Thursday, January 31, 2013

The High Cost Of Serving A Small Church

There have been studies done on the high cost of being poor, and the extra expenses they have that are not born by most of society.  Yesterday it really occurred to me that the same could be said of those of us who serve small churches, especially small rural churches.  I already knew this as a reality, but didn't really put a name to it until a conversation I was having with other clergy serving in the area.

We gather every Wednesday morning for breakfast.  I have a 52 mile round trip to get there, and while I know that most of them are putting the meal on their expense account I am not because I don't have enough to do that, and so every week the meal comes out of my pocket.  They were talking about joining together to do an online class, and the more who joined the less expensive it was.  One of the other clergy, who is the only other one there who serves a small rural church, asked if the district would be paying for it, and he was told that it should come out of the church's continuing education line.  He replied "I don't have one," and I said, "neither do I."  I'm sure that we were the only two there who that was true for.

It is fairly typical for "new" clergy to be assigned to small rural churches in order to get broken in and pay your dues so that you can move onto something else.  Serving a small church means that you will be making minimum salary, which I do, and yet we also normally have the highest amounts of student loans due since we are just out of school, and thus it is bigger portion of our salaries.  These churches also have small and tight budgets which means that there is limited money for discretionary items like continuing education or other expenses.

Now I have taken some continuing ed classes online since I've been here, but I paid for them myself.  My mileage reimbursement last year was $1500.  I blew through that by April, not because I was incautious but because almost everywhere I have to go is a long distance away.  I then drove another 5094 miles for which I was not reimbursed (at last year's reimbursement rate that's $2082).  I will be honest that there were some hospital visits that I probably should have made, but didn't because the hospital most people end up at is 124 miles away (that's one way).  So for me to drive there is one tank of gas, or an extra $60 out of my pocket.  And anything I bought for children's time or other things I need to do my job, all out of my pocket.  I did not seek reimbursement for meals for annual conference, because I knew it would be tough for them to cover.  I did submit for my hotel room.  And books and magazine subscriptions?  Don't even think about it.

And then that doesn't count personal expenses.  The closest grocery store is also 26 miles away (one way) so whenever I need to go grocery shopping that's two gallons of gas, or $6.50 just to make the trip.  There is no preschool in the town, and so I have to take my youngest daughter into town three days a week for daycare, another $19.50 every week just in gas money.

And then there are the little things that the conference expects us to be able to do, like attend clergy retreats at $200 a pop.  For most clergy it's not a problem, but for those of us serving small churches, we're wondering which Peter we need to rob so that we can pay Paul, and yet the expectation is that we have to be there.  I had to get support from the district office for one of these events because it was simply the only way I could afford to go.  The church didn't have the money and I didn't personally have it available either.

There are lots of financial realities with which the church needs to deal, but one of the major ones is the disparity for clergy between larger urban churches and small rural churches.  Because there is a very high cost of serving the rural church that is simply not born out by other clergy members.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why?: Explaining When Bad Things Happen

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Psalm 88:

When my older brother was twenty, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer; the number one cancer killer of men under the age of 35.  He went into the student health clinic on Monday, had surgery on Wednesday, and my grandfather died of cancer on Thursday.  As you might imagine it was a rather rough week for my family, leaving us all with a lot of questions but without a lot of answers.  As we discussed last week when we began this series looking and answering some of our why questions, there are some fairly typical answers that have been provided for why bad things happen to seemingly good people, and one of those answers is that bad things happen as punishment for sins we have committed.  That is the answer that my father provided for himself in the midst of this.  He believed, and still believes, that my brother’s cancer was God’s punishment for my father for some sin that he had committed.

There is certainly scriptural witness for this idea.  After King David commits adultery with Bathsheba and then has her husband Uriah the Hittite killed, we are told that the first child they have together dies as an infant because of David’s sin.  And then there is the curse given to Ham, the son of Noah, that is acted out on the next generation.  But as I have said before, scriptural does not always provide a universal witness on this because the Bible is a series of books in conversation with each other and they often disagree.  And so we read in Numbers of Zelophahad’s daughters, who are not to be punished for their father’s sins, but most importantly for us is the story found in the Gospel of John.  Jesus and his disciples see a blind man, and the disciples ask him “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  And what does Jesus say, “Neither this man nor his parents.”  The reason people believe things like this are the result of sin is because we want to make some sense of what is going on.  There is also a large amount of guilt that gets taken on, some of it survivor’s guilt, of why wasn’t it me instead of them, and so we search for something to give meaning and purpose to it, but I do not believe that others are punished for our sins.  But are we punished for our own sins or for corporate sins?

Again this is something that we hear all the time. If an earthquake strikes LA or San Francisco, we’ll hear all about it being God’s punishment for the perceived sins being committed in those cities.  When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, it was the sins of the city that caused it all to happen, and we could go on down the list.  And again there is scriptural witness for this, especially from the prophets.  The reason why ancient Israel is being captured by other empires, the reason why Jerusalem will be taken and the Temple destroyed is because of the sins of the people in not following the will of God.  But do we really believe that New Orleans, or Florida, or other gulf coast states which are prone to be hit by hurricanes are filled with more sinners than Minnesota is which seemed to be spared from Earthquakes and Hurricanes?  Now I’ve lived in Minnesota and so feel safe to say that I don’t think it’s the case, and if there is more sin in New Orleans it’s because all the Minnesotans go down there to do their really good sinning.

Two thousand years ago when we didn’t understand how hurricanes form or plate tectonics worked, this might have been a reasonable explanation, and would certainly explain some things. But today we know that Haiti and Los Angeles and San Francisco and Chile are not punished by earthquakes because they are sinful, but instead because they sit along fault lines.  We understand that we live on plates that are moving around, which are part of the creation.  We know that in order to have mountaintop experiences we have to have mountains and they are formed by the collision of these tectonic plates pushing against each other, and when they do that there is a lot of destruction that takes place.  We understand that the center of the earth is full of molten lava, but in order for the earth to cool itself so that the planet doesn’t explode, that lava rises to the surface where it cools and then sinks back down, cooling the planet itself, and sometimes that lava moves all the way to the surface and a volcano is formed or explodes.  We can still see this process taking place in Hawaii as the islands are continuing to be formed.

But let me put one final nail in the coffin on the idea that these things happen because of sin, or as punishment for sin.  First, it’s often said that God has to punish us for things we do wrong, because that’s what good parents do.  I certainly punish my daughters when they have done something wrong, and sometimes they don’t fully understand all the reasons, and so doesn’t God do the same?  Well here is the big difference.  When my daughters are in trouble and are being punished, they know exactly what they are being punished for.  God does not do that for us, our punishment could be for one of any numerous transgressions we have done wrong.  If I was to just go up to my daughter and spank them or send them to a timeout without telling them why they were being punished, you would rightfully question my parenting skills, and worse if I was to do something to them, like inject them with cancer or aids or paralyze them, you would rightfully think me a monster and put me in jail for a very long time, but that is the very thing that we say that God does to us and to others all the time, so what is the difference?  I’ll tell you there isn’t a difference, and God doesn’t do it.

But as Christians here is the biggest problem with this argument.  If God punishes us or others for sin, then what is the purpose and role of Christ and the cross?  If God still punishes us for sin, then Christ’s sacrifice was meaningless, because it obviously did not do any good.  It has not reconciled us with God; Christ did not bring salvation to the world, because Christ did not bring forgiveness!  If we are to take our understanding of the purpose, the mission and the results of Christ and the cross seriously then we have to abolish forever the idea that God continues to punish us or the world for its sins.  God doesn’t do that because of the cross.  If other religious traditions want to make that claim about God, they can, but as Christians for us to make that claim says that everything we have been taught and believed is a total sham, that Christ’s sacrifice for us was not sufficient and does not apply for all time, that God still needs to collect his pound of flesh.  But that is not the Christian witness.  Christ died for our sins, the price has already been paid, God doesn’t collect any more.

The answer most often given now for why bad things happen is that everything happens for a reason, that absolutely everything in the world planned out and that nothing happens without it being a part of God’s overall plan, or at the very least in contributing to God’s plan.  So no matter what happens, from someone getting cancer, to plane crashes, to infants dying, it is all part of God’s plan, and it all makes sense in some way even if we cannot understand how.  I’m sure that all of us have at least heard this idea presented before, and some of us may believe it.  There are lots of reasons given as analogies to explain this, but one of the best known is that the universe is like a rug or a tapestry.  This idea was popularized by the author Thornton Wilder, who said that all we see is the bottom of the tapestry, which has strings of various lengths and it appears random and haphazard, as if there is no real rhyme or reason, but God sees the front of the tapestry which is this beautiful image and so each of us plays a role in the beauty of the whole, and to be a part of that we sort of have to accept what happens to us as the part of that whole.  It’s a nice thought, and a nice image, and perhaps it brings comfort to some people, but I am not one of them.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, you can see a series of seven tapestries known collectively as The Hunt of the Unicorn.  They are widely regarded as the greatest tapestries ever created, and thus one of the greatest works of art as well.  They were probably created in the 16th century, but no one knows for sure, they might have been done in Brussels, but no one knows for sure, and it’s possible they were made for the marriage of Anne of Brittany to Louis XII of France, but no one knows for sure.  One of the greatest masterpieces ever made is shrouded in mystery, but there was still one surprise that no one expected.  In 1998, the tapestries were taken down so that some conservation work could be performed .

At some point, linen backings had been added to the tapestries to protect them and also to help support them so they could be hung, but the backings had become brown and brittle with age, and so they were going to be removed and replaced.  But as they removed the backings, what they found astonished the conservators.  Because instead of finding the backs looking like the image given by Thornton Wilder, instead what they found was a mirror image of the front, but done in different colors from the front.  The tapestries were basically two different tapestries woven into one.  It turns out they were even more amazing than anyone had known about for centuries.  If God is weaving a tapestry that is what I imagine God’s tapestry looks like, and that we not only participate in it, but that we can also see it before our eyes.

But even though this idea that everything happens for a reason and that God is responsible might be the most popular reasoning given for our question of why bad things happen, it is also the least biblical.  While it might be used to explain natural phenomenon, although as we already discussed even that is a stretch with modern understanding, it cannot be used to explain human behavior and why we do bad things to ourselves and to each other.  All we have to do is look at scripture to see time and time and time again that God is not in control of what is happening because people are constantly doing things that God does not want them to do.  We can start with Adam and Eve and move our way through and we see this is what is happening.  Why does God bring destruction in the flood as recounted in the Noah story?  Because God is totally exasperated at what people are doing.  Why is Jerusalem being destroyed?  Because Israel didn’t do what God wanted.  Scripture continually tells us about all the ways that we disobey God, but it also tells us about the ways that people remain faithful even in the midst of suffering.

But let’s just say for a moment that God is in control of everything and that everything happens because God, at the very least, allows it to happen.  That means that a daughter who is sexually molested by her father, that’s part of God’s plan.  An infant who is born with a genetic disease and dies shortly after birth, that is part of God’s plan.  The kindergartener’s who were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary, God wanted them to die, it was part of God’s plans.  That what Hitler did was not some massive tragedy, or maybe not even evil, because it was part of God’s plans.  God needed 11 million people to die in concentration camps, and maybe at the end of time we’ll all be told why.  If God caused it, allowed it to happen, then that means that God willed it to happen.  God wrote this piece into your life story.  Is that really what we believe?

In responding to this very claim, a woman whose infant died at the age of six weeks said, “There is no way that the death of an innocent six-week old… is part of some master plan.  And if it is then I’m simply not interested in the God that has that plan.”  I agree.  If that is the God who created the universe then I will put down my Bible, fold up my degrees and hand in my ordination, because that is not a God I can believe in, and it’s certainly not a God who is worthy of worship and praise.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his masterful work When Bad Things Happen to Good People said, “To try to explain the Holocaust, or any suffering, as God’s will is to side with the executioner rather than with his victim, and to claim that God does the same.”

We are told that we are made in God’s image, so where does our sense of justice, of righteousness, of kindness, of generosity, of mercy come from?  Where do we get our sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, of decency and virtue, but from God?  So how can we possibly say that we find the holocaust, or the death of a kindergartner through random and senseless violence evil and repugnant unless God too finds them evil and repugnant?  How can we cry out to God in the midst of our pain if God doesn’t have any qualms with our pain, and in fact is the one who inflicted it upon us?  Is it possible that we have a better and more just sense of right and wrong or good and evil than God does?  I think that’s what we say when we say that God is responsible for everything, and that it is all part of God’s plan, that our understanding of good and evil are not complete.  I reject that idea, while I might not understand true justice, mercy, kindness, or righteousness, I know that my understanding of them is just a fraction of what God’s is and God guides me in my understanding.

I do not believe for even one minute that my brother’s cancer was given to him by God.  I do not believe for even one minute that the children of Sandy Hook died because it was God’s will.  I do not believe that the 316,000 people killed in the earthquake in Haiti, or the 283,000 killed by the tsunami in South Asia, were killed because it was God’s will.  When the Rev. William Sloan Coffin’s son was killed in an automobile accident, in an attempt to comfort him, and perhaps also to defend God, Coffin was told that “it it God’s will,” and Coffin thundered, “The hell it is.  When my boy was killed, God was the first who cried.”    The God that I believe in, the God that I know and read about in scripture, and the God that I worship knows what it is like to lose a son to senseless violence.  He knows what it is like to hear his son cry out in the midst of pain and suffering, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” and he knows the pain of watching his son take his last breath, because we are told that when that happened that the sun’s light failed and the curtain of the Temple was torn in two and I believe that that was God’s cry of pain and anguish.

But, even though we might say that everything happens for a reason, we don’t actually live our lives as if it’s true.  Because if it’s true, why do we ever go to a doctor to get better, if it’s God’s will then we will either get better or we won’t?  Why do we go to war to stop the Hitler’s of the world?  After all what they are doing is God’s will, so why are we trying to stop it?  Why do we wear seat belts, or even more why do we drive safely at all?  Why not just drive like maniacs because if it’s God’s will for us to live or die, then it’s not dependent upon what we do or don’t do?  Or more importantly for us as Christians, if everything is God’s will then we do we bother to pray, because any prayer that we lift up is just interfering with God’s plans?  With everything being God’s plan and being preordained, then prayer, which we will look at next week, is nothing more than a bunch of hot air thrown out to a God who is completely indifferent to us and to the world.

I suspect that deep down most of us do not really believe that everything is God’s plan.  As United Methodists, or at least as people who subscribe to Wesleyan theology, we also believe in free will, and that we have the ability to do God’s will and the ability not to do God’s will, and when we don’t do God’s will then bad things tend to happen.  We have within us the capacity to commit acts of absolute evil, but we also have within us the possibility to create acts of absolute beauty and love as well, but the choice lies within us.

We are told that at the beginning of creation, that everything was formless, that it was chaos, and that out of the chaos God created the earth and the heavens.  I am of the belief that creation is not done, and I see that every day I wake up.  I need look no further than my daughters to see creation still taking place, although I can see it in other places as well, and that means that there is still chaos in the world, which means that bad things happen, things that God does not ordain to happen, but which happen nonetheless.  Albert Einstein once famously said that his God did not play dice with the universe, and so he spent his life trying to disprove portions of quantum mechanics, but he was not successful.  There is even now a field of science which studies chaos theory.  This answer may be totally unsatisfactory to some of you, and obviously because of time I did not answer all concerns or all ideas, and we’ll try and touch on some of them in the next two weeks.  But here is the good news for those of you who think that what I just said is a heresy because everything is God’s will, you can’t be mad at me because it was obviously God’s will to say what I said.  And let me also say that I am not saying that God is not involved in the world, because I would not be standing here before you if God had not muddled in my life and called me into the ministry.

But here is the ultimate point: While God is not responsible for all the things we go through, the one thing we can be sure of is that God is with us as we go through them.  When we get rid of God because of our suffering or the suffering of others, we have not changed the reality of that suffering, all we have done is get rid of the only source of hope and strength and peace and assurance and healing that can be found in the midst of those events and God can bring something good out of the midst of tragedy, suffering and turmoil, not because God caused it, but because God walks with us through it.  God will be with us through everything that goes on in our lives, that is the promise we receive from God.  But today the last word comes from Rabbi Harold Kushner, who I already quoted from earlier.  His first son died of progeria, or early aging disease, at the age of 14, and he writes of the events that affect our lives, “These events do not reflect God’s choices.  They happen at random, and random is another name for chaos, in those corners of the universe where God’s creative light has not yet penetrated.  And chaos is evil; not wrong, not malevolent, but evil nonetheless, because by causing tragedies at random, it prevents people from believing in God’s goodness.”

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Ten Commandments As An Idol

There have been lots and lots of debates in the past decade or more about the display of the Ten Commandments at courthouses and other public buildings.  I noticed yesterday that the courthouse in the closest large town, which is where we go for shopping, etc., has the Ten Commandments outside of it.  I had never noticed this before.  As you enter into town there is also a large billboard with the Ten Commandments on it (it's a very conservative area).

There are lots of problems with the displays, not the least of which is the irony that most of them were placed not as a religious basis for law, but instead as publicity for Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments.  The other problem is that there is not agreement on what the ten actually are, and so to post them in any form has a specific theological bent.

But the question that hit me yesterday as I saw them and thought about the Exodus story was whether we have made these tablets into another idol?  If so it is a clear violation of the very things we are supposed to be upholding.  What made me think this was the story of the golden calf found in Exodus 32.  While Moses is up on the mountain, the people ask Aaron to make them gods for them to worship as they don't know what has happened to Moses.  When God sees what they are doing God orders Moses to go down to the people, and Moses carries with him the two stone tablets with the law on them to see what is going on.

"As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses' anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.  He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it." (Ex 32:19-20 NRSV)

In response to seeing the people worshipping an idol Moses breaks the tablets!  Now it could be that he did it simply because he was so mad he just threw them down, but I also think it's possible he threw them down in anger because he realized the people might make of them an idol as well.  That because they were written "with the finger of God" that the people might begin to worship them as being God instead of as something which points to God.  Did he fear that as soon as he went back up on the mountain that they would give allegiance to the tablets, like they did to the calf, and forget about God?  Then I wonder if we haven't done the same?  Is it time to break our tablets so that we can start focusing on what is truly important, and that is the worship not of laws and things in public spaces, but of God?

As a Christian I will have to admit that I am always a little puzzled by so many other Christians getting so upset about the display of the ten commandments.  When Jesus is asked by someone which commandments he should keep Jesus says`You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother. Also, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matthew 19:17-19, NRSV, also found in Mark 10:17-23.)  This led Gregg Easterbrook to recommend a compromise positions of posting the "six commandments."  (And if you aren't reading Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback posts on ESPN you should be.)

But even more important for me is is a later interaction in Matthew: "and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’" (Matthew 22:34-40, NRSV)

Now I don't think we should be hanging this up in courtrooms or on the lawns, but I understand that this is what we are called to do and to be as Christians.  Someone I know was recently  the guest preacher at another church and he was asked to preach on the Ten Commandments, which he was happy to do.  But I would have asked why?  Then I would have preached on this passage and expounded on what this means, including Luke's telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which proceeds from the question "but who is my neighbor?"

Have we missed the heart of what is going on and made the Ten Commandments an idol?  I think we have and it's time we stopped focusing on them and instead focusing on what we have actually been called to do which is to proclaim the Kingdom, for the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, and to go into the world loving God and neighbor and making disciples for Christ, or as we United Methodists say, "Make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world."

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Suing the NFL, Who's Next?

Yesterday it was announced that the family of Junior Seau has filed suit against the NFL claiming that they are partly responsible for his death from suicide.  Examination of his brain found that he suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) which means that he had significant brain damage.

Seau's family joins more than 3500 former NFL players who have filed suit against the NFL for what it knew about brain damage, but covered up.  The NFL is making great strides on awareness about concussions, not nearly enough, but they do get credit for what the have done.  But just a few years ago, when there was clear evidence to the contrary, the NFL was claiming that there were not long-term consequences from concussions.

But, what makes Seau a different case from others is that he had never been diagnosed with a concussion, so this appears to be simply the case of the cumulative damage he sustained from hits to the head, or perhaps he was cuncussed and it was either missed or ignored.  I have written a lot about concussions and football in the past, but what doctors are finding is that it is really not the one time concussion that pose a problem but the cumulative effects of hit after hit that is potentially causing the problem.

What's worse is that CTE has been found in the brains of some teenagers and those in their early 20s who had played football.  Now this sample size is nowhere close enough to draw any definitive conclusions, but it certainly does raise significant concerns, which leads me to the question of this post.

I'm wondering why his family is limiting it to just the NFL?  I understand they have deeper pockets then most, but what about the University of Southern California where he played college football?  They are an institution of higher education with a medical school, so what did they know about head trauma and what did they cover up to the detriment of their athletes?  Or what about Oceanside High School?  Or what about Pop Warner football?

I think it is only a matter of time before Pop Warner Football, at the very least, gets named in a class action suit and maybe the NCAA.  This may happen with NFL players, but is more likely to come from families whose sons never played professional football but who sustained brain damage from just the routine hits that come from being a part of the game.

When this happens then I believe we will begin to see significant changes and movement because while the NFL can duck and cover for a long long time, because they have the resources to do so, I highly doubt that Pop Warner, or American Youth Football, will be able to sustain a long, drawn-out court battle.  And when the group where the majority of people actually play football, and which is also a lot less regulated and without doctors on the sidelines to pay attention to these things, then football culture will have to change to accommodate new realities, or it will disappear all together.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hey Phil, It's Time To Get A New Accountant

On Monday, professional golfer Phil Mickelson complained about the taxes he was paying and said that if they didn't change some "drastic" action would need to be taken.  Of course his only course of action would appear to be to stop making so much money, and retire from golf.  But what he said was that he was paying 62% of his income in federal and state taxes, and that was just too much.

When I heard that number, my first thought was not "oh, poor Phil," but instead, there is someone who needs to hire a new accountant and tax attorney.  Even living in a high tax state like California, there is absolutely no way that Phil should be paying taxes that are that high.   Fifty years ago he might have been paying that much, but it's really hard to do today.

As we have seen from recent debates, there are very very few wealthy people paying anywhere close to that number.  I won't say that the number is zero, but it has to be very very small.  Having worked with some people with very large incomes, and seeing what they were writing off their taxes, or having their companies pay for, I know that is not the case.  So what is Phil's accountant doing?  Not much if you ask me and he should immediately find a new one.

Mickelson has since backed off his remarks and "apologized" for making them, because it turns out he's realized that people don't want to hear wealthy people complain about taxes.  According to Forbes, Mickelson is the second highest paid golfer behind Tiger Woods.  Last year he earned around $45 million dollars.  Even if he paid 62% in taxes, which I highly doubt, that still means he took home more than $17 million.  I know my heart bleeds for him, how about yours?

Of course what I would like Mickelson to address is the fact that he received his college education for free at Arizona State University, a  public school, and his father was trained for his career as a commercial pilot using tax payers money since he began as a naval aviator.  So, Phil, how exactly are those things paid for except through taxes?  Was it okay for others to pay for that for you, but you don't feel it's right to pay for that for others?

I know he won't ever answer those questions, so he should simply take my advice and change the team responsible for his money because it is clear that they have no idea what they are doing.

Update:  Some reporters actually decided to do their job and investigate this further, and found that at most Mickelson would pay 51% in taxes.  The first source I used also appears to have underestimated Mickelson's earnings.  According to this article he took in around $61 million, not $45.  So if these numbers are correct the least that he made last year was $29.8 million.  The poor man, how is he ever going to be able to feed his family?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Why?: God After Auschwitz

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  We began a new sermon series on the questions of why. The text was Psalm 91:

I know that there are some people who can tell you exactly which each of the Psalms are about, and what psalm you should read for just about any occasion, but I am not one of those people.  I came across the psalm because it is one that Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens promotes, and last week after the Ravens beat the Denver Broncos he was giving thanks to God for giving him the talent, which is okay, and for giving the Ravens the victory, which I have some problems with.  Of course as he was saying this Peyton Manning was walking away, and I turned to Linda and said that God must like the Ravens more than he likes Peyton Manning, although since Denver unceremoniously got rid of Tim Tebow maybe God was indeed punishing them.  But far too many people are under the greatly mistaken belief that if you believe in Christ, that if you do what God wants you to do and are faithful that our lives with be sunshine and lollipops.  That is certainly what the Psalm that we just heard seems to imply: Believe in God and everything will be grand, we will have no worries, God will take care of everything and we will be eternally protected from anything going wrong.  But when we read the 91st Psalm we know that it doesn’t ring true.  When we look around we don’t see only the wicked being punished, and I use that word lightly, but instead we find ourselves asking why do bad things happen to good people.

And there were two stories from the past few weeks that prove this point that have left two different churches rocked to their core.  From the outside, Harriet Deison appeared to have the perfect life.  Born into one of Dallas’ oldest, wealthiest and most respected families, she married her college sweetheart Pete, who became a Presbyterian minister, with whom she had two daughters, who had given her nine grandchildren.  In addition to her work with the church, she was well known and respected in the Dallas gardening community, she was a judge for the garden club of America, but she also battled crushing episodes of depression for much of her life, and it was in one of those bouts of depression that she went to a gun store on the outskirts of Dallas, bought a gun, then went out to the parking lot and became a victim of suicide.  Leaving behind a mourning family, community and lots and lots of questions.

And then there was Rev. Terry Greer, pastor of a large United Methodist Church in Alabama, who is accused of shooting his wife to death last week, before shooting his daughter, who was able to wrestle the gun from him and flee from the house, probably saving her own life.  Rev. Greer then took a kitchen knife and proceeded to stab himself in the chest and neck multiple times trying to take his own life.  Leaving another community shocked and full of questions, trying to figure out exactly how something like this could happen and where God is in all of this.  Where is God in the midst of tragedy and turmoil, in the midst of suffering and pain, in the midst of disaster and despair, in the midst of the darkness and heartbreak that surrounds us?

When we hear about yet another school shooting we wonder why six year olds are being killed.  When we hear about a natural disaster hitting someplace, sometimes killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions more, we ask questions.  When we hear about the 25,000 people who dies of starvation each day, including 17,000 children, we wonder why this takes place in a world that has enough food to feed everyone.  When we hear about the 2,000 children who die every day because they contract malaria from a mosquito bite, which could be solved with a net which costs only ten dollars, we wonder where God can be in all this.  If God is good, and kind, and loving, and just, and all the things that we claim about God, then how can there be evil in the world, how can there be pain and suffering?

This is known as theodicy, and so we are going to be spending the next four weeks trying to deal with some of these issues, trying to answer some of the why questions.  The answer I give to these questions is going to be very different from where some of you are, and certainly some of the answers typically given by the church.  So like when we covered the book of Revelation, I am going to ask you to listen to what I say with an open mind.  For some of you it will provide you with an answer you might have been thinking but had never before heard and it will provide you with some comfort.  For others it might rock what you had been taught and thought, and maybe leave you a little unsure of what to believe anymore.  And a third group might just get angry and simply say, it can’t be that way, I refuse to believe it, and that’s okay.  But if you are in one of the last two groups I do ask that you still pay attention and take to heart so that you might be able to better respond to those who are dealing with these questions in a different way and be very cognizant of what you are saying to them, or how what you are saying can and often is interpreted by others which leads them not into relationship with God, but instead away from God.

Langdon Gilkey has said that “the reality of evil in our world is the greatest intellectual threat to the convincing power of Christian theology….”  And I would add that this is true because the answers that have been given by the church simply don’t work anymore when seen through the lens of the Holocaust.  I can tell you that in my work with youth and young adults, that this question of theodicy, how can there be a God of love and have the suffering in the world, is one of, if not the, question that leads them away from the church.  When they begin hearing about six million Jews, reportedly God’s chosen people, along with another five million others who were killed in concentration camps, or the twenty million Russians who were killed in the war, they want some answers, and to be honest the answers that the church has typically given just don’t work anymore.

In his seminal work, Night, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Eli Wiesel tells of his experiences as one of the few people to have survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  One of the stories he recounts was of an execution that he and his fellow prisoners were forced to watch.  As they were coming back from work, they saw the gallows had been set up along to execute three prisoners including a young boy who had been accused in a plot of stealing some items.

“The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs.  In unison the nooses were placed around their necks.  “Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.  But the boy was silent.  “Where is merciful God, where is He?”  someone behind me was asking.  At the signal the three chairs were tipped over.  Total silence in the camp.  On the horizon, the sun was setting….  Then came the march past the victims.  The two men were no longer alive.  Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish.  But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…  and so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes.  And we were forced to look at him at close range.  He was still alive when I pass him.  His tongue still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.  Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?”  and from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where He is?  This is where – hanging here from this gallows.”  That night, the soup tasted of corpses.”

Every time I read that quote, I am not quite sure what Eli Wiesel means by his claim that God is on the gallows.  The first interpretation could be that God is with us through everything and so God is there with those who were being executed, just as God was there with those who continued on in the camps.  The second interpretation could be that God is dead.  That this manifestation of evil, the suffering being inflicted on those in the concentration camps, has killed God, or at the very least rendered our understanding of God completely and totally obsolete, and either our understanding of God has to change or we have to get rid of the idea of God altogether.  I think that maybe Wiesel meant both, because for a while he did indeed turn away from his faith (death of father), but he has since returned although his comprehension of and understanding of God has forever been changed, as it must, just as it does for us when we undergo some tragedy or suffering that brings us to our knees crying out to God and asking why or where is God?

But for an ever increasing proportion of the population the answer given by religion, or at least by the church is no longer convincing.  In order to begin to answer that question we have to start with the reality that it’s okay not only to question God about that, but even to be angry and yell at God about these types of situations.  One time I said that during worship and afterwards someone asked me whether I really thought it was okay not only to question God, but even worse to be mad and yell at God, and I told her that not only did I think it was appropriate but it might even be necessary.  She disagreed.  But how can we say that we are in relationship with God if we are not being honest with God about what is really going on in our lives and what we are thinking and feeling?  And do we honestly think that God is not big enough or strong enough to deal with us being mad at God?  If God can’t handle it, then God is not really God.  In addition, what we find throughout scripture is people crying out to God, people questioning God, and people seeking answers to their questions about why people, or why they, suffer.  We need look no further than Jesus’ cry on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus is actually quoting the 22nd Psalm here.  The Psalms are the longest book in the bible, and 1/3 of all the Psalms are complaint psalms, or psalms of lamentation.  Listen to some other lines from the 22nd Psalm, or this from the 13th Psalm.  The scriptures, and in particular the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament, is filled with people not only questioning God, and crying out to God, but also a search for answers.  The longest of the prophets is Jeremiah, known as the crying prophet, who are traditionally wrote the book of Lamentations, and if he did indeed write both then the most writings by one person in scripture are of this person crying out to God.  Then, of course, there is the book of Job, widely regarded as one of the greatest epic poems in literature, in which the main character is a righteous man who is afflicted with tragedy and suffering, and in which Job seeks answers to his questions about why he is suffering when he has been faithful and righteous.  But as it turns out there is not one consistent answer given about why there is suffering in the world, and what we have to remember is that the Bible is a document that is in conversation with itself, and because it’s a conversation it is not universal in its witness to the answers to the questions we ask.

But the answers that are sort of typically given are that everything happens for a reason, that God is in control of everything, and so things happen because God wants them to happen, even if we can’t discern the reasons why.  Or things happen because there is evil in the world, often personified in the person of Satan.  Or things happen because of sin in the world.  I have presided over funerals for an 18-month-old boy, for people who lived with advanced Alzheimer’s for long periods of time, for a teenager who died of a drug overdose, for people who died from suicide, for a man who went into the emergency room three days before his only child was to with a splitting headache and less than a month later he was dead of a brain tumor.  I have worked with people who suffer from chronic pain, those who have been sexually and physically abused, as children and as adults, people who have been left by a spouse, parents who have lost children,  and people whose worlds have been turned upside down, and none of the answers we typically hear, or that we give, are satisfactory to me or to increasing millions of people.  We have to talk about God differently than we ever have because of the reality of Auschwitz, and so next week we will look at those answers and I will tell you what I find in scripture for why there is suffering and pain in the world.

But the last word for today comes from another survivor of Auschwitz whose words are recorded in a book entitled The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors.  He says, “It never occurred to me to question God’s doings or lack of doings while I was an inmate of Auschwitz, although of course I understand others who did….  I was no less or no more religious because of what the Nazis did to us; and I believe my faith in God was not undermined in the least.  It never occurred to me to associate the calamity we were experiencing with God, to blame him, or to believe in him less or cease believing in him at all because he didn’t come to our aid.  God doesn’t owe us that, or anything.  We owe our lives to him…”  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

Monday, January 21, 2013

How Many People Have You Brought To Christ?

At a recent clergy gathering, one of the other preachers said that the problem with the church is that we aren’t asking the right questions.  He said that the only question we should be asked is how many people we have brought to Christ this year?  When he said that everyone sort of turned their heads and looked at him sort of funny, not sure what he was actually saying.  Someone asked him to repeat himself and so he said his question again.

At this second response, I said “are you asking how many adult professions of faith we’ve had?”  And he said yes.  To which I told him “Well, I’ve had five adult professions of faith, but I am not responsible for any of them, and so I guess I would say I haven’t brought anyone to Christ.”  I then followed up by saying “there were hundreds or maybe thousands of people before me who did all the work, and then there was the conviction brought by the Holy Spirit.  None of this was my doing, I just happened to be the one who was there when they decided to make their commitment to God.  And so if you ask how many people I brought to Christ, the answer is none, because the hard work was done before me, but if you ask how many people I’ve had make a profession of faith this year, it’s five.  But those are two very different questions.”

I don’t think he was really happy with my answer, but something I find among my more conservative or evangelical colleagues is a blindness not only to see the work of others, but more importantly not to see the work of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes it even seems that they doubt the work of the Holy Spirit all together with their emphasis on all the work they must do, and have done, to get someone to “come to Christ.”  As a result they take all the credit for something I don’t think they can or should take credit for.

There is best illustrated by someone I know who is routinely going around to different areas of the country preaching “revivals” and putting more notches in his belt, which he is certain to tell you all about.  The problem is he has so many notches that his belt is bound to fall apart anytime and then I wonder what he is going to do.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Lance Armstrong Confesses And I Say "Yawn"

All the reports are saying that in an interview with Oprah scheduled to be broadcast tonight that Lance Armstrong will admit to using performance enhancing techniques in order to make himself a better cyclist.  My response: "Yawn. What else is on?"  Really?  Why do we care about this?  And more importantly why are we shocked?

Yes I know that he has defended himself vigorously for a long long time, but so has Roger Clemens and most people don't believe him.  Is it because he beat cancer?  He has certainly done a lot for cancer research and has been an inspiration to millions, and that can't be taken away.  But again why are we surprised by this?  Cycling has to be one of the most corrupt and drug using sport out there.  I think the last time the Tour de France had a winner who wasn't under suspicion was when the Wright brothers' bicycle shop was sponsoring a team.

There is a lot of speculation of whether this confession will make any difference in public opinion.  The usual cliche that Americans are a forgiving people is being trotted out, but ask Pete Rose, Mark McGwire and Marion Jones, among other notable examples, how that forgiveness thing worked for them. Will Lance ever be able to recover his glory days?  Absolutely not, and his confession won't have any impact on that.  He lost those days when the USADA declared victory and stripped him on his titles.

But once again, just like in baseball, this tirade and animosity seems to be driven by sports reporters more than the general public.  They seem upset that they were lied to and so want to "get him back."  It's a good thing they went into covering sports rather than politics, because if they flew into a tirade every time a politician lied all we would ever see would be tirades.  I think it's time for them to just get over it.

Armstrong is just another example of where we live in sports, all sports, these days. The difference is he overcame a lot more than most other athletes to get there. No athlete is ever as bad or as good as they are seen and portrayed and sports reporters need to understand this fact and stop believing the stories that they themselves are pushing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Baptized People

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 3:15-17, 21-22:

This week I was talking with Dan Boyd who is the pastor of the church in Carlsbad, and we were catching up on how things were going and I was telling him about the work we have had done here following the hail damage from the summer, and he told me that they were having to have some work done as well.  As you probably know, Carlsbad is famous for their caves, and during the summer they have bats which migrate up from Mexico and make the caves their homes, but apparently not all the bats like the caves, and so some of them had decided to make the church their home and their droppings and comings and goings were doing some damage, which they were having to fix. But he said the even bigger problem was trying to get them to stop coming into the church.

They had brought someone in who trapped them and took them out, but they came right back, so then they tried noise and light and everything they could think of, but the bats kept making the church their home, and so as all pastors do when they don’t know where else to go, Dan finally called his district superintendent to let her know what was happening and to get her advice, and Jane said she would think about it and call him back.  Well a few days later Jane called back and said she had thought long and hard about it and had a  solution she knew would work because it had worked in the churches she had served, and so she told Dan that what he needed to do was to go into the attic where the bats were and tell them about Jesus and the gospel and then baptize them and then he would be sure to never see them again.

On the first Sunday after Epiphany every year the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus.  The Baptism represents the beginning of Jesus ministry in all four of the gospel accounts.  In Mark it begins talking about John the Baptist and what he was doing, and then Jesus comes to be baptized.  In Matthew after we told that Mary, Joseph and Jesus have returned from Egypt, he tells us that Jesus was baptized.  The first thing to happen in the Gospel of John, after his introduction about who Jesus is, the word made flesh, he has John the Baptist making his confession about Jesus being the messiah and baptizing him, and then we have today’s baptismal story from Luke.  Of the gospels, this one from Luke is probably the least familiar, it has all the familiar pieces of the story, John out in the wilderness doing his thing, the call to repentance, John’s proclamation about Jesus, and then the baptism.  But Luke has a couple of interesting twists in his telling.

The first is that he is the only one who recounts Jesus praying, when the Holy Spirit descends in a form like a dove, and God’s voice calls from heaven “You are my son, the beloved.”  I think it is crucial to note here, especially for the Gospel of Luke, that this is the first time that we have heard God speaking in the gospels.  In all the announcement stories, to Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, the Shepherds, it is not God who speaks, but a heavenly messenger.  But when Jesus is baptized it is God the Father who speaks.  It is God who makes this proclamation to the world about Jesus, it is God who speaks, it is God who claims Jesus as the beloved, in whom God “is well pleased.”  When we think about the role that baptism plays, and what it does for us, I don’t think we can emphasize that enough, that it is God who claims Jesus, and it is God who claims us too.  In the waters of baptism God says to us “this is my son” or “this is my daughter,” in them I am well pleased.  When we receive the waters of baptize God claims us as beloved children, God claims all of us.

And it is this collective aspect of baptism that strikes me when I read or hear Luke’s version.  I encourage you to go home today and read the other accounts of Jesus’ baptism which are found in the first few chapters of all of the other gospels, and in them, while there are clearly other people around when Jesus goes into the Jordan to be baptized, their stories are more about Jesus then the crowds, they don’t even really need to be present because all the interactions are between John and Baptist and Jesus, and then of course God.  But here Jesus and John don’t even interact, and we are told “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized” and was then praying.  Jesus is just one among many who were baptized that day.  And notice that it does not say that Jesus was baptized into the United Methodist Church, and some others were baptized Roman Catholic, and others were baptized Southern Baptist. 

Now that may seem obvious and maybe even a little silly to say, but I don’t think it is because how many times have you heard someone claim about what is acceptable or not when it comes to baptism?  Maybe even some of you have been told that your baptism is not valid and that you need to be baptized?  I know there are people in this town who would say that I am not baptized because I was baptized as an infant.  Even more, some would claim that you are not baptized unless you have been baptized in their church.  When we make these arguments we convey a fundamental misunderstanding of baptism because these arguments move the saving action from God to us.  God’s actions are no longer important because everything is dependent on who is saying the words, where they are said, and what is being done when they are being said.  But remember that baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  The grace is conveyed by God, not by us.  The forgiveness is given by God, not by us.  The adoption is given by God, not by us.  God does not depend on us to make God effective and efficient, we depend on God.  God is the primary actor in baptism, not us. 

And while we might be baptized by a particular church, we are baptized into Christ and become members of the body of Christ.  The church in its most basic form is the body of the baptized.  The church is not this building, it is not the documents that make us unique, it is not me or whoever is serving as preacher.  The church is the people who make it up.  As we meet to discuss what the future of this congregation looks like, it is incredibly important to remember that the church is the people, the work of the church is the people.  I am not the church, this building is not the church, the leaders are not the church, Jane is not the church, the bishop is not the church.  We are all the church.

After the Baptism of his baby brother in church on Sunday, little Johnny sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the boy replied, "That minister said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys."

In addition to remembering that in its most basic form the church is the collection of the baptized, what we also have to remember is what we also received when we are baptized, and that is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is one of the things that Luke emphasizes not just in his gospel but also in Acts.  In the passage we heard from Acts 8 this morning, Peter lays hands on people and invokes the Holy Spirit because they did not receive it at their baptism.  Later in Acts 19 we are told that in Ephesus Paul encountered a group following Jesus, but he finds out that they have been only been baptized into John’s baptism, or a baptism of repentance, and have not heard of the Holy Spirit.  And so Paul Baptized them in the name of Jesus and laid hands upon them and invoked on them the Holy Spirit.  While one of the common images used for the Holy Spirit is the dove, it is another form I would like to highlight, and the one Luke highlights.

John the Baptist says “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming…  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  The reason that the United Methodist symbol has the flame is to represent the Holy Spirit.  And I’m sure there are people who are a lot smarter than me that this already occurred to, but what struck me this week is that with the application of the water of baptism, we receive the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Now normally water puts out fire, but in this case the water causes the fire.  Or to give a different illustration, the Holy Spirit is like a grease fire, and instead of being put out with the waters of baptism, the water instead causes the fire to explode. 

Last week I received a note from someone that said “What can we do to get this church hot?”  At first I thought it was a complaint about the temperature in the sanctuary, but it continued “and make people to want to be a part of this church?”  “What can we do to get this church hot and make people want to be a part of this church?”  The answer to that is that we have to get hot ourselves, we have to burn with the Holy Spirit, and we have to believe that when we receive the Holy Spirit that we receive the power of the Holy Spirit.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, famously said, and you’ve heard me say this before, “I didn’t do anything amazing, I simply set myself on fire and people came out to watch me burn.”  And what happens with fire is that it wants to spread, it doesn’t want to be contained, and when people see others burning with the power of the Holy Spirit, then they too want to burn.  Its contagious and wants to spread.  When you throw water on a grease fire it explodes and spreads and cannot be contained, and that is the initiation and the gift we get when we receive the waters of baptism.

But, as much as water might require the fire of baptism to explode, there is one thing that can kill it and that is when we are SOB.  Notice that I did not say, when we are sobs, but instead  just SOB, which is medical terminology, which means?  Where are my EMT’s?  It means shortness of breath.  Like of oxygen kills a fire just as much as it can kill us, and another manifestation of the Spirit is breath.  In the opening chapter of genesis we are told “the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.”  It hovered there ready to create life in those very waters, and it is ready to create life in us, it is ready to generate fire in us, it is ready to generate power in us, but just because we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit does not mean that we have actually received it.  If we are SOB, then the Spirit is not alive within us, it is not burning in us, and if it’s not burning in us then it won’t be burning in others. 

What fire needs to burn is oxygen, fuel and heat, and so in the words of two different preachers “If you want to set someone on fire, you have to burn a little yourself,” and “a burning heart will soon find for itself a burning tongue.” Say that with me, “If you want to set someone on fire, you have to burn a little yourself,” and “a burning heart will soon find for itself a burning tongue.”  The church has always relied upon tongues of fire from its members to spread the gospel to the world, and it still does, it requires each and everyone of us because “If you want to set someone on fire, you have to burn a little yourself,” and “a burning heart will soon find for itself a burning tongue.”

As we remember our baptism today, we need to remember that through our baptism that we are baptized into the body of Christ and that the church is not the building, it is not the minister, the church is the body of the baptized, it is you and me, and the work of the church is done by us through the power, through the fire, through the breath of the Holy Spirit which is given to us, but which needs to be renewed and re-invited into our lives.  The waters of baptism set the fire of the Holy Spirit ablaze in our lives and in the lives of our communities, but only if we are willing to receive the spirit into our lives and allow the waters to cause the fire to explode in our lives.  How do we make this church hot?  How do we set it on fire so that people will come?  Well “if you want to set someone on fire, you have to burn a little yourself” and “a burning heart will soon find itself a burning tongue.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Photography As Art?

Let me begin by first making it clear that I do think photography is art, and that some photographers are incredibly talented.  But, as someone once said, one of the problems with most people seeing photography as art is the fact that everyone has a camera and takes photos.  Most of us can't draw or paint or sculpt, and so we see the things that we can't do and understand the gift of art, but almost all of us have a camera and we can push a button and that seems to make a major difference in how people view the medium.

But I do have to say, and this is the point of this post, that some photographers do not do themselves any help in this matter.  After every football game you see the coaches and the players go into the middle to greet each other, and amongst them will be professional photographers taking photos.  But not just any photos, they are holding their cameras up over their heads just snapping away.  Every time I see that I know there are people thinking "Hey, I can hold a camera over my head and snap photos, maybe that's what I should do with my life," and the art of photography takes 10 steps backwards.

Friday, January 11, 2013

It's A Psalm Not a Psalms

I know this is a little nit picky, but it's a personal pet peeve of mine.  Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens was wearing this shirt last Sunday when conducting some of his post game interviews.

From LA Times
In case you can't read it it says "Psalms 91."  The entire group of them are called psalms, just as a group of the balls used for his sport are called footballs, but when it is referring to just one then we remove the "s" to make it singular.  He does not catch a footballs plural, he catches a football  singular (or not as the case may be from his last game), and it is a psalm singular when referring to only one, not a psalm

So let's reiterate one more time.  When you are talking about multiples or about the whole book it is Psalms, but when you are only talking about one it is Psalm.  Singular not plural.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Obscure 1 Point Safeties And Other Sports Ramblings

Well the college football season has now come to a close.  I was one of those who said that Notre Dame would not be able to hold their own against Alabama, and it turns out I was right.  I say that note to gloat but to bemoan yet another terrible BCS championship game. People are now saying "oh it will be better when the playoff starts" and perhaps it will because then we would have seen Oregon and Alabama meet, but it will still be only four teams and won't really solve anything.

One of the biggest problems with the current format, and the proposed format, is that the teams have way too much time off before what is supposed to be the biggest game of the year.  Notre Dame had more than 40 days off between games. Teams are bound to get rusty.  Would Notre Dame have stood a chance if they have met Alabama just a few weeks after their last game?  I think Alabama would have still won, but I think it would have been at least a close game.

But, my question continues to be if we can have a full playoff system in every other sport and every other division, including football for 1-aa, div. 2 and div. 3, why can't we have a full playoff system for div. 1 football?  I know the easy answer is money, but look at how much the NCAA makes off the basketball tournament.  It is what funds the NCAA for the year.  There is lots of money to be made, so what is the real reason?

One of the reasons that I think baseball is a superior sport is because you can attend any game at any level and there is a chance that you might see something you have never ever seen before.  That is normally not the case in football, but there was one this year.  In the bowl game between Oregon and Kansas State, KS blocked a point after attempt and recovered the ball, but then they took it back into their own end zone where they were tackled.  The result of this play was a one point safety.  That is something that not only had I never seen I had never even heard of it. But not only me, lots of sports columnists were talking about the fact they had never seen it before.  I was very impressed that the referees even knew the rule it was so obscure.

The Milwaukee Bucks fired their head coach this week. I didn't even know there was still an NBA team in Milwaukee, and he should have been heralded as a saint and savior just for the fact that he had them at .500.  I mean honestly, when was the last time you heard anyone talk about the Bucks or if they did that anyone actually cared (outside of Wisconsin, and even that might be a stretch)?

People are shocked that so many college coaches are turning down the opportunity to go to the NFL this year.  I have been pleasantly surprised by some of the decisions, like Chip Kelly at Oregon, and baffled by others who did leave, like Doug Marrone who was 25-25 in his career at Syracuse, not exactly a football powerhouse.  But the good news for Marrone is that he is going to the Buffalo Bills who no one expects to win, or really even compete, including ownership, as can best be seen by the past decade worth of stupid decision after stupid decision.

I think some of the reason why college coaches are staying is because the teams they are being offered are so terrible that there is no chance to be successful.  It's okay to leave a terrible college football team to take over a terrible NFL team, but why would you leave Oregon to go to Kansas City or Cleveland?  But I think an even bigger reason now is that the money between college and the pros is almost the same now, and you have a lot greater control in college than you ever do in the pros, so staying is beginning to make a lot more sense.

Nick Saban continues to say that he is not leaving Alabama, so if you are an administrator at Alabama, based on his track record, I would put the process to start looking for a new coach into place.

It was announced yesterday that no one was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this year, which is just a joke.  What sportswriters are going to have to understand is that it was the "steroid era" and it wasn't just a couple of years.  Best estimates are that it began as early as 1984 and lasted well into this century (and still lasts as test results have shown).  The Hall is supposed to represent the best players of their generation based on what was going on then, and so players should be inducted into the hall with the understanding that steroids were a part of that era and noted as such.

Jose Canseco has been shown to be right on just about everything he claimed so far, and he claimed that maybe up to 90% of players were using, so are we just not going to except anyone from 20 years worth of playing?  Or are we going to begin picking and choosing about who was clean and who was not? There have been no rumors about Ken Griffey, Jr., but he was hitting home runs at the same rate, and was also very prone to injury, as players who are assumed or have admitted to using PEDs, so what do we do?  Put him in and keep the others out?  And on what basis could we possibly do that?

What I really don't understand is the anger that sports writers seem to have about this issue.  They were just as guilty of ignoring it as everyone else, so where is their anger coming from?  That they feel like they were cheated?  How?  The simple fact is the vast majority of fans simply didn't and don't care, so it's time for them to get over it and start putting in the best players of this era, because they were the best in their circumstances, the same as Ty Cobb never had to face black pitchers but we don't count that against his hitting titles and remove him.  Let's just simply be honest about what happened and move on.

The other great problem is who is voting for these players and how it's done.  To become a voter you must have been a member of the baseball writers association for 10 years, but after that you're in.  I remember a couple of years ago someone who was a voter wrote in the newsletter for his retirement community that on his ballot he would never vote for someone who used PEDs but then said who he voted for which included two people who were in the Mitchell Report.  Reporters also use their vote as their own personal vendetta machine.  Maury Allen recounts the glee he got every year in not voting for Thurman Munson because he didn't like him.  These are the people we allow to vote?

The entire structure needs to be completely reworked.  It should be narrowed at the very least to people who are actually still covering the sport, so if you retire of move onto football, you lose your vote.  Some have argued that it should be more like the football hall of fame with a rotating panel, or more like the veterans committee who look at older players.  The problem with the veterans committee is that they have completely ignored people who should be in, like Marvin Miller, because of their own personal biases, and the same thing happens for the NFL.  There are players that should be in but are not.

I don't know what the solution is, but as someone said yesterday on Around the Horn, we have to decide if the hall is a museum or a shrine.  If it's a museum of baseball then the best players should get in with information about the era included.  But if it's a shrine then we need to go in and remove all the other scum who shouldn't be idolized or worshiped who are in there already.

Finally, since I was too busy to address this in December, can we now drop the pretension that the Heisman Trophy is set aside for the best football player in the country?  What this year showed us is what we have already known for a long time, to win the award you have to play on the offensive side, and even more you must be a quarterback, running back or occasionally a receiver.  No one else is eligible.  So let's start calling it what it is, which is the award for the best offensive player.  Let's elevate the status of the Bednarick Award or the Nagurski Award, which are for the best defensive player (although it goes almost exclusively to linebackers), and which Manti Te'o won this year, and make them equal, and then put the charade that it's for the best player aside.  And while we're at it let's just admit to linemen on offense and defense that they simply don't matter, because they have to share their award.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Three People From Somewhere

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 2:1-12:

Today represents the last vestiges of Christmas, if there is anything left.  Kids go back to school tomorrow, and adults who have been off for the holidays return to work.  People have taken down their trees and the ornaments and decorations have been packed up and returned to the attic or basement, or maybe like me everything has been piled in one location waiting to be packed up.  The surprises and the excitement of the season are gone, along with the songs and the decorations, and yet today we celebrate epiphany, which represents the official end of the Christmas season.

As much as Fox News might like to talk about a war on Christmas, I have to be in agreement with Diana Butler Bass that it’s not a war on Christmas, it’s a war on Advent, because Christmas doesn’t end on December 25, Christmas begins in December 25, and it officially ends today with Epiphany.  Epiphany, means appearance or manifestation, and it commemorates the arrival of the wisemen as the manifestation of Jesus to the gentiles.  In many cultures, especially in Latin countries, Epiphany is more important of a Holiday than is Christmas and is celebrated through gift-giving and parties.  For those with young children you may have even seen the Dora special celebrating Three Kings Days.  In the Orthodox church, it is the third most important day of the year following only Easter and Pentecost.

But before we get into the meaning of today’s passage, there are some things we must clear up.  First, even though all of our nativity sets say differently, the wisemen and the shepherds are never in the manger together.  In fact, Matthew does not have a manger scene, and it is impossible to harmonize the birth stories of Luke and Matthew.  To even try is to do violence to the text and to miss what each writer is trying to accomplish in the telling of his story.  Matthew’s birth story is particularly sparse, in which we are only told that Jesus was and then we move into today’s readings.  So let’s start by wiping our minds clean off all images of a babe lying in a manger surrounded by shepherds and angelic farm animals.

Second, let’s also remove most of the ideas that we have been taught, seen or read about the wisemen and who they are.  As an extra credit question on her final exam each year, my worship professor at BU would always ask what the traditional names are for the wisemen.  Without failure each year she would get Huey, Dewey and Louie as well as Manny, Mo and Jack. While traditionally the names are given as Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar, the simple fact is we have no idea what their names are.  The names do not come to us until a document, usually attributed to the Venerable Bede, which dates to the mid 8th century.

This document is also the one that describes one as being Asian, one as African, and one as Arab.  If you look at your nativity set, they will probably have these characteristics.  It is also where we have an interpretation of meaning behind  the gifts, with gold as being representative of a king, frankincense as something which was burned in the temple as part of the sacrifice, and myrrh as something used in embalming, therefore the gifts seemed to have symbolic representation for what was to come.  But, not only where these things probably unknown to Matthew but they were unknown to the church for the first 750 years as well.

Next, even though in a few minutes we are going to sing “We Three Kings” we don’t know how many there are.  Three has been the tradition in the western church because of three gifts, but in the Eastern church the tradition has been 10 or 12, because the text doesn’t say.  The wisemen were also not kings.  This probably comes from imagery found in the 72nd Psalm and/or Isaiah 60.  There are only two kings in this story, Herod and Jesus, and there can only be two because that is the dichotomy that plays out, the conflict and power struggle between the kingdom of Rome, represented by Herod and later Herod’s son and Pontius Pilate, and the Kingdom of God, of course represented by Christ.  To add any other rulers to this scenario, even if they are giving alliance to Jesus, diminishes what Matthew is setting up, and it the tension between worship and hostility to Jesus which is also being emphasized.

Finally, there is lots of debate and information about the star.  If you do a Google search for Star of Bethlehem you’ll get about 1.4 million hits.  There was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BCE, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in 6 BCE and Jupiter and Venus in 3 BCE, among others which are given as possibilities for the star.  But it my opinion this is all ridiculous speculation that totally misses what is going on in this story.  This star does not and cannot correspond to just any normal astrological event.

Again, paying attention to what the scripture actually says shows us something radically different.  Even though this seemed to be a significant event for the wisemen, at least enough to bring them hundreds if not thousands of miles, it was not noticed in Israel, as Herod has to ask them when it occurred, and then the star appears to them again after they have left, although apparently only they can see it since Herod and his people don’t follow it, and then it leads them to Bethlehem and then stops over the house where Jesus lives.  Now I’ve spent some time looking at stars, but I’ve never been able to tell what house someone might live in based on a star, it would have to be sitting right over the house and so this is unlike any star I have ever witnessed and so speculation about natural events misses the importance of the star and of God’s guiding purpose, which leads me to the point of this message.

In his poem “For the Time Being”, which talks about the time just after Christmas, W.H. Auden says “once again, as in previous years we have seen the actual vision and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility, once again we have sent him away, begging though to remain his disobedient servant.” For more than a month we have been hearing the story again and making our way to the manger, and so we look again to the star and seek meaning.

There is a star out there for each of us guiding us not only to the Christ child but also to the cross.  The problem, just like with Herod, is not only in seeing the star but also in following the star.  What makes this story important, and the only reason we know about it, is because the wisemen where willing and able not only to follow the star but more importantly to move their worship from their head to their heart, to make it a part of who they were.  In this they are like the only other people we know who came to see Jesus, and that is the shepherds.  On Christmas Eve I asked how many other people who the message from the angels, but didn’t respond, didn’t do anything?  How many other people saw the star, and didn’t do anything?

Many of you have heard the story of my calling to the ministry and so you also know that it took me a long time to follow that star, and the struggle between the head and the heart is a constant struggle, but in order to worship with my whole being that is what I have to do.  Where are you being called?  “What is your star?  What is it that has you questioning meaning or your purpose?  What has seized your attention and made you start wondering what is going on?”  The star still shines for each of us, and all of us are called to respond, but to do that we have to be willing to step out of our comfort zone and to follow God and be willing to allow God to lead and guide us, and that’s where the difficulty begins.

Katherine Mitchell is a Methodist minister in southern Massachusetts.  Before coming to seminary Katherine had worked as an emergency mental health counselor, and so she is very good at always being able to be in control of situations, telling you exactly what she is thinking and what is going on because in many cases her life depended on that ability.  If you are in a group and wonder who is going to be in charge, you can bet that Katherine will be one of the first to step up and take a leadership role.

Recently she was asked to participate in a program similar to dancing with the stars to help support one of the community groups in the town where she serves.  At the time she agreed to it, she assumed she would just have to show up on the day of the event do some dancing and then everyone would vote on who was best.  But shortly after saying yes, she received a call from Arthur Murray dance studio asking when she wanted to come in and start her dance lessons.  She put if off for as long as she could, came up with as many reasons as she could, in other words struggling with the commitment, before she finally had to give in and go.

Katherine is about fifty, stands maybe 5’5” and as I said, fully in control of her life.  When she showed up for her first lesson, she was assigned to a dance instructor who was 23, although she side he looked like he was 15, and he was shorter than she is.  They danced for their hour appointment, and when it was over he said to her, “you have the skills and the ability to be a good dancer, but in order for this to work you are going to have to let go and let me lead.”  And Katherine’s response?  She said “now look here little man, do you have any idea who I am.  I am Pastor Katherine, and I’m the one in control.” To which her dance instructor said, “You’re a minister, aren’t you used to following God’s lead, this should be easy for you.”

As you might imagine, this floored her and she had to look deeply at what she was doing and how she was living her life, and what she found was that she was not so good at following and so she made a conscious effort to let go.  This decision has not only radically changed her relationship with her family, her relationship with her congregation, but most importantly it has changed her relationship with God.  Since that day she has had some life altering experiences that she knows God has led her to, that she would never have had before, because she would never have to let go of what she wanted to do long enough to allow them to happen.  For the first time in her life she now feels as if she is truly being guided by God, everyday of her life from the time she gets up to the time she goes to bed, and sometimes even in her dreams, because she was willing to let go and let God lead the dance of her life.

How are we doing?  Are we able to let God lead, or are we fighting and trying to be the one who controls where, when and perhaps even what dance is being done?  I would have to say that I am not very good at this myself.  I have trouble giving up and giving over to God.  Even though some of the most profound experiences in my life have occurred when I have turned myself over to God to be led, but that is always the struggle.  But giving ourselves over to God is not about giving up, or being passive.  Being a dancing partner requires both parties to be involved and participating.  Dancing is a give and take relationship.  If one person does nothing but let the other person do all the work, then they are like a rag doll and that does not make a beautiful dance.  Instead, both partners need to be in relationship with each other, working with each other, but one person has to be in control, and if that person is us then the dance is not as beautiful as it could be.

It has been the tradition in Methodism since the days of John Wesley at the beginning of the new year to recite the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, although I suspect that most of you have said it more in the two years I’ve been here than in all the time you might  have been attending a Methodist church, but we’re going to say it again as we prepare for the new year:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

The wisemen acted in response to God’s initiative to guide them to the child.  God’s grace always precedes our actions, so where is God’s grace reaching out to you?  Where is God guiding you, and are you willing to respond?  Let us give thanks to God sisters and brothers for the guiding star in our lives.  Amen.          

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Kids Say The Darndest Things: Santa Edition

This morning I was driving into town to take my youngest daughter to her school, and we have to drive alongside railroad tracks so we are often talking about the trains that are going by.  The train today was filled with coal cars, and so when I told my daughter what it was she said, "Do you think they are taking all that coal to Santa?"  You just can't make this stuff up.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Prayers and Poems for this 12th Day of Christmas

Two Poems by Howard Thurman as we celebrate the 12th Day of Christmas and move onto Epiphany tomorrow:

Christmas Blessing
I will light candles this Christmas
Candles of joy, despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage where fear is ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens.
Candles of love to inspire all my living.
Candles that will burn all the year long.

The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Closing A Church: Success Or Failure?

I am currently serving two small rural churches in New Mexico.  One of them is considerably smaller than the other, and when I was appointed here I was told that it was a Hospice church, that I was to walk them through to their death.  The church is in a town of 72 that is decreasing in population. In recent years there have been talks of closing the post-office and also closing the school, so the church reflects what is going on around it.

Recently two of our oldest members decided it was time for them to move to an assisted living facility in the next major town which is an hour away. With their departure, which has not happened yet, we will drop down to four people, plus myself and the pianist, that I can count on being in worship each week, which had me begin to talk with them in much more detail about the future of the church and closing the church. The Cabinet (which for those non-United Methodists consists of area superintendents and the Bishop and they are the one who make pastoral appointments) based on the information I provided to them has said that they will not appoint anyone there starting in July.

That means that this little church is having to face some very difficult decisions in the very near future.  We have already met and discussed it and obviously there is much sadness around this decision although they have recognized the situation they are in and are dealing well and asking the right questions and seeking answers.

But it's got me thinking a lot of the life of churches.  For some reason we have come to the conclusion that churches are immortal and that they should live forever and if they don't that we have failed in some way.  I certainly don't think that's the case, but sometimes I feel like I am in the decided minority in that belief.  In my last conference, the Bishop there was so averse to closing churches that he would continually say "If there is a church with just two people who are full of the love of Jesus then I won't close them." As a result we were supporting lots of churches that probably should have been closed long ago. I think a lot of the Bishop's position was driven not be true concern for making disciple by more by the fact that if the Bishop is closing churches then he looks bad, he is not "succeeding". My response every time he said this was that, except for some extraordinary circumstances, if there were two people full of the love of Jesus then there wouldn't only be two people, but that's another issue.

But that leads me back to the question of whether closing is a failure of the church or instead we can see it as a success?  I know that dealing with a rural church is different than one in a populated area, but why can't we celebrate the life that the church had, what it did and what it meant to people just as we would do in a funeral service?  When someone dies at the age of 95 we don't say, "their life was a failure because they didn't keep living on," so why do we do that with churches?

My asking this question is not really dispassionate because what really has me thinking about this is that this is my first appointment in this conference, and although it was known this little church would close at some point I don't think anyone expected it this soon.  Some of that has been because I pushed the issue.  I could have kicked the can down the road for someone else to deal with, but that wouldn't have done anyone any favors, so now I will go down on record as the last pastor to serve this church.  Will this later count against me, and will I be discussed for future appointments as the person who closed the church there, and therefore miss out on bigger churches?

No matter what happens, personally I view this as a success in my ministry.  I am helping this congregation, this family, to deal with the death of an important part of their life, and am walking them through this process the same as I would do in other death situations, and more importantly I am helping them to remember that we are an Easter people that this is not the end, but how will this be viewed by those at the top?  Will I be seen as a success because I accomplished this task and helped this little congregation or will I be viewed as a failure as well because I closed the church and therefore didn't "save" them?