Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Primal Scream

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Psalm 130 and Lamentations 3:1-24:

One day a man was out climbing a mountain when he came to an opening in the trees and an incredible view which let him see for miles. As he walked to the edge to get a better look, he slipped on some pine needles and fell over the side of a sheer three hundred foot cliff. Somehow, as he was falling he was able to grab and hold onto a small tree that was growing out of the side of the mountain. Hanging on for dear life he immediately he started calling out for help, hoping someone else was out hiking that day. “Help,” he cried, “I’ve fallen down the cliff, can anyone hear me, O God, please help me is anyone up there?” Just then he heard a booming voice from heaven which called out, “Have faith my son and let go of the tree.” The man hung there for a minute thinking about what he had just heard, and then yelled “What?” Again he heard the booming voice “Have faith my son and let go of the tree.” The man paused and then yelled up “is there anyone else up there?”

Today we complete our Lenten series on prayer. We have looked at the power of prayer and what prayer does, we have looked at the names and metaphors we use when we pray [Wendell gave his own testimony about prayer and the prayer group] and last week we looked at song as prayer, but today we tackle the one area that most of are not good at and the one that many of us want to avoid and that is lamentation. We are certainly good at complaining and making a big deal out of little things, but that is not what lamentations are about.

We do not make a lament about having broken a fingernail or because our favorite sports team lost, those might be reasons to be upset, but they are not truly lamentable. Lamentations are about those things which touch us deep down in our souls, which bring us to the depths of despair, which put us on our knees, literally or figuratively, which have us not only questioning but even cursing our existence and sometimes even God. As a culture we are not good at lamentation, or mourning and I would argue that we are getting even worse. Did you know that the number of funerals or memorial services is decreasing every year?

I was told by a funeral director that in the Northwest less than half of all deaths are accompanied by a funeral service. The time in which we are supposed to stop and recognize our loss and take at least a moment to grieve is disappearing. But we do this nationally as well. We move quickly beyond each tragedy because there is always something else news in the news cycle to move onto. This happens even with events like September 11. While there was certainly some grief expressed, especially in the early days, we wanted to move quickly beyond that, beyond any questioning, to chanting USA, USA, and then being told to go out and shop.

But it’s not just society that does this, the church does it as well. The lectionary is a group of recommended readings for each Sunday, created by both the Roman Catholic Church and the mainline protestant denominations, and they follow a three year cycle. But, if we were to follow the lectionary, we would only read anything from Lamentations on two occasions. One would be on Holy Saturday, and then once in the third year of the cycle. Since most protestant churches do not have Holy Saturday services that means that you might hear from the Book of Lamentations once every three years, and that’s only if the person preaching decided to cover it that Sunday. In fact I suspect that few of you have ever heard something from the Book of Lamentations.

In addition, the prophet Jeremiah, who is commonly attributed as the author of Lamentations is only covered twelve times in the lectionary, all in the third year. The Book of Psalms is the longest book in the Bible, but Jeremiah is second. If Jeremiah also wrote Lamentations, then he is responsible for the largest amount of writing in the Bible we have by one person, and yet he is almost routinely ignored by the church. Just like with lamentations I suspect few of us have ever heard a sermon on Jeremiah.

Jeremiah is known as the weeping, crying or suffering prophet, and his writings certainly reflect that. They are hard to read, and thus not preached on very often, not only because they are sometimes hard to understand, but more because they are sometimes brutal in their message, as we heard from this mornings passage. “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!” is how Lamentations begins, “How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations…. She weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has not one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.”

The she that is being referred to here is Jerusalem and her mourning comes after the Babylonians in 587 BCE, under the leadership of king Nebuchadnezzar, had destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and taken the leaders into exile. This was one of the most important and the most traumatic things to happen in Judaism, indeed the form of Judaism that we know, and that Jesus knew, probably would not exist without this event. As clear as 9/11 is in our psyche as a nation and as a people, and as traumatic as that event was, 9/11 does not really compare to the destruction of the temple.

Imagine if instead of losing the World Trade Centers on 9/11, that instead all of New York City, as the economic center of the country was destroyed, and all of Washington, DC, as the political center of the country was destroyed, and Hollywood, as the cultural center of the country, was destroyed, and then all of the churches and centers of churches were destroyed and you begin to understand what the destruction of Jerusalem, and most importantly the destruction of the Temple, which was the center and the heart of Judaism at the time, meant to the people and to the religion, and why so much of the Hebrew Scriptures deal with these events. The destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem left the people wondering what had happened, why it had happened, and what the future held?

Now while Lamentations is usually said to have been written about the time of the destruction of the temple and the exile, there is actually nothing which dates it to this period. Instead, it is a lament that can be used and applied to other times as well. It could just as easily apply to the Holocaust as it could to the time of Jeremiah, and it can also apply to the times in which we have needed to offer lament in our lives. But before we get into that, let me give you just a little more information about the book itself.

One of the things that I find incredible and which adds to the beauty of the Book of Lamentations is its construction. This is something we miss in its translation to English, but in Hebrew the first four chapters, which are four separate poems, are written in what is known as an acrostic. That means that the first word of the first line of each stanza represents one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and each stanza is written in alphabetical order. So, for example, if it was written in English the first letter of the word that began stanza one would start with an A, and the first letter of the first word of the second stanza would start with b, and so on.

The third chapter, which we heard this morning, is a special type of acrostic poem. There are three verses per stanza, and each verse begins with the same letter, so again, if in English, the first word of each line of the first verse would begin with the letter A, then the first word of each line of the second verse would begin with the letter b, and so on.

Finally, since the poems follow the Hebrew alphabet, which has only twenty-two characters, the alphabet determines the length of the poem. The first three poems are sixty-six lines in length, 22 verses of three lines each, chapter four is 44 lines in length, and chapter five, which is not acrostic, still adheres to the length and is 22 verses long. This is an incredibly difficult way to write a poem, and if you don’t think so, I challenge you to try and write a poem like this. To me, it also adds to the majesty and wonder of these poems.

Not only are they expressing the deep sorrow, pain, and questioning of the people, but they are doing so in an incredibly complex and difficult way. This is not them simply sitting down and writing out all of their feelings and saying whatever comes to their mind, not that there is anything wrong with that, but this took a lot of thought, effort and work, and it is one of the reasons that I think it has come down to us today.

But, they also come down to us because lamentation is important, and lamentations are found throughout scripture. Of the 150 Psalms, 61 one of them are laments, either individual or communal, and an additional 6 more have portions of laments in them. One of the most famous of these is Psalm 130 which was read this morning, which if you were here last Sunday is also one of the songs of ascent.

Known as the De Profundus, Psalm 130 has been the setting for countless hymns and songs, including one we will sing in a few moments written by Martin Luther. It is a cry to God made from the depths of utter despair, “Out of the deep, have I called unto thee O Lord, Lord hear my voice.” Of course there is also the cry of despair uttered by Job, but certainly the one I hold onto, is Jesus’ cry of despair from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” which comes from psalm 22. Even Jesus’ has a lament.

At their most basic level, laments are prayers of grief to God over some event, and with deep passion they appeal to God for deliverance. Again, while we might be upset about some little thing, like burning our dinner or missing that perfect deer we were hunting, I would argue that these are not things that we properly lament over. Instead it is the great tragedies of our lives that cause us to pause and lament, and we’ve all had such moments in our lives. Maybe it’s the diagnosis of a severe illness, either in ourselves or a loved one, the death of a spouse or the death of a child, a natural or manmade disaster which has whipped out everything we have. These are the things which knock us to our knees, which cause us to take pause, and which cause us to appeal to God.

But, at their most basic level laments are also complaints and protests laid at God’s feet. They are a way for us to express anger and frustration, along with grief and sorrow, and a way to search and to seek for answers. It is not just that we cry out from the depths of our despair, but that we expect God to hear us and to do something about it. In lament we are demanding something of God. This is why I think many people shy away from lamentations, because they don’t think they are allowed to do such a thing. They have been told that God has a reason for everything that happens, so to complain wouldn’t do any good, instead we should look for the positive, try to learn some lesson, figure out what God is trying to teach us, and give thanks to God. This is a position with which I definitely disagree with my whole being.

The problem with not voicing our pain and anger to God is not only that it is not realistic, or that it does not match our scriptural witness, but I believe in fact that it is dangerous to our faith life. How many people have you known who said they have left the church or lost their faith because they were mad at God? They were mad, but didn’t know what to do with it, because we have been told that these are feelings that are not appropriate to express and sometimes not even appropriate to have, and so rather than telling God that they are mad, rather than trying to deal with what they are feeling, they have simply walked away.

Do we really think that God isn’t big enough to deal with all of our emotions? That God couldn’t deal with us being angry and yelling at God? Now, I’m not talking about yelling and being angry let an impetuous child, and saying “I want, I want and you didn’t give.” I’m talking about a true express of our emotions, of crying out during the dark night of our soul, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I have certainly been in that place, and I imagine most of you have as well.

The first funeral I did, just three months into my first appointment, was for a 18 month old boy who had died of a rare genetic disease. At the time of Ethan’s death, Samantha was only twenty-months, so this was something that hit very close to home. As you might have already discovered I’m not always the best with names, and even when I know them they often slip out of my mind at the wrong time, like when I’m trying to talk with you, but Ethan Chitkara, and his parents Anil and Jane’s names, are seared into my memory.

I know that some of you have lost children and you know the pain much more than I can ever possibly imagine, but I can remember preparing for that service, of practicing my sermon over and over again with tears pouring down my face, crying out to God, “how could you have let this happen?” and at the same time begging for the strength to be able to get through it and to be able to provide the family the littlest bit of comfort at such a time. It is times like this that we say “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” Lord hear my voice! Lord hear my voice! Lord hear my voice!

These are not emotions we want to feel, and they are certainly ones we are usually told that we shouldn’t feel or that we should just ignore. Again, even within the church we have tried to ignore them, but they are there nonetheless. The blues, and to some degree portions of country music, were born out of trying to express these feelings and give voice to them not only for the musicians but also for the audiences and for the communities in which these forms of music grew up. I have often thought that covering the five chapters of lamentations over the five weeks of lent, and having a blues band in worship to give voice musically to lamentation would be a wonderful way of recapturing this portion of our lives and of our relationship with God.

Lamentations are necessary and important. They are certainly not things that we should be focusing or doing all the time, but when we are in that place, when we need to express our pain, our sorrow, our anger and our frustrations, and when we need to ask for answers then lamentations provide us the means and the way to do that. In the 23rd Psalm we are told that God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. It is not a place where we stay or live, although most of us have probably known people who have been stuck in the valley, but lamentations are a way to help us move through that pain, to move through that grief, to something else, to a sense of hope and a renewed relationship with God.

“The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is my wormwood and my gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me,” Lamentations says. But then it continues, “but this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’”

Out of the deep we cry to the Lord. If you are afraid to express a lament, or if you have been told that you can’t be angry with God, that you cannot express your pain or your agony, your sorrow or your tear, your questions or even your accusations, let me tell you that that is incorrect. Lamenting is part of our faith, it is part of what it means to be human, it is part of what it means to be in relationship with God, but here is the most important part, the only way that your prayers can be answered is if you pray them, and so you need to tell God exactly what it is that you are feeling.

Being angry and yelling at God, or crying out a wordless primal scream from the depths of our souls is just as much a part of prayer and just as important as saying prayers of thanksgiving. While we might not like to lament, and while we certainly do not wish to be in a place where we need to lament, lamentation, crying out to God, is necessary sometimes, even Jesus’ cried out from the depths of his despair on the cross.

But what Jesus knew, what we know, is that God is always there, that God walks with us through that depth of despair, that God comforts us through our pain and our sorrow, and that God can handle our pain and our anger, for the only way we can get past it is to express it. So when we are experiencing that dark night of the soul, I encourage you, no I implore you, make your lamentation known. Express it to God and it will be answered. “‘The Lord is my portion’ says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.’” May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Madness Continues

Last week the NCAA Men's basketball tournament began, and after a slow start on Thursday with little drama, Friday saw some major upsets including losing two #2 seeds for the first time ever in the first round.

I wrote last week about the NCAA and the amount of money they generate from the tournament, but left one thing out of that equation. I was at the first round games in Albuquerque last week in order to see Harvard play in the tournament for the first time since 1946 (unfortunately they lost).

Joining me, along with my brother, were 10,772 other people. Ticket prices ran between $70-$90 a piece. So just guessing the average price was $75, that would be $808,050. In addition, parking was $20. Again just for quick assumptions, guessing that on average 1/3 of the people paid for parking. That would mean they took in $71,813 in parking fees. We spent $15 on concessions, and although I know that is low, I am going to use that as our average, so at $15 per 2 people that's an additional $80,790. I don't have any idea what they sold in terms of shirts, programs, etc., but I do know they were out of Harvard shirts at $25 a piece, so that's even more revenue. But without those numbers they brought in $957,653. That doesn't include other advertising revenue or what they charged for the suites.

There were 8 locations running games, with two sessions each so approximately $15 million over the four days. At the end of the tournament this will add up to some serious money.

And, this is with average attendance going down over the last few years. The decrease in attendance happens to coincide with them adding more teams to the tournament, but that does not mean it's a causal relationship but certainly there is a casual relationship between the two. The other thing that has been blamed is the quality of the game being played.

Last night on the Charlie Rose program, Jay Bilas from ESPN made this very claim and said that the one and done in college basketball is hurting the quality of the product and he is very concerned but isn't necessarily seeing that concern from others.

What Bilas also said was that he didn't have any problems with athletes who played their one year and then went to the pros, or the programs that recruit these athletes with that in mind. They are following the rules and the kids are doing what they dreamed of doing, which is playing in the NBA. Where I do think he was wrong, however, was when he tried to compare this to other major sports. There are very very few football players who leave after only one year playing college football. Most who leave early are juniors. In baseball if you choose to go to college rather than signing out of high school then you cannot be drafted again until your junior year. So there are some things that can be done to address this issue.

Bilas' overall point was that the NCAA has to do something now or they will be facing some very serious issues in the near future, and 90% of the money that supports the operation of the NCAA comes from the basketball tournament so something needs to be done. I have to say that I think some of their attendance issues relate to the amount they are charging for tickets. As I said, tickets for the first round were $70-90 a piece. I wouldn't pay that much to attend a basketball game. I paid about half of face value for my tickets. Only twice have I paid that amount for tickets. Once was to attend World Series games (which, for me, is a much bigger deal than the NCAA tournament). The other time was to attend the last game ever at Yankee Stadium.

These prices are out of the reach of a lot of people. The median hourly income is $12.68. That means that after taxes, you would have to work a full day to afford just one ticket. Is that reasonable? And that does not include parking or food. Most people have been priced out of the market.

The problem is they are still making so much money that I don't think anything will be done, because if people see the money rolling in they don't think they have to do anything and they can ignore the problem until it's too late. The question then is how many more years does the tournament have before they see serious problems in attendance and revenue?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Songs For The Journey

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Psalm 126:

The Santuario de Chimayo is considered the most important Catholic pilgrimage location in the United States. Located about thirty miles north of Santa Fe, the santuario has been known from its earliest days for its healing power it has been called the Lourdes of the United States. (Has anyone here ever been there?) If so, you were one of the more than 300,000 people a year who make the trip to this small church, whose dimensions are smaller than this sanctuary.

Of those 300,000 people, approximately 30,000 make the trip there during Holy Week, a great number of them walking, sometimes as far as 300 to 400 miles. Those who walk the farthest are right now making preparations to leave, if they haven’t already done so. Sometimes the pilgrims travel by themselves but usually they meet up with others and travel in groups walking on the sides of the roads. Although nowadays they are just as likely to be listening to their iPods as interacting with the people they are traveling with, once upon a time they would spend their days talking or singing songs in order to pass the time, which is what today’s Psalm includes.

Our Psalm today is part of a collection, extending from Psalm 120 to 134, which are known collectively as the psalms of ascent or the pilgrim songs. They are called that, first because the superscription says “a song of ascents,” simple enough, but also because it is believed that these Psalms would be sung as people made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to be at the Temple for the celebration of the most important Jewish holidays.

It is more than likely that as Jesus and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem for the final time that, along with the others they were probably traveling with, they sang these Psalms in order to not only pass the time but also to be connected with each other and with the past and as a way to lift up their concerns and celebrations to God. These are traveling songs.

Each of the Psalms in this group is relatively short, meaning they would be easier to remember, and a wide variety of themes and types are represented. In addition, many of the Psalms talk about concerns of ordinary life, which are then juxtaposed with those that talk about national concerns, they also switch between individual and communal positions or references. Several scholars have even postulated that they are in the order they are in because they follow the path of a pilgrimage with Psalm 120 beginning with those who live outside of Jerusalem, and hence needing to make a pilgrimage, and ending with Psalm 134, as a benediction, when they are leaving and heading home.

But it is more than just these Psalms that would have been sung by Jewish people, it would have been all of them because the Psalms are the song books of the ancient Israelites. We most commonly use the Psalms today as prayers, and so as a way of continuing our look at prayers through lent, today we are going to be addressing the issue of songs and singing as prayer. We have no idea how the Psalms were sung, but of the 150 Psalms 55 of them contain superscriptions that contain instructions relating to music.

What you see on the screen is Psalm 4. After the title of the Psalm, we have the superscription “to the leader: with stringed instruments,” which is obviously an instruction of some sort. The problem is we don’t know what this actually means, beyond the obvious. Did they normally chant the Psalms, so only some would use instruments, were they normally sung using drums instead of stringed instruments, so you would need to know this, or were they usually sung accapella? We simply don’t know. But in addition to the superscription if you look at the end of verse two, you’ll see the word “Selah.” I’m sure that some of you have seen that before and wondered what it meant. Well, if you figure it out, please let us all know, because we don’t really know what it means.

There is a lot of speculation about meaning, but most scholars are in agreement that its usage in the Psalms is as a signal to the choir director or the musicians about something, but what its precise meaning and significance are is unknown. And one more thing, if you look forward to Psalm 6, there you will see a superscription that says “to the leader with stringed instruments according to the Sheminith.” Again this is believed to be a musical notation, possibly the name of the tune that it would have been sung to, and in some translations, rather than saying “according to” they will say “to the tune of.”

A phrase that is widely attributed to St. Augustine says that to sing is to pray twice. In 1 Corinthians Paul says “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.” (14:16) I think Paul is summing up what connects pray and song and it is that when we sing we should be doing it with our whole person. Song moves us beyond something that might just be an intellectual exercise and instead it becomes something we can do with our whole body, not necessarily that we do involve our whole body, we are fairly white after all, but we could.

We stand when we sing not only to honor God, but also because in standing we involve our whole bodies. When we sing sitting down the sound, the involvement, our very presence is very different than when we are standing. This is not just true for music, but for other things as well. Try yelling when sitting down, then stand-up and yell the very same thing. You will be louder when standing because you involve more of your body, and in particular your diaphragm which is what helps you gain volume.

I know that many of you have never thought of song as prayer, and for some of you that terrifies you because you are afraid to sing or just don’t sing at all. Since I face you during worship I can see the people who don’t sing, not just the songs you don’t know, but any songs at all. I don’t know the reasons, but I can suspect them in some cases. I had someone tell me that in the fourth grade her choir teacher told her that she had a terrible voice and that she should just mouth the words rather than actually singing. She was now in her mid-60s and she still does not sing. That rebuke had stayed with her her entire life, and so for more than fifty years she had not sung because her song had been stolen from her. We all have a song in us, and hers, and maybe yours, has been stolen.

In a piece entitled, “we should sing more” Rev. Johanne Dame, laments the fact that we are being told that we should only sing…. If our songs are good…. If our voices are perfect. We become, those of us not gifted with exceptional voices, she says, self-conscious. We beat down the songs embedded in our souls. Worse, she continues, we come to an acceptance that only ‘professional” music will do. We have radios in our homes, our cars, our offices… we cannot sing for ourselves or together, we must hire someone to do it for us.”

Now there have always been people who have been hired to perform, who were clearly better than others, but that did not stop people from singing. They sang work songs and drinking songs, they sang folk songs and songs that told stories. Song surrounded them in just about everything they did, and most importantly they participated in it, whether they had good voices of not. Even with increased portability of music, our singing has decreased. Unless we are working alone, most of our coworkers would not be really happy if we broke into song, we leave the singing to others, but that has not always been the case.

Worse, as I already said, we attack those who don’t have the professional sound we expect. A lot of the popularity of American Idol comes from watching the people who can’t sing try out for the show, so that we can make fun of them and laugh at their expense. But singing is a part of who we are, it is, I believe, embedded into our very beings, and so I think we have to ask what happens when we lose the gift of song? What happens when we as a culture lose these things which bind us together in some common ground?

Singing is one of the most basic of functions, and of course it’s not just limited to us as humans. Huge portions of the animal kingdom sing. In recent studies of whale songs, they are discovering that there are rhyming patterns, different tunes, different moods of songs, in other words they are like us. When you are happy you don’t want to be singing a funeral dirge, and when you are sad you don’t necessarily want to be singing a song that makes us want to dance and clap our hands. Our music, our songs, connect us to each other, they connect us to what we are feeling, they connect us to something deeper, then connect us with God.

I have spent some time in nursing homes, and especially with Alzheimer's patients, most of whom could not tell you what day it was or what they had for their last meal, but if you begin singing Amazing Grace, they can not only sing along with you, but they even know all the verses. Indeed, it is the way that they connect to something deeper, it is the way that they connect with the divine. I have known people who just before death have regained consciousness and have sang or recited their favorite hymns. While I might like the song Shine Jesus Shine, I cannot imagine quoting it at my death. That’s why I said a few weeks ago when we were looking at the hymnal that it’s important to learn and know new songs, because I can see singing Here I Am Lord, just as we need to also know the old hymns, like Amazing grace.

Music is important, it is indeed a form of prayer, it is way that we connect with God. Judaism still recognizes this simple reality. Their daily book of prayer, called the siddur, while it can be recited, it really designed to be sung. In addition to that, they also sing, or chant, the scriptures as well. The person responsible for this is known as the cantor, if you have ever attended worship where a cantor has sung, you know that that simplicity and beauty of it can bring a tear to your eyes, or at least to my eyes. Singing is an integral part of their worship experience, just as it is to our worship experience.

Singing is important. There is a reason why we begin and end worship in song. Just as one of the purposes of pilgrimages is to move us out of our ordinary life and our ordinary time, to take us beyond ourselves and connect us to something deeper and more sacred. Songs can do the same, whether you can sing or not or even if you can clap on time. Music can move us out of kronos time, that is ordinary time in which we pay attention to the clock, and into kairos time, that is sacred or holy time. When you don’t know what to say to God, sing, sing a song, sacred or secular, because they often contain the words that we could never come up with ourselves.

A few weeks ago I talked about using prayers written by others if you don’t know what to say, and you can use hymns and songs exactly the same way. One of the books I use for my daily scripture and prayer also includes a hymn for each day. Sometimes I sing it because I either know the tune or can figure it out, and other times I just read it as my prayer. To sing is to pray twice. Song is embedded in our souls, and when we lose that we lose a connection to the divine, and we lose a part of our prayer life.

Let me close with this story from John Thomas Oaks, who is a musician: It was chilly in Manhattan, he says, but warm inside the Starbucks shop on 51st and Broadway. For a musician it’s the most lucrative Starbucks location in the world, and apparently, we were striking all the right chords that night. It was a fun, low-pressure gig. We mostly did pop songs, with a few original tunes thrown in. During our rendition of the classic, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” I noticed a lady sitting in one of the lounge chairs across from me. She was swaying to the beat and singing along.

After the song was over, she approached and said. “I apologize for singing along on that song. Did it bother you?” “No,” he said, “we love it when the audience joins in. would you like to sing up front on the next selection?” To my delight, he said, she accepted my invitation. “You choose. What are you in the mood to sing?” “Well,” she said, “do you know any hymns?” This woman didn’t know who she was dealing with. I cut my teeth on hymns. He gave her a knowing look and said, “Name one.” “Oh, I don’t know. There are so many good ones. You pick one.” “Okay,” he replied, “how about “His Eye is on the Sparrow”?”

She was silent, her eyes averted. Then she fixed her eyes on his and said “Yeah. Let’s do that one.” She slowly nodded her head, put down her purse, straightened her jacket and faced the center of the shop. With his two-bar set-up, she began to sing. The audience of coffee drinkers was transfixed. Even the gurgling noises of the cappuccino machines ceased as the employees stopped what they were doing to listen. The song rose to its happy conclusion: “I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free. For his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”

When the last note was sung, he says, the applause crescendo to a deafening roar that would have rivaled a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. Embarrassed the woman tried to shout over the din, “Oh, y’all go back to your coffee! I didn’t come to give a concert! I just came to get something to drink, just like you!” But the ovation continued. He embraced her and said “You, my dear, have made my whole year!”

“Well it’s funny you picked that particular hymn,” she said. “Why is that?” “Well,” she hesitated, “that was my daughter’s favorite song.” “Really!” he exclaimed. “Yes,” she said, and then grabbed my hands. By this time the applause had subsided and it was business as usual. “she was 16. She died of a brain tumor.” He said the first thing that found its way through his stunned silence, “Are you going to be okay?”

She smiled through tear-filled eyes and squeezed his hands. “I’m gonna be okay. I’ve just got to keep trusting the Lord and singing his songs, and everything’s gonna be just fine.”

I've just got to keep trusting the Lord and singing God's songs, and everything's going to be okay. In today’s song from the Psalms, we have joy and we have sorrow, we have laughter and we have tears, we have sowing and we have reaping. We have, in effect, the sum of our lives.

Music is important and when we leave it to others to do, we are missing a part of ourselves, and when we no longer sing, we are missing our prayers to God. It doesn’t matter whether you can carry a tune or not, it doesn’t matter if you will ever be asked to sing a solo or not, it doesn’t matter if anyone can stand to hear you sing, because God loves to hear it. Song is embedded in our souls.

Most people know John 3:16, which says for god so loved the world that he sent his only son that whoever should believe in him should not die, but have eternal life. But there is another chapter 3 verse 16 that we should all know, and that comes from Colossians. Colossians 3:16 says “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God.” So for God’s sake, let us sing. May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Future of Education

I am on vacation this week and so rather than ignoring the blog, I am posting the words of others.

Here is Seth Godin's education manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams. You can download it in multiple ways for multiple reading devices, or just read it from your computer.

I haven't finished reading it yet, but it was certainly provides a new and different way to think about the future of education as well as evaluating what the purpose of education has been, what it is today, and what the future may/should hold.

Once I am finished reading I will post my own thoughts.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Contraception -- It's Not About Religious Freedom

I am on vacation this week so instead of writing something new (or ignoring the blog altogether) I will be posting things others have written.

Here is a statement on the contraception debate from Jim Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church & Society:

"I’ve always appreciated that The United Methodist Church has never claimed to be a victim of religious persecution. Even though we imposed our religious views on others when we pushed through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting sale and manufacture of alcohol nearly 100 years ago, we did not insist our religious liberty was infringed when Prohibition was repealed.

We strongly oppose gambling and find war incompatible with Christian teaching. We don’t suggest, however, that the spread of gambling and the constant warfare around the world represent persecution of Methodism.

Why is it that the liberty of those who are denied basic health-care services is not at issue?

Yet, when the General Board of Church & Society agreed that religiously affiliated employers have an obligation to provide contraceptive services through the health insurance plans they offer to their employees, we have been accused of thwarting the religious liberty of various groups such as evangelical Christians and the Roman Catholic Church.

Why is it that the liberty of those who are denied basic health-care services is not at issue? Contraception benefits society. It reduces the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, reduces the need for abortions, and assists families to plan the number and spacing of their children.

Doesn’t make it so

Just because someone says their religious liberty is being infringed upon does not make it so. Just because the Catholic hierarchy says that birth control is a sin against God does not make it so.

This is one area where The United Methodist Church is in clear disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church: “People have the duty to consider the impact on the total world community of their decisions regarding childbearing and should have access to information and appropriate means to limit their fertility” (United Methodist Social Principles, 162K, 2008 Discipline). “We affirm the right of men and women to have access to comprehensive reproductive health/family planning information and services that will serve as a means to prevent unplanned pregnancies, reduce abortions, and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS” (Social Principles, 162V, 2008 Discipline).

A compromise has been offered that enables religiously affiliated institutions to refuse basic contraception coverage to their employees by mandating that insurance companies offer these services to women who opt for them. Catholic leadership has rejected the compromise.

Why? Because they don’t want women to have the liberty to choose to use birth control. They want to deny that freedom to women.

Wrong then and now

There were those who argued that racial segregation was biblically mandated, that keeping women out of church leadership was sanctioned by God, and that destruction of the environment is approved by God. All of these notions were and are wrong. Religious freedom is not violated by denying religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and other institutions the right to discriminate on the basis of race or gender.

Now, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri proposes that any employer — religious or anti-religious, for that matter — should have the “right” to refuse coverage to its employees of any services, treatments or medications it disagrees with.

Perhaps an employer may hold the wild idea that use of pain medication or anesthesia indicates some sort of moral weakness. Therefore, the employer excludes that from the health-insurance plan offered to employees. Or, maybe an employer thinks that people contract diabetes due to poor dietary and exercise decisions they’ve made. Therefore, the employer doesn’t want to offer treatment for the disease.

Notice, if you will, that in this debate it is the religious freedom of institutions and corporations that is being addressed, not that of employees. In a world where corporations are declared to be people —where corporations even claim religious freedom — is it possible that real human beings, employees, no longer will have the rights of human beings or the freedom to practice behavior they consider ethical?

We hold as a denomination the belief that health care is a basic right and part of that includes ensuring access for women to contraception. This is about the common good."

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Letter to 1962

I am on vacation this week, and so instead of writing new things (or ignoring the blog altogether) I will be posing things others have written.

Here is great piece from John J. McKay's blog revisiting the 1962 World's Fair:

Dear 1962

Fifty years ago, Seattle was the host of the Century 21 World Exposition, better known simply as the Seattle World's Fair. Century 21 was one of those quaint imperial propaganda exercises during which one of the Great Powers tried to dazzle the rest of the world with its technology and vision of the future. When Dad loaded Mom, my sisters, and me into our 1957 Volkswagon Microbus to go to the World's Fair, I didn't care about any of that; all I knew was that John Glenn's space capsule was there and that I was going to see it.


Unless your name is Jules Verne, predicting the future is a thankless business. Prognosticators almost always expect too much in the short term and not enough in the long term. Whatever else they get right, they never, ever manage to see what's happening to social and cultural mores. Again, like most of these imperial exercises, the Seattle World's Fair depended on its sponsors--civic boosters, corporations, and the government--to create its vision of the future. They made a conscious decision to ignore the people who had spent the most time thinking about the future, science fiction writers. Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov were both approached to pitch projects for the fair and both were rejected. Not that they would have done a lot better; despite Bob's most earnest hopes, hot young women still do not cluster around smart guys to form polygamous communities.

Still, the Fair boosters and magazine writers of 1962 did their best at envisioning The Future. It's only fair (get it?) that The Future send back a score card.
Dear 1962,

This is The Future speaking. You spent a lot of time thinking about me lately. I'm touched. Let me tell you what's happened:

We never got jet packs, flying cars, or a four day work week.

Most women have jobs outside the home and they wear pants.

The Cold War ended without a Third World War. Our side won.

Monorails never caught on.

The president is a black man named Barak Hussein Obama. The governor of Louisiana is an East Indian man named Piyush Jindal.

Rock and Roll is still not dead.

You know that disposable future you looked forward to? You know, never wash you clothes. They're paper! Throw them away when they get dirty! Don't wash your dishes. Throw them away and use cheap, attractive, disposable dishes! Ever wonder where all that disposable stuff goes?

We still haven't cured the common cold, cancer, or almost any disease you expected us to. We even have some new diseases.

We say "fuck" a lot.

The last pope was Polish. The current one was a Hitler Youth.

In most cities you can choose between 500 television channels to watch on your pocket sized, color teevee.

It's common for men to wear earings and women to have tatoos.

The Americans were the first to put a man on the moon. We were also the last. It's been almost fifty years since anyone has been further than about two hundred miles from Earth.

If we had another race to the moon, China might win.

The Solid South is solidly Republican.

Turbine engines in cars never worked out.

The most popular cars in America are made by Japanese companies.

Middle aged people still complain about the music of teenagers.

Computers are everywhere and they are like nothing you expected. In many ways, they are far cooler.

Literate adults use phrases like "far cooler."

The air quality in our cities has improved.

House cats wear laser collars that vaporize mice on sight. OK, I made that one up. We could probably do it, but think about what would happen to your apolstery.

Homosexuals--we call them "gay" now--can get married in eight states.

The tallest building in the world is in Arabia in a country you've never heard of.

Americans are still really bad at geography and history.

Atomic energy had some unforseen problems. It's never going to replace other kinds of power.

We finished the Interstate Highway system and now we're letting it fall apart.

We have not made contact with aliens, yet.

The latest generation of Americans is not much taller than you, but they are much fatter.

You know all that talk about the inexhaustable food resources of the ocean? We exhausted it.

My car has more computing power than your Pentagon.

The bald eagle and the California condor did not go extinct, but the rhinoceros and the tiger might.

We have lots of robots, but most of them look more like table-saws than people.

We can't control the weather.

Pills instead of food was a stupid idea. People like food.

The Space Needle is still there. We're quite fond of it.

Life still goes on.


The Future

Friday, March 9, 2012

Gambling and NCAA Sports

A player for Auburn University's basketball team is currently being investigated for the possibility of point shaving. If true, this is not the first time it has happened, with one of the most famous involving Boston College, but more recently Arizona State and Northwestern have also had point shaving scandals. With all the money that is on the line, what amazes me is that these scandals don't happen, or at least are not caught, more often.

We are now just a week away from the beginning of March Madness. According to a report done by the FBI for the NCAA people wager $2.5 billion on March Madness alone. Of that, only $80-$90 million is done legally in Vegas. That means that the vast majority is either through pools or with illegal bookmakers. In addition, the NCAA itself makes an enormous amount of money from the tournament. They are currently in the middle of a contract with CBS and Turner which pays them $700 million a year. Remember these numbers are just for basketball. On top of that, according to a survey conducted by the NCAA, 37% of college athletes self-reported that they had gambled on sports in the past year.

When these athletes look around and see the huge amounts of money that are being made off of them, again, it is surprising to me that more athletes are not saying that they want to get a piece of the pie for themselves. Someone once speculated that there is going to come a time in which the players who make the final four are going to join together collectively and refuse to play until they get a piece of the take. Their coaches are making millions, their schools are making millions, the television stations are making millions and the NCAA is making millions, so where is there portion?

The NCAA has been discussing giving athletes a stipend in addition to the other things they receive. This has been supported by both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and I think it's only a matter of time before it happens. Most athletes who get caught in these scandals are not getting much in return, just think of the Ohio State football players trading autographs for tattoos, so maybe this will make a difference.

There are literally billions of dollars floating around and surrounding college athletics, and as the number of scandals continues to increase we can easily say this is not going anywhere. In addition, the NCAA has proven itself incapable of actually trying to set anything down to end it, nor act appropriately when they find improprieties. Rarely are coaches or universities truly punished for their indiscretions other than punishments that amount to little more than a slap on the wrist (the exception is SMU).

The athletes themselves, however, are punished and often severely for their actions. For many, many reasons, one of the biggest being that their scholarships are only good for one year at a time, athletes hold little to no power. So again, at the end of the day, I often find myself amazed not that these scandals occur but that they don't happen more often. Something is going to have to change, the question then is how do we solve the problem?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Young Clergy and Ordination

The United Methodist Church has said that they want to concentrate on bringing young clergy into the church. There are some churches and conferences that are certainly focusing on this and doing a good job, and others not so much.

One of those doing well is the New Mexico conference, where I am now serving. In my numerous contacts with the conference as I was seeking to come back here I was told by different district superintendents that the bishop wanted to build up a "stable of young ponies" to train them so they would be prepared to take over the larger churches when the older clergy retired.

In addition, the bishop was not holding off appointing younger clergy to some of the larger churches in the conference. If they were capable of leading them then they should be able to lead them. This is certainly born out in the number of young clergy who are serving in this conference, which for me was very refreshing to see.

A conference that is not doing as well is New England. Now they say they want to attract and keep young clergy, but that is more rhetoric than reality. I'm guessing that you could probably count the number of clergy under the age of forty on your fingers and toes, and you can definitely could count the number of young clergy who are ordained on your fingers. This is in a conference with more than 700 clergy. My own case serves as an illustration that their rhetoric does not meet their actions.

When I was seeking to transfer conferences not one person from the cabinet or from the Board of Ordination asked me why I was leaving the conference, and if there was anything they could do to keep me there. Not one. This is true even when the bishop attended a meeting of the Board and said that he and the cabinet, and through them the Board, needed to be focused on getting and retaining young clergy. I was sitting in that meeting, with many people knowing I was leaving, and not one person asked me about it.

I think I'm a pretty good clergy person, as did New Mexico which is why they wanted me, but apparently either New England did not hold the same opinion or they simply didn't care. I think the second is much more likely. I think there was a sigh of relief that they were losing someone so that they didn't have to worry about finding an appointment for me as the number of full-time appointments continues to decrease. In addition, I knew that there was no way I was going to be appointed to serve any of the larger churches until I had been there at least twenty years, and that's if they hadn't already been run into the ground before then.

But, I believe the church has a much bigger problem on their hands in keeping and retaining young clergy and that is the ordination process itself. I began this process when I was 26, I entered the seminary when I was 30, and I have now completed the process at the age of 39. That is 3 years of seminary and then 6 years serving in churches.

Now I will grant that I was not as quick in the process as I probably should have been, but most of my colleagues from seminary, who were appearing before district committees long before me, are being ordained this year as well. One was ordained two years ago, but she is by far the outlier, and several others are still seeking ordination. Nine years from the time I entered seminary until ordination seems like too long of a process to me. That means we are taking nearly as long to be ordained as doctors do in specializing in something.

The simple fact is the process no longer matches the reality of what is going on in churches. Not too long ago, most clergy were serving churches while attending seminary, and so they were already further along in the process. Only a very small handful of people I knew in seminary were serving as clergy while attending school, but the process does not really recognize that. In addition, the probationary period required by discipline is a fluke of history not something that was thought out (I'll cover that another time).

There are proposals to change this process before the general conference this year. One of them would change it so that both local pastors and those seeking to be elders would be ordained before going to serve a church, and then the other parts of the process would continue, but with different goals happening. I think there are numerous problems with this plan.

The worst is that I have yet to see anything that effectively explained exactly how it would actually work, and it also shows that we still have lots of problems understanding the purpose and meaning of ordination. (We can thank John Wesley for this as he ordained Thomas Coke to come to America, even though Coke was already ordained, and we've been struggling with it ever since.)

Now much of what is taking place today in the process is to make sure that the young clergy, or in fact any new clergy, are good and capable in order to correct for problems of the past in having incompetent clergy serving. I don't think the process is actually weeding out incompetence. I've seen plenty of people who I think would be good clergy who have moved on because the process is too arduous, and others who I don't think are very good who make it through simply because they have been willing to stick with it to the end.

To me the process now is about trying to close the barn doors once all the horses are already out. I agree completely with making sure we get the best clergy to be serving churches, but that means we need to come up with a way to fully evaluate clergy in the local church and remove those who aren't good, regardless of age or ordination status. I have yet to see a plan that really does that however.

If the United Methodist Church is serious about attracting and retaining young clergy the process needs to be changed to recognize new realities. Nine years from the beginning of seminary to ordination is simply too long. I know this is longer than some take, but the bare minimum if you become probationary immediately after graduation is six years, and I know others who take much longer.

Again, this is the length of time to become an MD and specialize in a field. But people who undertake to become doctors expect a much higher salary, and more respect, on the other side. Clergy cannot expect that.

Even though for most people I am still a young clergy, by the church's definition, which is those under 35, I am not. I could have been but I "aged out" because of the process, a process which took way too long.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Who Is Controlling the Ads

As the number of corporations who are pulling their ads from the Rush Limbaugh show continues to increase, at least for the moment, what has been eye-opening is the number who are saying that they had no idea that they in fact were running ads for his program.

The first one to sort of admit this was Allstate who said they were not even aware their ads were on his program, and then found out that their ad buying company had bought them without their permission. Now that number has increased. Others are claiming that they did indeed buy airtime on the radio channel, but that their ads were run at the wrong time.

The listeners of Rush certainly do not match the demographics that most advertisers are seeking. There are clearly companies that want to target 65-year-old, conservative, white men, but that number you would think would be small. This leads me to ask the simple question, who is controlling their ads?

I understand that they are using ad buyers, but do they then relinquish all control? What are their advertising departments doing with their time? Most corporations want to tightly control their message and their image, but it turns out they are letting others do anything they want. Plus, how are they tracking the effectiveness of their ads, or have they given up entirely?

I used to be in public relations and so have experience with advertising and this is sort of shocking to me. We were very intentional about where and when we advertised, although I was working with much smaller budgets, but I would be under the impression that large corporations want to control budgets as much as small businesses do.

You would think, or at least I would think, that these companies would have a much greater control over where and when they are advertising, rather than just throwing their money out there, but apparently not. Here is a list of those who have pulled their ads and their statements.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Call And Ordination

I received my call to the ministry in 1995. At the time I was not attending church, nor did I really have any interest in being involved with church. What I saw and heard of Christianity from the media did not really match my understanding of God or of the good news, and so I initially rejected the idea that I was being called to the ministry. But, and I know some of you can identify with this, it didn't go away; it was still with me.

I finally went to a church in 1998 to talk with a minister about what it would mean to enter the ministry as well as what was required, and began the long process. That process was completed for the most part last week when I appeared before the Board of Ordination seeking to become an Elder in full connection. They approved me and will recommend to the clergy session of the annual conference in June for ordination.

I went into the last interview very nervous not knowing what to expect but being as prepared as I could possibly be. It was much easier than I expected it to be, and certainly easier than it is in New England. I would say that New Mexico does a better job, from what I have seen, in preparing candidates more during the three year probationary period than does New England.

In some ways the ease of the interview was a little bit of a let down, because I was so ready to be attacked on my theology and thinking. And yes the term "attacked" is the correct one because that was often my experience in this process (which was done in New England). My hardest interviews still are those I had with the district committees rather than at the Board level, and I often felt that what I was being asked about had little to do with me and everything to do with the person asking the question. As I progressed further in the process that became even more obvious to me.

I will say that I am a very different person now then I was when I began the "formal" process. My theology is much deeper and more complete then it was even after I had my M.Div., and to a large degree the process helped me with that. Of course serving in the local church also helped with that process, and I know that it will continue to get better, and also change, the longer I am in the ministry.

But, now that the process is over I also feel at a loss. I have been working on this for so long (9 years since I entered the seminary) and it has been so much a part of what happened every year that now I am not sure what to do. Last Friday I found myself walking around the library just looking at things, sort of wandering aimlessly among the stacks, when I realized I was looking for something to fill the hole that was now empty because the "process" was over. Now that the goal was attained I literally didn't know what to do with myself.

I am grateful it is all over and I thank all those who assisted me along with way, and I certainly would not like to replicate any of it, but at the same time I miss it because it occupied so much of my life up to this point. I need to create some new goals and new things to be working on.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Gasoline And Capitalism

As gas prices continue to increase, the presidential candidates are thinking that this could be the issue to help give them leverage and are blaming the President. The problem with this is that all of them claim to be true capitalists, so shouldn't the market be the one to determine prices? If so, why should the President be doing anything, that would be interfering with the market which is what they say they are opposed to.

Now the bigger problem with their arguments is that there is little the President can do, for several reasons. The first is that prices always go up in the spring in preparation for summer driving periods. The second is that the prices are not being affected by a gas shortage. In fact we currently have a surplus in oil supplies and are exporting more than normal because demand is down. The third is that it not supply and demand driving the price, instead it is oil speculation. Wall Street is doing the very same things around gas as they did last time we were at record prices. So it has little to do with supply and demand, but instead outside forces that really have no bearing on reality.

Finally, those pressing the President say that if he had approved the Keystone XL pipeline that gasoline prices would be going down. The problems with this argument are numerous, mainly being that the pipeline does not even have any plans formally drawn up yet, so we are minimum 10 years away from it having any impact for us. In addition, Canadians are also opposing the line so even if the President were to say okay, it still might not get built because the Canadian government has not approved it.

But, even if we were to have the pipeline in place our gas prices would not be affected because it has nothing to do with the amount of gas available. In addition, best guesses are that the oil fields in Canada will only provide us with 100 years of supply, based on current usage. The problem is usage continues to increase and 100 years is not really all that long from now. The answer is not drill baby drill, but instead, converse and find alternative energy sources, all things the President is pushing for.

Update 3/6: Here is an even better statement on the issue.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Mary Magdalene and Sex

I am currently working on my sermon series for after Easter when we will look at some of the women in the Bible as well as tackle some of the tricky issues of the role of women in the church. Since this will begin the first Sunday after Easter I thought I would start with Mary Magdalene since she was one of the women who went to the tomb.

But, this does not come without it's own difficulties. It would be nearly impossible today to talk about Mary and not address what many people think of her as a result of the pseudo-history/theology of Dan Brown. In case you have been living in a cave, Dan Brown's thesis in the Da Vinci Code was that Mary was not just a follower of Jesus, but that she was his best disciple, "the beloved disciple," and was married to him and had children with him.

But as I have been thinking about this I wonder why no one is raising the very disturbing issue that comes with this idea, namely that in order for Mary to be important in the scriptures, or for the church, or for Jesus, that it must be because of her sexuality and her role in bearing children. That is, she could not have been "the beloved disciple" or been important without also having been Jesus' lover. She could only be "beloved" if she knew Jesus "biblically."

Clearly there were women who were important to Jesus' ministry, who were followers, and the same is true in early Pauline communities. The church has tried to downplay these women at many times, including changing their names to male names in order to obscure their gender. But do we do them any service in trying to reclaim their status and place in the movement by elevating them simply because of a sexual role they could have played? Could Mary be important to Jesus without having to engage in sex with him? Why does her genitalia have anything to do with whether she could be a disciple or not?

How do we reclaim and proclaim the role of women in the church then and now, as well as women in the Bible, without simply talking about the "role" they serve in sexual liaisons with men and with the continuation of the species? How do we elevate these women as children of God who carry out God's will in the world regardless of gender or sexuality?

Obviously as we have seen in the past few weeks the church is still struggling mightily with this. I think that Dan Brown, and those he was parroting, think they are trying to "liberate" Mary from the church, but have in fact simply shackled her to other preconceived notions of women and their "appropriate" roles.

Sometimes it's amazing to see how far we have come and yet to be dismayed at how far we still have to go. As the father of two young daughters I have great hope for their future, but, at the same time, great doubts about their future as well.