Monday, March 25, 2013

On retiring

Last month I announced my retirement to our church council. Pretty strange time. New territory for me. I had never done it before. I don't know what to expect. It was something I remember saying from a younger perspective - boldly proclaiming, in fact - I would never do. I could never see myself doing.  And here I am having done it and wondering what I am going to do now. I remember hearing older ministers looking down on the idea of retirement as if one (a minister) could ever retire from doing the Lord's work. Retirement was like giving up, failing to go the distance, forfeiting the prize, abandoning your calling. I am thinking about all those memories. Yet, it seems the right thing to do, the right time, as far as we ever know these things. I have no absolute confidence in my decision. I cannot deny my age or how long I have been doing this pastor thing (nearly forty years). Karl Barth puts it bluntly, "humanity is temporality." How right he is. I don't know how I got to this point in my life (oh yes I do) but there is no sense claiming I haven't. I still enjoy many parts of the work of ministry and the people who have been engaged in it with me. I still have energy (but I have to admit I have lost a step or two). I genuinely like the teaching and the preaching along with the study that goes with it. I like to think there may be more of it ahead of me. But, I don't know. I do know there comes a time to move on. I do know that being a pastor is a peculiar calling within the church. You are one of "us" in the body but you are not, too. You are different because you are Pastor. That title entails all sorts of baggage, some harder to carry than others. I know I'm feeling tired. No use denying it. I am looking forward to just being a disciple, again (a little bit anyway). 


Well by now anyone who watches even a little bit of college basketball, or lives with someone who does, has heard of the university called Florida Gulf Coast. It has only been in the NCAA two years but it sounds like it's no fluke that it's making a splash in the NCAA tournament. It was built for basketball! And it looks it. Not just the brand new arena on campus but the team. They are athletic and playing loose and with great team chemistry. While the other highly touted teams like Georgetown (who FLGC humiliated) and Wisconsin, and Gonzaga have looked tight, and flat and not ready to for prime time, FLGC looks like they were made for this stage. While the other Big Ten and Big East and Big Everythings play a kind of grind it out, defensive game with more contact than football, FLGC is putting the Fun back in basketball with their high flying dunks and and beautiful passing and great shooting from all over the court. Did I say they were loose - and confident bordering on arrogance. They know what they are doing. From locker room pep talks to high fiving Reggie Miller courtside after the game to celebrating with their coach, it's a pleasure to see instead of coaches scowling, and riding the refs, and yelling at players, and throwing tantrums. Maybe there is a reason FLGC looks like they are having fun. They are! And so are we as we get to watch.

Friday, March 22, 2013

March Madness

This week began March Madness again. It's the NCAA basketball tournament that features non stop basketball games for days in a row. The hard to resist feature for sports fans is that so many of the games are between teams who never faced each other during the year - and that leads to some exciting finishes. This week already several higher seeded teams (12, 13 and even a 14 seed) have beat lower seeded and favored teams. The number one team  in the country, Gonzaga, narrowly avoided losing to the lowly 16th seed, Southern. The other interesting feature of the tournament for sports fans is "bracketology". A fan can fill out his own bracket of the 68 teams in the field and see how his picks do against his friends or even the experts. My own small tournament pool includes one other person, my youngest son. He beats me even though I spend much more time researching the teams and listening to the experts. I do better against the picks of the experts. Experts! It is amazing how little they know. They watch these teams all year long and still get their picks wrong! What do experts know, anyway? We anoint experts in every field and we trust them, why, I do not know. They are usually wrong, about the economy, the weather, the fishing, the odds that someone will succeed or fail in their chosen fields, etc. Life, like basketball games is unpredictable. You never know when your three point shooter will have a day when he can't find the basket, or your assist leader will turn an ankle, or one of your bigs will foul out in the first half, or your normally sure handed ball handlers can't take care of the ball. On the other hand, there are days when your non shooting guard can't miss, and every play the coach diagrams works, and you match up better than you thought and you win by 20 when the experts had you losing by the same number! There is much anxiety and worry expended over what the experts say. If you listen to the experts, some days you might wonder if it's worth playing the game. I think I should listen to experts less and I might enjoy life more. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Bike trips and church

I was going through some old photos - all photos are old - I know. Today's "photo albums" are stored somewhere on the "cloud" and can be seen anytime on ipads or phones or facebook. Going through old snapshots is a thing of the past. Anyway, that is what I was doing. I came across several photo albums chronicling the bike treks a fellow pastor and I led in the 90s. We recruited our youth groups and some of their friends and we mapped out week long rides throughout New York and New England. They were great times. I was remembering there were some hard times, too. There were conflicts, and injuries, and leader dysfunction that led to wrong turns leaving us miles from the right path.  The theme of most of our trips was community because we believed these bike trips of 20 or so kids and adults were a microcosm of the church. On these trips we had to work together; we had to work out our conflicts with each other because we needed to work together every day. We needed people to come with us simply to support and help out as some of us rode bikes, 40,50 or even 100 miles in a day. At the beginning of the week, we assigned every rider to a smaller group. These groups rode together through the day. This is where a lot of the friction developed. Some of the riders were stronger than others. The rule was the lead rider had to keep the last rider in sight at all times. This slowed the faster riders down. The principle was the whole group got to the destination together - it didn't matter who was first. It was a hard lesson to learn. I remembered one of our leaders who was in my group on one trip didn't speak to me all night after we got to camp because she thought I was not waiting for her (she was right although I did not want to admit it at the time). The bike trips were a lot of work; it was hard riding so far with so many every day. There was plenty of fun and laughter, too, at breaks and meal times and around the camp every night. We grew close as we ate together, laughed, worshiped, and worked out our conflicts. Which meant admitting our mistakes and owning up to our weaknesses. Our Bible studies tried to use our experiences during the week as a window to understand better what Scripture taught us. By weeks end, we arrived at our destination. After a closing meal and worship time, we said our good-byes and went home. Back to our families and churches. I hope we were able to put what we had learned in a week of biking and living intensely with other Christians into practice. I hope we were able to better understand the bigger picture of the church where we work together to make sure we all get to the destination that we try hard to keep in view.

In praise of ordinary

Two news stories out this week: Russian authorities have identified who they think was behind the acid attack on Sergei Filin the director of the Bolshoi Ballet. There are motives of professional jealousy and romance. The person who allegedly ordered the attack on Filin is a lead dancer/singer with the Bolshoi and he is romantically involved with another dancer, Anzhelina Varontsova, who reportedly was being passed over for better roles because Filin had had a falling out with her. Filin has known and worked with her since she was 16 and a rising ballet prodigy. She is in her early twenties today. In Russian ballet circles she was pushed to attend the best ballet schools where the pressure is intense to excel. As she has aged into her twenties there were various reports that her body was growing faster than her ballet proficiencies. She was becoming "fat" some of her critics claimed! The other story was the lead article in this week's Sports Illustrated called The Power 50 - the 50 most powerful people in the business of sport. Heads of sports leagues and the entertainment outlets that showcase the sports. Men and women, mostly men, who make multi- millions and whose decisions can affect many lives. Most of the powerful are in their 60s-70s and can have pretty much whatever they want in life. Including the pressures that come with living lives of the gifted and the powerful. How often we are treated to stories about the athlete or performer who is so naturally gifted they arrive at a very high level of play or performance at a young age. Often, as their personal story goes, their rapid ascent to fame and fortune does not turn out well. The pressures of easy wealth, and fame, and power wreak havoc on young lives. And old ones, too, for the old adage about power corrupting is a fairly common theme in stories of the rich and famous. While we may think we could handle it better if we had a try at it... it may be fortunate we don't. I was trying to think of a Bible story where the rich and powerful turned out well. I couldn't think of one although I could think of several that serve as warnings about making that pursuit a life goal. Jesus told the story about Lazarus, the beggar, at the gate of the rich and powerful man. He had one story dubbed the Rich Fool. There are Old Testament stories that featured flawed humans who may have come to places of wealth and power but if they did - it was almost by accident and those places only made their flaws more noticeable. Moses was an ordinary man who God chose to bring to a place of power and it worked out for him as long as he was in constant communication with God. David became a great King but he was never a great father or husband. Solomon, the wise king, became less wise when he trusted in his own smarts forgetting wisdom was God's gift. Joseph rose to a place of power after being the spoiled brat of the family and it was God who saved him from a lonely and frightening death at the bottom of a well and later from rotting in an Egyptian prison. Obviously, he learned some important lessons along the way as the last chapter of his life demonstrates. The highlight reel in the Bible only has one main character and that is God. All the other characters are secondary, lesser lights, whose best roles happen when they reflect the greater Light. We might take from this that life works best when the Light we bask in is God's and not our own. It is more than enough to be ordinary and leave extraordinary to God.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Their Eyes Were Watching God

There are so many good books and so many great authors I have never heard of. One of those was Zora Neale Hurston and I recently read her work of fiction,Their Eyes Were Watching God. I saw her book mentioned in a NY Times book column about Karen Russell who wrote Swamplandia which takes place in Florida. The interviewer asked her to suggest other influential Florida authors and she named Zora Neale Hurston at the top of her list. Hurston was born in 1891 in Alabama. Her parents were former slaves. Her father was a pastor and later mayor of Eatonville, FL which serves as the setting for her novel. Interestingly, Eatonville was an all-black town. Hurston's story takes place in the early 1900's, a time of segregation, virulent racism and ever present Jim Crow laws. Many stories about blacks in the South at this time, whether told by blacks or whites, define the black experience by the white experience. The black man or woman is who he or she is in relation to what the white experience allows them to be. Hurston's book does not do this. The few mentions of the white race in her book are matter of fact. Most of the white people in her book are decent people with the exception of the white slaveholder who raped Janie's grandmother and Janie's mother was conceived of that forced union. This was on the eve of Sherman's march in the South. Hurston tells Janie's story. In the telling, Janie becomes conscious of herself as a free black woman. Black in a white world which does not define her or keep her from living a full and free life and a woman in a man's world where she learns how to express herself on more or less equal terms. Writing in the black dialect of the time, Hurston shows Janie developing a sharp mind that appreciates the beauty of her existence as a black woman. Hurston's works did not sell well at the time. She did not write what white publishers wanted to print and male, black authors criticized her work for being indifferent to the racism of white culture. She died in 1960 in a county home in Fort Pierce, FL after suffering a stroke.She was buried nearby in an unmarked grave. The last ten years of her life were hard and she worked at low paying jobs to make ends meet. In 1975, her work was "discovered" when Alice Walker wrote about her in MS magazine. Today, her several books are in print again as well as a biography. (I discovered our local college English professor, Dr Griffin, did his doctoral dissertation on her only a few years ago!). Hurston's work is enriched with Biblical images and a message that life can be rich and fulfilling if you see the opportunities that are there for you and act upon them.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Pope Retires

I have been wondering how people view the Pope's retirement. Yes, the Pope retired in case you have not seen the news in the past month. The Pope is the top leader of the Roman Catholic Church. When he retires it is big news because Popes never retire. They serve til they die. Then, a college of very colorfully clothed Cardinals select the next Pope in a mysterious way no one, except Cardinals, seem to know. Never mind the way the Pope is selected, most of us are still wondering what a Cardinal is. I am not a Roman Catholic although I have great respect for the Roman Catholic Church and admire many things about it. I am also puzzled by it. My church tradition is quite modest next to it. The whole splendid spectacle of the Roman Catholic Church getting down to selecting another leader is an enigma to me. And I assume to most people, Catholic or not. For many non-churched folk it is a throwback and a curiosity but not one to waste much time on. It looks like a bunch of old men electing another old man to run a church. What does a Pope do anyway? Does he affect our personal histories, say the way Obama and Boehner do when they can't agree on what's best for our country? Really, what difference does a new Pope make to me?

Most of us know him as the Head of the Roman Catholic Church who rides around in a Popemobile and every once in a while appears on a balcony at St. Peter's in Rome and waves to the crowds. He lives in a cathedral. Beyond that we are stumped. We know he has something  important to do with the authority and order of the Roman.Catholic Church. And Popes have done that for a long, long time, since the time of Jesus or soon after many Catholics would say. For those of us who are part of the Church and care about it's future, picking a new Pope is an important moment in history. It raises all kinds of questions about Church order and authority. For the Pope is synonymous with authority. He is the personal incarnation of the Truth that the Church serves as witness to. That's why he cannot just retire, Popes are not like you and me. You don't get to choose to not be Pope. It's like God has chosen you to be his main representative on earth. For the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope is the supreme guardian and interpreter of Biblical Truth and the Tradition that supports it. That's not a job to be taken lightly. It is often said that for Roman Catholics the Pope is the authority and for Protestants the Scriptures are. We naturally feel we have the upper hand here. No one person trumps Scripture, God's Word. But, that's too simplistic. Roman Catholic theology holds that Scripture is God's Word to us, too, and it is the most important thing about the Church. But it must be interpreted - and the Church has the job of interpreting and the Pope is the final authority. Our final authority, as Protestants, is the Holy Spirit who inspired and speaks through the Scriptures to His church. Of course, the Pope believes that too but the difference is he is the final and absolute arbiter of Scriptural Truth. This is a pretty handy doctrine to have available when the Scripture is hard to understand or to apply... well, the Pope says... ok, that settles it then! But, of course it doesn't and many Roman Catholics disagree with the Pope on lots of issues. And he is still their Pope. How do you disagree with someone who is infallible? For us Protestants this opens a whole can of worms. Having been a Protestant pastor for many years, I've met many popes in the Protestant church. I've met many pastors who think they are the pope of their church. Surprisingly, you don't even have to be a pastor to think of yourself as pope! The tricky thing in our non - popedom, is to figure out where the authority lies in the church. Sometimes it lies with the pastor, or the biggest giver, or the one who has been in the church longest, or the local tradition, you know, "the way we've always done things here". I find many Protestants bowing their heads to Scripture as their authority for faith and practice - but  acting as if each individual Christian is his or her own authority. It's whats called a sticky wicket. I've been in church fights where each side claims Biblical authority: "The Bible says..." Each side falling back on the final authority of Scripture's interpretation which, interestingly, is exactly their interpretation. This public demonstration of how the Roman Catholic Church views authority in the Church is a good time to ask ourselves how we view authority in the church. It's a good question. What is authoritative in our postmodern times? We act like the gospel is authoritative within our small church enclaves but what sort of truth claim does it have in the wider world? We appreciate the bond "we share in Christ", but who do we believe that Christ is? What effect does He have on our lives outside church? How is Christ our authority? How is Christ's authority fleshed out in our churches?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Bible is on TV this week

The Bible is on tv tomorrow night. Sunday nights used to be church nights for Christians. TV was a temptation to avoid and to show you did you went to church Sunday night. This was before the days of dvrs so The Wonderful World of Disney could not even be recorded for later viewing. You sacrficed your viewing pleasures for the Sunday night service. And you were proud of it! Now you can stay home Sundays - Sunday night services are a thing of the past anyway! And you can watch the Bible on TV. It's on the history channel even though it's not exactly Biblical history - come on, it's TV! You don't really think you can believe everything you see on TV, do you? There was a certain "dramatic license" taken the producers said. The husband - wife team ( Mark Burnett and Roma Downey) that produced the show are TV veterans. He has produced shows like Survivor and she has starred in Touched By An Angel. Pontius Pilate's wife makes it in several scenes  even though she only says one line in the real Bible. Paul is "relatively" overlooked because there is "no romance" there. Josesph doesn't rate a mention while David recites Psalm 23 as he slings his stones at Goliath. David has been on TV a lot. His life is much more Hollywood friendly than Paul's. But, how can you show much about the Bible when you only have ten hours. Ten hours! That's how long this series is! It takes that long to get through Leviticus which I bet isn't in the Bible, the TV show, either. So the producers had to be really selective about what they showed. If you are interested, you can order a copy of a follow up Bible - no, not a real Bible - but a novelisation that was written to accompany the show. The producers sound sincere and hope the show brings more interest to the Bible. They say they felt called to do it - Christianspeak for they felt God wanted this done. That is supposed to justify their decision to do it. Pastor Rick Warren thinks its great, too. And there are all sorts of resources to use with groups after you watch the show. Geesh, what ever happened to real Bible studies that used real Bibles?

The Bible is a long, complexly woven story. It takes a long time to read. It is hard to understand without some serious attempt at study. It needs some cultural and historical contextualizing. It even helps to have a trained teacher/leader. That's why most people don't attempt it. It can feel overwhelming. It doesn't lend itself to TV which dumbs down stories so you can easily pick out the bad guys and good guys in about 42 minutes. The text of the Bible is richly layered. The writers knew their Bibles and freely used images in one book borrowed from other books in the Bible. They were not writing down stories that could be serialized on TV; they were writing The Story as a witness to God's loving action toward humankind. The older interpreters of the Bible used the term sensus plenior to speak about the deeper sense - a deeper level of interpretation, a fuller sense of what the text meant beyond the simple meaning. It is getting at the mystery of what the Holy Spirit wrought there. It's not like the mysteries made for TV. The Bible is not made for TV. Malcolm Muggeridge, the British social critic, who was often on British TV and even produced his own shows strongly criticized the attempts to adapt the Bible to TV. Precisely, because TV is all about image and shaping, and editing  truth to sell that image. TV by its very nature does not tell the truth. After all, why is anything on TV? Not out of any great desire to get the truth out to people. It's on the tube so people will watch and buy what the advertisers are selling. If no one watches, the show won't be on very long. Hence, the decision to give the wife of Pontius Pilate more air time than the apostle Paul!

So what will people learn about the Bible from watching this show? Will it be true? Will they be entertained? Will they say, that was a good show, and plan to watch the next episode? What will they do when the episodes are over? Now that they know what the Bible says?