Tuesday, September 29, 2015

That we might Live

Teaching a course on First Samuel at our church. More like leading a discussion, actually. It starts tomorrow. More like leading a small group discussion. I am into it though. It gave me a chance to buy a new commentary on First Samuel. Even though I have a good one by Bruggeman, and one by Goldingay and one by Peterson (each one worth reading).  This new one is by David Jenson in the Belief series published by WJK. I like reading it because it is a theological commentary. The author is a teaching theologian. If you want to know about matters of form, authorship, grammatical analysis, word study, and a whole lot of historical - cultural background, then this commentary is not for you. There are other places to go for this stuff. I admit to having read my share of these kinds of volumes and being bored. But, I did it as background for preaching so I could read what the Word said then. I was supposed to be able to say what the Word said now. Somehow, I learned it was cheating to jump from text to commentary without doing the exegetical work myself. I have preached many and I have heard many sermons preached that left the hearers back there in Bible days wondering why it was important or helpful for their lives now to know what a particular Biblical word meant in that context in which it was written. Relate the Biblical text to me now. Tell me what it means now. Why is this particular word of Jesus theologically important for me today. Let me hear the Living Word that speaks Life to our  world that is up to it's eyeballs in skepticism, anger, consumerism, and materialism. We may have a brand new I-Phone 6, and the latest video game, and are worried about terrorists coming into our country via immigration so shut them out and rising health care costs and increasing our personal debt not to mention the national debt...but can we Live in the midst of Life. Is what we want to know.

So, as we gather to read First Samuel, we want to know how Samuel's call to be a leader of Israel can be like my call to be a mother or a student working on my GED, or a passion to help the homeless or any other thing I am doing because it seems God has got something to do with it. We want to know why God seemed to answer Israel's prayer for a King by giving them something God did not want them to have! Or maybe God did. Why does God give us things we want or don't want? And when we end up with the wrong thing or the wrong place how come God sticks with us?

And here is a good one: how come there is so much violence in First Samuel?  What is God doing in the midst of it? Why does God keep getting mixed up in the messes of our lives? So we might Live?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Yesterday's presidential debate

I watched the Republican debate last night. About half an hour of it. I turned it off when John Kasich said viewers were getting ready to turn us off due to lack of substance. I agreed.

When Mike Huckabee (I have to smile when I see his book selling at Walmart: God, Grits and Guns. Sums him up.) said some nice things about his opponents and said he would be proud to have all of them serving in the cabinet of a Huckabee administration it got me thinking after I stopped shivering.

Rand Paul queried whether Donald Trump was acting like a junior high boy with his name calling and insults and general bullying behavior. He is like a bully. I thought of some bullies in junior high. They were bigger, kind of towering over you, and braggarts. They could talk a good game and not very many kids challenged them. Trump is a big guy and even though Jeb is about as tall, he seemed smaller next to Donald. Jeb, standing next to him, looked small and meek.  No way Jeb could take Donald down.  It was hard to get a word in when Bully Donald was talking and he just talked over people, as if they didn't matter, if he had to. He bragged he was the best, the richest, and could talk any one into seeing things his way. If not, he would just beat you up. I wondered what the other candidates might have been like in junior high.

Rand Paul (named after Ayn Rand?) was like the nerdy science student who always had the best science project because his parents wanted him to and helped him out.

Chris Christie was the chubby kid who got humiliated in so many ways in gym class but who made it up by being funny and telling the best dirty jokes.

No one saw Ben Carson becoming a great doctor in junior high.  He was the nicest kid in the class. That's what parents said, You know he is really a nice kid as if there was some reason he wouldn't be. He hated politics though and wouldn't run for class president even though he might have won.

Scott Walker was the kid you really couldn't remember what he was like when you looked at the class yearbook ten years later.

John Kasich was the kid who was a good student. He was president of his church youth group where  his dad was pastor. But, he was Lutheran or some other foreign religion like that that no one really knew what it stood for. He wore a "I like Mother Theresa" pin. No one knew who that was either.  So he was nice but a little out there and so he was not invited to too many birthday parties. He did ok later in life as a politician.  Who knew?

Mike Huckabee was like the kid who wanted to be water boy on the football team just because he liked to be around the cool guys. He was always sticking up for the guys who got in trouble. He carried his Bible to school and liked to ask guys if they knew Jesus. Most of the kids went to church and didn't get what his problem was.

Jeb was the kid who was always well dressed in the latest fashion. He loved to talk and most of the time he would agree with whatever you said. His older brother was a good athlete and popular so Jeb had a hard time standing out.

Marco Rubio was like the kid whose parents came from some mysterious place. He could speak Spanish and he was a good soccer player. Trouble was no one played soccer at his school. It was all American football.

Ted Cruz was the kid who was always stirring things up. He wanted soda served for lunch. He wanted the lunch room ladies to let us switch tables at lunch. He even went to the principal to complain about how things were done wrong in school. If I ran the school..... he would say. Nobody really liked him but it was cool when we got to have soda at lunch.

In junior high boys talked about girls a lot but they didn't talk to girls much. Especially some one like Carly Fiorina. She was the smartest girl in the class and no boy could get close to her. She looked older and acted like a high school kid. She was way more mature than the boys were. She was just about the only kid in the school who would take Bully Boy Donald on. Because she could and she won. She was class president. No contest

Ahh...junior high! Seems like yesterday.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Words and refugees

We are going through James in church. It was the first part of chapter 3 today. A warning to teachers especially but to all of us, as well, about the impact of our words. Through our words we can love others, be good neighbors, bless. We can do the opposite, too. We are a wordy society. We have talk shows on the radio, tv and internet podcasts. We can listen to someone speaking all day. Rants on the radio get good ratings. We seem to like hearing someone else take someone down who we don't care for and the ranter can say what we cannot. Key words are "don't care for". We could hardly care less. Unfortunate words come out of a care less mind. We have plenty of bad examples. Donald Trump is riding a wave of hateful words right now. People love him, some say, because he is saying what lots of us are thinking. He is not afraid to say it. He should be, James says. He is showing he would be a strong leader. Really, all we have are words. What are his actions? What has he done? Does he practice true religion according to James.

Our world is witnessing a refugee crisis the magnitude of which we have never seen. On tv we watch as thousands trek hopefully toward a better, safer place. Babies in arms, small children weary by the side of their parents, parents shouting, begging, crying, at wits end. Some countries build bigger fences with barbed wire on top while other countries offer to take in thousands, ten thousand, twenty thousand but we are hearing of thousands coming toward freedom and safety every day now. President Obama has said we will take ten thousand Syrians. Other leaders in our country criticize this move because it could let in terrorists. Ann Coulter in a column last week spread fear that every refugee is a potential terrorist. She named some, an Uzbeki, Chechnyan Muslims (the Boston Bombers), a Hutu who killed many Tutsis in his homeland, and the list goes on and on, she wrote. If they - the refugees are not coming to kill us then they want to mooch off us and our generous welfare system. Keep them out before they destroy us she demands.

Trump would build walls. I know a person who would have been deported under a Trump presidency. She is a Christian from Mexico who came here illegally in the arms of her father. She is married, held jobs and served Christ in many ways through her church. I know other refugees, a family from Ukraine, and one from Sudan. Christians who have worked hard and are giving back to the country that took them in. They are thankful to have been given a chance for a safer, better life.

The violent landscape the people flee is complicated: Western countries and Russia offer support to one side or the other of the warring factions by sending arms, and other help. The countries of the refugees are torn apart and they flee but the countries who want to fix the problem in their homelands do not want to fix the problem when it becomes too dangerous to stay put. Even if they have the resources to help. Do they care? Do we?

What have we gained in the wealthy West if we have all our material comforts but we keep those in desperate need out. Will we lose our soul, have we?

Today in church we prayed:
Jesus enlarge our hearts,
To embrace the stranger.
To see the vulnerable.
Unstop our ears to hear
the cries for help.
Let us cultivate love,
Grow compassion,
Return to the essentials
Love God,
Love our neighbors,
All else is clutter. (Christine Sine)

Monday, September 7, 2015

Just do it

Our pastor was preaching on James 2 yesterday at church.  Her theme was favoritism. And as they say down here she was "agin" it. Because James is. She asked us to consider how we show favoritism daily, even at church. James paints the picture as if he had seen it happen before: a rich person comes in to church and the ushers stumble over each other to show him to a valued seat up front, followed by a poor person in dirty clothes (and smelling dirty) and no one in particular points her to a back seat in the corner away from every one else. How do we do that, the pastor asked. We had a hard time coming up with much. We could think of how it could possibly happen and how it does happen in other churches, but we try to be more aware of such things.

I was still thinking about our pastor's saying that James was the brother of Jesus while she was asking us to apply the favoritism text. The brother of Jesus, think about that for a moment. Talk about an eyewitness point of view. James grew up with Jesus. I wondered if it was slightly like Joseph (that coat of many colors Joseph) in the Old Testament growing up with his brothers. Was Jesus the favorite of the family? Did his parents show favoritism? Did James resent it? There was a time the gospels tell us when the family of Jesus rejected him. They did not believe he was who he said he was. Was that because Joseph and Mary treated him more special than they were? Favoritism causes a lot of problems in families. Rod Dreher wrote a book about his struggles with it in his family. He was well into middle age before he figured out how to deal with it in a healthy way. The book is, How Dante Can Save Your Life. James figured it out too. He became a follower of Jesus, a leader of the Jerusalem Church and died in AD 62, the victim of a conspiracy against him.

I wondered, as well, about the reputation of the book of James in the Church. His letter  has been seen as a theological lightweight, a "strawy epistle", John Calvin called it. Luther didn't bother to write a commentary on it, about the only book of the Bible he didn't. James is a practical book. In his own words, "be doers of the word not hearers only", and "faith without works is dead". Probably because James had been with Jesus so much he knew he practiced what he preached. James knew it is not what we know but what we do with what we know that matters. In most churches there is plenty to listen to but not enough time to do much.

When I walk into church who do I talk to, sit near, laugh with? Who do I seek out at coffee time afterward? How do I spend my time during the week, and with whom? When am I hearing the word, and how am I doing it?

Friday, September 4, 2015

Ashley Madison and the church

So what do we make of Ashley Madison? Christian media outlets keep us up to date on the latest Christian celebrities/mega church pastors and assorted other Christian leaders who have been discovered to have visited the website that promises to fulfill that fantasy of an extra marital affair. It was supposed to be so secret. Then it wasn't. Some Christian men caught in the hack job on the website confessed to being curious, or filling idle time, or simply being stupid. None were seriously considering unfaithfulness. It's like that judgement day scenario when every secret will be revealed. Only now it is affecting marriages, jobs, and churches who are wondering what to do with the secrets their pastors have been keeping from them. (and if pastors, who else?)

One columnist for Christianity Today even felt it was necessary to propose a process to restore wayward pastors who visited Ashley Madison. Is it really that bad? Did he think we would run out of pastors who have not visited that site?

We can always say, well pastors are only human. Which is not much help because what else would they be? We want them to be humans such as we strive to be. When they fail, what does that do to our self confidence? We want to know they face temptations just like the rest of us,just not give in to them. We want them to be human only not that human. (since most of the Ashley Madison visitors were male this might be a good place to put in a good word for female pastors) Do we really want to know what they are up when no one is watching? Male pastors face the same temptations as any male in the congregation and in the internet age there are not a whole lot of firm boundaries. The male pastor may be the most isolated and lonely male in the congregation. He, a person with a whole lot of high expectations (many that come from himself) and few or no confessors. His marriage may be a mere front, too; they have a united face to put toward the congregation but when they are face to face, well, they are rarely face to face. She may be tired of being the church wife. He may be simply tired, or drinking too much or eating too much, trying to avoid whatever their issues are.

Most of these Christian leaders who have been outed on Ashley's site were probably bored, looking for a brief titillation when the sermon process had ground to a halt. They never intended to go any further than a look see. Now their secret thoughts are public for all to judge. Some of those who were outed were outspoken in their judgment of other Christians who had "fallen into sin". Now others are doing to them what they did to them.

Does the church need a process to restore fallen pastors whose names or email addresses appear on Ashley's website? I doubt it. That will only add to the hypocrisy in the Church. What the Church needs is more counselors and spiritual directors. It needs fewer buildings and programs and more spiritual maturity. And a long time line because most pastors will get there eventually. Churches need to get rid of pedestals; pastors can preach from the floor where everyone sits. They are only human. They are a part of the Body of Christ, no more, no less. They need to be at meetings with the church where their word is a word and their thoughts are considered like anyone else's. They are expected to have struggles, doubts, depression, anxieties; hard times personally, maritally and in their families are normal because they are human. Put retreats on the church schedule. Schedule a counselor or a mediator to come and address the issues that are secret. Expect the pastor to regularly get away to face the issues in his or her life. Stop pretending there are no secrets.

Is the Ashley Madison hack job a scandal for the Church.  No, the scandal is the dis-connect between pastor and people. It's the biggest and most destructive secret we have.

The martyrdom of Kim Davis

No doubt you have heard of Kim Davis who by now must be the most famous county clerk in the nation. One of her jobs is to hand out marriage licenses. Since the Supreme Court granted legitimacy to same -sex marriages her job -by law- is to issue gay couples marriage licenses. Ms Davis has refused for the reason that her religious beliefs won't allow her to. She is a Christian, a member of an Apostolic Church. I was not familiar with this denomination but they have a website with enough information to get a general idea of what they are like. Their beliefs are similar to a number of conservative Christian churches. Their worship style is non participative, instrument free, and male led. The men and women do not sit together and the lay preacher opens the Bible at the beginning of the service and preaches on wherever it opens up. I found that interesting. In seminary preaching classes, we had to do this as an exercise in thinking on your feet. The results were usually unimpressive. The Apostolic Church believes  preparation is a hindrance to the Holy Spirit''s work. They want to know what the Holy Spirit thinks on the spot. I have found when working with human material it is better to let the Holy Spirit take his time.

In the Statement of Faith of the Apostolic Church is the conviction that marriage is between one man and one woman for life. That is the sticking point for Ms Davis. Apparently, she is stuck on the man and woman part of the statement. News sources have reported that she has been married four times which includes divorces, I assume. She does not seem to have trouble with remarriage. This could be due to the fact that she is a recent convert to the Apostolic Christian Church having joined in 2011. Now that she has seen the light she may not get divorced again. I don't know.

Some of the Republican presidential candidates such as Huckabee and Cruz have gone on record as denouncing the judge in Kentucky who ordered Ms Davis to jail for contempt of court as an attack on the Christian foundations of our country. These normally law abiding presidential candidates apparently do not believe Ms Davis broke the law of the land or disobeyed a judge's direct order. Or, if so, they believe that a Christian should be able to choose which laws they think their religious beliefs can tolerate. Interestingly, one of Ms Davis's assistant clerks who issued a marriage certificate to a gay couple today said it was the hardest thing she ever had to do (she was a preacher's kid, she said, as if that explained her anguish). Some people have an easier life than others.

Is Ms Davis a modern Christian martyr as some would make her to be or simply uneducated as to the laws of the land or theology? If she has only been a Christian for a few years she can be excused for not being up to speed on the history of Biblical exposition and theology with regard to marriage. However, as a clerk of the court who took an oath to uphold the laws of the land, she is without excuse. It's her job. She can do it or she can quit and do something else. She could study Apostolic Church doctrine (it has only been a denomination since the mid 1800's) and compare it to other traditions which have a much longer track record. She could read up on what her political party has said on the subject. She's young and hopefully her latest marriage will be long and satisfying but that takes a lot of work, too.

Being 65

I turned 65 this week. My Medicare card came in the mail. A government health card. With all the hostility toward Obamacare who knew we had a national health care policy all the time. Just not for everyone. Especially those who are just trying to make ends meet. It's like Ohio trying to pass legislation outlawing abortion in cases where genetic testing shows the fetus with Down Syndrome. Nearly 90% of all such cases in the country end up aborted currently. That's not good. But, the other side of the coin is that raising a disabled child costs more in money, time and human energy. It takes a village... only there aren't very many villages anymore. The politicians who want to outlaw abortion in cases of Down Syndrome are the same ones who want to cut programs to help poor and disabled children. Makes no sense. If we say we are pro-life then let's be pro-life and that means life after birth, too.

That's just one thing on my mind this week. Trump is another. He was asked foreign policy questions the other day by a conservative talk show host and he showed his ignorance (again). He's like a playground bully I once knew who covered over his lack of intelligence with bluster and promises "to  show you". Trump said, I don't need to know the names of foreign leaders and terror groups because they will all be changed by the time I get there and I'll show you a military that will make your head spin. Scary.

My mom is 89 and cycling in and out of assisted living places and rehab and hospitals. Just like many elderly do. It is no fun for her and taxing for her family trying to keep up with doctors orders, physical therapy and nursing home policies. Most of the people we have met who have taken care of her are wonderful but there are a few who for whatever reason are not and a couple are doctors. It's hard to stay on top of things and you feel like you have to. It takes a village... so I have been thinking about retirement communities the kind that promise to take care of you when you no longer can. When you are younger (post 55) there are all sorts of things to do and as you age and can do less and less the community helps out more and more. There is one near us founded by JC Penney where several residents make wheel carts for amputees around the world. It isn't just an old people's amusement park. It's affordable, too.  Have you looked at the cost of long term care? We need more communities for the elderly where they can have a life of meaning and service.

I've been doing a lot of reading about Genesis, Adam and Eve and the discussions about origins. There was a symposium in Books and Culture recently with contributors who debated the historicity of Adam and Eve. It's a big deal. Some professors at Evangelical schools have been fired for not believing Adam was a real historical figure. Along those lines I discovered a book recommended by John Wilson of Books and Culture, Adam's Ancestors by David N. Livingstone. Absolutely fascinating. Highly recommended.

The Fall is my favorite time of the year although it is still hotter than blazes here in Florida. Football is starting and Tom Brady gets to play (lets see how he does with properly inflated footballs) and a whole lot of college football players don't by the looks of the lists of disciplined and  suspended starters for the first games. Baseball is getting to closer to post season and I'm going to a New York vs Tampa game next week which may even be meaningful. (of course, my wife won't know if it is or isn't and I don't really care - hey, I'm going to a game!)