Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Realities of New Freshmen

Each year, Beloit College publishes a list of what incoming freshmen have always known, and each year I feel older. This is especially true for number 2 on the list this year. (Prior year lists can be found here.)

The Mindset List for the Class of 2015

Andre the Giant, River Phoenix, Frank Zappa, Arthur Ashe and the Commodore 64 have always been dead.

Their classmates could include Taylor Momsen, Angus Jones, Howard Stern's daughter Ashley, and the Dilley Sextuplets.

  1. There has always been an Internet ramp onto the information highway.
  2. Ferris Bueller and Sloane Peterson could be their parents.
  3. States and Velcro parents have always been requiring that they wear their bike helmets.
  4. The only significant labor disputes in their lifetimes have been in major league sports.
  5. There have always been at least two women on the Supreme Court, and women have always commanded U.S. Navy ships.
  6. They “swipe” cards, not merchandise.
  7. As they’ve grown up on websites and cell phones, adult experts have constantly fretted about their alleged deficits of empathy and concentration.
  8. Their school’s “blackboards” have always been getting smarter.
  9. “Don’t touch that dial!”….what dial?
  10. American tax forms have always been available in Spanish.
  11. More Americans have always traveled to Latin America than to Europe.
  12. Amazon has never been just a river in South America.
  13. Refer to LBJ, and they might assume you're talking about LeBron James.
  14. All their lives, Whitney Houston has always been declaring “I Will Always Love You.”
  15. O.J. Simpson has always been looking for the killers of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
  16. Women have never been too old to have children.
  17. Japan has always been importing rice.
  18. Jim Carrey has always been bigger than a pet detective.
  19. We have never asked, and they have never had to tell.
  20. Life has always been like a box of chocolates.
  21. They’ve always gone to school with Mohammed and Jesus.
  22. John Wayne Bobbitt has always slept with one eye open.
  23. There has never been an official Communist Party in Russia.
  24. “Yadda, yadda, yadda” has always come in handy to make long stories short.
  25. Video games have always had ratings.
  26. Chicken soup has always been soul food.
  27. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has always been available on TV.
  28. Jimmy Carter has always been a smiling elderly man who shows up on TV to promote fair elections and disaster relief.
  29. Arnold Palmer has always been a drink.
  30. Dial-up is soooooooooo last century!
  31. Women have always been kissing women on television.
  32. Their older siblings have told them about the days when Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera were Mouseketeers.
  33. Faux Christmas trees have always outsold real ones.
  34. They’ve always been able to dismiss boring old ideas with “been there, done that, gotten the T-shirt.”
  35. The bloody conflict between the government and a religious cult has always made Waco sound a little whacko.
  36. Unlike their older siblings, they spent bedtime on their backs until they learned to roll over.
  37. Music has always been available via free downloads.
  38. Grown-ups have always been arguing about health care policy.
  39. Moderate amounts of red wine and baby aspirin have always been thought good for the heart.
  40. Sears has never sold anything out of a Big Book that could also serve as a doorstop.
  41. The United States has always been shedding fur.
  42. Electric cars have always been humming in relative silence on the road.
  43. No longer known for just gambling and quickie divorces, Nevada has always been one of the fastest growing states in the Union.
  44. They’re the first generation to grow up hearing about the dangerous overuse of antibiotics.
  45. They pressured their parents to take them to Taco Bell or Burger King to get free pogs.
  46. Russian courts have always had juries.
  47. No state has ever failed to observe Martin Luther King Day.
  48. While they’ve been playing outside, their parents have always worried about nasty new bugs borne by birds and mosquitoes.
  49. Public schools have always made space available for advertising.
  50. Some of them have been inspired to actually cook by watching the Food Channel.
  51. Fidel Castro’s daughter and granddaughter have always lived in the United States.
  52. Their parents have always been able to create a will and other legal documents online.
  53. Charter schools have always been an alternative.
  54. They’ve grown up with George Stephanopoulos as the Dick Clark of political analysts.
  55. New kids have always been known as NKOTB.
  56. They’ve always wanted to be like Shaq or Kobe: Michael Who?
  57. They’ve often broken up with their significant others via texting, Facebook, or MySpace.
  58. Their parents sort of remember Woolworths as this store that used to be downtown.
  59. Kim Jong-il has always been bluffing, but the West has always had to take him seriously.
  60. Frasier, Sam, Woody and Rebecca have never Cheerfully frequented a bar in Boston during primetime.
  61. Major League Baseball has never had fewer than three divisions and never lacked a wild card entry in the playoffs.
  62. Nurses have always been in short supply.
  63. They won’t go near a retailer that lacks a website.
  64. Altar girls have never been a big deal.
  65. When they were 3, their parents may have battled other parents in toy stores to buy them a Tickle Me Elmo while they lasted.
  66. It seems the United States has always been looking for an acceptable means of capital execution.
  67. Folks in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have always been able to energize with Pepsi Cola.
  68. Andy Warhol is a museum in Pittsburgh.
  69. They’ve grown up hearing about suspiciously vanishing frogs.
  70. They’ve always had the privilege of talking with a chatterbot.
  71. Refugees and prisoners have always been housed by the U.S. government at Guantanamo.
  72. Women have always been Venusians; men, Martians.
  73. McDonalds coffee has always been just a little too hot to handle.
  74. “PC” has come to mean Personal Computer, not Political Correctness.
  75. The New York Times and the Boston Globe have never been rival newspapers

Monday, August 29, 2011

Rule Three, Stay In Love With God

Here is my sermon from yesterday:

Two weeks ago we began a sermon series, entitled Three Simple Rules, based on a book of the same name written by retired united Methodist bishop Reuben Job. Now Bishop Job did not just make up these rules, instead he took them from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley wrote these rules because as Methodism was spreading he had people coming to him and telling him that they wanted to be living a Christian life. They wanted to know and love God but they didn’t know, and so Wesley wrote do these rules which still serve as guideposts for the Methodist church today.

Now the first rule is to do no harm. This rule causes us to have to pause and evaluate everything we are doing, everything we are thinking, and everything we are saying. We have to pay attention to how we live, including how we spend our money and our time, what we are watching or listening to, even what we are wearing. Doing no harm requires us to take a step backwards, to pause and evaluate what is going on in our lives.

The second rule is to do good. In some ways this is the opposite of doing no harm, because doing good requires us to step forward. In order to do good, we have to move out into the world. We cannot just watch as the world goes by. We have to be engaged with the world, encountering people and meeting them were they are, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting and caring for the sick and those in prison. This is an engaged faith, it is a faith active in following Jesus’ injunction to love our neighbor as ourselves. First do no harm, take a step back, and second, do good, take a step forward.

Now these are both important rules. They guide us and lead us in our faith as we engage in the world. But the problem that can arise with these first two rules is that you can do them without being in relationship with God. In fact, many have speculated that the decline of the mainstream church came about because of the church’s emphasis on social holiness, that is doing work in the world, while seeming to ignore personal holiness, our relationship with God, during the 1960s and 70s.People thought that they could do good without the church, which you certainly can, so if the only thing the church was concerned about was doing good, then the church was no longer necessary for their lives and so they left. I think there is something to that, although it’s certainly not the only reason, but it was also one of John Wesley’s concerns.

Wesley wrote “a [person may] both abstain from outward evil and do good and still have no religion. Yea, two persons may do the same outward works… and…, one of these may be truly religious, and the other have no religion at all: for the one may act from the love of God, and the other from the love of praise.” Wesley called doing good and doing no harm, works of mercy, or prudential means of grace, that is things that are prudent to do. These represent our horizontal relationships, our relationship with others. But, Wesley said that if this all that we are doing then we are “almost Christian.” We are certainly fulfilling one of the great commandments, to love our neighbor as ourselves, but “the great question of all, then, still remains,” Wesley says. “Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, ‘My God and my All?’ Do you desire nothing but God? Are you happy in God? Is God your glory, your delight and your rejoicing?” In other words, are you in love with God?

Which leads us to rule number three, which Wesley said was to “attend upon all the ordinances of God,” which is not as easy to understand as Job’s statement which is simply to “stay in love with God.” Just like with the other rules, Wesley gives examples of how we are to stay in love with God. It is by participating in the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read of expounded; participating in Communion; family and private prayer; searching the scriptures; and finally fasting or abstinence. Wesley believed that by participating in these activities, that we would come into a deeper relationship with God, and deepen our love of God.

Now you might wonder what these have to do with being more in love with God, as these sort of appear to be a series of tasks, sometimes even onerous ones, like the one about fasting. But, let me give you another way of thinking about them.As you have already heard me say many times already, and undoubtedly you will hear even more about in the future, I love baseball. Did I always know everything about baseball? Certainly not. And how did I learn about it? First, someone told me what they thought I should know, and then I watched baseball, although watching it and being told about it sort of went hand in hand, and I read about baseball, and I listened to baseball, and I talked about baseball. It’s something I learned about over time, and as I learned more, guess what? I loved it even more, and because I loved it even more, I learned even more, and so on and so on. Now if we were to meet someone and they told us they loved baseball, and we asked how often they watched it, and they said never, and we asked how often they listened to it, and they said never, and we asked how often they read about it, and they said never, and we asked how often they talked about it, and they said never, would we really believe that they loved baseball?

I regularly encounter people who once they find out I’m a minister will tell me that they too are a Christian, and as we begin talking I often find out that they don’t attend church, because, they’ll tell me, you don’t have to be in a church to be a Christian, which at one time I would have agreed with, but no longer do, and as we converse more they tell me they don’t pray, they don’t read scripture, they, in fact, don’t do anything of the things that Wesley, and more than just Wesley, says that we need to do in order to be in a relationship with God, but they tell me they love Jesus Christ.

If I was to ask you about your marriage and you told me that you never talked to your spouse, never spent time with them, never sought to learn more about them, or never engaged them in any way, first I would wonder what was going on and second I would tell you that your marriage is in serious trouble, because if you weren’t doing any of those things then I think we could all agree that you are not actually in relationship. To be in relationship with someone, to be in love with someone, requires us to have an interaction, to be actively engaged with that person, and that is what Wesley is talking about.

Although Wesley does not have prayer listed first, I would say that prayer is the first and most important step in deepening our relationship with God. Prayer is a holy conversation. Just as we get to know about another person, and come to love them more, by talking with them, the same is true for prayer, and prayer is just as much, if not more, about listening as it is talking. Does your prayer life mirror how you talk with other people with whom you love?

Now I know that most people I have talked with about prayer say they don’t pray because they don’t know how, and that is something we will address, but do you know how I learned how to pray? I just did it. As soon as people found out that I was going into the ministry, I became the designated prayer, but praying is way too important to be left to the minister to do. So let me give you just two simple things to get started if you are not already praying at least once a day.

One, if you are not comfortable saying your own prayer, is to use prepared prayers. In the scripture insert which we started today, there is a prayer for the week. Pray that each day as you get started, or find your own. There are literally millions of resources available. The second thing is just to simply talk, that’s how I pray. I don’t pray formally like we do here at church. I simply start talking. Talk to God just like you do everyone else and I guarantee you will see and feel a difference in your faith. It might take a little while, you may feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s like learning any new activity. At first you’re not sure, but the more you work at it, the better you’ll get and the better you get the more you’ll enjoy it, and the more benefit you’ll receive.

The next thing Wesley enjoins us to do is to join in public worship. As I said, I once disagreed that you needed to be attending church, but I was wrong, and I didn’t realize how wrong I was until I began coming to church. Wesley said “Christianity is essentially a social religion; and… to turn it into a solitary religion, is indeed to destroy it.” Pretty strong words, but Jesus does not say that were one is gathered he is there, instead what does he say, “where two or more are gathered, there I am amongst them.” We are on a journey and journeys are always most successfully completed in groups, and so it is with Christianity. Christ is found in the gathered body of Christ. But worship can only be part of our spiritual nourishment. If worship is the only spiritual food we are receiving then we are starving ourselves to death.

This leads directly into the receiving of communion. Wesley believed so strongly in the power of communion that he received it four to five times a week, and even preached on the duty of constant communion. The Methodist church in America was founded basically in order to give people the opportunity to receive communion, and it is the official position of the church that we should be serving communion every week. It is that important. Although I am sure that altar calls are fairly prevalent in this area, you will never see me do an altar call the way people normally think of them while I am here. I won’t do so for numerous reasons, some theologically, some historic, but here is the simple reason why: We have an altar call every month. It is called communion. It is the time in which we come forward, pledging ourselves to Christ. It is the time when we reaffirm to whom we belong individually and as a congregation.

One of the reasons that we practice an open communion table is because Wesley believed that communion could be a converting sacrament, that is in receiving the elements you could be moved to accept Jesus’ saving actions on your behalf. It is an altar call. Because of its importance I would be more than willing to serve communion every week in service, which some churches do, or to have a separate communion service after worship, which is how others handle it.

Finally Wesley enjoins us to read scripture. Wesley has this as two different points. The first being the reading or hearing of scripture, and the second is the searching of scripture. In addition to prayer, reading the bible should be a part of your spiritual life. Now just like with prayer, I know that people often don’t read scripture for numerous reasons. The first reason I often hear is that they don’t know where to start. I would not recommend that you start at Genesis 1:1 and work your way through to Revelation 22:21, because, unless you have incredible fortitude, you’ll never make it. You’ll get bogged down in names and numbers and get discouraged and stop.

Instead, I would suggest taking the daily scripture readings and use them. Or if you want something more consistent, begin with Matthew and read the gospels, then Acts, then the letters of Paul, or read the psalms, or proverbs, or some of the books of history out of the Hebrew scriptures. Wesley also says that we should be searching scriptures, and even though Wesley himself practiced this, I do not suggest that if you are looking for God’s guidance from scripture that you just open the Bible and begin reading and take this as what God is leading you to, and I’ll give you the perfect example of why.

One day, a man did this, and the first scripture he found was Matthew 27:5, “throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple he went and hanged himself.” Well the man thought, that can’t be right, and so he closed the Bible and decided to try it again, this time coming on Luke 10:37, “Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Instead, if you are looking for something specific, use a concordance or one of the many Bible search engines, but I would caution you to always, always, always, pay attention to the context in which the passage is used.

Wesley called all of these practices which bring us into relationship with God and help us stay in love with God, works of piety. They were, he said, an instituted means of Grace, and they represent our vertical relationships. Works of piety were given to us by God as a way of helping us to understand and participate in God’s grace. They are, in Wesley’s words, “outward signs, words or actions, ordained by God… to be the ordinary channel whereby God might convey to [people]… grace.” These works of piety are the means by which we build and sustain our vertical relationship with God. But if these works of piety all we are doing, which is what we will often hear, especially by some prominent ministers, then we are also not living a complete Christian life. We only have one part.

Zan Miller, who some of you may know because he was the host and narrator of the Disciple 1 Bible study videos, says that we need to be leading cross centered lives, something with which Wesley would certainly agree. Jesus is our example, and our focus should be on the cross. But we need both parts of the cross, when we only have the vertical relationship, our relationship with God, our works of piety, then we are missing a piece, and when we only have the horizontal, our relationship with others, our works of mercy, then we are also missing a piece. In order to lead a cross centered life, we have to have both the vertical and the horizontal. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said it was to love the Lord your God with, what, with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul and with all your strength, the vertical, and to love your neighbor as yourself, the horizontal. How do we live a Christian life? We focus on the cross.We live cross centered lives.

You cannot have or practice only one of the rules and be complete. Doing no harm, leads to doing good, which leads to staying in love with God, which in turn leads to doing no harm, which leads to doing good, which leads to staying in love with God. They all feed and build off of each other. Each one is important, and all are necessary to lead a cross centered life.

Bishop Max Whitefield, who is our bishop, was recently asked “what would you like to see in every congregation?” He interpreted this to mean, what do vital congregations have that others don’t? And the answer is simple. Healthy and vital congregations are ones who are deeply in love with Jesus Christ.

When you are in love with Jesus you cannot help but live a cross centered life, and because you live a cross centered life people cannot help but see that you are in love with Jesus. And when you are in love with Jesus you cannot contain or control it. Wesley said that he didn’t do anything special in his evangelism, except that he set himself on fire with the spirit and people came out to watch him burn. When you are on fire with the love of God, when you have been filled with the Holy Spirit, you cannot help but to live that out in your life and in turn to catch other people on fire. Fire cannot be controlled or contained, it has to spread, and here’s the biggest point. When we lead cross centered lives, then people will come to watch us burn, and when people see us on fire with the love of Christ they too want to burn.

When we live out the three simple rules, when we do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God, then our lives are transformed. When we live out the three simple rules in our churches, then our churches are transformed. When we live out the three simple rules in our communities, then our communities are transformed. When we live out the three simple rules in our nation, then our nation is transformed. And when we live out the three simple rules in our world, then our world is transformed. First do no harm, second do good, third stay in love with God. We are called to love the lord our God with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength, the vertical, and we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, the horizontal. We are called, in other words, to live cross centered lives, and we do that by doing no harm, doing good and by staying in love with God. May it be so. Amen

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Race and Communism/Socialism

In preparation for my last two sermons in which I used the integration of Central High School in Little Rock as my primary illustration I was doing a lot of reading about that incident. And I encountered something interesting. The use of the term socialist and communist were thrown around a lot for those who favored integration

The country at the time was undergoing profound change. The very fabric of the culture was being changed along with how people saw the world, and there was little that people felt they could do about it. In fact, some felt like it was being shoved down their throats, often by an "activist" judiciary and federal government. Lots of things they believed to be true and unchangeable, were being shown to be not only changeable but also false.

In reflecting on this I could not help but think of parallels to now in which the term communist and socialist are being thrown around a lot again, especially against President Obama. Now it is clear to me that many of the people using these terms have no idea what they actually mean, but I can't help but also see the racial tie in.

Now do I think that all people who are opposing the president are bigots? No, of course not. Many are disagreeing fundamentally with the president's policies, and that's fine, that's what democracy is about. But many of those who oppose the president are bigots. All you need to do is to hear what they are saying or read their signs. Sometimes it is brutally open, and other times it is much more coded.

I do believe there is a direct correlation between the claims of socialism and communism on one hand and race on other taking place today. I think we are replaying a smaller piece of history again. Let's face it the country is changing radically. Whites will soon be the minority in this country, and that scares a lot of people. Society is no longer looking or acting like they think it should, the president being black is just the tip of the iceberg, and so they react with fear, which is the natural tendency when frightened. It is our base instinct coming out: Fight or flight.

Why do people challenge that Obama is American? Because he doesn't look like "us". Only someone like "us" should be in charge, only someone like "us" is American. We can see this throughout much of the rhetoric that is currently taking place.

Whiteness has been considered the "norm" for a long time, and for whites who just naturally assume this as being the case, without also recognizing everything that comes with that, most especially power and privilege, when that "norm" is challenged everything they hold as dear and fundamental is also challenged.

Now my particular area of study in history is post-revolutionary America, so I don't know if the issue of race and socialism were as prevalently linked after the 50's until now, maybe it's always been there just not as upfront. I would love to hear from anyone who has studied this issue in post 1950s America.

What I also don't know yet is what to do with this information, except to call it out when I see it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Buy From Us, We Love America

GM recently ran an ad that said something like "we've had a good year, we've won all these awards on our cars, and since we want you to come buy a car we're going to offer you a good deal." Obviously it was a little more nuanced and better presented than that, but that was the general picture.
I have to say this was totally underwhelming to me. You know what GM should be telling me if they want to tell me what a good year they had and why I should buy their product? They should be telling me when they are going to be paying back the federal government and how much they paid in federal taxes last year.
Now, of course, GM ran a famous ad in which they claimed they had paid back the loan from the government, which is true, but is inherently deceptive in it's presentation. For you see, the federal government gave $52.4 billion to GM. But, of that amount, only $6.7 billion was considered a loan. So when they say they paid back their loan, they are not really telling us the truth because the federal government still owns $45.7 billion worth of GM stock.
In addition, under a special exemption passed under TARP legislation, GM can write off any future profits (up to $45 billion) against past losses meaning GM won't be paying any federal taxes for a long time. So GM, don't tell me you had a great year until you can tell me that we (us taxpayers) no longer are majority stake holders and you are paying taxes. Until then you haven't had a great year.
In fact, if companies want to get my business, I would love to see an ad sometime that says, "We at company X had a great year last year. Sure we made and sold some great products, but shouldn't that be your minimum expectation? More importantly, we hired Y new employees and paid $Z in federal and state taxes. Now our competitors, company A and B, slashed employee benefits, laid off C employees, only paid $D in federal and state taxes, all while pocketing $E in profits. They clearly don't care about you or understand that we are all in this together. Come shop with us, we are clearly better and we love America."
Now I know that numbers can be manipulated, but most of these things are easily verifiable and you can be sure that when I see that ad I will become their customer, as would most people I know.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rule Two, Do Good

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Romans 12:9-21.

In 1730, William Morgan joined a member of a small group at Lincoln College, Oxford, called the Holiness Club. They met three times a day to read scripture and pray, attended the sacrament of communion as often as possible, fasted two times a week, and sought to hold one another accountable to leading an upright Christian life. The group was under the direction of another student and his brother who was a member of the faculty. Those two were, of course, John and Charles Wesley, and this was the beginning of what was to become the Methodist movement. But, William Morgan did not think that what they were doing was enough to lead a Christian life; he said they should be going out into the city to help the poor and the needy.

On August 24, 1730, John, Charles and William went to Castle Prison in Oxford for the first time, but it was not to be their last. The group was so struck by what they found there and the conditions that the prisoners live in that they began making weekly visits bringing food, clothing, blankets and medicine, as well as preaching and providing communion. This outreach to those in need was to become an integral part of who and what Methodism was to become.

For Wesley, theology was always more about being practical and as such he was more concerned about orthopraxy, which is right practice, than orthodoxy, right belief. We live in a time in which there is much more emphasis in Christianity about orthodoxy, that you have to believe in X, Y and Z, and believe them in the right way, in order to be a true Christian. It’s even happening within Methodism, but that was not what Methodism was or is about. Wesley was concerned not only with what the Gospel says to people, but what the Gospel does to people. In other words, in Wesleyan parlance, once you have accepted Jesus’ saving actions on your behalf, the only appropriate response is to act on that in the world. We have to be working to bring the kingdom of God here and now. This belief has always been a mark of Methodism.

In 2007, former United Methodist Bishop Reuben Job published a small book entitled Three Simple Rules, based on a set of principles created by John Wesley to instruct people, in particular new converts to Christianity, on what they should be doing in order to live a Christian life. Last week looked at rule number one, which was to do no harm, rule two, which we address today, is to do good, and with the introduction that I just gave this rule should come as no surprise. And rule three, which we will cover next week is to stay in love with God.

Under each of these rules, Wesley gave a brief list of things to help illustrate the rule. For doing good, Wesley began with what we would probably think of immediately of what it means to do good, namely giving food to the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting and helping those who are sick or in prison, which is given to us directly by Jesus in Matthew 25. The second was to instruct, reprove and exhort all we have interactions with. Now this did not mean that we were supposed to pound people over the head and tell them how wrong they were, and in the process reaffirm how right we are. Instead, as we will get into it is much deeper and harder than that. The third rule, and one that was very important in the early movement, was to prefer to do business with those who were members of the Methodist movement or were “groaning to be so” in Wesley’s words. And finally, we do good, Wesley says, quoting first from Paul and then Jesus, by running the race that is before us, and taking up our cross daily.

Now of the three rules, in their most simplistic terms, this might be the easiest one to carry out. As was already said, doing good is part of the DNA of the Methodist movement, from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which does remarkable work throughout the world, to Goodwill, an organization started by a Methodist church in Boston, to our own Good Samaritan food pantry, we are engaged and active in helping those in need. But, just like the rule of doing no harm, it turns out that doing good is not as easy as it seems, because the rule cannot be seen or carried out just on it’s most simplistic level.

Dunbar Ogden was a Presbyterian Minister who, in 1954, accepted a position to become the minister at Central Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. While there he became the head of the local clergy association. It was in that capacity that he received a call on September 3, 1957, from Daisy Bates, the owner and publisher of the local black newspaper, looking for assistance from the clergy to help escort the Little Rock Nine who were set to integrate the public high school the next day in hopes of keeping violence at bay. Dunbar said he didn’t know if he could help, but he would call around. He was met with resistance. Two other white ministers who were visiting said they would be there, but none of the local ministers, white or black, said they could come, even those who supported integration.

Dunbar himself was not even sure what he wanted to do, but after praying he decided that he would at least go down to the meeting place and then make a decision. In the end, Dunbar walked to the school with the children that day before they were turned away by the National Guard. The only clergy member who came out in support of the students, Dunbar remained active throughout that year working on interracial dialogue and community building, but his work of good deed did not go unpunished.

He saw attendance in his congregation immediately drop by more than a third, and it was down by half by the following summer when he was asked to leave the church. Dunbar Ogden was willing to take a stand, one that was not supported by most, and he paid the price for that stand, but to his dying day he did not regret what he had done, and he continues to be praised by those who were there for the work he did, and for the good he did, not only for the black students but for the entire community.

While Dunbar was escorting most of the students to school, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford had arrived by herself where she was met by an angry mob, which we discussed last week, but two people came to her aid. The first was Benjamin Fine who was the education reporter for the New York Times. Seeing the attacks taking place, the reporters began to sort of form a screen around Elizabeth trying, in their words, to protect her from the hatred that surrounded her. But thinking of his own daughter who was also 15 at the time, Benjamin walked up to her and told her “don’t let them see you cry” and then walked with her to the bus stop.

For his act of kindness, he was excoriated by commentators who told him that his job as a reporter was to remain impartial and detached and that he had abandoned his proper role by becoming part of the story. But he believed he had done the right thing, that his humanity was more important that his job, that Elizabeth’s humanity was more important than his job. He resigned his position at the New York Times the following year.

Grace Lorch was a public school teacher until she married Lee, who was a college mathematics instructor. When that happened, Grace lost her job under a state law that prohibited married women from teaching. On September 4, 1957 Grace had just dropped her daughter Alice off at another school, and, as she was driving home, she saw Elizabeth sitting at the bus stop with the angry mob behind her. Grace stopped her car and proceeded to the bench where she put her arm around Elizabeth and told the crowd that they should be ashamed of themselves. Elizabeth later said she did not like this because she thought it would make the crowd angrier, but Grace waited with her as the crowd dispersed and she made sure Elizabeth was safely on the bus and on her way home.

Doing good is often about more than just doing good actions for those in need, it is also about standing up and saying that this is unacceptable, and often all it takes is just one person to break a mob mentality. Once one person has voiced an objection others feel more free to say what they are thinking, but being that first person is never easy, that, again, is one of the things that makes this rule so hard. As we begin a new school year, and as Samantha prepares to enter kindergarten, I can think of all the things that happened when I was in school, that I often allowed to happen, because let’s be honest children can be mean. When I was growing up, and I know it’s not much different in most places today, the worst thing that a boy could be called was gay. When I was in elementary school one of the other boys, whose name was Paul, was very effeminate, and we tormented him unmercilessly.

Now I know you’ll be surprised by this because of my deep bass voice and remarkably athletic physique, but I was not at the top of the social hierarchy in school. In fact I was pretty close to the bottom, but I was not all the way at the bottom because that’s the spot that was occupied by Paul, or as we called him Pauline. Now I don’t know if Paul was gay or not, although I strongly suspect that he was, nor do I know what happened to him. Knowing that gay teens attempt suicide at 4-8 times the rate of heterosexual teens, I wonder if he made it. And if he did, I wonder about the damage that we did to him in our bullying. One of the true regrets of my life is the way I treated him, and if there was any way to tell him how sorry I am for what I did I would.

Now I tell this story because sometimes people get the idea, and sometimes even I feel, that we ministers get to stand up here and preach from on high and tell you everything you need to be doing, as if we don’t struggle with exactly the same things. Doing no harm and doing good are no easier for me; I struggle with exactly the same issue. I could have been the one to stand up and say that what we were doing to Paul was wrong, I could have chosen not to participate, I certainly knew what it was like to be tormented, but I didn’t do any of those things. Instead I went along with it. No matter where we stand on the issue of homosexuality, we do not have the right to torment people; we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. I certainly did not abide by that injunction, nor did I seek first to do no harm, and second to do good.

Now, if doing good was easy, everyone would do it. We wouldn’t have to hear about having to do it, we wouldn’t have to wonder if we are doing it, and we wouldn’t have rules stipulating that we should do it. We don’t make rules about things that most people do all by themselves. Doing good is hard, and what makes it even harder is that, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished. Lots of times doing good comes with a cost, sometimes a significant cost. Sometimes we know in advance what the cost will be and sometimes we don’t.

In his heart Dunbar Ogden probably knew he would lose his church, but Lee and Grace Lorch did not know that they would find dynamite in their garage after what Grace had done, or that their daughter would be harassed at her school or that Lee would be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, lose his job and be blacklisted so that he could only find a teaching position in Canada. Elizabeth Eckford and her family also paid their own price. Elizabeth’s mother was originally not sure if she should allow Elizabeth to go, but agreed knowing that what was happening was not just about Elizabeth but also about opportunities for all blacks, and as a result she lost her job as did the parents of four other members of the Little Rock Nine.

We often act as if things happen in a vacuum, but we know that they don’t, and it is because they don’t that we know that standing up for what is right and doing good is a hard thing to do. Doing good is hard. Being the first one to stand up and say that something is wrong is never easy and never without cost. But here’s the thing. It only takes one to say that things are wrong before others also begin standing up. In fact in studies done about group think, all it takes is for one person to give a different answer, even if it’s a wrong answer, for the spell to be broken and for others then to start saying something different. All of us have in us the ability to do good and the ability to do evil, the ability to stand up for what is right and the ability to stay silent and let things go the wrong way. But it only takes one to stand up and make a difference.

In 2008, the softball teams from Central Washington University and Western Oregon University met with an NCAA playoff berth on the line. Neither had ever been to the post-season before, and they had exactly the same record going into the second game of a double-header. With two players on base, and down two runs, Sara Tucholsky from Western Oregon came to the plate. Sara was normally a bench player. A career .153 hitter, and for those unfamiliar with batting averages, that’s not good, Sara had never hit a homerun, not even in batting practice. So when she came up to bat, no one really expected what happened, for you see Sara hit a homerun. But in her excitement Sara missed first base and as she tried to stop to go back and touch the bag, her knee gave out and she collapsed to the ground in pain, having torn her ACL. Sara crawled back to first unsure what to do.

The umpires told her and her coaches that if any of her teammates helped her that she would be called out and the home run would be erased, although the two runs would score which would tie the game. They could put a pinch runner in to take her place, but again the home run would be erased and the score would remain tied. At this point, Mallory Holtman, who played first base for Central Washington, and was also the conference’s all-time home run leader, asked the umpire if she and her teammates could help Sara. She was told that there was no rule against that, so Mallory called over the shortstop Liz Wallace and they then carried Sara around the bases, having her touch each base with her good foot. When they reached home, they handed into the waiting arms of her teammates.

By doing what they did, Mallory and Liz allowed Sara’s home run not only to count, but also allowed her to score the go ahead run in a game their team lost 4-2. By doing what they did, Mallory and Liz, both seniors, cost themselves and their teammates a shot of playing in the postseason for the first time. They paid a significant cost for doing good, but they have no regrets for what they did.

Doing good often comes with a cost, but it is these situations which make us who we are. It is in these moments in which we live into our Methodist heritage, but more importantly it is in these moments in which we learn to pick-up our crosses, as Jesus commanded, and live into being disciples of Christ. The first rule is to do no harm, and the second rule is to do good. But while important, Wesley says that doing these things only by themselves makes us “almost Christian,” because it is the third rule, which we will cover next week, which unites them all and brings us to a full understanding of who we are called to be as disciples of Christ, so I hope you will join us next week as we explore how doing no harm and doing good are impacted by staying in love with God. Amen.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The N Word And The Pulpit

In my sermon on August 14, I preached the first in a series on the Three Simple Rules by Bishop Reuben Job. The first rule is to do no harm, and so as one of my illustrations I talked about the integration of Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas, and in particular the story of Elizabeth Eckford who arrived to the school by herself because she did not know that the rest of he students were gathering to go to school together. Elizabeth was met by a hostile crowd, and vile things were shouted at her, although I suspect they were nothing that she had not heard before.

As I was preparing this sermon I began to wonder, can I really say what people shouted at Elizabeth that day? More importantly, can I use the N word? That, of course, is not an easy question to answer and I prayed about it for a couple of days, and then asked my wife what she thought.

She was a little hesitant and said that it would be entirely dependent on the context that I was using it and also my tone when I said it. So I told her what I was thinking and then let her read the sermon, and she said she thought it would be okay, but that rather than shouting it, as the original speakers did, that I should be quieter.

So I did some more thinking about it, I removed some of the quotes I was going to use to just get to the heart of the matter, and then used the quotes directly as they were reported to have been said. I more whispered them then shouted them, which was my original inclination.

In the end, I ended up deciding to use them because I wanted people to feel the impact of those words now, I wanted them to understand the hatred that backed them and the damage that they had to do to Elizabeth on that day, and not just Elizabeth but everyone they were and are used against. I wanted people to understand that doing no harm is more than just about our actions, but that our words also have terrible force to cause harm.

Surprisingly, I did not hear from a single person who objected to the word being said from the pulpit. In fact I didn't hear any comments about it at all. People did talk to me about the sermon, but this was never brought up. I hope that means that I handled the topic appropriately and sensitively, but it could also means that since I'm the new guy they don't yet feel comfortable expressing their thoughts.

I had originally been planning to be more expansive about other vile names that we throw at people, but decided that this was enough. The objective was to make a point, not to bang people over the head, and I hope I did that. I try to be sensitive and very aware of the words that I use when preaching, which is one of the reasons why I am a manuscript preacher. I also know that there are people who would never use the word, would think it's inappropriate to be used, and I respect that opinion.

Now being more than one week removed, and having followed up with more about what happened to Elizabeth in yesterday's sermon on doing good, I feel good about my decision and think I made the right one. I don't know that I would necessarily do it again, but given the right context and situation I think it might again be appropriate.

Monday, August 15, 2011

First Rule, Do No Harm

Here is my sermon from Sunday, part one of a 3 part series on the Three Simple Rules. The scripture passage was Matthew 15:10-28.

Yesterday, in Ames, Iowa, the republicans participated in the Iowa Straw Poll, which is the first shot towards gaining the republican nomination for President. In preparation for this, candidates have been traveling all over Iowa shaking hands and kissing babies and condensing their very complicated platforms down to bullet points. Now for politicians’ bullet points are important because it’s what they can put on bumper stickers, and more importantly it’s what gets them on the air. Now I would stipulate that reducing political arguments down to bullet points is not good for democracy, but sometimes bullet points can be good. But even when they are they, of course, never tell the whole story.

So let me give you some examples. Since we’re doing a blessing for our college age members today I thought I would make this a little relevant for what has dominated books and movies for youths for a little while now. The Harry Potter series is about a boy who an evil man attempts to kill, but fails. Said boy grows up and battles evil man, in the end good triumphs over evil, or does it? I don’t want to give away anything in case you haven’t seen the newest film. The three points sort of tell the tale, but of course they still leave out a lot. Let me try one other. The Twilight series is a story about a girl who loves a vampire and sort of loves a werewolf. Point two, werewolves and vampires don’t get along. Point three, Robert Pattinson and Jacob Lautner are, I am told, OMG hot. That’s what you need to know.*

Now in 2007, Reuben Job, who is a retired United Methodist Bishop, sat down to put together a sort of bullet point book of how we should be living our lives as Christians, which he called Three Simple Rules, and it is the basis for this sermon series. But, Bishop Job did not just create these out of thin air, instead he went back into our Methodist heritage and pulled them out of John Wesley’s writings in a document called “The Nature, Design and General Rules of Our United Societies,” a document which is still foundational to Methodist beliefs and doctrines.

Now Wesley created these rules because people began coming to him and asking him what they should be doing in order to lead Christian lives, and so he set down three principles. The first is to do no harm, the second is to do good, and the third he said was to attend upon all the ordinances of God, a long winded phrase which Bishop Job has changed to stay in love with God. Wesley was concerned that if people did not follow these rules, that new converts would become, in his words, more “a child of the devil” than before their conversion. Wesley’s three simple rules don’t tell us the whole story of the Bible, nor do they even tell us all of the rules of the bible, like some of the obscure ones such as the fact that you should not wear clothing of mixed fibers, or sow mixed seeds in your fields, or eat rock badgers; it’s true those are all Levitical codes, although they are not ones you will hear politicians railing about and calling for laws to be passed. Wesley’s rules give us a foothold for letting us know where to start in our lives and Christians and where to come back when we have gone astray. They condense ideas down to their core elements

Wesley’s original list was certainly geared for its time. Here is a partial list of some of the things he thought we should not be doing in order to avoid doing harm:
  • Buying, selling or drinking alcohol, because alcohol can lead to violence in many different forms, as well as the damage it can do to the person drinking it.
  • Slaveholding. Wesley was the first theologian of any significance to come out in opposition to slavery.
  • Fighting, quarreling, brawling, returning evil for evil, this sort of speaks for itself
  • The giving or taking things on usury, which is things at interest. In its basic form understood biblically usury allows the rich to take advantage of the poor, it is a form of economic violence. In Wesley’s day it was for those charging more interest than was allowed by law. There is no such restriction in our day.
  • Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation, which certainly includes gossip of any form as well as demeaning opponents or their positions, although I do have to add here as a personal aside that Wesley also particularly points out those who would speak evil of ministers.
  • Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.
In the early Methodist movement, it was expected that you would abide by these rules and if you were not willing to, or if you failed to obey them then you could and usually would be removed from the society until you repented of your ways and pledged again to abide by the rules.

Now some have asked why it is that Wesley would start with a negative rule rather than a positive one, and I don’t know the answer to that. He even changes the golden rule, which is do unto others and you would have them do unto you, and reverses it to a negative. It is certainly more like many of the Biblical rules, which tend to have a “thou shall not” flavor rather than a “thou shall do.” But, I suspect that this rule comes first probably because it is the hardest one to undertake, and so it is the one we constantly have to keep coming back to over and over and over again. Because at its heart, at its core, doing no harm is an incredibly difficult task and one that sinks into every single thing that we do and who we are. It calls us into a radical sense of hospitality towards the world that is simply hard to undertake.
On its face the rule to do no harm seems easy enough.

It’s certainly a rule that we can all understand, but once put into practice it’s not so easy to live out because first where does it end, how far do we extend this principle? The other problem is that when we seek to do no harm in all things then we have to view everything as a creation of God and everyone as a child of God, who is loved by God, just as we are loved and to treat them as such. That’s a hard thing to do.

These are pictures that most of you have probably seen before. They are photos of Elizabeth Eckford, who was one of the first black students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. On September 4, 1957, a group of nine black students were supposed to meet and proceed to the school together for their first day of classes, but Elizabeth, who was painfully shy, arrived at the school before everyone else wearing a new handmade dress. She was met by an angry crowd, and suddenly she was all alone. As she began walking up to the school, a crowd of some 250 whites gathered around and started shouting at her: “Lynch her!” they cried. “Go back where you came from” “No nigger is going to enter our school.”

Looking for someone to help her, she turned to an older woman who promptly spit in her face. Knowing she couldn’t go backwards because of the crowd, she said that she wanted to run away but thought she would fall down if she did. So, she decided to walk a block to a bus stop where she thought she would be safe, but the crowd followed her screaming taunts all the way. Can you see the anger on their faces? One of her tormentors was Hazel Bryan, a junior at Central High, who shouted “go home nigger! Go back to Africa!” and then told reporters that “niggers aren’t the only ones who have rights; whites had rights too…” and that “if God had wanted blacks and whites to go to school together, he would have made us all the same color.”

First do no harm. We’ll look at what happened with Elizabeth more next week as we explore the second rule of doing good, but we should ask ourselves if we had been there that day would we have done anything differently? Of course we all want to say that we would, that we would never have participated in what happened to Elizabeth, but is that really true? Hopefully its true today, although we still have our own demeaning phrases that we throw around without thinking of the ramifications they have on the people they are directed at or on us. I heard one of those words several times at the park following the parade yesterday.

The people attacking Elizabeth that day were not special people. They were just like us, ordinary people. But they wanted to demean and dehumanize Elizabeth, to bring her down and scare her away by hurling vile names and threats at her. These were not atheists or pagans doing these things. In fact they were almost, if not exclusively, all Christians. They were people who had been in church the Sunday before and would be in church the Sunday after, and who told themselves that there was absolutely nothing wrong with what they were doing. That in fact they were justified in what they were doing, just as a hundred years before those who held slaves felt justified in what they did.

In today’s scripture passage, Jesus tells us that it is not what goes into us that defiles us, but that which comes out, because that shows our true hearts, and then he immediately has an encounter with a Canaanite woman. Now the Israelites and Canaanites did not like each other, in fact the animosities between the two groups went back to the Exodus. When the woman approaches Jesus, his first response it to tell her that he has only come to save the lost sheep of Israel, in other words, she is out of luck. But, the woman goes and kneels at his feet, she literally worships him, and then Jesus tells her that she is no more than a dog, only the word he uses is a slur that is much worse than dog. In its severity, he basically calls her what those taunting Elizabeth called her. This is not just a slight rebuke of the woman it is a racial slur, but this would have been the language and the attitude that surrounded Jesus all of his life.

What he said would not have been shocking to anyone who was there, neither the disciples nor the woman, in fact a different response would have been more shocking. But the woman persists, and I think this is one of those moments in scripture when we can see Jesus have an “aha” moment and he begins to truly understanding why God has sent him. Jesus is not here only to redeem the lost sheep of Israel, but that he is here to redeem all of God’s children. First, do no harm.

Rev. Peter Gomes said that “a surplus of virtue, is more dangerous than a surplus of vice.” Why we might ask? “Because,” Gomes said, “a surplus of virtue is not subject to the constraints of conscience.” Another way of saying this is that moral certitude causes more evil than moral uncertainty because there is nothing to check moral certitude. When we are convinced that we are morally correct in what we say and do, then there is nothing which can dissuade us and tell us we are wrong, not even God. Although we don’t normally worry about that because we are also convinced that God is on our side, after all if we are right than God has to be on our side. Christian author Annie Lamott has written, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” One of the reasons that doing no harm is so hard, Bishop Job says, is that it requires us “to give up our most cherished possession – the certainty that we are right and others wrong.”

In Thomas á Kempis’ seminal work The Imitation of Christ, which was instrumental to Wesley’s thought, á Kempis says “we cannot trust ourselves too much, because we often lack grace and understanding. The light within us is small, and we soon let even this burn out for lack of care. Moreover, we often fail to notice how inwardly blind we are; for example we frequently do wrong, and to make matters worse, we make excuses about it! Sometimes we are moved by passion and think it zeal. We condemn small things in others and pass over serious things in ourselves. We are quick enough to feel it when others hurt us – and we even harbor those feelings – but we do not notice how much we hurt others. A person who honestly examines his own behavior would never judge other people harshly.”

So let us return to that picture of Elizabeth Eckford and her taunters including Hazel Bryan. It would be so easy to villanize Hazel, to make her the poster child for everything that we abhor, but to do that to her would be no different from what she did to Elizabeth. Instead, when we do no harm, we begin to see her as a child of God and to look at who she truly is and we find out that Hazel was routinely beaten by her father, had difficulties in school and one point attempted suicide. She was filled and surrounded with hate and fear, so is it any wonder that she acted on that hate and fear in the world?

Richard Carlson, the author of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, recounts the story of a man on the New York City subway. He was sitting next to a man who came onto the train with two small children, who were running around the train uncontrolled making a lot of noise and disturbing everyone around them. As it continued with no rebuke from the father, the man turned to him to tell him to control his children, but before he could speak the father said “I know I should be yelling at my kids and getting them to behave, but we just came from the hospital where their mother just died, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know what to tell them.”

When we begin with seeking to do no harm then we are forced to look past the front that people often present to mask their own pain, and to see them as they are, as children of God, even when they are people we think we are supposed to despise. When we seek to do no harm, we realize that when we try and rain on other people’s parades that we get just as wet. When we seek to do no harm, we begin to realize that when we surround ourselves with fear and hate, that we become fearful and hateful. When we seek to do no harm, we become aware that to overcome evil in the world we do not have to become evil ourselves. When we seek to do no harm, we realize that everything we say and everything we do, and everything we do not say and do not do, impacts others. When we seek to do no harm, we realize that we create the world and culture in which we live and that when we inflict pain on others that we inflict it on ourselves. When we seek to do no harm, then we realize that when we are blessing to others that we too will be blessed. When we seek to do no harm, we began to understand that we do not make this journey alone, that Christ has traveled the same path and continues to travel with us and that by doing no harm we live into the image of Christ.

In the words of Bishop Job, “to do no harm means that I will be on guard so that all of my actions and even my silence will not add injury to another of God’s children or to any part of God’s creation…. I will determine every day that my life will always be invested in the effort to bring healing instead of hurt; wholeness instead of division; and harmony with the ways of Jesus rather than the ways of the world. When I commit myself to this way, I must see each person as a child of God – a recipient of love unearned, unlimited, and undeserved – just like myself.”

Doing no harm is not about the extraordinary occurrences in our lives. It is about the innocuous, bland, occurrences that surround us every day. When we make the first rule to do no harm one of our operating principles we come to understand, just as Jesus did, that we are all God’s children, and that what comes out of our mouths, and what comes out of our actions, can defile or bless not only the world but ourselves as well. When we seek to do no harm, it becomes who we are, we are transformed and through our words and actions we transform each other and we transform the world. Our lives become objects of healing and goodness to all those with whom we interact, and maybe just as importantly we become objects of healing and goodness to ourselves. May it be so. Amen.

*I stole this piece about the Twilight series from a sermon by Rev. Steve Blair.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Real Guns Versus Toys

Someone recently purchased a Nerf gun, which shoots little dart like things that are supposed to stick to whatever they hit, for my oldest daughter. This did not make me all that thrilled to say the least.
Even though my wife and are in agreement on guns, or at least I thought we were, she thinks this new toy is fun. She did agree with my rules that it cannot be shot at windows, others or the dog, but thinks it's okay, that it will teach her hand eye coordination in targeting things and then shooting them. I prefer to think that a toy gun invites regular guns to be seen in a less serious light, to which she disagrees. She says that as long as it's being used for target practice then it's okay.
I objected to this logic and said that if she wants her to learn to shoot targets then we should go out and buy her a BB gun and teach her the seriousness of guns, true gun safety and how to shoot. My wife objected to my logic and said that not only was the Nerf gun safer, which she is right about, but that it would teach her more. That I disagree with.
She also pointed out that my brothers and I had toy guns when we were growing up, which I conceded, but our guns did not actually shoot things. We had cap guns, and machine guns that made a lot of noise, but nothing actually came out of the barrel.
I also have to note that our toy guns looked like the real things, but that was before they made toy guns that looked real illegal because cops were shooting too many kids. They kept the real things though. (Maybe if they made real guns look like the toy ones gun violence might go down a little since no one could be considered to be cool by pulling out a gun that's large, orange and green.)
We did have BB guns, but we had to learn gun safety, and set up a safe target in our backyard. I'm okay with doing something like that because I want her to respect guns, not think of them as toys. I do think the voices on both sides of the gun argument have gone a little crazy and are way too strident in their opinions and as a result no one is getting anywhere. But I'm still left with a little girl who wants to run around shooting things and me being uneasy about that.
One cute statement did come out of this. After my wife and I were done talking she came up to me and said "Dad, why do you want me to go store shooting?" To which I replied, "What's store shooting," and she said "You want me to shoot at targets," and of course the only targets she knows is the department store. Out of the mouths of babes....

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The S&P Makes Me Moody, Part 2

So, as an update to my post from Sunday, it turns out that S&P, in their mathematical genius, miscalculated the debt projection by 2 trillion dollars. Yes, you did read that correctly. This was not just a simple mistake of forgetting to carry a 1. No, they were off by 2 trillion dollars, that is a 2 followed by 12 zeros. These are the people we are trusting to tell us who to trust with money?

In addition, guess where a lot of the money that was being sold off in the stock market on Monday was going? If you said US treasury bonds you are correct! In other words, the very same vehicles that S&P just said are not trustworthy is where Wall Street is wanting to put their money in order to protect it. Could someone please tell me how any of this makes sense?

Moody's has announced that they believe treasury bonds are still secure and will keep them at a AAA rating.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Wrestling With God

Here is my sermon from yesterday. The text was Genesis 32:22-31.

When Linda was pregnant with our first child, we had already decided that we would name her Samantha if we had a girl, but had not yet have a boy’s name. Being a huge New York Yankees fan, I suggested that we should name him after whoever it was we saw hit the first homerun at the next Yankees game we attended in person, which happened to be a Yankees-Cubs game. In the first inning, Gary Sheffield hit what everyone in the stadium thought was a homerun. We thought, well Gary’s not a bad name, we could settle for that. But as I said, everyone in the stadium thought it was a homerun except for the umpire who ruled that it was a foul ball. In the fourth inning Derek Jeter came up to bat with the bases loaded. Now Derek had never hit a grand slam before, so we were all ready. What would have been great about this scenario is that we could have chosen either Derek or Jeter as a name, and what better name for a Yankee fan to give to their son, then to name him after the greatest Yankee of my generation, but Jeter flew out. Then in the seventh inning, Hideki Matsui, our hard hitting Japanese right fielder came up, and sure enough he hit one out, and as soon as it was clear it was going to be a homerun, Linda turned to me and said “we are not naming our son Hideki,” and so my dreams of a Yankee name were out. There is something powerful about a name.
Now I’m sure that some of you are probably saying to yourselves “when John said a few weeks ago that most preachers did not want to deal with Jacob, and even though I had never heard a sermon about him, I certainly did not expect that he was got to be talking about Jacob for weeks after week,” but put your concerns aside because today is the last day, at least for a while, that we will look directly at Jacob’s story. Now just as a refresher for those of you who haven’t been here to hear the whole story, or for those who have forgotten. Jacob is the second born of a set of twins born to Isaac and Rebekah. When Jacob is born, he comes out holding onto his brothers heal, which is how he gets his name, which translates roughly as usurper or supplanter. The name Jacob comes from the Hebrew word for heel, and he certainly lives into his name, as he does indeed become a heel, which the Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines as a contemptible person, and that certainly describes who Jacob is. First he tricks his brother out of his birthright, and then under the guidance of his mother, he tricks his father into giving him the blessing that is also due to his brother by lying when Isaac, who is in the dark, asks who is in the room with him, and Jacob claims that he is Esau.
After tricking his father and receiving the blessing, he learns that Esau is plotting to kill him and so he flees for his life, where he encounters God in a dream, then he travels back to his family’s home land where he is tricked by his uncle and first ends up marrying the wrong girl, only to get the one he really wants in exchange for fourteen years of labor. From these marriages, as well as liaisons with his wives handmaidens, he has twelve sons who will become the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob ends up getting revenge on his uncle Laban for his trickery, by tricking Laban out of his best sheep and goats through a little selective breeding process.
And so today we find him, twenty years after he first fled from his brother’s wrath, freed from his service to uncle, going back across the desert to meet his brother taking with him all that he has. He sends some servants out to let Esau know that he is coming, and they return telling Jacob that Esau is on his way and that he has 400 men with him. Now as you might imagine, this has Jacob greatly concerned, after all the last time he saw Esau he wanted to kill Jacob, and so Jacob thinks Esau is still a little upset, and so to protect himself he divides all of his possessions and people into two groups thinking that then even if Esau destroys one group Jacob will not have lost everything, and then he sends both groups, along with a bunch of presents, out in front of him, staying behind with his wives and children.
Then for some reason that is not entirely clear, Jacob takes his family and crosses the Jabbok River with them, and then crosses back to the other side alone, and then just like before, when he is alone in the desert, Jacob encounters God, and they wrestle all night long. I don’t imagine this was like a WWF match; there were no folding chairs or jumping off the ropes involved. Nor can we merely attribute this to another dream because Jacob comes away from the incident injured, and he does so because the man is not able to prevail against Jacob. Now some commentators have said that clearly God must not have been using all of God’s power, but that is to read something into the text that is not there. Instead, we need to see this as it is presented, that is God is not playing games with Jacob, toying with him, like a cat plays with a mouse, instead we should see that God actually struggles with Jacob, and Jacob struggles as well and has such a grip that God cannot escape.
As the morning approaches, seeing that Jacob cannot be overcome in their struggles, God touches Jacob’s hip and puts it out of joint, although the Hebrew here is not clear exactly what happens, and to be honest I find it a little hard to believe that Jacob could continue to wrestle, let alone walk, with his hip out of joint, but that is what the tradition tells us. Anyways, God asks Jacob to let him go, to which Jacob says he will only do so if he receives a blessing, and so God asks him who he is. Sound familiar? The set-up is just like with his father Isaac, but this time, rather than lying, Jacob says his real name and with that admits everything that goes along with it, he admits that he is a heal to God. He can no longer hide. He is all alone, he has no one to protect him, he has none of his possessions to give him comfort or identity, he has nothing but his name. It might be said that this is Jacob’s dark night of the soul. And then God says that because of Jacob’s wrestling that he will no longer be called Jacob, but instead will be called Israel, which means struggles or strives with God. In other words, the name of the people to come and of the land they will inhabit is all about the idea of struggling or striving with God. This idea is found throughout the scriptures, and it even continues today, even extending to the role rabbis play in their congregations, as they see it as part of their job to question and probe and prod the members of their congregation to take them deeper in their faith.
Within Christianity this understanding has certainly been tampered to some degree. At annual conference this year, one of the speakers was talking about how Jesus practically ran to the cross he was so excited to complete his assigned task. That is how the Gospel of John portrays Jesus, at least to a degree although I think that’s a stretch, but it is certainly not how the other gospels portray Jesus, in particular Matthew and most especially Mark. Mark says that Jesus was driven into the wilderness to be tempted, has Jesus ask God to remove the cup from him, and then has him cry out on the cross, quoting the 22nd Psalm, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” That is the picture of Jesus striving with God. Of course, Mark also has the disciples striving with Jesus, with each other and with God, and they never quite seem to get it. We are supposed to be struggling and striving with God, it is inherent to our faith, to deepening our faith. If we are not asking questions then there is no way we can be learning; to ask a question is in and of itself a form of striving.
Just three months into my first pastoral appointment I received a call to perform the funeral for an 18-month-old boy. At the time Samantha was just a little bit older than Ethan was when he had died. The meeting with Ethan’s parents, Jane and Anil, is seared into my mind in hearing them tell me the story of Ethan, his very short life and the night he died as they held him in their arms. To say that I strived with God would be an understatement. Over the course of those days as I walked with the family, I yelled at God, I cried a lot, I prayed, I asked for strength and guidance, and I searched for answers. I know that some of you have lost children and I can only imagine that your strivings were and are even greater. But in my striving I did not let go of God and God did not let go of me. In the end I became a better pastor, in that you might say I was blessed. But, if given the choice and I could do it all over again would I hope the same thing happened? Absolutely not. It is an experience I would not wish on my worst enemy. Nor am I saying that a blessing comes out of everything bad that happens to us, but what I am saying is that in striving with God and also in refusing to let go that we are forever changed, we are marked, just like Jacob, and we are never the same people.
When Jesus was approached and asked what the greatest commandment was, he didn’t say that it was that you shouldn’t make graven images, or that you shouldn’t covet your neighbor’s donkey, wife or large screen HD television with surround sound. Instead what does he say? “You should love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And then he continues, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In my opinion, as Christians we should push to have the billboard you see heading into Clovis which contains the Ten Commandments read this command from Jesus instead. But it is impossible to live into Jesus command without striving with God. It is impossible to love God with your heart and strength and soul and most importantly with you mind and not struggle and strive with God. We are not commanded to check our minds at the door, as it so often seems we are being told, instead we are told that we are to use our mind, to use our intellect, which is given to us by God and to strive and struggle with God. But here is the key.
It is not just enough to question and struggle, but we also have to not let go of God in the process. That is where so many people go wrong. They begin struggling and in the struggle they let go of God and therefore fall away. But in his striving Jacob holds on to God so tightly in the dark of that night that God has to ask Jacob to let go. Our problems arise not in struggling with God, not in questioning God, not in challenging God, not in yelling at God, not is crying out to God, after all scripture is full of plenty of examples of people doing this, we need look no further than the Psalms, although they can easily be found elsewhere. We are encouraged to do those things in our striving with God, that is the only way we can love God with our whole being, instead our problems arise in letting go of God, in distancing ourselves from God when we are striving and struggling.
But, there is one more piece of information that is crucial to understanding this story of struggle, and our own struggle. In addition to Israel meaning one who strives with God it also means God strives. It is God who takes the initiative and begins the struggle with Jacob and with us, so then the question becomes what is our response to God’s invitation to this relationship. As Methodists we believe that we can either choose or reject to have a relationship with God, that it is our choice. That is certainly not the case with other denominations. Nor do we believe that our response is merely a passive acquiescence to God’s movement in our direction. Instead, we are engaged in more of a dance, in which there is a give and take, there is a movement together and, for lack of a better term, there is a sort of mixing it up, sometimes we have to wrestle. God challenges and we challenge. God questions and we question. God evaluates and we evaluate. God does not let go, and we too should not let go. God loves and we love.
In order to be in relationship with God, in order to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our heart and all our strength, then we have to be ready to say everything to God, to question everything with God, to bring all of who we are to that relationship. We cannot say that we are only going to bring God the good stuff, that we cannot take our anger or pain or suffering or sorrow or doubts to God, as if somehow God could handle that if we could, or maybe that God would not love us because of those things. But, as Paul tells us, there is nothing which can separate us from God’s love. Indeed, who is the first person in the Gospel of John to make a profession of faith in Jesus saying “My Lord and my God.” It is Thomas, immediately following his doubt, which leads him to deeper faith. A name is a powerful thing, and we all have a name that God calls us, because we are all God’s children, and as every parent knows children strive and struggle, indeed it is the only way they learn and can come to be the people we want them to be, to be the people that God has called us to be. Struggling with God is not a sign of weakness, but of strength, but we had to remember that in our struggling we have to hold on to God, do not let go, and know that God will never let go of us. May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The S&P Makes Me Moody

So the US has been downgraded in our bond rating by the S&P, and I suspect that a move by Moody’s is not far behind. I understand the importance of this move, and five years ago I would be a lot more upset about it. But here is my problem with it now: S&P and Moody’s, the two biggest credit rating agencies, are a joke.

These are the exact same groups that rated tranches full of sub-prime mortgages as AAA investments. Why did they do this? Several reasons. One is that they didn’t understand the bonds they were rating. Second is that they weren’t paying any attention. And third, and maybe most important, is that they didn’t want to upset the Wall Street firms who were creating these devices and paying them to rate them. And so they rated terrible investments as AAA.

Now after the crash when the bottom literally fell out of these investments, what was their response? “Oh, the ratings are just are opinion, they shouldn’t actually be used to say that these are good investments.” And since it was only their "opinion” they therefore were not culpable for all of the losses that people sustained based on what they thought were their approval that these were good investments. I know that I certainly did not think that their ratings were merely an opinion, and I am sure that almost every other person thought the same thing. We thought the ratings actually meant something, that they were not things that could be bought. But it turns out we were wrong.

So, with that history, here is my question: Why does anyone care what S&P or Moody’s actually think anymore? They have proven themselves as ultimately unreliable. Here’s my opinion, which might be just as good as their opinion, our bonds are just fine.

I do have to say though that the entire debt ceiling episode continues to show all the things that are wrong with Washington. It’s solely about winning, not about what is right for the country, and not just winning immediately but also doing things so that they can win in the longer term. If the country is in bad shape at the next election then Republicans think they can win the White House again, and so they have every incentive to make sure the country is doing badly rather than actually doing what is right.

Now I think Republicans are misreading the electorate and definitely misreading the last election. It had nothing to do with Republican versus Democrat, and everything to do with those in power. People want to see something different, and since the Democrats weren’t getting it done they went the other way. But the Republicans are certainly not getting anything done either, and the polls seem to indicate that people are even more fed up now and want to vote all the bums out. So, unless something changes, I don’t think they will fare all that well in the next election.