Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Anger on trial

The sermon in church on Sunday was from Matthew 5, part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus talks about anger. He seems to equate anger with murder. What Jesus is doing in this section of the SOM is upping the ante. You have heard… he says again and again as he goes through some of the Ten Commandments… but I tell you, and then he does tell us how we are breaking those commandments more easily than we thought. I say, he says, that if you are angry, if you insult, if you call someone a demeaning name it is just as serious as murder. Well, wait a minute, how can that be. We are angry sometimes, and we call someone an Idiot! sometimes and we talk about others disrespectfully sometimes and that IS not the same as murder! Right. And as the preacher helpfully explained the form of the word Jesus was using implied a continuing state of anger. No restraint. No powering down. An explosive anger that is out of control and does its damage. To the angered and those he is angry at.

I was thinking as the preacher was preaching about the verdict handed down in a Jacksonville court the day before. A jury could not decide whether a young man's death by gunshot was murder or committed in an act of self defense. The judge declared a mistrial. The young man was African-American as were the other three young men in the car parked outside a convenience store. They had stopped to buy gum.  Another car pulled up driven by a 47 year old white man who was on his way to a hotel with his fiancé after attending his son's wedding. As his fiancé got out of the car to go into the store to buy some wine he said he hated that "thug music", referring to the loud rap coming from the car next to him. While in the store his fiancé heard gunshots and when she came out the four young black men were speeding away in their car as her fiancé was continuing to fire at it, 12 shots in all. Three of the shots hit one 17 year old. He died. The man and his fiancé did not know that at the time although they heard about it on the news later.  They drove on to their hotel, ordered pizza, slept and drove to their southern Florida home the next day. The police showed up at their home the day after the shooting because a witness had written down their license plate number.

The preacher pointed out that anger is closely associated with fear, and unchecked, anger often leads to violence. He said, in order to justify our anger we often disrespect those who are the objects of our anger. Like Jesus said, we insult them, we call them Idiots or Thugs, or other words. In our minds they are less than we are and already at fault and their faults justify our anger. A sustained anger. An unrestrained anger. I hate that (their) thug music. People become thugs in our minds, or jerks, or other words but the point is they deserve our contempt, our anger.

The prejudice of the man in the car led to an escalating confrontation that resulted in the death of a young man. The man said he was afraid for his life. He claimed he saw a weapon in the young man's hand although no other witness saw one and the police said there was no evidence of any weapons in the young men's vehicle. It was like the man's fear of the people he thought they were had conjured up a weapon in his mind.

Jesus went on to say that we should do what we can to defuse anger, to curb it, to reign it in. Goes without saying we need to work on our fears, too, most of which are imagined rather than real. The preacher had some good suggestions for dealing with our anger. I was thinking how different things might have been if that man in the car with the loaded 9mm in his glove compartment could have heard this sermon. One young man might have lived to celebrate his 19th birthday on Sunday.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Confessions of a church shopper

After three decades and a few odd years serving several different churches as a pastor, I have become what I formerly disdained, a church shopper. Church shoppers were a frequent target of my pious potshots for they were only looking out for themselves, asking themselves which church had the best music, or best youth group, or best preaching. Church is not about YOU, I boldly proclaimed. It is about GOD, I asserted with the conviction of an Isaiah or a Micah. You go to church NOT to meet your needs but to worship and to serve. Sounded good and it soothed a sore ego when the church shoppers didn't stop long at my church before they went on to another one. Who needs them, I proudly thought. We are looking for true Christians, Christians who really get IT, aren't we?

So how do things look from the other side of the fence? How does it feel to be a church shopper? I confess that is what I am. I looked deeply at myself and realized that I have been in our new home for eight months now, surrounded by all sorts of churches, and I have not settled into one of them. I am, gulp, still shopping around. I am not blooming where I am planted; I am wilting.

So, what have I learned these many months. I have learned that feelings, prejudices, personal histories and, oh yes, those dreaded likes and dislikes, all of those, play an important role in where a church shopper ends up. It is always about GOD but it is about YOU, too. Often, way more than YOU think.

I went to one church where we attended for awhile and it was an Advent Sunday and I was looking forward to the Advent music because they excel in music and the pastor announced that today was "special" and they were going to focus on one scripture passage and there would be no music. No music! Are you kidding me? I was peeved, sitting in my pew steaming. That's what I had come for! That's all I could think about. I did not get much out of the experience of solitude. I had a hunch what was going on. The next service was the Christmas children's program and they were gearing up for that and they needed to get us out of our service early. Aha, I thought that was the real reason for the music free service.

Another church I have attended nearby is literally in the woods. There is little signage to let you know where it is. The first time we went we could not find it. There is no website, canned music, no children, and a very small congregation. I like the part time pastor who travels over 50 miles to get there on Sundays. The people are very friendly, too, but there is a hint of desperation in their invitations to come back. They need help, fellow servers, Christians who will throw themselves into the life of the church with abandon. Yet, what they are lacking is so evident….(but what they are lacking are servants and isn't that what we sign up for?)

There is another church I go to from time to time. We know people there. It has rousing contemporary Christian music with a worship band. There are lots of families with young kids. The pastor is friendly and a lively preacher. Trouble is there is no liturgy, the service is a few songs, the sermon, and the offering. The sermons are evangelistic and lean toward the right wing of evangelicalism. I am not always comfortable….(and isn't comfort what we seek?)

There's another church, too. It's in the city. In a storefront that is part of a revitalizing neighborhood. It is small but dynamic, informal with liturgical elements, needy but not clingy, diverse yet unified in outreach, techno savvy but rooted in tradition. It is inclusive and the pastor, she, preaches good sermons. It is also small and meets in a rented space that is available only on Sunday mornings and has to be set up and taken down before and after each service. There are few children, and the music lacks the polish and vitality of other churches we have visited.

I'm tired of church shopping. But, I have noticed a few things. I've noticed a lot of "me" and "I" as I have evaluated "my worship experiences". Why don't I check my personal preferences at the door?

Am I that picky person, whose personal preferences trump everything else, that one I frowned on before. I have learned that THAT is there in all of us, every one of us, even pastors who thought they were above that kind of thing. And it's not a bad thing, it's just a human thing. And, there isn't any church that is going to appeal to everyone. I have seen that Church is kind of a miracle: the fellowship of the body of Christ is a supernatural thing which takes a whole lot of individuals with their personal stuff and makes us ONE. Read 1 Corinthians, again.  I have learned that Church is about YOU because it has to be, because YOU and I are WHO make it  up, and we really can't get away from that, but Christ is showing us that it is not ALL about us, or even MOSTLY about us, or FIRSTLY about us, and as we see that, and realize that and act on that, fellowshipping and serving, Church becomes more and more about GOD. I guess that is the process we are all part of.

Maybe we are more caught up in our idea of Church more than we need to be. Having to church shop tends to clarify for us what Church really is. Bob Goff, in Love Does, writes, "Because I am a lawyer and follower of Jesus, people often ask me about my religion. I am not sure what they hope to learn from me, and I tell them I am not the best person to talk to about that. I think of Church as a vibrant community of people consisting of two or more of varied backgrounds gathering around Jesus. Sometimes they are part of a place that might have a steeple or an auditorium but its just as likely that church happens elsewhere…. any place works just fine …when it's a matter of the heart, the place doesn't really matter… it's Jesus plus nothing - not even a building. "

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is done, and after millions of words of pre- game analysis and predictions and after millions of words of post - game analysis and defensive excuse making by anyone who predicted a Broncos victory, what was clear - before all that analysis - is that Seattle had the better, much, much better, team. There is no "I" in team and after hearing about how Peyton was going to cement his legacy in this Super Bowl, and how he was the best QB EVER, and how he set every offensive record this year, and how Denver was the most prolific scoring machine in NFL history, Seattle showed why there is no "I" or "Peyton" in team. Seattle dominated every aspect of the game. Their big, strong secondary took Peyton's precision passing game away. Their pass rush gave Peyton no time to drop back and pass his precision passes. They made the Bronco running game non-existent. Seattle made Denver look ill prepared to play this game - from the first snap of the game!

The crowds were out enjoying the balmy NJ winter weather. Many of the NFL fans paying hundreds for parking, thousands for a game ticket and $20 for hot chocolate. Millions more fans were watching the game on TV, or online - those cable or satellite challenged happily discovering FOX was streaming the game Live! So, most of America (and who knows how many people all over the world were watching America's biggest sporting event) while munching, drinking, and watching, if we are honest,  a fairly boring game after the first quarter, had little left to do but to evaluate the commercials.

Perhaps the biggest winner in last nights game was Nike, who outfitted both teams. Seattle's uniforms got a major overhaul in 2012 when Nike became the exclusive outfitter of the NFL. The Super Bowl is truly super for Nike who had the best commercial seen every time a camera was pointed on the field.

Seattle's uni was totally redesigned in 2012. Their uniforms have been widely hailed as adventurous and "out there" in the context of the mostly stodgy old NFL. The Bronco's last redesign was in 1997 and their team may need a whole redesign for the 2014 season. Their conservative play, like their uniforms, did not hold up well against Seattle's cutting edge fashions.

Peyton's Bronco jersey is the number one best selling NFL jersey but Seattle has three jerseys in the top ten, no other team has that. And, that was before the Super Bowl and a previously unknown, except to devoted Seattle fans, Malcolm Smith was declared the MVP.  Seattle may be a trend setter. Jacksonville had a minor redesign in 2013 (didn't help them much) and the Dolphins and Vikings tinkered a bit with theirs, too. No doubt, though, that Seattle's exciting uniforms matched their exciting and fast paced play.

One more thing. Nike, of course, was the Greek goddess of victory. She had her own temple next to the Parthenon which Biblical scholar N.T. Wright called a "stunner, one of the two most beautiful constructions ever made by human hands," the other being the Parthenon itself. Both of which, the apostle Paul called in Acts 17, a waste of space! They were pagan temples, after all, built to house no -gods. Yet, Paul cautioned that is not the same as saying their was nothing there. In Wright's words, the idol reality is dependent on people to give them the powers they posses.

In the games of Super Bowl 48, the power of NIKE was displayed on every play. Of course, she has no power in and of herself, only what we give to her. And by the looks of Super Bowl 48, we give her a lot.