Monday, March 30, 2015

Palm Sunday

It was Palm Sunday as our congregation gathered around the communion table adorned with a large palm branch. The video screen flashed pictures of Jesus riding into Jerusalem surrounded by a diverse crowd waving palm branches. We prayed and sang and read the Palm Sunday scripture reading. Then our pastor took her seat next to the communion table and read from Mark 12, the story of Jesus in the temple teaching during Holy Week. Addressing the crowd he took aim at the religious leaders who were highly visible as they "walked around in academic gowns, preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table of every church function." (The Message). And all the while Jesus added, exploiting the weak and the helpless."

Then Jesus turned his and their attention to one of the most weak and helpless in the Temple that day.

As our pastor moved from reading the scripture to preaching a small child about 3 or so climbed up on her lap and laid his head on her shoulder. Seemingly unaffected, the pastor continued on with her sermon. It seemed almost scripted since it was a stark contrast to the behavior of the religious leaders in the Temple and a reminder of Jesus words about welcoming the children. Continuing with her words, the pastor talked about the widow who Jesus pointed out to the people listening to him. She was a poor widow, meek and helpless, who gave her only money to the temple treasury. It added up to about a penny hardly worth mentioning for it mattered little when the offering was counted up later that Sabbath day. Almost everyone who came to worship that day gave more. I was prepared for the pastor to follow the popular interpretation of this familiar story because I had preached on it often. I was ready to be reminded of how much we hold onto when we give when she gave her all. I was prepared to guiltily promise myself I could do better. I was humbled again by her example of the standard of giving ( a sermon title I had used in the past). But, the pastor took a different path through the text. She noted that Jesus didn't tell the disciples to follow her example. In fact, Jesus was probably referring back to what he had just said about the religious leaders "devouring widow's houses." (v.40)  Here was one of those widows right in front of them giving her meager savings to God and then heading out to the street to beg for her daily bread. The Old Testament spoke about the priority of taking care of the widows and orphans. Jesus had reiterated that obligation as well. Here was a widow showing God's people how to give even as she fell through the cracks of the temple system. The religion of God in Jesus day was broken. In the next chapter Jesus referred to the literal breaking down of the Temple. However, before the bricks and mortar fall apart, Jesus makes it plain that the Spirit of God had departed the temple religious system. It needed to die and rise again.

How often this joyful story of a widow freely giving what she had to God has left the bitter feeling of guilt over duties left undone in the hearts of the hearers. How can we ever do what she did? One more  thing to try to do and fail. But what if it is not about money, the religious enterprises wringing every last cent of out people that it can. The church is always asking for money, people say, and here is a heart felt  story that is too easily manipulated to that end. So, what if it is about the grace of giving. We have been invaded by the Spirit of grace and thus graced we give graciously and freely and joyfully. As we can.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Bible says

Evangelical Christians - often called the Religious Right in the media- are known for their Bible centered Christianity. That is they base what they think and do on what they believe the Bible says. The Bible is God's Word and what He says goes. They go to Bible studies to learn more about what the Bible says so they can shape their lives accordingly. The preachers in their churches teach from the Bible every Sunday (they are known as Bible expositors), often verse by verse. Evangelical Christians are encouraged to have life verses which are memorized and serve as life long guides. Politically, they believe that the Bible dictates their positions on governmental policy.

I grew up in this  environment. I went to Sunday School where I learned all the Bible stories and the principles they taught. I took part in "sword drills" where the teacher called out a verse and when you found it you held up your "sword". I was never good enough to be on the quiz teams which competed with other churches to see who could answer questions about the Bible and find the relevant verses the quickest. I grew up hearing about so and so who was revered in the church for "really knowing his Bible". It was mostly praise directed toward men for in the churches where I grew up women did not teach men. Certain women were praised as "prayer warriors". Men knew the Bible and women prayed I thought.

As I got older and went off to Christian college and seminary and visited many more different types of churches I discovered the Bible was not all that easy to understand. There were many different translations other than the King James version and well meaning Christians could disagree about what a Bible verse meant. I found out that Christians have used the Bible to defend many apparently contradictory points of view. Both slave owners and abolitionists quoted the Bible to support their positions. Preachers on both sides of the Civil War found God to be on their side and had Scriptures to back them up.

Is it possible that we have taken too close a look at Scripture? That we know the Bible too well. That taking it verse by verse we have overlooked the Big Picture. We know all about the trees but we have forgotten to look at the forest.

Take 2 Timothy 3:16 for instance. The NIV says "All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness..." When I was in seminary this verse was at the heart of a controversy over inerrancy.  The Bible was without error. True Evangelical Christians  were supposed to believe that. Professors at Christian colleges and seminaries could lose their jobs if they taught otherwise. Evangelical scholars became a bit like the Scribes and Pharisees who parsed the Law in specific ways to support their practices. So, was the Bible inerrant only in the original or was it meant to be inerrant in whatever it said about science or history or was it only inerrant in matters of faith and practice? These were the kind of questions that were being sorted out. Some people said the Bible was infallible instead of inerrant which gave more wiggle room.

The New English Bible which may wife was has used for years translates that 2 Timothy verse this way: "Every inspired scripture has its use for teaching the truth, and refuting errors..." So, does that sound like some scriptures are inspired and some aren't? The Message Bible which I like to use has it,"Every part of Scripture is God breathed and useful one way or another - showing us truth us to live God's way." The point is each translation is different in the exact words it chooses to express the meaning of the text. Each translation is an interpretation. The sentence just before this verse is translated in the Message as, "There's nothing like the written word of God for who showing you the way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ." It's clear in the Message which is written more like a letter from Paul to Timothy, without numbered verses, what Paul was doing. He was building Timothy up for the challenges of ministry that lay ahead and encouraging him to find help in God's Word.

That makes more sense than fighting over the meanings and nuances of various verses. Proof texting is the practice of finding a verse or verses to back up you point in an argument over Christian belief or practice. It is no way to read the Bible. It misses the forest for the trees. It is not too hard to get the general drift of God's Word. It's not a puzzle to be solved by the experts. What did Jesus say and do? How did He live? That's what the Gospels were written for. Believe in Him. Trust Him. Follow Him.

In all acrimonious debates among Christians today over social issues, politics, the environment, and national security, etc, I hear a lot of Christians saying The Bible says.... this or that. Really? What does the Bible say? Do we know it as well as we think we do? Or are we missing the Big Picture?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Notes on retirement: number two

Our society wants us to believe that the foremost retirement questions revolve around finances. Certainly, those are important questions. One does need some income because the bills do not stop in retirement. There is no limit to what retirement advisers think we need. The advice seems to be the more the better. Figures like one million dollars are  offered as a starting off place. One million in retirement funds assuming 6 percent growth a year and taking our 4 percent a year should do it. Maybe. Depending on how long you live and how well you live. And what your idea of retirement is. In our society, retirement is seen as that time in life when you do all those things you put off doing while you were working, raising a family, etc. Now, it is your time! Check off that bucket list. Buy that dream home perhaps. That cool two seater convertible. Take those trips to exotic places. Discover the perfect place to live. Or play golf every day. Whatever. You need money for all of those things so money should be your primary concern.

A contrarian point of view says it should be the least of your concerns. You do need money. There are lots of ways to get it including part time work. You need money to live. Question is how do you want to live now? It might take a while to figure that out. Our culture wants us to think we can have it all and in retirement the time has come to make up for what we have been denying ourselves all our lives. Can we have it all? Or has that been a temptation from the beginning. We have desires that crave fulfilling. Maybe retirement is a time to probe and ponder the sources of those longings. By this time in our lives we know that fulfilling our desires can be a fool's errand. Thus, we move on to spiritual concerns some of which mask themselves as financial.

What if the most important questions are spiritual? Who are we going to become in retirement? How will we grow up? What will matter? What is this time of our lives for? What are we going to read? How will we pray? Where are we going to worship? Who are we going to serve? How is our longing for God to be expanded?

What if retirement is the time to sort out our desires and focus on those that matter? Marilynne Robinson wrote: "To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it?" Belden Lane talks about cultivating a "catch and release" spirituality. " The world is shot through with God's splendors which we can enjoy without possessing. (Backpacking with the Saints).

We need money to pay the bills. But we need little more than our senses to unleash the "power of exquisite delight" that is available to us. What if God has given to us what we need in retirement if we only stop and look around and be mindful of his presence and his gifts of grace?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Notes on Retirement, number one

Belden Lane in his book Backpacking with the Saints writes about "transitioning to retirement". I like that way of putting it. No one retires as in one day you are employed and the next day you are retired. Of course, it seems like that, but there is always a transition. That transition can take days or years. It depends on when you got started in the transitioning process. I began it after I retired. Not the best time to start. But what did I know? Who prepares you to retire? It's like becoming a parent, you just do it and hope for the best. While you can take parenting classes and there are plenty of books to read about parenting there is a sense that you don't really know what it means to be a parent until you are one. Like parenting, you don't get retirement until you retire but there are some things to do to begin the transition process.

First thing to note is that it is a process. It is a huge change in your life. Lane calls it the "unmapped terrain of retirement." He compares it to backpacking. You learn how to pack and what to pack. You choose a trail to hike. You get there. You start out and then the adventure begins. You come back wiser and with a story to tell, you are changed. Retirement changes you. Whether you like it or not. I did not like it at first. I couldn't say the "R" word. I was only temporarily between jobs. It took me awhile to accept what I was. Even if I took some interim work, I was still retired. I could choose to work for pay or volunteer but I was retired. Once I accepted that I could start mapping the terrain.

Lane talks about entering retirement being a "deep mystery in being poised on the edge of something new in your life." It is unsettling to relinquish the "place" you've occupied for so long. The phone rings less and the email trail vanishes. You feel like you are not needed. What you are doing is not important. In Wallace Stegner's words you have reached an "angle of repose." The angle of repose is the 34 degree angle at which sand and pebbles stop falling down a mountain slope. That's like retirement, Lane writes. You don't have to look anywhere else for what you seek. You don't have to accomplish anything further. "The disparate particles of my life, clinging together in their downhill roll into the future find what they desire at this holding point on the mountain slope."

There is life after retirement once you are over grieving your loss of your "place". And it is not the "retirement life" that our culture sells us. There is no perfect retirement place. There are no formulas for retirement living. There is no retirement lifestyle you have to imitate. It is what you make it. It is a  brand new chapter of your life. It is an opportunity to do some things that you may never even have dreamed about. Please, dream new dreams, don't make retirement about checking experiences off your bucket list until you die. Lane again, "I'm summoned to an improved practice of adoration, marveling at the wonders of a world I still cannot fathom." That can be retirement.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Spring training baseball

This week I attended my first Spring training baseball game. Living in the North all my life I never got the chance. I always wanted to get to one. I played baseball as a kid and coached my kids when they were young. I loved the game and have followed it all my life. So, now that we live in Florida Spring training was on my radar. We looked up some games and called our friends who lived further South on the coast and plans were set for some Spring baseball. I had my sights set on a Yankees game and they were playing the Mets on a Sunday in March. On the Friday before the Mets played the Cardinals. We went to that game - my wife with her beach bag of books, towels and water (the towels were in case of outfield berm seating) - and I. I was surprised at how crowded it was and how small the stadium felt. It seated 7,000 and was packed with equal numbers of older fans dressed out in Cardinal red or less colorful Mets fashions. I actually felt young in this crowd (full disclosure: I am of retirement age but not eligible for medicaid yet). I did not realize how popular these Florida games are with the senior set. Tour buses dropped off the Northerners seeking relief from the brutal winter weather. The parking lot was filled with cars from all over the country. I saw several men wearing t-shirts emblazoned with all the Florida Spring training sites as if they were making the rounds. But, most of the fans were wearing their team's colors. I saw lots of Musial jerseys. My wife who sacrifices a lot to attend these sporting events with me asked me if people put their own names on the backs of team uniforms just like the actual players do. No, I said those names are long gone stars who these people followed in their youth. Most of the names were not familiar any more. We had seats in the second deck, in the sun, 89 degrees the scoreboard reported. Older men and women kept climbing past us, huffing and puffing and weaving side to side.  I thought I should get out my phone and be ready to push 911. One old timer looked at me as he rested a moment and asked if he was still in the stadium. He was sweating profusely in his Cardinal reds. It looked like it was assisted living day at the ballpark.

What kind of a game has such power to hold onto its fans into late life?  And make them dress up in such unnatural garb and sit in the sun for hours? My wife lasted about three innings before she needed to seek shelter from the sun. We found some seats back under the stands and I returned to the action standing behind home plate. I had a good view of Bartlo Colon's 88 mile an hour fastball. Colon is himself a senior citizen in baseball years still playing in his 40s. I watched for a few more innings and then collected my wife and we left. Maybe it was being in the presence of so many people who moved so slowly but I was never so aware of how slow the game of baseball can seem (it could have been the heat or the fact that I was standing so long or that neither the Mets or the Cardinals were playing many of their starters, too). We had paid $18 each for our seats in the sun, $8 for parking and about $20 for two hotdogs and two beers. When I checked into tickets for the Yankee game on Sunday they were sold out except for a few standing room only tickets going for $40 each. We discussed it very briefly and decided next year we will get tickets for the Yankee - Mets game ahead of time and in the shaded part of the stadium. Who knew Spring training games were such a hot ticket with people our age.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Lenten reading

Luke 22:63-23:12
Jesus is put on trial before religious authorities, local and national authorities and international and global authorities. He is condemned by all these earthy powers. Even the people condemn him. Given this antipathy between earthly powers, including the will of the people, and the rule of Jesus and the kingdom of God, is it likely that Christianity can ever be embraced by all governments and all peoples? Is it ever an authentic Christianity once it becomes a popular movement? Or is something lost once it becomes so dominant a force it emerges as an earthly authority like all the rest? It may be that the Christian faith is most true to its founder and his spirituality when it is in the minority and has nothing to gain but the cross." (Murray Andrew Pura)

Have you heard the story about the guy who is walking down the street but who suddenly falls into this deep hole he did not see? The hole is deep, the walls are steep. A psychiatrist walks by and the guy calls out, "Hey Doc, can you help me here?" The doctor writes a prescription for Lexapro and throws it into the hole. A priest happens by next and the guy calls out, "Hey Father, can you help me out here?" The priest writes a prayer and tosses it down into the hole. Then, the guys best friend comes by, sees his friend down in the hole and immediately jumps in. "What did you do that for?" the guy asks. "Now we are both stuck." "Nah," the friend says, "I've been down here before and I know the way out."

There are lots of deep holes to fall into in this life and most likely we will end up in a six foot deep one in a cemetery somewhere. It's good to have a friend who has been there and knows the way out. That's what we call Easter. (from Scott Hoezee)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Love without exceptions

I read a remarkable statistic in a New York Times opinion piece by Nicholas Kristof today. In 2013, 71 percent of black children in America were born to an unwed mother, as were 53 percent of Hispanic children and 36 percent of white children. A singe parent family is the new norm. At some point before they are 18 a majority of all American children will likely live with a single mom or dad.

Of course, children can do well in single parent families but the odds are against them. One household in which children do well are those in which they are being raised by same-sex couples. Most gay couples do not have unwanted children whom they neglect, Kristof notes.

Interesting, that when many Christians want to fight the battle for traditional family values there are fewer and fewer traditional families. If Christians emerged from their bubble wrapped churches more often they might have noticed. One way to deal with the changes in our culture is to cluck our tongues and shake our heads and say, well if they never took the prayer out of the public schools... Another way is to keep searching for ways to reach our culture with the love of Christ.

First we have to love our culture and the people who make it up. As surveys show this isn't happening. Most of the unchurched perceive the church as uncaring and judgmental toward non-traditional Christian lifestyles. We are in our bubble wrap and whats happening outside is because they are outside and not in the church with us.

One of the popular readings of the parable of the prodigal son is the one where the prodigal "comes to his senses" in a far off country and makes his way back to his father. In this reading, the prodigal realized his sins and repented and returned to his father hoping for the best. In the end his repentance is rewarded and he rejoins the family. God does what you expect - he responds with forgiveness to our repentance. That's what we call grace. Except it is not. Grace does not respond to what we do. Grace is in place before we do anything. God loves us first. Our response is always second.

Kenneth Bailey in his studies of the gospels from a Middle Eastern point of view understands the parable of the prodigal in a different way. The Middle Eastern idiom for "coming to one's senses" means something more like he comes up with a plan. Plan A has failed. He lost his inheritance and is penniless. Plan B is to find some work in the far country. When that fails he comes up with Plan C which is to go back home and work for his father. He does not expect to be greeted warmly by his father. He has insulted his father and offended his community. He knows he faces a rough homecoming. His community will probably ostracize him and may even shun him. His father does the unexpected, gathering his robe and running to welcome his son when he was still far off.  No one in the community would have expected to see what the father did. That is grace. That is God's love in action.

In the story we call the Good Samaritan, Jesus was answering the question, who is the neighbor we are called to love. Jesus made the hated Samaritan the hero of the story. He was showing us to love our neighbors, with no exceptions. That is grace. Love comes first.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Being mortal

Yesterday was my second annual annuitants luncheon since retirement. It was held at Penney Farms near Jacksonville, FL. J.C. Penney began it in the early 1900s to meet the needs of retiring ministers and missionaries who had no other means of support. It has grown into a full blown retirement facility with full end of life care options. In a beautiful park like setting with nature trails, bike paths and a golf course, it offers plenty to keep retirees busy. Housing is not free any longer but it is affordable considering today's options. There is something for everyone: a pottery kiln, weaving looms, wood shop and gardening center. The residents volunteer to care for many of the maintenance needs of the campus and it's members. Need your watch repaired, or your taxes done, or trees trimmed or a personal trainer in the gym; it all can be had for free or nearly so. There is a post office, library and coffee shop. Need a minister? There are a number of them available for pastoral calling, worship leadership and preaching. One former pastor joked at lunch that if you don't like the preaching one week at the Penney Farms Church, try it the next week when someone else is filling the pulpit and chances are good the preacher you didn't care for may die before his turn comes up again!

The annual meeting of annuitants took place before lunch. Once again I didn't have much luck understanding the formula for figuring out how our annuity payout is decided each year. But, it did go up a few cents and we were all good with that. Most of the retirees were older than I am ( I was even mistaken for an employee of our benefits board!) And I doubt I am ready for the golf course or rehashing pastor war stories at lunch but I saw things differently this year.

I had just finished the book by Atul Gawande titled, Being Mortal. Gawande, a surgeon, writes out of a concern for end of life care. I think he would approve of what is going on at Penney Farms. Gawande says medicine takes over at the end of life and although it can prolong our lives - to what end, he asks. Nursing homes which are the fate for many of us have patient safety and efficiency as their primary concerns. Assisted living facilities are marketed to family members who are concerned that their elderly loved ones are safe and well looked after so they don't have to worry.  End of life surgeries are scheduled to gain a few more months of life even if the quality of those days is miserable. Who asks the person facing end of life issues what they want, and how they want to live the rest of their lives and what are they willing to lose if they choose surgery or more treatment for their illness? There is always a trade off, Gawande says, even if the treatment is successful. We are aging and it is a terminal process, after all.

Gawande wants to see more human options presented at end of life. People should be able to stay at home as long as they want - as long as there is help available. Hospice is a good choice. Medicine and it's technological alternatives do not necessarily have the best interest of the person in mind.

I think Dr Gawande would approve of Penney Farms. There is a warm human environment, a community of people who care about living life and helping each other live, too. They work together, learn together, and worship together. When living options diminish due to physical and mental deterioration the same people are there to provide support. At my lunch table yesterday one woman had stopped to pick up another woman from the Alzheimer's unit to join her for lunch out.

As we grow older longer we need to envision other ways to live our lives. The doctors do not know best. In fact, most of the time they are not asking the right questions. It is in our interest to know what those questions are and where to find answers. Gawande's book is a great place to start.