asked of Rwanda. How could such a Christian nation be a place of such brutal killing, Christian against Christian? Emmanuel says Christianity made little difference in Rwanda. It was like an add-on. It did not radically affect people's natural identities. He says before we can start serving God we must experience a renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2). A new identity must be shaped within us. We are part of a new community. This did not happen in Rwanda and you can say that the western missionaries did not know enough or knew too much to make it happen. They simply accepted the racial categories that were put into place by the European colonizers.

Speaking prophetically to the Church in the West, Emmanuel says that the Biblical story has little consequence for the way we live our lives. When we ask why Christianity seemed to have little impact on the way Rwandans responded to the violence, we need to ask ourselves what difference Christianity makes in the way we live our lives, too. He finds many western Christians ready to blame Rwandan genocide on tribalism while taking for granted the tribal divisions (of race, or economics, or social status) right in our own churches. "Christianity without consequences is a problem Rwandans and Westerners both share."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Strength in what remains

Deo was in his 20s when he arrived in NYC. He was Burundian and spoke his native tongue and French but no English. He had less than $2oo in his pocket. He knew no one. In two years he had enrolled in Columbia and was working on a medical degree. His goal was to return home and be part of the rebuilding process that was needed after the devastating civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis. When Deo fled Burundi (borders Rwanda and shared the genocide with it), he was completing his studies to be a medical doctor. His first job in NYC was delivering groceries for a few bucks an hour plus tips. He lived in a abandoned tenement for awhile until he was robbed at knife point. Then he moved into Central Park. His life was marked by amazing instances of Providence.

He lived through some of the worst and most brutal killings. He saw horrific violence. His life on the run for six months was surreal. For years afterward he would suffer nightmares and stomach pains. He escaped death, barely, many times. Each time there was someone there to help him. A Hutu woman (he was a Tutsi) who shepherded him past the Hutu militias that were slaughtering Tutsis; a French student friend whose father bought him a ticket to NYC; an African who was working at customs in the airport and helped him find a place at the tenement and begin to learn to navigate NYC; a Christian woman in a rectory where he delivered groceries who gave him money, and got him to a doctor, and finally, found a place for him to live; the couple he lived with who helped him get an immigration lawyer so he could get his green card, and who helped him learn English and pass the exams to get into Columbia and helped pay for his education; and Dr. Paul Farmer, who has pioneered studies on diseases of poverty, and was instrumental in getting Deo into medical school at Dartmouth.

It is compelling story that is told by Tracy Kidder in the book called, Strength in What Remains. Kidder wrote an earlier book about Dr. Farmer and I imagine that is how he heard of Deo's story. Kidder tries to tell the story non-religiously. He would probably have preferred it that way. But, that was tough to do. Church was an important part of Deo's life just as it was in his country. Much has been made of the fact that Burundi and Rwanda were predominantly Christian countries where Christians fought and brutally killed one another. Deo struggled with how God could have allowed it to happen. Yet, in the midst of the violence, Deo's life was spared and he came back to do good in his devastated country.

The violence in his country has its roots in the brutal colonial regimes that ruled Burundi in 1900s. There were Hutus and Tutsis before colonization but they were not racial categories. Hutus and Tutsis intermarried and shared many of the same features so one could not be told apart from the other. Tutsis were mostly cattle herders and Hutus were farmers. Once the European colonial powers of Germany and then Belgium got involved in this part of Africa, the stakes increased as well as the violence. They also brought with them a mythology to explain what they found. Tutsis, they taught, descended from Ham, the banished son of Noah. They were really Caucasian under their black skin. They were destined to be the rulers. The Hutus were the subordinate black race. So, the Belgians placed most of the power to rule in their stead in the hands of the Tutsis. They counted the "races" in a 1930 census and gave every Burundian an identity card that marked them as Hutu or Tutsi. Now, one's opportunities depended on race. Educational opportunities, power, privilege was reserved for Tutsis. Hutus were not only locked out of power but they were forced into labor and were taxed more severely. By the end of colonization most of the country was "Christian".

Burundi and Rwanda became independent in 1962. In Rwanda, Hutus took power; thousands of Tutsis were killed. Many Rwandan Tutsis fled to Burundi. The Tutsis took over power and ruled Burundi until 1993. There were Hutu uprisings and brutal Tutsi reprisals. In 1972, at least 100,000 Hutus were killed. The massacre was aimed at eliminating any potential Hutu leaders. Things simmered until the 1988 revolt and government repression which forced Deo and his family to hide out for a week or so. Burundi's civil war followed in 1993 when over 50,000 died, almost equally Hutu and Tutsi. This was the war Deo miraculously escaped and fled to NYC.

The experiences of civil war were etched deeply on Deo's psyche. It would take years to work through and some of the memories would never be erased. The country, too, will take years to heal and rebuild trust. Families were torn apart. Priests murdered their parishioners and principals their students. The fabric of communal trust was gone.

In the next blog I want to look at how an African theologian and pastor tries to make sense out of what happened in his country and how it is a mirror to the church.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Apologies Accepted

If you are keeping up with the background noise in our culture this week you know that Kanye West dissed Tyler Swift at the MTV awards (which I did not watch - I don't know that I could pick out one of those singers songs if I heard them, no, I know I couldn't) and then West apologized to Leno, not Swift apparently, on Leno's new show which the tv reviewers (what a job! having to watch all that tv!) dissed and Swift accepted the apology made to Leno on the View tv show ( I did not watch either show). And Serena Williams apologized for not only cussing out a line judge but threatening to kill her! She was fined 10,000 bucks which is pocket money for Serena. Roger Federer cussed out the judges too but as far as I know he has not apologized. The estimable congressman from South Carolina apologized for his incredible rudeness during President Obama's speech to congress last week. He was chastised by his peers, but only by about 2/3 of them. The rest thinking his oafishness was ok. He has refused to apologize to his colleagues. After all, his rude move is helping out with fundraising in South Carolina. Where the governor recently apologized for running off with his soulmate who was not his wife, and most of his governmental colleagues called for his resignation. His wife and four kids have moved out of the governor's mansion. He apologized to them, too.

What about those American public schools which protested having to listen to the President's "Let's Study Hard" beginning of school speech. How rude was that? Refusing to listen to it. Keeping students home or making sure they were released from those classrooms which were listening to the speech. I can't imagine such a thing happening back in the day when I was in school. As far as I know, no one has apologized, yet.

( I refer to a previous blog called Blount Words. How is it fair that Serena Williams who threatened a person with murder is fined pocket change while Blount who punched an opponent in the heat of battle, and later apologized, is fined his whole entire senior season? If we all make mistakes, and own up to them, and move on, why not punish the young football player but still let him play half the year, anyway? Maybe he is not famous or rich enough?)

BTW, the shoe thrower was released from prison this week, way early, for good behavior and is not apologetic in the least. He came out of prison saying he would do it again in a heartbeat.

All this drama of reconciliation in the news! But, you have to wonder if some of these guys really mean it, don't you. I mean one won't apologize to the person who was wronged, another won't apologize more than once, and another said I am sorry for telling you I was going to kill you! Then, there is the gov who carried on with his mistress for over a year and thinks his apology is going to make the difference in getting his family back, not to mention his job.

The way it all plays out in the media is pretty slick. It can make you think that giving and receiving apologies is pretty easy. We know the real work of repenting and forgiving is much harder. An apology may be a good place to begin but it is not all that needs to be done. Most of us have some apologizing to do and it won't be in front of the cameras. So, hopefully, it can be more real. It must be shown as well as said. Apologies are not just sound bytes but promises to change our hearts. Then, comes the hard work of giving and receiving forgiveness. We can accept all these public apologies at face value, but the true value can only be known in the heart.

Friday, September 11, 2009


I finished watching the tv series "24" on dvd recently. Season 7, I think it was. All 24 hours of it. As you know "24" was a breakthrough show that follows the action over a 24 hour period, in real time, as they say. You can't imagine how much stuff can happen in 24 hours. The country totters on the brink.... You can get into a lot of trouble if you don't sleep. Much of the action that goes wrong may be because everyone is sleep deprived. No one sleeps on this show! No one is chugging 5 hour energy drinks either. Come to think of it, no one takes any kind of break! Eugene Peterson has said that God made us to need 8 hours of sleep so he can put the world back together after we have been up for 16 hours making a mess of things. That is one of the lessons of 24.

Up until the end of this series I had never seen anyone pray, either. You would think with the world near destruction, year in and year out, someone would be praying. But, no. More shouting, and shooting but not praying. However, at the end of this past year's series (spoiler alert!), someone prays. Jack Bauer, our hero, is dying after ingesting a toxic biological agent. He got hit with it about hour 12 and struggles to save the day the rest of the way. Until, he is coma induced in the last hour to relieve his pain and waits to die. Before that happens, he makes a call to a spiritual leader, who he met earlier in the series, and who talked to him briefly about spiritual things. The spiritual leader shows up at the hospital and they sort of pray or have a moment of silent spiritual meditation together (what do you expect? It is still tv!). The point seems to be that Bauer, at life's end, seeks some kind of spiritual closure. He wants forgiveness. Actually, he wants to be able to forgive himself, as well as know he is forgiven, for all the bad stuff he has done in his life (so is he praying to himself? Its kind of hard to tell, but I am not quibbling here.) My point is that there is prayer. And it comes because Bauer is at the end of his life and he feels the need to get some things in his life sorted out. Once he does this he is able to die, peacefully (although there is a reason to believe he will be around for season 8!).

We should not expect too much spiritual depth from tv and this series, in particular. But it was interesting that as Bauer had time to consider his own death, he reached out to spiritual realities beyond himself. Bauer is the ultimate I - can - do- it - myself - hero. He is the only savior this program has needed. But even Jack Bauer cannot save himself from death. There is a hint here (and in President Alison's character who says in the last segment of this series that justice may not come in this life but it will in the next one!) of spiritual truth. As tv mirrors culture, it keeps showing us that no matter how secular we try to become, there is some part of us that keeps reaching out to God.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Blount Words

I was watching the last quarter of the first college football game of the new season last night. It was Oregon vs. Boise State, two nationally ranked teams and the pre-game buildup had created a bowl- like atmosphere. Boise State had upset Oregon last year and both teams had been pointing to this game all year long. Several Oregon players whose trash talk was picked up by media sources predicted a "buttkicking (you can supply the word actually used). Boise State was equally up for the game. It was a sloppy game showcasing the nervousness on both sides. There were many incidents of unsportsmanlike conduct. After the game, tempers flared. There were taunts from the Boise State players and fans. One Boise State player approached LeGerrette Blount the star running back for OU, who was largely a non-factor in the game, and put his hand on Blount's shoulder pad causing him to turn into the face of the Boise State player (defensive end Byron Hout who had tackled Blount in the endzone for a safety during the game). Hout taunted Blount who responded with a punch to Hout's jaw knocking him down. This was in full view of the Boise State coach who was talking to Hout and several OU coaches and staff. Of course, the excellent camera work of the ESPN crew captured it all. While the coaches intervened and pulled Blount away, an ugly scene of taunting from the Boise State fans and Blount's attempts to get into the stands and after the fans ensued.

In the aftermath, several sports columnists including one from the Oregonian called Blount to be flagged with a heavy penalty -even suspension for the rest of the year (ending his career at OU). No where was anything said about Hout's behavior or the ugliness of the Boise State fans. Later, it was reported that Hout's coach will have a talk with him to see what he learned from this experience. So, at most, the coach sees this as only a teachable moment. Meanwhile, today Blount was suspended for the entire season, including any post-season bowl games. This was his last year and he had been mentioned as a Heisman candidate.

Certainly, Blount deserved some punishment for his behavior, but to penalize him so severely and to let everyone else off the hook is just scapegoating. The fans were unruly and mean spirited and Hout instigated the incident with Blount. The entire atmosphere of big time college football should be flagged for their complicity in this ugliness. Leading up to the game fans and media hyped this game. Everyone was aware it was payback time for OU. There was lots of talk about "killing" the opponents. Both coaches had their players ready, emotionally, to play. Which means they were ready to hit and hit hard. Afterward, only Blount is faulted for letting his emotions get out of control. Football is a game played with your emotions out of control. It is a game watched by many fans whose emotions are out of control, as well. It's a toxic mix.

Sometimes, someone, gets flagged for his inappropriate conduct and he is penalized but the situation that created his behavior is unquestioned and remains unchanged. Blount should have been suspended for a few games but so should Hout and the Boise State fans.

Heads Up!

As I have had my head down this week working with some members of the church to find ways to staff our Sunday School and Junior Church ministries, I have been discouraged. Even though our church is small, we still need many people to teach, provide childcare, lead youth groups and worship and mission outreach. Too often the responsibilities of ministry are shared by too few. The good news is that the people stepped up again and we have a solid staff of servants in place for the fall programs. When I went to bed, at last, after the final meeting this week, I was still discouraged. Why was it this hard? When was the next meeting at which we would be scrambling to find other people to fill other ministry slots in the church? I was tired and on edge, as I had my head down (not so much in prayer as in discouragement). As I had my head down, I was focused on one small congregation in one small town in one very large state. As we went over and over the names of people in this church, I was wondering how so few people can be expected to do so much. Maybe the answer was to just do less. To cut out and cut back. To make things easier.

This morning I picked up my head and found a new book that I began to read and it lifted my spirits. Mark Noll is a historian who teaches at Notre Dame. His newest book states that - with all the startling changes that have taken place in the last century -nothing less than a new history of Christianity is needed. He does not purport to write that history, yet, so much as make Christians aware of what has happened while we have been doing other things (like having our heads down looking for Sunday School staff). In the past 50 years, the shape of worldwide Christianity has shifted dramatically: This Sunday more Christians will attend church in China than in all of "Christian Europe ( think: in 1970 there were no legal functioning churches in China); this Sunday more Anglicans will attend church in each of several African countries than in Britain, Canada and Episcopalians in the USA combined, and Nigeria will have several times the number as those other African countries; this Sunday more Presbyterians will attend church in Ghana than in Scotland and more will attend the Uniting Presbyterian Church in South Africa than in the USA; this Sunday more people will attend Brazil's Pentecostal Assemblies of God than will attend all the Assemblies churches in the USA; this Sunday eight times more people will fill the Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea than will attend Canada's largest ten churches.; this Sunday Roman Catholics in the USA will worship in more languages than at any other time in American history; this Sunday the largest church in Europe will meet in Kiev pastored by a Nigerian Pentecostal; this Sunday more Catholics will attend church in the Philippines than in any European country; this week 15,000 foreign missionaries were hard at work evangelizing people in Great Britain; the largest chapter of Jesuits in the world is no longer in the USA but in India.

Then this: More than half of all the Christian adherents in the whole history of the church have been alive in the last hundred years! Close to half of all the Christian believers who have ever lived are alive right now!

If that doesn't lift your head up to praise God.... knowing that in our small place on the planet we are part of one of the most amazing and magnificent movements of God in our history .... and we get to be part of it!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sunday School

Sunday School has not been around since the days of Jesus. It was started in 1780 by Robert Raines in England. He started it because he was concerned about all the poor children who were roaming the urban streets without supervision or much of anything. Sunday School was a school where these kids could learn to read and write using the Bible as their textbook. It was held on Sunday because most of these kids worked in the factories every other day of the week.

Sunday Schools were introduced in America in the early 1800s. At first, there was much resistance. Pastors thought Sunday Schools would weaken the parent's resolve in teaching their children the Bible. Gradually, the idea won over most churches and the Sunday School movement grew rapidly. In the 1970s this growth stopped and some churches even dropped their Sunday School programs. Most churches today struggle with declining attendance in Sunday School and difficulties staffing it.

Has the day of the traditional idea of Sunday School passed by? It may have. Yet, the need for sharing Biblical truth in a teaching setting different from the worship service has not. It may be time to explore other ways to meet this need. Some churches are using small groups in place of Sunday School. We can't be afraid of dealing with this "sacred cow". After all, it hasn't been "sacred" all that long!

Whatever form Sunday School takes, there is a need for teaching the truths of our faith. Christian Education has been around much longer than Sunday School and we should not equate the two. Christian Education can and does take many forms. Sunday School can still be effective as a means for communicating Christian truth but it is a mistake to put all our eggs in this basket, alone. It is important to provide learning experiences at each age level.

Smaller Christian Education experiences promote Christian community which is difficult to experience in a worship service. It also allows for Christian personal interaction among different age groups. Persons older in the faith can serve as role models for the younger. Younger Christians can really get to know some other "real" Christians.

Christian Education ideally works in partnership with Christian parents. They are the ones who have the responsibility to train up their children in the faith. Sunday School or children's groups are not babysitters. Parents need to be involved in their children's learning. They need to be in Sunday School or some similar learning environment, as well.

As we discuss our struggles with Sunday School, I hope it will be a catalyst to step back and look at the larger picture. What forms will our ministry of Christian Education take in the church?

Here's What I Don't Know

Here are a few things I don't know: I don't know why so few Christians read/study the Bible or other Christian books. We love our Bibles and love to lug them around but we don't seem to spend much time reading them.

Related I don't know: I guess it follows that Sunday School is a hard sell in most churches. Lots of churches have already dropped it. I don't know why that is. It may be related to the above I don't know. It's just not a high priority. Maybe it takes too much time (45 minutes?) or maybe people have been too bored by Sunday School in the past ( I have been at times). But, if the subject is the Bible or theology or church history.... how bad can it be? Also related is this: I don't know why it is so hard to get people (Christians!) to teach or spend time with kids in Junior Church or the nursery. As a pastor I know I have said all I can creatively say (nagged...?) to build an interest in teaching and it falls on deaf ears... he/she that has ears to hear, let him/her hear.... If these are truly God's children and if we are called to teach all Jesus has told us (MT 28), then where have all the teachers/children's workers gone?

We have entered an era of church history where most people just want to be ministered to. It has been pointed out numerous times that Americans are commitment shy and that has carried over into the church, as well. We have bought into the entertainment model and we expect to be entertained in church as well.... and to be served. We surely can complain when our needs are not met.

The small church of about 100 people is the ideal size for a church. It may not be large enough to provide all the amenities some people expect from a church. But where does it say churches are supposed come with coffee shops, gyms and all manner of sports teams, bookstores and cafeterias. All these can be found in our local communities. And better we are out there in the midst of the community than in our Christian ghettos. If, as I take it, the purpose of the church is worship, fellowship (koinonia), teaching and outreach (service, mission), 100 people is plenty. You can get to know people and there are lots of opportunities to practice Christian compassion which we are called to do. This is the pattern we find in the book of Acts but we seem to have forgotten it today. Might have something to do with the I don't know section above.

I don't know why Christians continue to beat each other up the way they do. The ELCA this past week endorsed the ordination of practicing homosexuals. I am aware of lots of Lutheran bashing from other Christian pulpits. Better to withhold judgment or if we do - begin in our own houses. The book of James, chapter 2, teaches Christians that practicing favoritism of any sort in the church is a sin as serious as adultery, or murder or practicing homosexuality. We Christians seem get all hepped up about our favorite sins while we overlook the logs in our own churches..... Jesus said something about that, too. Seems like we have plenty on our plates so we don't have to look (and judge) the sins in other households of faith. Also, if the body of Christ is one, why so much one-upmanship? So much competition in the body of Christ, among bodies of Christ. It almost looks like we enjoy it when one household of faith is struggling so ours looks better. "My church is better than your church..." Better we should be praying for the flock, ours and others. We certainly need it! We would all do well to spend some more time with the book of James. Again, maybe this is related to the first concern listed above.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Houses of God

King Solomon built God a house. He called it a magnificent temple. You can read about it in 1 Kings. It was not all that big, not much bigger than an average size church today. It was decorated nicely, with lots of cedar and gold inlay. It had some nice stuff inside, too. Like a great bronze baptistry and the ark of the covenant. People, other than priests, were not allowed inside. It was God's House, not theirs. Solomon instructed the people to pray toward God's House when they were in trouble and he spells out seven kinds of trouble in chapter 8. God's eyes, he tells the people, will be on the temple and he will (see?) hear their prayers. Solomon did not actually believe God would live in this house. He knew God was much greater than that. Later on, other kings fell into the trap of thinking God was in that Jerusalem temple so it was like having God in your back pocket. He was bound to protect and bless you no matter what. God sent prophets like Jeremiah to correct this misunderstanding but it didn't seem to help. Pretty soon, God's House was gone. The prophets said it was God's judgment for thinking they could keep God in a box. It might have been God's House but God was not going to be reduced to a housekeeper.

When Jesus came along it was said of him that the fullness of God dwelled in him (see the gospel of John, chapter 1). Jesus was God's new House. That is what we mean by the incarnation. So, the locus of God's presence changed from a place to a person. And to persons. After Pentecost, followers of Christ are said to be temples of the Holy Spirit. Jesus dwells in us, too. So, the people of God are the house of God, now. Church buildings are helpful but not necessary. The New Testament word for Church is ecclesia which means a local gathering of people. There is no mention of buildings in that definition. In fact, there were no church buildings for the first almost 400 years of Christianity. Then, Emperor Constantine came along and built some big Churches just because he could. Church pews did not become the standard for seating Christians until after the Protestant Reformation when the sermon became such a big deal. Long sermons made for tired bodies. Interestingly, padded pews did not make an appearance in churches until the 1960s. Today, most every new church is getting chairs instead of pews. That may have something to do with Church growth and I don't mean numbers but the size of Christians. Used to be you could figure on every church sitter needing 18 inches of room but now the thinking is more like 24 inches of room. Christians like their space in worship and so you can fit fewer and fewer of us in the average pew.

I digress. Today we are very fond of our church buildings. In fact, when most Christians hear the word church they think of some building. In the beginning, the word church stood for people. Our church buildings say alot about what we think the church is. Most churches are laid out like a book: two pages on each side, a binding down the middle, and margins at the sides. Each pew a sentence, each person an individual word. We come to church to listen to words and to learn. Up in front is a stage where worship leaders and speakers stand. We watch them much like we would a concert or a movie. Function follows form.

What about churches that rent a room in a school or a mall? Or gather in a storefront? Or warehouse ( I gathered with fellow worshippers in a furniture warehouse once)? Or a roofless, dirt floored concrete block building with a few dilapidated benches for seats ( like a church I met with in Haiti)? How are they churches? Is a more modern structure with all the bells and whistles more of a church than a falling down structure with no technological sophistication? Is God more present? What about critical mass? How many Christians does it take to make up a church? Is a bigger church ( numbers now not the size of the worshippers) more of a church? Does it access more of the fullness of God than a small one?

Jesus said, wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am, too. If Jesus is the fullness of God, then isn't the fullness of God available to two or three, at least. So the fullness of Christ is there in a storefront, or warehouse, or the roofless church in Haiti or anywhere else. The building doesn't matter. They are helpful for certain things; they are also a hindrance for certain things. Think of trying to play dodgeball with the youth group in most sanctuaries with pews (on the other hand, maybe don't think about that - it will open a whole other can of worms). Wherever two or three are gathered in Christ's name ( meaning Christ's presence), there is the fullness of God. So, those two or three could be in a gathering of thousands or tens. In a slum or an affluent suburb. In a magnificent cathedral or a rented school room.

I have had people tell me that where they live they have not been able to find a church. No bible believing, gospel preaching church in sight. So, if what Jesus said is true, all they have to do is join one and take along another Christ follower and Jesus who is the fullness of God is there! They are now in a church where nothing is missing (nothing critically important, anyway). Right.

So here's a thought experiment: what if we sold our churches and rented space somewhere for Sunday or whatever day we meet together as the ecclesia? And then spent the money we saved on outreach and taking care of the orphans and widows ( of whom there are many today and I am not talking strictly biologically). Or, if we want, we can keep the church building, and sell off its possessions and use all the space for other ministries ( how often churches build bigger and bigger because they need the space when all they need to do is get rid of some of their stuff). If the church is a gathering of people and not a building, don't we at least need to think about this?