Archive for 2016

Matthew 2:13-23

When we do Christmas, it is very tempting to skip the story of King Herod's murdering the children of the Bethlehem region. In a year when the innocent children of Syria, and their parents, have been made to suffer, this ommission is unconsciencable. I remember one adroit fool suggesting that we could skip Matthew 2:13-23 in our Sunday lections because the event discribed doesn't appear in the secular histories of the time and could have been made up by Matthew. The only secular histories we have from this period are pro-Roman (Josephus wants to paint the Herodians in a better light for his Roman audience) the way Putin/Trump is pro-Assad and love FOX news. Putting current political concerns asside, the real reason for preaching Matthew's slaughter of the Innocents is to counter our dangerous tendency to down play the depravity of the human heart. When we say, "No one could do such evil," we give tacid support to the rise of dictators and future holacausts. 

 

I want to quickly list bullet points for telling Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt:

  • We need to remind people that grace is free, but it isn’t cheap.
  • Both Matthew and Luke foreshadow the suffering of the cross. Matthew in both the spices that the wiremen carry, as well as, in the suffering of innocent children and their families. Luke has Simeon warn Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:35)
  • The people in our pews will have had a mixed holiday season. In every family there is both grief and joy. Sensitive pastoral messages recognize this.
  • Mary and Joseph knew the villagers who lost children. They were in Bethlehem for some time, perhaps as long as two years. This too, foreshadows Jesus’ compassion from the cross on the thieves and family members who suffer with him.
  • The flight into Egypt is a symbol of transition. We don’t get to go from the Old Testament to the New Testament without crossing a wilderness. In our personal lives, our transitions into new seasons (adulthood, marriage, retirement, death,etc.) always involves risk, loss, and travel to unfamiliar territory.
  • Herod, and the political powers of our current world that sacrifice innocent lives in order to maintain their own agenda, are real evil. Jesus came into the world to confront the depths of human sin. That means challenging people, not just on a spiritual level, but also on the political and social level. Our ongoing hopes for justice, an end to children starving, and world peace, are brought to mind as we talk of this tragedy that happened in Bethlehem long ago.
  • This is the way God tells His story, not with sugar plum fairies and mistletoe, but with pain and expensive love.
Sunday, January 1, 2017
Would Assad, Trump, our Putin allow their grandchildren to sit in this rubble?
Isaiah 9:2-7
Matthew 2:1-10

It is the Christmas after an election year and we read Isaiah’s prophesy knowing that Isaiah’s audience heard it as a political statement. The people of the Bible actually were looking for someone to make their nation great again. They heard Isaiah and imagined a ruler with such wisdom that there would be; “endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (9:7)

 

King Herod wasn’t called the Great for nothing. He was a scrappy outsider who came into his throne by subtly playing the political game more ruthlessly than his rivals. He was a builder, a maker of high fortress towers and the developer of entertainment properties (note he built a Greek style stadium in Jerusalem). His most famous project was the Temple. He demolished the humble structure that had stood on the temple mount — the one that had been constructed by the prayers and sacrifices of the Babylonian refugees under Nehemiah and made pure by the miracle of Hanukah under the Maccabees — Yes, that is the temple that Herod tore down. He built a lavish monument to his own name in its place. The temple that Herod spent forty years building felt so worldly that the Romans couldn’t understand why they couldn’t use it for sacrifices to their emperor. Forty years after Jesus, the Romans grew tired of Herod’s people and destroyed both the temple and the nation. Even though Herod had established a great dynasty and left his descendants in charge of his empire, he didn’t establish a nation built on justice with peace and prosperity for all. Under the Herodians the rich became very rich, but the poor had no friend in high places except Jesus.

 

Like Herod, Jesus was an outsider. His parentage was uncertain. He grew up in the projects, far from the courts and the Temple. He never built anything. He never published a royal decree, let alone a book. All of his teachings were recorded by others. He told stories that involved shepherds and farmers and dealt with everyday life. He never tweeted or took pot-shots at his rivals. He reasoned with his detractors. He healed and answered the prayers of all who came to him, whether they be high born or poor, Romans or Jews, friends or foes.   

 

One key difference between Jesus and Herod the Great was that Jesus had a succession plan. Herod the Great seemed oblivious to the fact that he would die. Jesus came into the world in order to die for sinners. Herod considered anyone who challenged him to be disloyal and a threat. Jesus forgave his enemies and invited them into his kingdom. Herod expected his kingdom to pass to his sons, but he kept murdering family members as soon as they showed any interest in reigning. A few years after Herod the Great died the Romans had to step in and rescue the nation from what remained of the Herodians. They divided the kingdom up and put their Syrian governor (little irony here) in charge of things.  The Herodian family continued to wear crowns and rule on thrones in Galilee and Perea, but the Temple and Jerusalem were in foreign hands and run as a commercial enterprise funneling money to Rome.

 

Jesus had a better plan. From before the creation of the world he planned for his succession. He enlisted the Holy Spirit to rule in the hearts of those would accept his kingdom. We then, are responsible for fulfilling the promises of Isaiah. Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit we bring peace and mercy to those around us. We continue Jesus’ rule of compassion and justice. We are a distributed network of righteousness. We are the Davidic rule that will go on forever.

Christmas Day
Sunday, December 25, 2016
Who gets to sit on the Iron Throne?
Matthew 1:18-25

I’d like to criticize Joseph today. I don’t think that his plan to dismiss Mary quietly is all that virtuous. I know, the alternative was to drag her to the public square and have her be publicly shamed and stoned. But, what would Jesus have Joseph do? I mean Jesus would later teach an ethics that demanded love, even when there is no religious value at stake. If there had been no angelic visitation, with its mysterious explanation for Mary’s pregnancy, there still would be a child coming into this world.  It seems to me, that the concerns of that child, whoever he or she is, should be primary. That child deserves a father. The cultural stigma that segregates children born out of wedlock is evil. If it hadn’t been for the angel, the personal queasy-ness, that Joseph may have mistaken for his conscience, would have caused him to disown this child just because he wasn’t biologically related to it. This is a gut level, animalistic, response to painful relational issues. Humanity today, needs a better ethic.

 

    In the church this Sunday, there will be grandparents and fathers who routinely value the adopted and step-children of their families less than their ‘real’ children. Culture and conscience are often wrong — see the book: “Don’t let conscience be your guide” by C. Ellis Nelson.  Jesus brought to the world a new way of evaluating ethical quandaries. He says that in every situation we must do the thing that is most loving. We must consider the needs of individuals, most particularly, dependents. The unsupported widow and the child become the lynchpins of the new system of social responsibility. In Matthew 18:9, when talking about our responsibility to children and other dependents, Jesus says, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” Could our evil ‘eye’ be Jesus’ image for a cultural conscience gone bad? The apostle Paul fleshes out Jesus’ context-driven teaching, by contrasting the old systematic ethics based upon mosaic law with the simple understanding that Love is the highest law.  Both Jesus and Paul depend upon the merger of love and justice that the Old Testament prophets sought to bring to the fore.

 

    We, like Joseph, tend to consider the opinions of our neighbors higher than our faith when we are faced with a moral choice. We criticize unwed teens, but do little to make our highschools better enviroments for relational growth. The abortion debate, today, hijacks us into the legal quagmire of when life begins (something that God has shrouded in in mystery). Meanwhile, we still allow the majority of our children to grow up without a loving father figure. Further, the church does little to transform those neighborhoods where a normal and safe childhood is an impossibility. We debate the meaning of the constitution, when it gives us the right to bear arms, rather than asking how we can prevent children from being murdered on their front porches in Chicago or in their living rooms in the Hazelwood section of Pittsburgh. It is time for  the church to become less legalistic. It is time for us to stop reinforcing the cultural norm when it falls short of Jesus’ demand that we always do the loving thing.

 

Advent 4
Sunday, December 18, 2016
What if Maury Povich is the real father?
Luke 1:46-55

When reading Mary’s Magnificat song, I am reminded of Lou Gerhig’s speech about being the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Just how is Mary lucky? I am of the opinion that the Holy Spirit did a full disclosure — or at least she knew on a deep, intuitive level, the sorrow this pregnancy would bring her. We do well to name the three parts of Mary’s misfortune: 1) the active shaming by family and neighbors of her having a child out of wedlock, that continues for decades and is even amplified when that child is grown 2) her own misunderstanding and the suspicions of those around her, as to whether Jesus was in his right mind 3) the agonizing day when she watched her son die on the cross.  How is she the most blessed among women?

The Magnificat is a song of the oppressed — it is important not to gloss over the people Mary is identifying with — the hungry, the impoverished, and particularly, the nation-people groups who have been colonized by a foreign military power. Mary’s song could get her on the Roman government's watch list of suspected terrorists.

Yet, Mary considers herself blessed because she has been given a role in bringing about God’s answer to injustice. It is not good enough for Mary that she has a healthy child, she wishes for her people, that Jesus would do what Moses did for God’s people over 1200 years before. How would the Jesus, that Mary has these expectations of, make a difference in our world today?

Instead of painting Mary like Rueben did, with sweet passivity, we should picture her as Delacroix’s 1830 painting, Liberty Leading the People, or for those Le Miserables fans, as Eponine.  At any rate, we should not let the sweet sentimentality of today’s Christmas, nor its accompanying materialism, rob us of the heroic attitude of Mary. She stands in a biblical linage that includes Ruth, Debra, Judith, Queen Esther, and Rahab the Prostitute.

Advent 3
Sunday, December 11, 2016
Delacroix 1830 "Liberty Leading the People"
Isaiah 11:1-10

In the early 1800's there was an American painter named Edward Hicks who became fixated on the eleventh chapter of Isaiah. He painted a child with his arm around a lions neck, his fingers twirling the mane and at his feet a wolf lay with a lamb and a leopard and goat and behind them a big brown bear and all were at peace.  He painted this same image over sixty times, with a variety of backdrops and arrangements of the characters — but always a diverse group of normally competitive creatures were at peace. The paintings all have the same title; The Peaceable Kingdom.  

 

Now for the rest of the story — Edward Hicks was a Quaker Minister who in 1820 found himself embroiled in a theological controversy which threatened to split the church. It’s a terrible thing when friends fight. Hicks and his cousin were the leaders of the losing side of this controversy. He eventually gave up on the fight and concentrated on repeatedly painting the Peaceable Kingdom. Some people think that Hicks kept his sanity in the midst of the turmoil was by focusing and painting a world were there was peace. And some people think that Hick was with each of these 60 paintings laying out a symbolic olive branch before his enemies and saying look lets stop fighting. But, I think that Hicks was asking a question in each of those paintings:“If Jesus is messiah and Jesus has come, why are we still fighting?” 

 

The commitment to be peace makers lies at the heart of everything Jesus and Isaiah teaches. I believe that peace is possible in every situation. No matter how conflicted your family or workplace is, peace can be achieved. I have seen dogs and cats lie down and sleep on the same bed. We are not to be ruled by our competitive animal natures. I believe that peace is possible, even in lands which have long known conflict, like the Middle East. I believe in peace. What is the alternative?

 

Further, I believe that being a peacemaker requires me to learn how to control my own inner conflicts. I need to learn mediation skills. I need to apply what I know about family systems to the social systems that I am a part of. I am never released from the obligation to be a peace maker.

Advent 2
Sunday, December 4, 2016
We long to enter into this picture
Matthew 24:36-44
Job 1:20-21

The bumper sticker on my neighbor’s truck says that he’ll be a first responder in case of a Zombie Apocalypse. One popular TV show chronicles doomsday preppers while another show gathers survivors of a nuclear holocaust in Jericho, Kansas. The movies, Ender’s Game and Hunger Games, are not about games, but about the loss of childhood innocence in a post-apocalyptic world. One of the unexpected consequences of the shift to a secularized/post-religious worldview, is that the end of days can be spoken about without any reference to the Book of Revelations or Judeo-Christian prophesies.

 

Suddenly, Jesus’ “Nobody knows the day or the hour,” has become very main stream. We have seen enough of the horrors of 20th century technology and violence to almost believe that every day of the 21st century could be our last. Having said all of this, I don’t think Jesus is calling his people to master the crossbow, stock their basements with years of rations, or wear a gas mask clipped to their belt. He is instead inviting people to be spiritually ready. This seems to be a good place to begin Advent.

 

One of the themes of Matthew 24:36-44 is that having a things be normal today, doesn’t prevent the next day from being total chaos. On the day before the apocalypse, people will be getting married, women will be grinding wheat in their Cuisinart, men will be chasing a golf ball across the green — all will seem normal. This is true of our world, this is also true of our individual lives. Tomorrow we might have a heart attack, a serious accident, or become victims of a senseless crime. Our children might be hit by a bullet while at school, or in a movie theater, or simply while sitting on the porch of their home. How then, should we live? 

 

Much of the cruelty we exhibit towards each other is because we feel that we are owed full lives of predictable security, comfort, and privilege. We don’t see our neighbors as fellow travelers on a road that could become a minefield at any moment. If the rug might get pulled out from under us at any moment, then we will lose our right to take pride on our position. Tomorrow we might truly become, beggars showing other beggars where to find bread. 

 

What if we decide not to wait for tomorrow? What if we live today like Job, who knew that he came into the world naked and could be made naked by fate at any time (Job 1:20-21)? Real doomsday preppers live ready to bless the Lord when life becomes crazy. I don’t see how this is possible without committing oneself to a season of simplicity. Like Henry David Thoreau, we have to intentionally fast from what has become “normal” for us. He writes:

 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

        (Walden, Chapter 2)

Advent 1
Sunday, November 27, 2016
There are many kinds of apocalypse, but only Jesus can prepare us
Luke 23:33-43

I have a friend who is the president of the board of a small non-profit organization. He’s having a difficult time. A while back there was an issue where he acted on his own without consulting the board. “I’m the president and I’m more knowledgable than anyone else on this. I want it done this way,” he said. A conflict arose. It was true that he had expertise in the subject, but he was also disrupting the group process. This is not what a good leader does.

 

Jesus takes his role as Messiah very seriously. He stays true to his leadership position all the way to the cross. Pontus Pilate is confused by Jesus becoming the head of a populous organization, but refusing to wear kingly garb or behave as other rich people do. Jesus is known to do great miracles and speak with authority, but nothing that he does puts money in his pocket or a crown on his head. Jesus is humble to a fault. You are the silliest king of the Jews I’ve ever met, Pilate thinks. He has Jesus crucified wearing an ironic crown of thorns.

 

Once on the cross, people say to Jesus, “You saved others, why don’t you save yourself?” and “If you are king of the Jews, then save yourself.” Obviously, Jesus has a different definition of leadership. It is for him to work with others so that together good things happen. He has commitment to service. He can be the king of love without a crown of gold. Even his thorns and painful death remind us that life is not about the people we lord over but the humility we live under.

Pentecost 29
Sunday, November 20, 2016
Is Trump more like Christ or Mel Brooks?
Luke 21:5-19
James 4:13-14

I’m posting this blog the night before the election. It reminds me how often preachers make plans for the week’s worship, only to see something unexpected happen after its all gone to press. A lot of newspapers last week missed the opportunity to print the winner of the world series because the Cubs kept us awake past midnight. You never know, do you? The only thing that is certain is that God is in charge of history and his plans are inscrutable. That is what makes Jesus’ comments about the apocalypse so much fun. Jesus says that both those who put their certainty in sound foundations and good planning, as well as, those who look for portents in the sky and signs in their tea-leaves, will be wrong. No matter what tomorrow brings, we must decide before hand to be compassionate and faithful (Luke 21:13-15, 19). Christians don’t know who will be the best for America. They only know that Jesus calls them to love their neighbors, feed the hungry, give aid to the sick, visit those in prison, turn the other cheek, and to do unto others as we would wish them to do unto us. 

 

Scott Peck tells the story of a Jewish Rabbi in Czarist Russia who ran into trouble one day with the local commandant. The commandant was always looking for an opportunity to abuse the Jews in his district and when he saw the rabbi headed across the square at the hour of synagogue worship, he grabbed him and asked where he was going.

    “I don’t know,” the Rabbi answered.

    “Insolent fool. We both know what day and time it is,” the commandant screamed. “Every week you go to your synagogue at this time. How can you say that you don’t know where you are going?” With that the commandant marched the rabbi off to jail. 

    As he was being thrown into his jail cell, the rabbi said, “You never know, do you?”

 

We should have the same humility — see James 4:13-14. The disciples were convinced that the temple would last forever as a testament to the glory of God and the holiness of Jerusalem’s priesthood (Luke 21:5). You never know, do you? What about the church you worship in now? What about the social institutions that you think will never change? In the midst of this world where everything around us must change, our hope in God is the one thing that is secure. 

 

Jesus says, “By your endurance (in this hope), you will gain your soul. (Luke 21:19)” 

Pentecost 28
Sunday, November 13, 2016
The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70AD
Luke 20:27-38

In Luke 20:27-38 we encounter the rather odd custom of Levirate Marriage. This is where the widow of a man who has died without an heir is given to his brother. Jesus lived during a time of transition. Marriage customs, such as Levirate Marriage and the practice of having young people always marry someone from within the clan, were dying out. Hellenism — that is the more urbane customs of the Greeks and Romans including their acceptance of homosexuality — was reshaping the daily life of first century Palestinians. We too, are going through a time in which marriage customs are being reshaped. In the passage above, Jesus is being asked, not only about eternal life, but also about marriage. The Sadducees no longer practice Levirate Marriage, but they know that some rural villages, perhaps even Jesus’ Nazareth, still do. It was common before the talmudic reforms of the first century for a widow to be given to her husband’s brother so that she might have a home and not be forced to marry outside the village. In a similar way, arranged marriages were once common among immigrants to this country, as they sought to prevent their young from leaving the confines of their ethnic community.

 

Such customs probably seemed strange to the Sadducees, as they do to us. Jesus, being a country bumpkin should be expected to defend such customs. But Jesus also believed in eternal life, something the Sadducees thought was equally absurd. So seeking to hit two birds with one stone, they asked the question:

 

“If there was a widow in your village and she was married to a succession of brothers, whose wife would she be in the heaven you spend so much time talking about?”

 

Perhaps they didn’t know Jesus as well as we do. We know that Jesus would never support a custom that involved giving a woman away like property. He never spoke in support of Levirate Marriage, nor did he ever condemn homosexuality. For Jesus, the customs and rituals of our society should be governed by compassion. He spoke against the urban custom of a man divorcing his wife on trivial grounds (Matthew 19:3-12) and refused to participate in the stoning of a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), presumably because the man wasn’t also on trial. The apostle Paul reflected Jesus’ approach to society’ rules when he said,  “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law… Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:8,10)

 

As for eternal life, Jesus says that in heaven love is perfected. If our marriages on this earth have not been loving, then we should take comfort that heaven has abandoned the laws and customs, including marriage, that are not needed in a place of perfect love. Those of us who have experienced love in marriage, however, should be thankful that in heaven we will know and continue in love with those people we have enjoyed here.

 

We don’t know much about heaven and Jesus is pretty mysterious on the subject. He says that God’s great love for individuals continues for eternity. Just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob live on in God’s eternal present, we shall live eternally in God’s love. That should be good enough for us.

Pentecost 27
Sunday, November 6, 2016
Using the Bible to define marriage can be problematic
Luke 19:1-10

Jesus comes into Jericho and sees Zacchaeus up in a tree. As soon as Jesus speaks a kind word to this hardened tax collector, the man is changed. Zacchaeus becomes remarkably generous. His heart, like the Grinch’s, grows three sizes. If we (I say this with the collective royal “we”) as a congregation are Jesus in the world today, then this is how the god-forsaken should respond to us. Repentance is not held up by the stubbornness of the pagan’s heart, it is held up by the paucity of winsome examples of real goodness.

 

The thing we need to address directly is the pervasive nature of prejudice and racism. In Jesus’ day it was assumed that people couldn’t be religious if they worked certain jobs. Tax collectors, shepherds, and foreign soldiers were consigned to non-person status. Today we assume that people can’t be trustworthy (or safe to enter the country) if they belong to certain religions. We judge people on the basis of their skin color or sexual orientation in a way that would have made the people of Jesus’ day blush. Our prejudices are woven into the fabric of our lives, so much so, that we expect our church leaders to reaffirm them. The only difference between today and the first century is the unwillingness of those we exclude to climb trees.

 

What made Jesus distinctive among the religious teachers of his day was his commitment to crossing the artificial barriers of race, gender, occupation, and economic class. His greeting of Zacchaeus was very natural. He wasn’t setting up a program to end discrimination against tax collectors. He simply asked to enter the man’s home and break bread. He was constantly doing this kind of thing. It is unimaginable that today he would hesitate to hug a transgendered person, or live beside a muslim, or give a job to an ex-con. It is this naturalness, a gift of the Holy Spirit still seen in some Christians today, that won people to him. I think that spirit is still available to the church. Herein lies our real hope for sharing Christ with the next generation.

 

Pentecost 24
Sunday, October 30, 2016
Wesley shared Jesus' compassion for the outcast
Luke 18:9-14

Jesus tells a number of parables of reversal — that is stories where the expected winner, loses. There is the farmer who has a bumper crop and tears down his barns in order to build new ones. Surprise! His name appears in tomorrow’s obituary (Luke 12:16-21). There are seeds that do well when first sown and then fail when the noon day sun burns down on them (Mark 4:3-8). And then there is the story of a good man, a Pharisee, who goes up to pray and the blessings of God skip over this paragon of virtue. Instead, a disreputable tax collector goes home knowing that his prayer is heard (Luke 18:9-14).

 

In matters of religion, we should expect reversals. Those who start out well, don’t always end well. Getting into heaven is not a matter of joining the right church or developing the right theology. Jesus tells us of a tax collector and a Pharisee who are praying at the same moment in the same church. Jesus says that success in religion is a matter of contrition.

 

Contrition is a state of the heart. Contrition is a response to the experience of  shame where one lays aside all excuses and pride and becomes penitent to the core of one’s being. This shame may be related to actions that you have been told all of your adult life were perfectly fine. The Pharisee was expected by his peers to look down on women, the poor, all foreigners, and those who worked jobs that his party considered impure. The tax collector was taught to use his office for extortion and to squeeze additional money from the middle class people who showed up at his stall without lawyers. In both cases, they couldn’t be contrite until they stepped away from what their peers consider to be normal. In order to be contrite, you must do the brave thing and judge your identity and role in life by a higher standard. When I think of the compassion that God has for all people, am I ashamed of who I have become? 

 

Contrition can be learned. As parents we do this with our children when we listen to their apologies. Wise parents do not shame their children when they make a simple mistake or fail to do a task. But if they find their child being cruel to their siblings or abusing the family pet, they seize this teachable moment and hold the child accountable until a heart-felt apology emerges. Great parents, often unknowingly, teach contrition by being transparent. They share honestly the shame that they feel when they have hurt someone. They are careful not to put the family name, their ethnicity, their church denomination, or their political party up on a platform. Every grouping we belong to, has done and will do in the future, things one should be ashamed of.

 

We seek to learn contrition day by day when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, should act as a search light. What aspects of our lives should we lay out with shame and contrition before the almighty? When we think back on our family of origin and our ethnicity, what history should we be more transparent about? Are we open to the power of God’s Holy Spirit to not only bring us forgiveness, but also the wisdom to live differently?

 
Pentecost 25
Sunday, October 23, 2016
Cunningham speaks of need for an apology for the role of police in race relations
Ezekiel's Bones published in 2007 by Bill Kemp

Jim Collins’ book, Built to Last: Successful habits of Visionary Companies (Harper Business, 1994) speaks about how successful business leaders are “clock builders” as opposed to “time keepers.” That is, instead of merely trying to manage a situation, they set out to build a new reality. This new reality requires steady and selfless work. Flashy, manipulative, and creative individuals may achieve short-term success, and detail oriented, skillful managers may coach the maximum revenue out a lack luster situation, but neither brings about the systemic change that leaves an organization better than what it was before they came. 

    In looking for examples of successful leaders in the business world, it is easy to get sidetracked by the flashy cultural icons like Lee Iacocca or Donald Trump. Collins points out that the great enduring companies of the twentieth century were led by a different kind of leader. These leaders were humble, persistent, and true to their values in the face of conflict. Rather than seeking immediate, dramatic results, they burrowed in and set about the meticulous work of developing a healthy organization. 

    Turning from the business world to our current church scene, those senior pastors who now lead America’s most successful mega churches are, almost without exception, humble, low key leaders who, over the course of decades, have blended an emphasis upon the importance of building relationships with their own drive to make the church grow. When one looks at Bill Hybels (Willow Creek), Cecil Williams (Glide Memorial), or John Ed Matheson (Frazer Memorial), one sees neither a detail oriented manager nor a shameless self promoter. Instead, one notes their sincere, personal, spiritual passion, as well as their commitment to spend their entire career in one place. In his memoirs, Robert Schuller writes of asking his seminary teacher how long a pastor should plan to stay in one church before moving on. Dr. Lindquist answered that a minister should never go to a church without planning to spend his or her whole life there (My Journey: From an Iowa Farm to a Cathedral of Dreams, by Robert H. Schuller, Harper San Francisco, 2001).

(This blog is page 59 of Ezekiel's Bones: Rekindling Your Congregation's Spiritual Passion -- published by Discipleship Resources in 2007) For more on Donald Trump and what we can learn from him (things not to do): Is Trump a Pharisee?Church System Lessons from Trump , Where have all the moderates gone?

Jeremiah 31:27-34

Jiminy Cricket acts as a conscience for Pinocchio — does the Holy Spirit do the same for us? Pinocchio was written over a hundred years ago as a morality tale. Children were to be read Pinocchio so that they would know not to rebel, disobey, or lie. Disney toned down the rascally nature of the puppet and added Jiminy Cricket to keep the story from being too sad. Many people today are living the original version of the story, which doesn’t end well for the puppet (in the Italian version he is hung). All of us need an inner voice to guide us. Don’t swat away that cricket.

    In Jeremiah 31, the prophet who has been weeping for God’s people because they are about to pay the price for their sin and go into exile, looks ahead to a better time. Long after the prophet is gone, God will forgive his people. They will be restored. They will return to Palestine and once again live as a free people. This will be the Old Testament’s second Exodus. The second time in which God will reclaim his people after a period of imprisonment. On this trip back, however, God himself will be their Moses. They won’t have to stop half-way through the wilderness to pick up the Ten Commandments, for God will set his law within each person. Jeremiah sees the Disney version, complete with Jiminy Cricket.

    What kind of an inner voice has God set within your heart? When have you looked for your conscience to guide you and found it out of order? There have been times when the conscience of a whole people has been wrong, such as when slavery was practiced in America. What would it mean for us to let our conscience guide us during the election in November?

    Now the deeper theological question, when Christians look back on this passage from Jeremiah 31, where we are told of a day when all will know the lord and be able to know the right thing to do simply by consulting their inner voice, we see it as a prophecy of the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell upon the first Christians and gave to them a moral compass (Acts 2). How is the Holy Spirit different from Jiminy Cricket?

Proper 24
Sunday, October 16, 2016
When is your conscience wrong or hard to hear?
Jeremiah 29:1-7

Jeremiah hears God telling people to settle down, contribute their own sweat equity towards establishing of a healthy community, and be nice to the Babylonians. His actual words are, “Seek the welfare of the city.” God is speaking to his people. The same people who have just lost their home, seen their house of worship burned to the ground and their beautiful city invaded by the Babylonians. They have been rounded up like cattle and marched across the desert to Babylon. They are weary and resentful. They want to escape. They want to lash out and sabotage the plans of their captors. They have no spirit to be spiritual. They have no heart to be kind. As we saw in last week’s Psalm 137, they have hung up their harps and refuse to sing the songs that their tormentors ask for.  Being nice, doesn’t make any sense.

 

God is clear. When you are struck, you turn the other cheek. When you are made to do work that should really be done by others, go the extra mile, and when you find yourself imprisoned in a bad place, seek the welfare of the people around you. Jeremiah's letter to us says, “Build houses, plant gardens, and have a family… seek the welfare of the city.”

 

I first encountered this scripture a quarter century ago. In city after city, the famous first churches of my denomination were failing and falling into disrepair. Most American cities were wrestling with urban blight. People who could afford it were moving out to the suburbs. People with wealth were worshiping out there, leaving the city bereft. Many congregations pulled up stakes and build new church buildings in the suburbs. But there was a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit going in the opposite direction. Several organizations were formed by the church leaders that stayed and they found that if they worked together, God would bring them revival and new ways to be fruitfully engaged in mission. Their watchword became, Jeremiah 29:7 “Seek the Welfare of the city.”

 

A thousand years before God’s people were taken into exile in Babylon, there was a similar event on a much smaller scale. Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt. God’s spirit was with him and he learned to seek the welfare of the people around him in prison. Where he could have been resentful, he turned his attention to being constructive.  Life is unfair. Each time it is unfair we are given a choice, to seek the welfare of those around us and maintain our compassionate stance in the world, or turn inward and choose bitterness and resentment. Because Joseph sought the welfare of the city, he became prosperous and was able to save his family from the coming famine.

Pentecost 23
Sunday, October 9, 2016
Pittsburgh is my city - I pray for its welfare
Who is the Daddy Warbucks of your organization?

Every nonprofit organization or church has one or more stakeholders. These stakeholders may be wealthy individuals, major funding sources, or the charitable group’s home office. They are often the ones who contributed the lion’s share of the group’s start-up capital. They may be the distant foundations who provide grants or an ever-present Daddy Warbucks who shows up unannounced and demands things be run his way. Often the vision of these stakeholders is in conflict with either the cultural heart of the members, or the organization’s current reality, or both. For churches the denominational leadership is always a major stakeholder — not because they vetted the pastor — but because they own the charitable franchise and, perhaps a hundred years ago, started the congregation.

 

I am currently working with a small, non-profit, arts center housed in a building that it rents their from its largest stakeholder. Since he is not a member of the organization and does not attend board meetings, no one thinks of him as a stakeholder. In the start-up period, however, he provided a free building for four month. Now that the artists are paying rent, this stakeholder is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. Unfortunately, his expectations match neither the vision the artists have for their center, nor the current reality of the center’s funding stream.

 

When I talk to stakeholders, both at the denominational level regarding small churches, and at the funding level relating to nonprofits like the arts center, I hear concerns relating to size and sustainability. Grantors and bishops always want their wards to be bigger and finding more matching funds. Stakeholders rarely consider the fact that a cultural barrier might exist between the current reality of the church or nonprofit and the hopes that the stakeholder has for the organization. Those who give the bucks say, “Dream big!” The members say, “We are who we are, and what we are currently doing matters to us.” Most stakeholders have a business background. These gentlemen do-gooders are rarely content with just doing good, they want to do great. 

 

Size barriers are real. Looking at the wildlife of my neighborhood, I see on the bottom level a multitude of birds, chipmunks, and lesser critters. On the next, middle level, I see the neighborhood cats and dogs. Then on the top level, there are deer and the teenagers who pass by, cell phone in hand and oblivious to those below. The thing to realize is sustainability or virtue has nothing to do with size. Further, asking one creature to behave like another is ridiculous. I would say about the residents of each of these three levels that they have no idea what life is like for those above or below them. Size determines the range of one’s behaviors. Our eyes naturally focus on what is at our level. The chipmunk may grow fat at my bird feeder, but he will never become a cat.

 

Obviously, stakeholders and the local members of a charitable organization need to be more honest and realistic when they deal with each other. Among churches, the mid-size congregation, like the family’s collie dog, is most likely to have an enmeshed relationship with the denomination. This makes them change resistant and the least likely of the three levels to respond appropriately to their neighborhood’s needs. God keeps his eye on the small church sparrows and they survive from crisis to crisis. The big churches and critters need to keep doing big things, which makes them interesting in a trophy on the wall kind of way. The point is not to envy those who live on a different size level.

Psalm 137

Anger is one of Elizabeth Kugler-Ross’ 5 Stages of Grief , and as Scott Peck reminds us, grief is a part of every transition. Say, we lose our job. While adrift, we stew. “I gave the best years of my life…” In time, we move on to another career, or discover that God had a reason for it. We accept it as a blessing. Still, anger was a real stage in our transition. When someone we love dies, anger often lashes out at an innocent bystander. It is human nature to shoot the messenger. We may be excited about moving to a new neighborhood, but soon reality sets in. We may find ourselves alone, commuting further for work, and dealing with shoddy home construction. We may spend endless hours bemoaning the events and decisions that lead us to this new place. It is because Anger is a part of all transitions that the Bible retains even the final verses

of Psalm 137:

 

 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept

    when we remembered Zion.

There on the willow tree

    we hung our harps,

for there our captors asked us for songs,

    our tormentors demanded songs of joy…

 

…happy is the one who repays you

    according to what you have done to us.

Happy is the one who seizes your infants

    and dashes them against the rocks.

 

The Bible often speaks of anger, even though acting in anger is in opposition to the lives of compassion that Jesus calls us to live. The Bible gives voice to the human experience. Psalm 137 always reminds me of the play/movie Godspell. In the scene were Jesus is about to be betrayed, the words of Psalm 137 form the lyrics and are sweetly sung — there is no anger expressed — for Jesus himself has gone all the way through the stages of his grief and come to acceptance. But for the disciples, it is a different story.

 

When Jesus shares the last supper with his disciples, he tells them that one of them is about to betray him. On cue, Denial - stage one - hits the group. Their inability to remain awake in the garden speaks of Depression. Peter picks up a sword in Anger. Judas goes to the council chamber and returns the thirty pieces of silver in an attempt to Bargain. The disciples are us. Acceptance comes slowly. I think it is first seen at the foot of the cross, as Jesus’ mother says good bye to her son (I’m thinking here of Michelangelo’s Pieta).

 

Life always brings us to a new place. There will always be a resurrection. The people who sang about willows and harps and being exiled to Babylon, discovered a new way of living. At some point, we all go through the five stages of grief. The thing we must remember, though, is not to get stuck. For many people, anger is a resting place, a familiar friend.

 

Psalm 137 is about a nation. It is about a people who have lost their home and must now live in exile. It is a brutal transition. For workers in the traditional industries of our nation; coal, steel, heavy manufacturing, a similar transition is under way. Denial-depression-anger-bargaining is the mix that fossil fuels today’s social polarization and political debate. Can we hang up our harps on the willow tree and come to Acceptance? Will we be brave enough to fashion a new future?

For more see: Seek the Welfare of the City

World Communion Sunday
Sunday, October 2, 2016
All Transitions repeat this process

In Jesus’ day, Pharisees were well respected social leaders, involved in the political process. They had a specific agenda for making Israel great again. The fact that Jesus opposed them at every turn has caused the Pharisee movement to be vilified in western history. Jesus’ theology wasn’t that different from theirs — his opposition wasn’t a matter of their personal beliefs — it was their political agenda and lack of compassion towards the poor that made him lash out with some of his most pointed language. And so today, our unwillingness to speak publicly about Jesus’ political views has caused many of us to give Donald Trump a free pass. In doing so, we have squandered the opportunity to root out Pharisaism in our own congregations. I will argue that to support Donal Trump today, is to support the Pharisee party over Jesus. 

 

The Pharisees had a one-note agenda for making Israel great again, they believed that their literal interpretation of the Mosaic code (first five books of the Bible) should become the law of the land. Besides being massive, Moses’ words were over a thousand years old at this point. All the problems that we see in modern Iran, where religious-political leaders seek to enforce Sharia law (only 700 years old), were present in Pharisee controlled Palestine. The Pharisees favored capital punishment (stoning), Jesus did not (see John 8:1-11). The Pharisees took the Mosaic commandments against homosexuality very literally and thought it a crime. Jesus never spoke a word against gays. Further, the Pharisees read into the Mosaic law a disdain for foreigners and Samaritans that was unscriptural (see the book of Ruth). Jesus befriended foreigners and spoke favorably of Samaritans.

 

The Pharisees brazenly sought political power. They used their wealth to buy influence. They advocated laws that favored the rich. Jesus was crucified for speaking against power and choosing a way of ministry that positioned him with the poor. Pharisees cultivated the art of the deal, Jesus the way of love. The Pharisees looked down on the unfortunate and called them losers. Even their charitable acts were done from ulterior motives. This is the thing that I personally find most disturbing about Donald Trump —  he sets up a charitable foundation and then fails to contribute his own money to it. When he gets caught using the charity’s money for his own purposes, he brushes it off as a minor mistake. There seems to be no evidence that he ever sacrificed to support something he believed in. He is a hollow man, unacquainted with Christian charity. 

 

From time to time I have run into people like Donald Trump in the church. They have often been popular and always promise great things. They seem like useful people to know and to put in charge of things. They are what one of my seminary professors called, “thing thinkers.” They always have a scheme or a “thing” going for them. This form of showmanship is dangerous. It sucks both the civility and the servanthood from civil service. We should root such people out of church office and vote against them anytime they enter politics. Jesus opposes them. We should too.

1 Timothy 6:6-19
Proverbs 30:7-9, Luke 6:20

Paul warns Timothy that loving money is deadly to the soul. He says, “If we have food and clothing we should be content with that” (I Timothy 6:8).  Is the ‘should’ to be read as an imperative? “Be happy with the bare necessities!” Or is Paul making a more universal statement about our human nature? “We should be happy with minimal comforts, but we are not.” I suspect it is a little of both. To Timothy as an up and coming leader in the church, he is saying this is the only way to be an effective Christian servant, be content with what you receive. There is no room in Christ’s church for leaders who want to live in luxury. Will there be any tele-evangelists in heaven? Perhaps. I believe, however, that they will be eternally ashamed of what they did. In heaven, the wealthy will all wish that they had lived more modestly.

 

Proverbs is helpful here:

“Two things I ask of you, Lord;

    do not refuse me before I die:

Keep falsehood and lies far from me;

    give me neither poverty nor riches,

    but give me only my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you

    and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’

Or I may become poor and steal,

    and so dishonor the name of my God.

  • Proverbs 30:7-9

 

The Bible often restates this virtue of living on the middle path, between poverty and riches. Jesus goes a step further and makes it the compass of Christian ministry. In both word and deed, he shows how his disciples should orient their lives. We associate with and minister to the poor. We shame and disparage those who take pride in their wealth. Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor,” and “But woe to you who are rich” (Luke 6:20 & 24). Jesus tells his disciples to leave their earthy comforts behind when they set out to do heaven’s work (Luke 9:1-6). 

 

Here we must be frank. The love of money is sin. It is as seductive as cocaine. We cannot be a little bit greedy, any more than we can be a little bit adulterous.

Sunday, September 25, 2016
Seeking this path is essential to following Jesus
It is important that we agree before hand on how to get from here to there

With all of the “secret” Trump supporters lately, I have begun to fear that he might win the popular vote in November, but lose the presidency in the Electoral College. This has happened four times in the history of the United States. In Bush verses Gore in 2000, over a half million more people cast their ballots for Senator Gore, than for George W. Bush. When the loss of Florida’s electoral votes tipped the balance towards Bush, Al Gore graciously conceded. This is not something I expect Donald Trump to do. Nor do I expect the Republicans to support the process and be cooperative with our first woman president. It should be noted, here, that in each of the four previous occasions that the new president has lost the popular vote, the Democratic candidate has lost the electoral vote. If the reverse happens, and a Democrat, Hillary Clinton, wins the popular vote but fails to have the majority in the Electoral College, then she will for the fifth time, graciously hand the presidency over to the less popular man. Why? Because process matters. The constitution that guides our regular and predicable transfer of office, is more important than any one election.

 

In 1824, the constitution was only 40 years old when a distant ancestor of mine, John Quincy Adams, ran for president under the Democratic-republican party. Yes, back then the two parties were united. Not for long. None of the four candidates who were running distinguished themselves in the primary season, so the party let all four candidates go to the election (Bernie Sanders supporters take note). Andrew Jackson won the popular vote by 38,000. My relative John Quincy Adams had more electoral votes, but not the majority, and could not clinch the election. The constitution says that in these cases, the congress shall determine the outcome. John Quincy Adams was named our sixth president. Jackson went on to lead the Democrats out and form them into a separate party. Four years later he was successful in defeating the unpopular Adams (where is Al Gore when we need him?).  The point of this all, is that process matters. The constitution was still a young document when these things took place — an experiment that could have ended disastrously if the populists had ruled.

 

This leads me back to the church and other non-profit organizations. When leading a group of people, it is always important that you agree upon the process for making a decision before the vote is taken. Sometimes, the best process does not involve taking a vote, but rather, having an extended period of discernment. With our Christian dependence upon the Holy Spirit, we should work towards consensus whenever possible. Political analogies and sports metaphors fail at this point. We who imitate Jesus respect dialogue and open discussion. We honor process, even when it is messy and time consuming. Our way, is not always the way of the world.

 

In a final note, I’m working on a novel where Nicodemus is discussing Palm Sunday and the crowds that proclaim Jesus as the messianic king. Nic’s comment is, “Well, that’s not the kind of thing you want determined by popular vote.”

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
John 4

“Is there no balm in Gilead?” This is the moment after the iceberg has struck the Titanic when the fact that the boat will sink becomes common knowledge. Suddenly, the lifeboat that you dismissed when the “In the unlikely event of an iceberg hitting us…” lecture was given, becomes foremost in your mind. Is there really a life preserver under my cot? Or that moment after you accept the fact that your cancer diagnosis is terminal; is there no balm in Gilead? Jeremiah knows that the nation is about to be destroyed, the temple torn down, and the brightest of Judah’s youth to be hauled off to Babylon for seventy years.

 

What is the balm in Gilead? Literally it is the product of a balsam plant that grew only in Palestine. In Genesis 37 we read how the sons of Jacob were tending sheep near Gilead when they decided to murder their brother Joseph. There happened to be, however, Ishmaelite traders who were taking balm from Gilead down to Egypt. The brothers sold Joseph into slavery. Five hundred years later the people of Judah would be taken, along with the balm of Gilead, into slavery in Babylon. Five hundred years after this, Jesus will sit down by a well in Gilead and speak to a Samaritan woman about a faith, a balm, that will heal her broken soul (John 4).

 

In our daily lives we take many things for granted, only to discover later that they are the one thing we should have taken care not to lose. Like the password that gets us into our computer, or the key for the rental car that we’ve just driven into the desert east of Tonopah, or the phone number of that person we met whom we think could be our soul mate. Life hinges on the rare things — the balm of Gilead — or our faith in God. What has become irreplaceable to us?

Pentecost 20
Sunday, September 18, 2016
Balsam plants are again being grown near the Dead Sea
Jeremiah 4:11-28
Romans 8:19-20

The people of Jeremiah’s day were used to the late summer breezes blowing hard. They separated the chaff from their grain by tossing it up into this September wind. They weren’t used to storms coming in fall and bringing devastation. They were used to petty wars and raiding parties worrying their borders, they weren’t expecting the well disciplined armies of Nebuchadnezzar and the loss of their nation. In a similar way, people today are used to an occasional bout of bad weather, but we are slow to accept the global consequences of climate change. Further, we don’t admit that the political climate seems a bit polarized. Wise and moderate people fail to be elected. Lives given to public service are disparaged.  “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” (Yeats, The Second Coming). Are these things just bad luck, or the precursors of a social hurricane, such as the one that gripped Europe a century ago?

 

Those who are prophetic today will speak of the environment and the consequences of an industrial age that trains our leaders to be “skilled in doing evil” (Jeremiah 4:22). When I first considered this Sunday’s scripture (Jeremiah chapter 4), I wondered if it was bad form for me to lift up phases like, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void,” and “all the birds of the air had fled… the fruitful land was a desert,” and in summary, “Because of this the earth shall mourn” (vv. 23,25,28). Jeremiah was seeing in the land and wildlife the judgement of God. I see in our air and water the misjudgment of narrow minded men.

 

“Will it preach?” You ask. The context of the whole Bible is framed by the command that we humans be stewards over our planet (Genesis 1:28). Further, the phrase that the earth mourns because of our sin is repeated throughout the prophets and picked up by the Apostle Paul (Romans 8:19-20). In fact, the problem is the narrowness of our scope. We only apply theology to social systems when it pleases us. This led the Dutch Calvinists to support apartheid in South Africa — narrowly interpreting certain passages to apply to racial purity and not seeing how the whole of God's revelation commands us to love our neighbors. 

 

Karl Barth famously urged his student to interpret the daily news with their Bibles open. So, Jeremiah says, “I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro” (v24) and this week there is conclusive evidence reported on how fracking is causing earthquakes in Oklahoma. Am I to give this one a pass just because I am a lowly preacher?

Pentecost 19
Sunday, September 11, 2016
My squash depend upon this butterfly to be pollinated - preach symbiosis
Jeremiah 18:1-11

Prophets, like Jeremiah, are also known as seers. I looked it up, the word seer comes from the compound see and -er. God asks Jeremiah to go to the potter’s shop and see. As a photography nut, this has become important to me. Most people go to somewhere scenic and snap selfies on their cell phones. The camera in my iPhone is in some ways superior to the expensive camera with aspherical lenses that I use when I am seriously seeing. That’s the point, using a cell phone rarely makes one a seer.  Jeremiah is asked to go down to the potter’s shop and see. When we stop and simply observe — breathe… close your eyes… empty… breathe… now open your eyes —  release for a few days the need to post something to Facebook. 

 

Jeremiah notices the hands of the potter as he shapes the pot. They are strong hands.  While most of the potters that I have met have been women, none of them have had delicate hands. Because they are tough on the clay. They lift it above their heads and throw it down and the table hard, to get out the air bubbles. It’s traumatic. While the work at the wheel looks smooth and delicate, they clay resists. It takes strong thumbs to make a jar. The wheel below the clay has to be constantly kicked so that it turns at the right speed. And is the work that God does in our lives any easier? Is the constant pull of the Holy Spirit towards social justice in our nation any less traumatic? School desegregation was not a gentle experience, and yet, I believe that it was driven by an aggressive spirit from God. The same is true of the ferment and resistance to change that marks our current struggle as a nation to accept diversity.

 

We are being constantly shaped by God into vessels for his purpose — his purpose involves being hollowed out so that we can carry the gift of his grace to others. As individuals, trauma comes into our lives so that we can be hollowed out and serve as conduits for compassion. Our painful experience enables us to sit beside others in their pain. Jeremiah sees the hands of the potter squash the jar that was spinning on his wheel. The potter pounded the everything the pot thought that it needed out — nothing was left but a featureless lump — out of nothing, God reforms us. God reforms the church. God reforms a nation.

Pentecost 18
Sunday, September 4, 2016
Are we seeing or picture taking with our spiritual eyes?
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Next week, my wife and I will be attending a wedding for a distant relative. The reception is in a five star restaurant and I am not allowed to wear my jeans. As is the custom, the bride and her wedding planner are spending long hours planning the seating chart. Determining who sits with who and how far they are from the happy couple is an intricate art, full of inviolate rules and their exceptions. Imagine the chaos, if the couple decided to practice the Gospel lesson (which I hope they hear this Sunday), “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:7-14). 

 

I hope the couple doesn’t just think that Jesus is being ironic. If he crashed their wedding, as he once did the one in Cana of Galilee (Yes, he was invited. No, he didn’t make his disciples dress appropriately), then I think he would require them to make a ‘Christian’ seating chart. This is one where a man has to sit with his ex-wife, where the poor sit cheek to jowl with the rich, and where you may be required to watch over someone else’s unruly child. Further, Jesus might have them un-invite the guests that the couple knows are bringing the most expensive gifts on the registry, and fill those chairs with the homeless. Jesus understood formal meals for what they are. They are the place where we put on display our real social ethics. That is why every public meal should illustrate the values of the kingdom of God.

 

This passage is really about social class, rather than banquets. I have come to believe that Jesus wants us to live as children of his kingdom, unwilling to participate in the distinctions of class, race, sexual orientation, or political creed. It will take a great deal of discipline for us to become Jesus-like in our relationships. When we walk into a room of people, are we prepared to enter into conversation with the person whose life experience is totally foreign from our own? Will we be patient with the mentally challenged? When we buy our clothes, do we purchase them with an eye to having the right label, climbing the success ladder, and distinguishing ourselves as people with class? Does our conscience frequently remind us that conspicuous consumption is bad for the ecology and that substandard wages and factory conditions may lie behind our favorite brands? 

 

The difficult thing about the kingdom of God, is not the particular actions Jesus calls us to do. It is the persistent goal of his words. He wants to make us as perfect in love as he is. He wants us to accept others where they are and do what we can to help them become what they are meant to become. He wants us to live justly and to walk with humility. You can’t scramble that omelet without breaking a few social mores.

Pentecost 17
Sunday, August 28, 2016
Bouveret's "The disciples at Emmaus" - at CAM, Pittsburgh
Hebrews12:18-29

The old New English Bible that I used while I was in college falls open to Hebrew 12. The page is ratty, covered with ink underlines hued red, blue, and black; minuscule notations cram the corners, and a box brackets verses 18 to 29. This was the rock that I clung to throughout my transition from free-spirited teen, to married man, to seminary student. It says, simply, “Remember where you stand.” I learned during that quartet of years that surrounded my entry into a second decade, that religion, and life in general, offered a number of places to stand. It is not up to us to invent places to stand. A person caught in a crime might seek for a lie to stand on. Moses brought the people to a place where they could see the gulf that lies between our human frailty and the expectations of God. But this not where we stand. 

 

We stand on the border of eternal life. No matter what age we are, we are short-timers in this country. Life soon ends. Those with wisdom, look through the peep hole provided by scripture into heaven. They pray “Thy kingdom come, on earth as…”  They stand firm here because they trust what they have seen is coming. 

 

We stand by grace. We have learned not to try to win God’s favor. The impossibility of self-righteousness is evident to us, considering where we stand. We know that we are loved. Anything is possible for those who stand on the fact that God loves them. They can dare great things. They can forgive great slights. They can live fully, no matter what their temporary circumstances.

Pentecost 16
Sunday, August 21, 2016
A well read Bible changes your life
Branches are new, roots are old, the moderates keep them together

People are complaining because they only have two choices, Clinton or Trump. It’s the same number of choices as we always have. Yet even lifelong republicans and democrats are praying for a viable independent, who has legitimate credentials and the skills needed to form a winning coalition. For several decades now, the United States Congress has been descending into a similar state of polarization. Polarized institutions die. They fail to solve current problems. They are too marked by conflict to plan for the future.

 

The lesson is clear, those who view their local church as a family system will work hard to avoid a similar fate. Polarization benefits no one. First the Tea Party, and now Donald Trump, have utilized extremism to rally their base. Polarized systems, however, always demand that their hero go one or two steps further than reason will support. In time, all demagogues are swept away by their own untenable positions. 

 

The lessons for church leaders: Don’t feed your competitive urges. Don’t humiliate your enemies. And always cultivate moderates, even if they vote against you. Even if they torpedo your pet project. Love those buggers who lack your vision. For, a polarized church system is very hard to fix. It usually requires the removal of the current pastor and the hiring of a trained interim.

 

A healthy, non-polarized, church is like a tree. There are three types of people active in the leadership of such a system:

 

  1. There are the Roots — these are people who have been in the congregation for some time. Whenever the congregation does strategic planning, these rooted souls bring a sense of history and deep intuition about the DNA of the congregation. They also understand the surrounding neighborhood and the real needs of the community. They bring to the table a knowledge of what has worked in the past and who you should to ask to head up new projects.

  2. There are the nuts and branches — these are people who are new to the church, and in the case of the nuts (which describes any new pastor or staff member), are untested. In time, they may leave. They bring to the table experience and ideas from other churches and organizations. They may also have special training. They bring to the table sense of what has worked elsewhere.

  3. Lastly, there are the people who have had some experience in both this local church and other organizations. These people are usually moderates. If given a chance they will maintain communication between the branches and the roots. They make up the trunk of the tree. 

 

If anything good happens in the church, the leaves and nuts will take the credit because it surely was their idea. The roots are rightfully offended. Sometimes, the roots get so polarized that they stop supporting anything that comes down from above. Many a nut of a pastor has responded to this by chopping the trunk in half and quoting Revelations 3:16, the part about spitting the lukewarm pew sitters out. The moderates, however, fulfill a very important role. They keep the sap flowing between the roots and the branches. Strategic planning requires bringing the moderates to the table, for even if the nuts have great ideas, they lack the ability to accomplish anything without the rest of the tree.

 

See Part 1 - Church System Lessons from Trump: New Leadership

 

Next week: Part 3 - Church System Lessons from Trump: Learning from History

Hebrews 11

Who makes your list? When we look at Hebrews 11, we are seeing a list of the people this first century Christian preacher thought were the best examples of faith. Today, our ‘the greatest’ list might include someone from the Olympics, like Micheal Phelps, or a past sport legend like Mohammed Ali. I don’t have any sports people on my personal list. I have the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the singer Paul Simon, who captured my definition for a hero with the lyrics, “When I run dry, I’ll stop a while and think of you.”  The Hebrew 11 list is short on architects and sports icons, but it does include the walls of Jericho, Sampson the demolisher of temples, and David who danced half-naked before the Lord (not yet an olympic sport).

 

The list contains surprises. Unlike our “greatest” lists, it lifts up families and groups of people. You have Abraham and Sarah. Moses’ parents and the anonymous women, who like those under the Egyptian genocide, received children back from the dead. Faith is not the province of the rare individual. To be great in faith does not require one to have an exceptional constitution. Those on the list may not have known that they were doing anything remarkable. They were not put on olympic platforms and given metals. Some were put to death. Others lived their whole lives under persecution for their faith. Many wandered through trackless wildernesses or ended their days in prison cells.

 

We see opportunity in the Hebrew 11 list. Those of faith are like us. The odds are always in our favor. Consider this, the whole nation of God’s people made the list when it talks about the Exodus and crossing the Red Sea on dry ground. 

 

And then we get to Rahab the Harlot (Hebrews 11:31). It’s not just that she’s a prostitute. She welcomes spies. She’s a traitor to her country. What Hebrews is telling us is that faith is not seen in the greatness of ones accomplishments. It is seen in having a heart open to God and committed to doing what you have discerned during your prayers.

 

When you hear the word faith bantered about today, it is usually referring to someone who has faith in themselves — the athlete who knows that if they train hard they can get the gold — but Hebrews doesn’t go there. Hebrews says that faith is all about our relationship with God. All of us at some time are going to come to a crossroads where what people say is the good and heroic thing to do will be flat out opposite of what our hearts are telling us is right. This will be our opportunity to make the list.   

 

See also: A Race of Ones Own

Pentecost 15
Sunday, August 14, 2016
Real faith is often embarrassing
Political Parties and Churches are Systems

I’ve been watching the political process culminating in the two party conventions with an ulterior motive. I want to know which party has a healthy organization, is the American democratic experiment on the fritz, and how any of this applies to the local congregation and its struggles to remain relevant and united. As they say about good manure, "there’s something to be gained from every shovel-full," and, "there’s a science to good compost." The science behind a healthy church is for its leaders to intentionally manage the organizational system for good, not evil.

 

Healthy systems cultivate new leadership in a way that both instills historic values and remains accessible to gifted people of the next generation. After watching both conventions, I am convinced that the American political process is under stress, but not broken. The Bernie Sanders campaign proved that someone without wealth or noble birth can be a contender for the political process’s highest office. The Trump campaign is demonstrating that one does not need connections inside the organization. The republicans are willing at least to nominate someone who brings an outsider’s perspective. The struggles of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are proving that name recognition isn’t the golden ring that it used to be.

 

All three candidates are old, and nobody representing the postmodern perspective of today’s 20 to 35 year olds can be noted in the pipeline. The infamous photograph of Paul Ryan and the all-white congressional interns is symptomatic of a problem for both parties. One has to be wealthy, or at least of the right demographic within the party that holds your district, to live in Washington for a year without pay. What is the first rung of the ladder like for a bright, black, woman living in rural Texas? What is it like for a young person who holds opinions at odds with their congress person (a common situation with today’s gerrymandered districts)? A young Bernie Sanders would have a tough time getting a start in today’s political climate.

 

What lessons can be learned by the church in all this:

 

  1. Leadership formation is an intentional process that has to be talked about. Does everyone involved in children’s ministries appreciate the issue? Are they committed to diversity and showing appreciation to every child.
  2. Who gets invited into leadership cannot be dependent upon how closely aligned they are with the pastors and their agendas.
  3. Listening to the next generation is never optional.

 

Next week: Part 2 - Where have all the moderates gone?

Hebrews 11:1-16

In providing us with such marvelous brains, the Lord-God established three gifts for seeing the unseen. We have the natural sciences for discovering why inanimate objects behave the way they do. We have the social sciences for explaining human behavior. And, if we want to know why we exist, how we should live, and what lays beyond the seen world for ourselves and the people we love, we have faith. I know this is a simplification, but it may be helpful to speak it publicly from time to time. The three epistemologies above are often in conflict (cognitive psychologists fight with those who favor materialistic bio-mechanical models of human behavior, for example) and often in each other’s pockets (what do you mean creation didn’t happen in six days?), but we all benefit from accepting each others strengths and keeping the lines of dialogue open.

 

I have a brilliant niece who spends her workday flipping mice, examining their genes, and, hopefully, working on research that will lead to tomorrow’s cancer cures. In her leisure time she reads Marx for an insight into the social sciences. Where I like to say with the author of Hebrews that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. She would say, “No, science allows us to have conviction about things unseen.”  I am glad for her faith in science as she explores the inner workings of our cells, but I also wish to advocate a faith in faith. Faith recognizes that we are more than a mere collection of biochemical reactions. We are individuals of worth and value, something that cannot be proven by science alone. The best that natural philosophy can do in giving us a reason for ethical behavior is Kant’s rather dim approximation of the Golden Rule. Marx may lean on Darwin for his faith in a unseen dialectic guiding human history, but this is puny compared to our faith that God will lead His-story to glory and light in the end.

 

C.S. Lewis wrote a support for everyday Christian apologetics in his great little book, Mere Christianity. In it he says: 

If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world cannot satisfy, 

the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.

Pentecost 14
Sunday, August 7, 2016
By letting us see the invisible, science often opens the door for wonder and faith
Luke 12:13-21
Hosea 11:2-7

I looked up the word stubborn in the dictionary this week and found my picture next to the definition. In Hosea 11, God accuses his people of being wayward. He calls, and like undisciplined teens, they ramble farther away. They stubbornly cling to idols and consult false teachers who tell them only what they want to hear. We too can be stubborn when we double-down on a wrong choice, fail to ask directions when we are lost, and drive the people around us crazy by claiming to be right, even after we have been proven wrong. This trait is the one we are most likely to inherit from our parents, and the one we will make damn sure to pass on to our kids. We hate this persistent obstinance in others, but think it is an indispensable feature of our own character. God hates it equally in everybody.

 

There is only one cure for stubbornness. It is painful medicine. We must let go. Often a stubborn person will put something down, once they have been shown that they are wrong, only to pick it up again. If we want to cease being stubborn, we must learn to put things down and leave them be, even if we haven’t been proved wrong. I like the phrase, “Do you want to be happy, or do you want to be right?” Only those who let go are happy in this world, and blessed in the one beyond. We hold on to our stubbornness at great peril. 

 

Notice how lovingly God tries to woo his people away from their stubbornness:

The more I called them, the more they went from me… I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them…

…because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. (Hosea 11:2-7)

 

Yet when you read it in the context of the rest of Hosea, or even in the rest of the Bible, you realize that God has no interest in allowing his people to remain stubborn. I don’t know if Hell has been designed as a terrible place because God plans to put all the stubborn people there, or if we will find hell to be awful because everyone there will be as stubborn as we are.

 

Let it go. What do we need to let go of? Let me mention something you may not be thinking of. Many of us are stubborn about money. We will examine a receipt to make sure the waitress didn’t cheat us on our meal. If we let it go, our digestion would be better. There are those who have disrupted their family and ruined their relationship with their sibling over an inheritance. Do you want to be a few dollars richer, or do you want to be happy and keep your good memories of the deceased?  Jesus encounters this situation in Luke 12:13-21. Jesus responds with a story about a farmer who tells his soul to be happy in the knowledge that he has done the prudent thing in building bigger barns for his surplus crops rather than giving it away to the poor. That night the farmer’s soul was not happy. That night the farmer died and went to be judged by the Lord-God who will judge all the world’s stubborn people. Even those who think they are right. 

Pentecost 13
Sunday, July 31, 2016
How long have you been here? Would you rather be content or right?
Luke 11:1-13

I often get frustrated with my mother. I know, I deserve some grief considering all that I put her through. My mother is loving, kind, fun, in good health, and becoming increasingly independent as she heads towards 90. The problem is, she refuses to ask us for anything. I say, “Mom, let me help you order tickets for your upcoming flight.” She says, “I don’t want to bother you. I’m willing to call United on the phone.”  Then she grabs the yellow pages and her old black rotary phone. She also insists on finding her own way to and from the airport. I say to her, “Let me help.” She refuses to ask for what she needs.

 

Jesus teaches us to pray:

To our father-God who is hallowed — We refuse to ask for help in developing a spiritual center. We don’t ask father-God to enter into our worldview so that we see everything flowing out of God’s holiness. All that is, is because of this one on whom we call. This one prayer can put our lives into a proper alignment and order. Yet, we do not have because we do not ask.

 

For God’s heavenly authority to be mirrored in my life and my world. Our faith in God's kingdom is the only thing that provides us with hope. The world seems to be going to hell in a hand-basket, but it is not. Our lives seem to lack divine leadership, but this is only because we are myopic. We do not have hope, because we do not pray.

 

For stuff. We need stuff. We also need to see how much stuff we don’t really need. We should ask God to show us how to share our money and things in ways that help others. We are afraid to let God correct our ideas about stuff. We are afraid to ask for a chance to live life day to day, with God giving us our bread just when we need it. This would be so much simpler. We have such painful complications because we do not ask for daily bread.

 

For forgiveness. We are always demanding an apology. We fail to give apologies, or when we do, we are not repentant enough to change our future behavior. (Ask the person who is nearest to you if this is true.) We want people to change in ways that will please us. We are miles away from humbly asking for God to change us in a way that will please others. We have not peace, because we do not ask to be taught how to forgive.

 

So Jesus teaches us to pray. He opens the treasure box of heaven. We have not, because we refuse to ask.

Pentecost 12
Sunday, July 24, 2016
The way to peace is to ask for it
Amos 8:1-12

“May all your heads be bald and your wardrobe turned to sackcloth!” This curse has been brought to you by the prophet Amos. It’s mid-summer and everyone is heading out on vacation. There are parties on the beach and gas being guzzled by ATVs. It is also the last day. The end will come soon. Judgement. The vision that God gives to Amos is stark. Our summer fruit is rotten. The festival music will end. The wailing will begin. As mentioned last week (see Amos 1), many pastors are afraid to preach from Amos because he has mostly bad news.

    But, the message that God has given Amos is very relevant to today’s world. In Amos 8, two seemingly unrelated sins are linked. Judgement is now upon God’s people for their failure to deal with these two wrong-doings. What are they? Are they on Hilary or Trump's radar? No. They are:  First, the willingness of society to trample on the poor on their race to be rich. Greedy capitalists say, “Let’s make the box of cereal small and the price great” and “Let’s falsely label our products and practice deceit in our testing results” (Amos 8:5b). Remember Volkswagen’s rigging of their emission results? It is hard to find an industry or workplace where similar deception isn’t being practice.

    The second great sin in Amos’ prophesy is… drum roll please: the failure to observe the sabbath. In particular, Amos is calling the boss who emails you while you are on vacation an evil person. The workplace that regularly expects its employees to work 50 hour plus weeks is to be condemned (and this includes the church). Those who want holiday time to be cut short, sleep to be broken, and the work to be done on our day off, are speaking the same words that we find in Amos 8:5a: "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?”

    Amos speaks about a judgement that is coming upon everyone. The reason our employers, merchants, and corporations are so bad, is because we permit these two sins to take root in our own lives: 1) We deny ourselves a full vacation with our family, we skip weekly sabbath worship, we short our daily sleep, and we seldom pause throughout our days for moments of reflection and prayer. How many of us practice disconnect time: putting our phones to charge in another room, turning them off at the table, and not answering work email on our day off? We pay a price in our relationships and our in physical body for this choice. Add it up. Is it worth it? (If you are an employer you might want to read Arianna Huffington’s book: Thrive) 2) As individuals we short change the poor and deny them real generosity because we don’t consider these people to be members of our “inner circle.”  Similarly, our politicians and merchants don’t pay attention to the needs of the poor because they don’t consider them to be their supporters. 

  Now pause and reflect on how these two sins are linked in our present day society. How are they causing a perfect storm in your own family? What specifically should you do?

Pentecost 11
Sunday, July 17, 2016
A. Huffington also has a book out about our need for sleep
Amos 7:7-17

There are many reasons to avoid the prophet Amos, and I have used them all. Being a lazy person, as I began to write this morning's blog, I noticed that the gospel lesson of the lectionary deals with the good Samaritan, a subject I can pontificate about in my sleep. In fact, I’ve blogged about it seven times in four years (see http://billkemp.info/search/node/samaritan). There’s also the fact that Amos is a bit political, and during an election year, polite pastors don’t touch that electrified rail. This is ironic, because in Amos 7 the king says, “I find it so disgusting, Amos. That you criticize my faith. Why don’t you go back to Rome? Don’t you know that America is the king’s place to do and worship as he pleases?” (My loose paraphrase of Amos 7:12-13) Further, most church leaders follow Marcion’s heresy (see Old Testament) and abandon all prophets, especially minor ones. This is to declaw the lion, and make scripture irrelevant to today’s world.

 

Yes, Amos is irretrievably political. Even though Amos presents himself as a mere fig farmer, his message concerns the great political and economic forces of his day. He presents himself as an example of how God can use insignificant people to speak a word to the rich and powerful. He would be appalled at the way church today avoids discussing hot topics: LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter, universal healthcare, criminal justice reform, gun control, climate change, refugee resettlement, immigration, etc. Strip away social justice concerns from Amos, and you are left with a couple good one liners that carry none of the fire that inspired a simple dresser of vines to step out into the public arena. Strip away from the Bible the urgent call to work to transform our community for good, to do justice, to stand with the poor, and to be a bulwark against oppression, and you are left with the fuzzy impression that shepherds are nice people, and in America, all good boys do fine.

 

In Amos 7, God shows his prophet two apocalyptic disasters — locusts eating the crops and fires consuming our homes (how is this not relevant?) — but, God decides to spare us this time. Others suffer, but we are safe. Instead, God shows a plumb line to Amos. We will be spared irrational natural disasters. Instead, God will bring judgement to his people based upon what they have actually done, or failed to do. Now before you get all, but I am saved by grace on me, remember Jesus said:

 

 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-18)

 

Do the church a favor, study the Old Testament.

Pentecost 8
Sunday, July 10, 2016
Will modern martyrs become the seed of a new church?
2 Kings 5:1-14
Luke 10:1-11

I feel like I hear my mother’s voice in the Prophet Elisha. Together they say, “If I had asked you to do something difficult, you’d do it -- then, why can’t you take out the trash?” The situation in 2 Kings 5 is that General Naaman, commander of the Pagan Kingdom of Aram’s army, has incurable leprosy.  His undocumented alien servant girl tells him of the healing power of her faith and Elisha’s particular capacity for doing miracles for the hopeless. Naaman sends a message through diplomatic channels asking that Elisha come to Aram and do his magic. This is Elisha’s golden opportunity to play the palace and give a really great evangelistic sermon. 

 

If you want to know what Jesus would do if he were in Elisha’s shoes, then look at Luke 10:1-11. Jesus would have sent his ragged crew of disciples over to Aram as his representatives. He'd have them go village by village healing everyone, and when they got around to Naaman, they would heal him too. Jesus’ approach is very simple. He doesn’t equip his missionaries with 52 sermons or a book of recommended hymns. He says, “Go without purse, bag, or sandals.” He invites them to trust the group process for congregational formation, to discern the Holy Spirit, and to enter into face to face relationships. Most of all, he tells them to simply live the Gospel; heal the sick, teach, and be loving in all that they do. If he was asking something complicated of his disciples today, we would do it. We love going off to seminars and accumulating heavy instructional books on how to renew the church. Jesus says, “Live the Gospel; heal, teach, love.” How about beginning with something as simple as praying with or for each person we know?

 

General Naaman, commander of the Pagan Kingdom of Aram’s army, is a lot like us. He is told by Elisha that his leprosy problem will be solved if he goes and washes seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman throws a temper tantrum. He wants to see Elisha in person. He wants the prophet to don flowing vestments, dance around him with rattles, bless him with a voodoo incantation 86 stanzas long, and prescribe him medication that he’ll have to go to Canada to afford. Like many people in the modern world, his expectations are that the complex issues of his life require equally complex solutions. Accepting Jesus into our hearts is simple. Living as a Christian today requires a certain simplicity. It is often the simplicity of our faith that is its stumbling block. We want a ten step program to deal with our annoying ex-spouse, instead of the simplicity of Jesus’ command that we forgive, bless, and pray for our enemies. We want to subscribe to the latest renewal program for our church, rather than simply commit ourselves to live the Gospel; heal, teach, and above all, love. How about beginning with something as simple as praying with or for each person in our congregation that they might receive what they need as gather each week?

 
Pentecost 9
Sunday, July 3, 2016
When people ask us for healing, are we ready to pray for them?
Luke 9:51-62
2 Kings 6:1-14

What is religion to you? Is it your vocation, an advocation, or merely a hobby? The question runs through all the lectionary scriptures for the Sunday that begins our summer vacations. Jesus turns back an overly enthusiastic follower (Luke 9:51-62), presumably because he foresaw the man not being up to the transient and dangerous life that lay ahead for Christ’s designated disciples. With similar language, Elijah tries to send home an applicant who wants to be the chief prophet job when Elijah retires (II Kings 6:1-14). “I’m not the one doing the hiring,” Elijah admits, alluding to the mysterious nature of the Holy Spirit. “If God gives you a vocation, then you can take over my spirit and calling.” In these stories the middle ground gets pulled away. The would-be follower cannot simply be an advocate — that is someone who feels called to be a companion to the real professional. A person either has his or her own calling, and spiritual endowment, or one is a mere hobbyist.

 

The vocation vs hobby question has been an important one for me. I draw a line. Writing is my vocation, I rise early every morning and work at it. Photography is my hobby. I have made the mistake in the past of believing that if I had the right camera, a Hasselblad or a full-frame digital Nikon, I would be a professional. As an advocate, I often hang with people that do. But when they make plans to rise before dawn and wade out into cold waters to document ducks, I don’t set my alarm. This reflects more than a lack of commitment. God has not called me to photography the way I have been called to write. There is a mysterious power to the spirit, which transcends what other people say you should do. On Facebook, many people “like” my photographs. In the real world, I have a hard time selling the books that I have written. 

 

The vocation thing transcends the making money. I occasionally sell my snapshots and am considering publishing a coffee table book featuring photos around a theme. But even if the text in this project is short, the photos will serve to support the writing. I state this confidently, because I have come to that mantle-passing-Elijah-to-Elisha moment where I know my own calling. I will labor to express truth and beauty in words on a page, even when I don’t expect to make a dime. I realize the rarity of this. Most people are clueless. I suspect a spiritual formation process would be helpful to some. Everyone needs to pray and reflect more on their life’s calling. The church could be more helpful in this than it has been. Pastors should stop preaching about discernment as if it only applies to college freshmen. Key to self-discovery, though, is abandoning the capitalist principle which says, “Do what you get paid to do,” as well as, the social media principle that says, “Do what other people appreciate you for.” Only one question matters, “What is God calling me to do?”

 

The Apostle Paul, as usual, spins this the other way. He talks about the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). All Christians are called to be fruitful and these nine words define what that is. We discover our particular vocation by reflecting on where God has enabled us to be more fruitful. Our job may be as mundane as a bank teller’s, but if the Holy Spirit enables us every day to be loving, joyful, peaceful, etc. in that setting, then it is our vocation. To paraphrase Paul, if we live by the Spirit, we will also be guided by the Spirit into that particular enterprise where we are not mere hobbyists or advocates, but people called by God.

Pentecost 8
Sunday, June 26, 2016
Ansel Adams with his Hasselblad
I Kings 19:9-18

If we were with Elijah on Mount Sinai, we would look for God to stand between us and the earthquake, wind, and fire. When natural disasters strike, we expect God to stop the hurricane, or at least divert it so that it only hits islands without tourists. We expect the wind not to blow off the roof of the church. We expect wildfires to stay away from our city’s suburban sprawl. In general, we expect God to disrespect nature, like we do. When the Old Testament borrows from the destructive power of nature to describe our God, we find it quaint. We are not willing, as Elijah was, to pray for a drought to come to our land so that our leaders would be humbled (or at least deal with climate change). We are not willing to be driven out into the wilderness and become dependent upon crows for our food supply, as Elijah was. Face it, we don’t cultivate in ourselves the God-awareness that we see in the people of the Bible.

 

On our best days, we look for God in the earthquake, wind, and fire. They say that there are no atheists in fox holes. Crisis Christians are common. On more ordinary days, we don’t look for God at all. This is why having Elijah go out to meet God in the soft, "sound of silence" is such an intriguing story. It shows the wisdom that comes from life-long spiritual formation. Today, I find myself disillusioned by the dumbing down of adult Christian Education. When will we lead our people to crave the meatier things of the Spirit?

 

Where is God? In the silent places. He is there along side all who suffer. When an earthquake, hurricane, or mass shooting takes place, he is in the hearts of the rescue workers and the selfless actions of neighbors who forsake their own concerns to minister to those in need. God is in the outreach and generosity of people giving sacrificially. He is silence of the counselors and the soft words of those who preach the funeral services. 

 

God is the God of the still small voice. One has to remember how Jesus surrendered himself to die on the cross. He could have called down earthquake, wind, and fire upon those where condemning him. He could have overpowered the rulers of city and made all bow to him. God was in the garden when Jesus prayed, “Not my will but thine”  God was also at the resurrection. That wasn’t a noisy affair.  The guards went back and told their commander that they slept through it. God was in the quiet coming of the women, Peter, and John, to the tomb and the revelation of Easter.

 

One of the things that we must do to align ourselves with the still small voice is allow time in our lives for prayer and solitude with God. The hebrew word that NIV translates as “gentle whisper”  is actually, in the words of that great Bible scholar Paul Simon,  “The sound of silence.” After the earthquake, wind, and fire, Elijah heard the sound of silence.  How does one hear the sound of silence? Its like that Zen Koan - “What is the sound of one hand clapping” It can also be translated as the sound of emptiness or nothingness... I believe that God is to be found in the rest-notes of our life’s music. 

 

Perhaps that is the best way to describe the process of discernment and spiritual formation. We need to learn Elijah’s wisdom and look for God in the silence of our existence.

 

To quote Emerson:

It is easy in the world to live after the worlds opinion; 

It is easy in solitude to live after your own opinion;

but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd, 

keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

 

Pentecost 5
Sunday, June 19, 2016
1 Kings 21
Psalm 32

Bible stories often contrast people who are spiritually attuned with those who are as lost as a goose.  In the story of Naboth’s Vineyard (I Kings 21), the King of Israel is shown to be a spoiled, middle-aged, child. King Ahab is easily persuaded to commit murder. All Queen Jezebel has to do is appeal to the man’s unbridled pride in being the king (think Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the King”). When we are spiritually immature, our pride makes us vulnerable.

 

By way of contrast, Naboth is spiritually attuned to the way God has tied the providence of his family, and the dignity of his ancestors (think humus — the rich loam that forms the root word of humanity and humility), with the working of the soil. He will not sell his vineyard for it is the living, organic, means that rural society has to care for the future generation.

 

Every person needs to learn from the life that they are living. We grow as spiritual persons when we comprehend the fabric of God’s providence. When we cave into our pride, we become competitive, violent, and less-than-human. Spiritual growth also brings an appreciation of truth, beauty, and the life lived patiently. Below is a poem I wrote with these themes in mind.   

Life Lessons

        by Bill Kemp

I have discovered that

Patience and humility are interlaced.

The tapestry of a weaver’s shuttle,

Strand by strand,

Life is a thread of attention

Rhythmically tossed, back and forth,

Until relationships emerge in focus.

 

So also, is the pursuit of beauty or truth.

Patience and humility are required.

Like a hunter working the thicket,

Silencing the rush to results,

Life is found by observation.

Shooting only with a camera,

Until the nature of reality emerges.

 

Then too, when we consider time,

A friend of patience, humility, and few others.

It seems to progress, steady like a train in the sunset,

Gone with a whistle, mournful, falling,

Elder-hood, life’s greatest gift,

Squandered on those who complain,

Leaving to others, the task of being thankful. 

Pentecost 6
Sunday, June 12, 2016
The orb spider is a lesson in patience, beauty, and geometry
Luke 7:11-17
1 Kings 17:8-24

This Sunday is about midway between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. It also is the Sunday we often use to recognize those who are graduating. Jesus (Luke 7:11-17) and Elijah (I Kings 17) both raise from death the only child of a widow. Jesus, we are told, has compassion. He has compassion on all of us, but one assumes that why it was mentioned in this circumstance is because the widow’s economic survival and status in the community is dependent upon her son. Many parents live vicariously through their children, but we have to go back several generations to hear what it is like to depend upon your children to keep you from poverty — that is — to provide a home for you when you are old, to work the family farm, to carry on the family name, to immigrate to a better land and send back needed cash, or, and think specifically of your graduates here, to be the one who is first to get a real education. Imagine a time when children weren’t optional.

 

The recent outbreak of Zika has brought to mind the apocalyptic novels of P.D.James (The Children of Men) and others, where the next generation is lost. Humanity faces  extinction, and suddenly we all realize that children aren’t optional. 100 leading scientists and the World Health Organization have urged the Olympic Committee to postpone or move the summer games. The only response the Olympic Committee has made so far, has been a callous disregard for life. I admit that back in the winter, when the news first broke about the outbreak in Brazil, I thought it reasonable to urge those women hoped to be pregnant to not attend. Today, contraception makes the timing of children optional, right? And then the word came that Zika could be transmitted sexually — it is blood borne and has other avenues of spreading than just this one type of mosquito. We face the apocalyptic reality that the fear of Zika may lead to a childless decade in many countries around the world. Let alone, the disabilities and needless deaths caused to children whose parents were unnecessarily exposed to the disease. 

 

The truth is, while we love our own children and grandchildren, we don’t always show the same concern for the children of others. Our own financial wellbeing or happiness isn’t tied to the next generation. We can conveniently consider the children of strangers are considered to be optional. This can be read in the daily newspaper: how are immigration issues discussed? Are we reluctant to invest in our schools, in affordable higher education for all, in the elimination of childhood poverty? For that matter, why can’t we insist that all gun owners put childproof locks on their weapons?

 

Compassion is a choice. Spiritual growth is impossible without it. I am not nostalgic for the days when children were an economic necessity. Further, I think respecting each woman’s personal reproductive choices is a key component of a  compassionate society. I am, however, struck by how the church has stood by mute, as our society has abandoned the next generation.

 

For more on Elijah and the Widow see: http://billkemp.info/content/please-dont-tell-story  and http://billkemp.info/content/pancakes-every-day

 

Pentecost 3
Sunday, June 5, 2016
Would we in the north care more about Microcephaly if it happened to our children?
1 Kings 18:20-39

Elijah was a very rare individual, but he wasn’t unique. His type of faith is repeated several times in the bible — most clearly in John the Baptist. While most people waver between opinions, Elijah represents the voice in any real world situation that is willing to have their position tested. In the workplace there are those who hope that the boss doesn’t take a sample of their work, and there are those who invite criticism because they know that they have made the right choice. In the political world, there are the many who hide what they are doing and the few that are willing to act with transparency.

 

History sends Elijah type people into every generation. They call us to truth. They call us to honesty. They call us to act out of our convictions. The generation before ours had Dorothea Dix, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dag Hammarskjöld (and that’s just working with the d’s). What about our generation? I think of the way Al Gore has challenged us to get off the fence in terms of climate change. Who else? What ever name you say will be controversial. Elijah was controversial. 

 

Perhaps, that is the point of the story. We get hung up on the power of Elijah’s prayers and the way the water turned into gasoline. Don’t miss the fact that when everyone else was on the fence, Elijah was putting all his eggs in one basket. How did he get to be so certain? I think it came from the years he spent in the wilderness. He kept seeking for God and choosing God’s wisdom over his own comfort. He prayed, ‘thy will be done,’ until he was certain about God’s will.

 

What keeps us from being that way? It is important that we don’t view our heroes, or Elijah, as if they are super-natural creatures. If we take a blood sample we won’t find midi-chlorian, like they found in Luke Skywalker. Heroes are people who desire to be certain and choose to put up with the discomfort that brings.

Pentecost 4
Memorial Day
Sunday, May 29, 2016
In 1960, Ruby Bridges was an Elijah style heroine
Make up your mind!

“I thought we were going to do something with this thing.” This is my response to the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I am glad I did not go (normally I work with the United Methodist Rural Advocacy group trying to inform delegates about rural, small church, and local pastor issues).  Unfortunately, General Conference did not move any further towards honoring (ordaining) the non-seminary trained clergy that work tirelessly in many rural settings. They also failed to remove the legal obstacles that have kept guaranteed appointments in place, even though the 2012 conference decided it was time to change this. Such slowness is to be expected if you are trying to preserve a beautiful piece of art. But, church institutions are not art. They are people who need to be trained, empowered, and set free to use their gifts if they are to be in mission. Oh yes, the same can also be said for the elephant in the room at Portland.

 

Often we do the right thing for the wrong reason. Proposals relating to the LBGTQ community need dialogue, so that the church can move away from its passive-aggressive behavior on this issue, and towards genuine, missional, leadership. We shouldn’t be left behind by social change — we should reforming our theology to be prophetic, inclusive, and future oriented. The wrong reasons for differing action involve an over-narcissistic concern that the church only act in ways that are popular and a fear that the institution might schism. While I agree with Dante that schismatics should be repeatedly sliced in two in hell; I think allowing local congregations, conferences, and clergy persons the right to discern their mind on the issue is the most missional path. 

 

Passive-aggressive behavior is also to be found in our continuation of the guaranteed appointment. The 2016 General Conference says it wants to find another way to remove ineffective clergy. Bad pastors are not the issue, nor are ineffective clergy to blame for the UMC’s 1% per year decline since 1970. The problem has to do with paternalism. The system operates out of a “we know what's best for you” mentality. Both clergy and congregations are prevented from discovering their missional calling. Four year pastorates are the average because we never allow people to become rooted in the community. No one is effective in four years.

UMC, UMRA
Romans 5:1-5

Recent psychological studies seem to reveal a disadvantage to being hopeful. In one, students were asked how well they thought they did on a test. Often, those who performed the worst thought that they did well, outshining their peers. They were hopeful. Whereas the best students tended to rate their work as average, assuming that half the class did as well as they did. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Incompetent people tend to be over-hopeful. One has to know something in order to have doubts. Dunning-Kruger is everywhere. Your coworkers, the current crop of politicians, your teenage children. In many areas of life, hope disappoints.

 

There is another kind of hope, though. One that is developed over a series of difficulties. It is the product of the Holy Spirit — but not the gentle dove of a relaxed evening by the lake — but the unseen God who sustains us through life’s darkest moments.

 

This hope is the possession of those who are thankful and open about their sufferings. Those who have learned that patience is a choice — we may choose to be patient in a minor situation today. The next time affliction comes into our lives, it will be a bit more strenuous. We double down and choose patience again. This process is repeated. The spirit guides us to choose the more difficult path, each time. This repetition produces endurance. Endurance forges us, like a hammer repeatedly striking the same piece of metal on an anvil, into people of a certain character. Into people with a hope that does not disappoint.

Pentecost 2
Trinity Sunday
Sunday, May 22, 2016
Often repeated study shows that we don't know our own ignorance
Romans 5:1-5

Recent psychological studies seem to reveal a disadvantage to being hopeful. In one students were asked how well they thought they did on a test. Often, those who performed the worst thought that they did well, outshining their peers. They were hopeful. Whereas the best students tended to rate their work as average, assuming that half the class did as well as they did. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Incompetent people tend to be over-hopeful. One has to know something in order to have doubts. Dunning-Kruger is everywhere. Your coworkers, the current crop of politicians, your teenage children. In many areas of life, hope disappoints.

 

There is another kind of hope, though. One that is developed over a series of difficulties. It is the product of the Holy Spirit — but not the gentle dove of a relaxed evening by the lake — but the unseen God who sustains us through life’s darkest moments.

 

This hope is the possession of those who are thankful and open about their sufferings. Those who have learned patience is a choice — we choose to be patient in one minor suffering situation. The next time affliction or disappointment comes in to our lives, it is a step more strenuous. We double down and choose patience again. This process is repeated. The spirit guides us to choose the more difficult path, each time. This repetition produces endurance. Endurance forges us, like a hammer repeatedly striking the same piece of metal on an anvil, into people of a certain character. Into people with a hope that does not disappoint.

Pentecost 2
Trinity Sunday
Sunday, May 22, 2016
Often repeated study shows that we don't know our own ignorance
Genesis 11:1-9
Acts 2:1-21

It is often pointed out that the Day of Pentecost is the reverse of the Tower of Babel event in the Old Testament. My first pastorate was a church just south of Bangor, Maine. Bangor, like many American communities, has been struggling to make a name for itself. In the 1960s they lost a major military base and airport hub. Truth is, planes stopped needing to fuel there as they flew to Europe. Few people remember that Bangor was the destination for the King of the Road hit song by Roger Miller. Fewer people still, associate Bangor with Paul Bunyan. Like the ancient people on the Plane of Shinar, and John Katich (who?), the Bangorites had a name recognition problem. The city council decided that the solution was to build, not a tower, but a 30foot high fiberglass statue of Paul Bunyan.

 

It is good to note where the people of Bangor and the citizens of Babel went wrong. With the United Methodist General Conference meeting soon, these stories have relevance. I think the average church leader can see similarities in the crack-pot schemes of their congregation.

 

Poor Substitutes: Bricks for stones, tar for mortar, and a fiberglass cartoon character instead of real public art. It is always easier to do something big and showy than it is to do real works of service for a community. Babel is positioned in the Genesis narrative to highlight humanity’s choice to find other substitutes for God

 

Stairways to Heaven: Instead of building our own tower to get into God’s presence, we must step back and discern how God desires to be worshipped. There is a flow of revelation, prayer, and praise, that is distinctive for each congregation. Churches need to stop thinking that by building a building and filling a set of pews they have succeeded in doing worship. They need to stop thinking that the pastor, like some magical Paul Bunyan, will bring worship to them.

 

False Community: The people of Babel, like the people of Bangor, all spoke the same language. They also looked the same and had similar cultural values. Diversity wasn’t a priority. James Surowiecki, in his book “The Wisdom of Crowds,” demonstrates the superior intelligence and compassion that large groups have, especially when they are united in a democratic process (yes, this is an election year).  Crowds are only smart, however, when they are diverse and free from manipulation. A congregation, or a city, becomes a mad mob when they fail to receive into full membership people who are different from them.

 

With this in mind, let us briefly list the things that went right on the first Pentecost:

 

The process of fifty days of prayer, following Jesus’ death and resurrection, yielded a genuine foundation for the church to be built on. We must respect the time that transitional processes require in the church, so that our community is built utilizing the best materials/spiritual gifts.

 

The religious practice of the people was returned to real worship, complete with revelation, prayer, and praise.

 

The gift of a common language wasn’t used to merge everyone into conformity. Instead, diversity was appreciated in the early church and the outward-facing missionary spirit cultivated. Alternately, one can read the book of Acts as an extended account of the Holy Spirit forcing people to be more accepting of each other than they first wanted to be.

Pentecost 1
Sunday, May 15, 2016
Paul Bunyan brought name recognition to Bangor --NOT!
Genesis 11:1-9
Acts 2:1-21

It is often pointed out that the Day of Pentecost is the reverse of the Tower of Babel event in the Old Testament. My first pastorate was a church just south of Bangor, Maine. Bangor, like many American communities, has been struggling to make a name for itself. In the 1960s they lost a major military base and airport hub. Truth is, planes stopped needing to fuel there as they flew to Europe. Few people remember that Bangor was the destination for the King of the Road hit song by Roger Miller. Fewer people still, associate Bangor with Paul Bunyan. Like the ancient people on the Plane of Shinar, and John Katich (who?), the Bangorites had a name recognition problem. The city council decided that the solution was to build, not a tower, but a 30foot high fiberglass statue of Paul Bunyan.

 

It is good to note where the people of Bangor and the citizens of Babel went wrong. With the United Methodist General Conference meeting soon, these stories have relevance. I think the average church leader can see similarities in the crack-pot schemes of their congregation.

 

Poor Substitutes: Bricks for stones, tar for mortar, and a fiberglass cartoon character instead of real public art. It is always easier to do something big and showy than it is to do real works of service for a community. Babel is positioned in the Genesis narrative to highlight humanity’s choice to find other substitutes for God

 

Stairways to Heaven: Instead of building our own tower to get into God’s presence, we must step back and discern how God desires to be worshipped. There is a flow of revelation, prayer, and praise, that is distinctive for each congregation. Churches need to stop thinking that by building a building and filling a set of pews they have succeeded in doing worship. They need to stop thinking that the pastor, like some magical Paul Bunyan, will bring worship to them.

 

False Community: The people of Babel, like the people of Bangor, all spoke the same language. They also looked the same and had similar cultural values. Diversity wasn’t a priority. James Surowiecki, in his book “The Wisdom of Crowds,” demonstrates the superior intelligence and compassion that large groups have, especially when they are united in a democratic process (yes, this is an election year).  Crowds are only smart, however, when they are diverse and free from manipulation. A congregation, or a city, becomes a mad mob when they fail to receive into full membership people who are different from them.

 

With this in mind, let us briefly list the things that went right on the first Pentecost:

 

The process of fifty days of prayer, following Jesus’ death and resurrection, yielded a genuine foundation for the church to be built on. We must respect the time that transitional processes require in the church, so that our community is built utilizing the best materials/spiritual gifts.

 

The religious practice of the people was returned to real worship, complete with revelation, prayer, and praise.

 

The gift of a common language wasn’t used to merge everyone into conformity. Instead, diversity was appreciated in the early church and the outward-facing missionary spirit cultivated. Alternately, one can read the book of Acts as an extended account of the Holy Spirit forcing people to be more accepting of each other than they first wanted to be.

Pentecost 1
Sunday, May 15, 2016
Paul Bunyan brought name recognition to Bangor --NOT!
John 17:20-26

Last night I spoke with a woman who was going alone to South Dakota to attend a family reunion. It was the first time that a representative of her clan was attending the annual gathering organized by her far, distant, cousins, who long ago, had split off and added one letter to their name. She was apprehensive that she wouldn’t have anything in common with these people. We had this conversation fifteen minutes after a fairly homogenous group of board members for a local non-profit had nearly come to blows over a trivial issue. In Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-26, he asks the Father to provide a spirit that will unite his diverse followers into one. Jesus and the Father-God are one. They exhibit harmony and shared purpose. With the exception of Jesus’ 33 year stint on earth, they are eternally inseparable.

 

However we talk about doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the iota of difference between Jesus being of the same substance as the Father or being almost the same, the heart of our Christianity is the one-ness of Jesus and God. As Jesus prays, he gives the same gift to us. Has this prayer gone unheard? How does one have unity in the church? How do we go about being in families, and joining organizations, where we will feel a dependable connection with the other members?

 

First we need to recognize that what made Jesus and the Father one was not race, gender, or personal experience. Jesus was a dark-skinned, man, whose current lifestyle was one of brutal poverty in a cultural backwater. God the Creator (we assume) lacks skin, gender, and material substance. God the Creator’s experience is marked by a failure to encounter insurmountable obstacles. Jesus was having a very different trip. 

 

We pay too much attention to our similarities as we form relationships. We too often fall prey to the myth that people who are similar are more likely to form productive, respectful, and friendly alliances. I am convinced that compatibility begins with our prayerful acceptance and respect for diversity. We need to verbally state this value, both in our communal gatherings and in our families. We need to stop telling our children to date “the right” people. We need to leave the shelter of our secure neighborhoods. We need to welcome what challenges our respectability, for it is in becoming vulnerable to the strangeness of someone else’s experience that we see Jesus. We discover the answer to his prayer for one-ness in the situations where our hearts are desperate to find common ground. Holy Love triumphs.

Easter 7
Sunday, May 8, 2016
How do we form community? Make each other shoes.
Acts 16:9-15

I’m running out the door, late, as usual. Across the street my neighbor is sitting alone, on his porch. He doesn’t look up. He doesn’t acknowledge me. Yet, I hear a silent nudge in my heart, saying, Go over and talk to him. 

    But, I have a meeting to attend. My neighbor is a recovering alcoholic who has recently left the path. His wife is forcing him to move out, saying, “I won’t live with a drunk.” I helped him pack a U-haul over the weekend. I let him borrow my car to take his son out to the park. He thanked me. I learned the next day that he had picked up a bottle of whiskey on the way back from the park. No, I didn’t want to go across the street to talk to him.

    I went on my way and didn’t think much about it until I saw the scripture for this Sunday. In Acts 16:9-15, Paul has a vision. A man from Macedonia appeared in a dream saying, “Come over to help us.”  This meant crossing the Aegean Sea and starting a new ministry in Europe. Paul already had his hands full with Asia Minor. He had meetings to attend.

    In a few weeks it will be Pentecost. One of the things we rarely talk about is the most common experience of the Holy Spirit, the way we receive these little tugs on our heart. I believe that these diminish when we ignore them. If we want the Holy Spirit to be conversational, to have an open relationship with God, then we must intentionally choose to listen. We will go across the street when nudged. We respond to the crazy dream that says come over here and help.

    This can be a most inconvenient relationship. It will cause us to miss meetings. Paul was successful in his new mission, but he had some tough trials during the start-up phase. He was jailed in Philippi. He must have wondered if the dream was just something that he ate.

    As it is often said, we are not called to be successful, we are called to be faithful. To be faithful we must be attentive. We must pause. Set aside our agenda and purpose-driven life. If we listen to one nudge, others will come. People will think us crazy. We will develop a habit of crossing the street for no obvious reason. And through us, the Holy Spirit might help someone.

Easter 6
Sunday, May 1, 2016
How do we respond to society's ambivalence regarding alcohol?
About time!

Sometime early in the new millennium, I reversed my thinking about social justice and the church. I used to think that the primary work of each congregation, as well as my denomination (United Methodist), was to win people to Christ and form them into fruitful disciples. My priorities as a clergy-person were; witness first, organize second, and address human need a distant third. I am replacing this guideline, though. I believe now that one cannot be evangelical without being concerned about liberation. Jesus healed and taught with equal enthusiasm. In the Letter of Philemon, the apostle Paul revealed that theology must always serve compassion. In today’s world, the church has no traction in neighborhoods, or with people groups, that it is not working first to liberate. 

 

We can no longer afford to prioritize the preservation of our institution over human need. In Tubman’s time, there were church leaders who said, “Let’s send our missionaries to work among the colored, so that they can know Jesus, and we can have a reputation as a church that does good things.” In our time, there are those who advocate expanding Hispanic ministries, without embracing the need for immigration reform. There are those who want to witness to the LGBT community, without working to provide them full acceptance in society and the church. Tubman would say to us that the can be no evangelization without liberation.

 

Harriet Tubman, a devout Christian, was given the name, Moses, for her work with the underground railroad. The biblical Moses was typical of the people that God uses. He did not preach, teach, or act as a lawgiver, before beginning his main task, that of liberating the slaves held in Egypt. Moses did not come back from Midian with the Four Spiritual Laws, nor did he set up a soap box in front of the pyramids and try to win people to Jesus. He came back with ten plagues to inflict upon his people’s oppressors. Recognizing the economics behind the systemic injustice of his day, Moses told God’s people to borrow jewelry from their neighbors before they fled out into the wilderness. It is hard to celebrate Passover without thinking about the social justice issues that continue to be woven into the practice of our religion.

 

Finally, what you may not know about Harriet Tubman, was that she was a bit of a mystic, often telling about vivid dreams and strange visions that the Lord had given her. While not every reformer has ecstatic experiences, enough do that the church needs to be cautious about dismissing contemporary prophets as nuts. It is too easy to marginalize visionary leaders. The old priorities of witness first, organization second, and social causes if we have time, is propagated by people of limited imagination.

Acts 11:1-18

In a few weeks we will celebrate Pentecost (thank God it’s not on Mother’s Day or Memorial Day this year).  I say that we should prepare for it. Just as Lent forces us to journey through our spiritual wilderness, and Advent renews our respect for the prophets of old, so we are now in the midst of fifty days of reflection on the new thing that God is bringing about. Now is the time to prepare for when the Kingdom of God is manifested in power. The weekly scripture lessons of the lectionary help us with this by scanning ahead in the book of Acts to chapters 9, 11, and 16. These stories are to be read in the future tense. One day, God will do to us what he did to Jesus’ first followers. 

 

Case in point is Peter and the spiritual baptism of the household of Cornelius (Acts 11:1-18). One day, the Holy Spirit will fall upon our church and we will no longer be content to worship with mumbles and half-hearted prayers. We will leave our segregated enclaves. We will cross over the boundaries of neighborhoods and break bread with those living in food deserts, with substandard housing, and drive by shootings. One day the church will travel to the places where God has decided to pour out his Holy Spirit. Pentecost is not among us, yet — it is over there.

Easter 5
Sunday, April 24, 2016
Post-pentecost the church will meet her neighbors
Psalm 23

v1) I have proven myself incapable of distinguishing between what I need and what I want. The Master lays down for me nutritious food and clear water. I beg for table scraps, wolf them down, and barf it all up on the carpet. I root through the garbage, I drink from the toilet. In spite of all this, the Master loves this shepherd.

 

v2-3) Our friendship has been formed by many walks. It is in going out into the world that I have come to know my Master’s will. He leads me around dangers and across busy streets. He seems to know both the destination and the lessons I need to learn on the way. He knows when I need to rest, or take a drink. He always has a bag handy for when I poop. He waits patiently for me and teaches me to wait for him.

 

v 4) I don’t think about death. I know that my Master’s life will go on much longer than mine. I simply hope that he will remember me. The Master has disciplined me when I’ve needed it. He has guided me when I have been anxious. In fact, he has never failed at this. I am comforted. I have the strength to face the unknown.

 

v5) When the Master has his friends over, they sit at table and give thanks for bread and wine. They pass the dishes of food around the table. They share. This is another thing beyond my comprehension. There are dogs in the neighborhood that I hate. I have fought. When I am hurt, he takes me to the vet and binds my wounds with salve. I know that he wants me to be more like him, but I am just a dog.

 

v6) Once, I was a stray and then I did time in the Animal Shelter. Since my Master has found me, I have known goodness and mercy. I plan to stay close to my Master all the days of my life, and hope to see him again when I cross over into the unknown.

 

[reprint from 2014 - Our German Shepherd, Bella, passed away last month. The above blog is in her memory.]

Easter 4
Sunday, April 17, 2016
Sometime the real Shepherd is in the lead
Fear, Faith, Reason

In the children’s game of Rock, Paper, Scissors: Fear is represented by the stones that cause us to stumble, Reason is the pair of Scissors that cuts away falsehood, and Faith is the insubstantial seeming Paper that wraps up our fears and overcomes them. So, Rock (fear) breaks Reason (scissors), Scissors (Reason) cuts undeveloped Faith, and Faith, as always, defeats Fear. 

 

This helps us remember the importance of good faith development in the church. We should never be afraid of reason. It should be invited into our discussions with our youth and into our church council meetings. Faith should not make us afraid, but give us an awesome power to defeat our animal passions.

 

I got this gem from Al Gore’s book, “The Assault on Reason” (p 45).  This book has helped me to see the churches role in restoring a balanced, non-partisan, American political dialogue. Hope to speak more about this in future blogs @ billkemp.info 

additional author: 
Al Gore
Acts 9:1-6

In the familiar story of the conversion of Saint Paul (Acts 9:1-6), GOD SPEAKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS. He speaks to Saul, and then to Ananias. In each case what He says is clear, unambiguous, and reverses the strongly held opinions of the hearer. Most Sundays, this is not the case. I had to go way back to my youth to remember a time when God spoke in capital letters to me:

 

It was the winter of 1976 and I was attending the University of Maine and active in the ecumenical campus ministry. At the weekly fellowship meeting, I found out that the board had approved allowing the gay student association to use the building for its gatherings. I was incensed. I went to my car in the parking lot and prayed for guidance. Looking up from the dashboard, I saw that the car ahead of mine had a personalized license plate. It said: TREAD. I took this to mean that I should boldly tread into the next board meeting and tell them the word of God.

 

Before doing this, I went to see my pastor. Dick Arnold was a wise, elderly, minister in Bangor, Maine. He listen to my concerns about the gays dancing in the student ministry A-frame. Then he told me his understanding of what Church is. He said, “A church is like a green house. Different plants growing under the same roof. If you go into ministry, you’ll have to learn how to give each plant what it needs.”  At the time, I thought this a terrible non-sequitur.

 

Now, I realize that God was speaking through Dick with capital letters. It would be decades before I incorporated his simple philosophy into my own calling as a clergy person. Perhaps the license plate was God’s way of sending me to Dick so that I could hear this wisdom.

 

As to giving the board of the campus ministry the WORD OF GOD, I never did. It was two decades before I did a serious search of the scriptures — there are only a handful that deal with gays, none of them from the mouth of Jesus, and all of which, when read in context, are really about human lawlessness rather than a specific condemnation of gays. I weighed these few easily misinterpreted passages against the pervasive and loving tone of the gospels. Was I really to believe that God's word stood in opposition to the varieties of sexual orientation that He had wired into humankind? I found that when I prayed about it, God has no word of judgement against LBGT people. God’s capital letter messages, are reserved for calls to show his love to all. 

 

Go back now, and read the messages given to Paul and Ananias. Are they not calls to inclusion? Doesn’t each person have to reverse their prejudice in order to tread where God wants them to tread?

Easter 3
Sunday, April 10, 2016
To tread where we God wants us to tread, we must first be nocked off our horse
John 20:19-31
1 Corinthians 4:1

One of my favorite paintings is Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.”  Thomas is shown sticking his finger fully into the risen Christ’s side. You look closely at the painting (if you dare) and the finger is literally under a flap of Jesus’ skin. But, what I have sometimes failed to see because I am intrigued by Jesus willingness to be examined, is that two other disciples are leaning in, watching what Thomas is doing. Perhaps they, too, have incredulity.

 

That word, incredulity, is well chosen for the painting. We rarely use the word today. Instead we often say that a situation is “incredible,” that is, the thing itself lacks believability. It has a credibility problem. This can be said about a book by Steven King or a movie about Harry Potter. The work has a problem. We don’t trust it. Fiction is supposed to be credible. It is enough to make an author pull his hair out!

 

The word, incredulity, puts the shoe back on the right foot. Thomas and the others have a problem. They are not capable of accepting the mystery of the Risen Christ. They dismiss its joy, the way we often fail to allow ourselves the luxury of immersing ourselves in a good book or movie.

 

Easter afternoon, my wife insisted that we all go out to a movie to relax. We saw Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Rope.” No, it wasn’t a modern day thriller, like Fast and Furious 14, where you are expected to believe that Vin Diesel can drive his car out of the 30th floor of one building and land safely on the 27th floor of the adjacent skyscraper. No, Hitchcock simply required us to believe that a locked trunk with a body in it could sit in the middle of a room with a dinner party going on all around it without anyone being curious enough to open the trunk. 

 

So Jesus comes into a dinner party filled with people who just saw his dead body being placed in a tomb. Isn’t anyone there going to be curious enough to go over and stick his finger into Jesus’ wounded side. But wait. Its not just a book or a movie that the disciples are finding themselves having a hard time believing. It is instead, the mystery of life, and death, and God, and our hopes to see our loved ones again after we go, and yes, our incredulity that we ourselves might enjoy a life after we die. Admit it, didn’t you have an incredulity problem this past week. Haven’t you had doubts? I’m asking you to own a really big problem. We all have a certain willingness to suspend belief for a little bit and enter into the world of Harry Potter or Alfred Hitchcock. But we all have an incredulity problem when it comes to living our lives trusting in the Risen Christ and our hope of a world to come.

 

Last week, I heard someone say, “We clergy are not explainers of mysteries. We are stewards of mysteries.”  (see I Corinthians 4:1) We have been trusted by Christ to stick our fingers into his side. We have also been trusted by God to say to the world around us, “I believe in the most wonderful thing. I can not explain this mystery — but, there is life beyond the grave.” 

Easter 2
Sunday, April 3, 2016
Are you willing to stick your finger in and believe?
John 20:1-18

There are two punchlines in John’s story of the first Easter: 1) John enters the tomb, sees and believes (John 20: 8) and 2) Mary Magdalene, after thinking that Jesus is the gardener, hears him call her name, and she believes (John 20:16).  In each of these, a person who is a faithful friend of Jesus, makes a quantum leap. They believe — but this is not the same thing as being saved! — in a way that moves them to a deeper spiritual state. As we celebrate Easter, those in worship are not all in the same place. Part of the duty of the story is to help move each person one step deeper. See John 20:31, where the author tells us that the reason for writing this gospel is so that we might believe in a deeper way.

 

I am indebted to father Felix Just, SJ, for his clear outline of the five stages of believing that John describes in his gospel. These remind me of Fowler, Piaget, and Kolhberg, who talk about stages of moral and spiritual development. What if we keep the five audiences below in our minds as we develop our sermons and try to help people who may be stuck at each level:

 

    1    Those who hear Jesus' words and/or see his signs, yet refuse to believe:

    ◦    "the world"; "chief priests"; most "Jews" and Pharisees (12:37); even the "brothers of Jesus" (7:5)

    2    Those who hear Jesus' words and/or see his signs and begin to believe, but don't fully recognize Jesus' identity:

    ◦    some crowds (6:36); some of the early "disciples" (6:64); some of "the Jews" (8:31; 11:45; 12:11)

    3    Those who come to believe in Jesus, but are evidently afraid to acknowledge their faith publicly:

    ◦    Nicodemus (3:1-10), some of "the Jews" (12:42); the parents of the man born blind (9:18-23)

    4    Those who encounter Jesus and come to believe in him, and are recognized as his disciples:

    ◦    the core group of disciples (1:50), the Samaritans (4:41-42), the man born blind (9:35-38), Thomas (20:24-29)

    5    Those who believe even without seeing signs, on the basis of hearing the words of Jesus and/or other witnesses:

    ◦    the royal official from Capernaum (4:53); Martha (believes before Lazarus is raised, 11:27); later believers, down to today (cf. the Thomas story, 20:19-29; and the first conclusion to the Gospel: 20:30-31)

 

Stage 1 - Hearing and not believing: Yes, some of these people snuck in today — they may be relatives and teens who couldn’t find a way to avoid attending church. We live in an age where religion gets blamed for everything wrong with the world. The story we want these people to see and believe, has nothing to do with politics or organized religion. It is the simple witness of God with us. Let them be John pondering the mystery of a folded napkin, or Mary, embracing the friend she just saw die. 

Stage 2 - Accepting the story of Jesus as a great man: Many of our best church leaders are here, they can’t accept the identity of Jesus as fully God. On Easter, Mary Magdalene has to let go, Jesus is more than she can grasp. Your mission today, should you choose to accept it, is to preach a miracle that goes beyond our ability to reason and pigeon hole.

Stage 3 - The private believer: I was taught that religion and politics shouldn’t be discussed in polite company; see where that got me. Jesus makes his death and resurrection a public event. The post-pentecost church can’t be private. Let this Easter take you out of your comfort zone.

Stage 4 - The recognized disciple: This is where we all pretend to be. It means that what we saw at Easter has set us on a life long challenge to live as instruments of God’s power. Discipleship is a wonderful thing, but let’s all take a moment to recognize that God practically had to knock us over the head with a two by four to get us here. We have been slow learners when it comes to spiritual things. Easter can be very successful if you just help those who are stage four to recommit to being ‘all in’ with their discipleship. We can save the next stage for next week with Doubting Thomas.

Stage 5 -  Those who believe without seeing:  These are those who have a ‘child-like’ faith. They simply know that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of by our reasonable religion (Hamlet).

Easter
Sunday, March 27, 2016
Spiritual progress is a developmental thing
Gladiators, not Politicians, should fight in the arena

Being a Cleveland Cavs fan by marriage, I was intrigued to learn that the Republican convention will be held in their basketball court. Somehow the wood floor that hosts hundreds of hours each year of elbows, shoving, and intentional fouling, will be covered over so that neat rows of chairs and a podium may exist in the midst of the arena. If the Republicans have a contested convention, some are promising that there will be more blood sport happening that week than what even the NBA allows. I pray not. Politics, like religion, should not be a competitive enterprise. Nor should the quest for entertainment drain our contests of their intended purpose.

 

In the church, we should be careful to limit competition to the annual picnic’s egg-toss. When there is a contest between competing visions, leadership, or policies, the focus should be upon building consensus and hearing the concerns of those to meek to lift up their voice.  The purpose of politics is not to give entertainers another stage to strut upon. Similarly, the purpose of our church meetings is not to give competitive individuals another arena in which to one-up their neighbors.

 

Church life is not a chess game, where we silently consider our strategies knowing that every move that benefits me costs my opponent something. The church is organic, a wholistic enterprise that only remains alive through cooperation. Even the most aggressive of her early leaders used the language of competition only to speak of how he disciplined his personal life. Regarding the life of the church, he said:

 

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with [Christ’s church]… and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 

  (I Corinthians 12:12, 23-27)

Psalm 118
John 12, Luke 19:28-40

It is hard to celebrate Palm Sunday, and read Psalm 118, with today’s newspaper in your hand without reflecting upon the term outsider. The stone which the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone. Is this being said about Jesus, Christopher Columbus, or Donald Trump? You form a mental picture of Jesus leading his noisy throng up to the gates of Jerusalem. The religious and political leadership of the nation is standing on a parapet high above, and crying out for someone to bar the door. Now shift the mental picture and see the towering glass building of Wall Street, and dodging the yellow cabs below is a parade of Bernie Sanders supporters, shouting about breaking up the big banks and raising the minimum wage to $15. Perhaps we need to step aside from Palm Sunday a moment and consider the role of an outsider, both for our personal religious journey, and for our common good.

 

First, real outsiders are vetted by a wilderness experience.  They come into the political or social arena from another place — a place where they rub shoulders with those that they are called to represent. Moses did not go directly from Pharaoh’s nursery to the burning bush. Instead, he lived on the lam in Midian for forty years, herding sheep. Gandhi left India as a young man to study law in England. The prejudice that he experienced there, as well as later in South Africa, formed the wilderness training which enabled him to be an outsider for his own people. I know of no example of an outsider for good, that didn’t first have to journey into the wilderness where they have nowhere to lay their head. But history is full of bad outsiders — the Hitlers of our era and the Zealots of Jesus’, that knew how to stir populist rebellions and fan the hopes of those who wish to return to a simpler past. 

 

Second, when we follow an outsider we will inevitably be led to a cross. This isn’t always a bad thing. One cannot scramble an egg without breaking its shell. Moses had to unleash his plagues. On Palm Sunday, Jesus spoke not just of his cross, but of a natural rule that applied to all who follow an outsider, that unless a seed dies — gives up the security of being simply what it has always been — it cannot spring into a growing living thing. And further, that if we want eternal life, we have to loosen our grip on this mundane life (John 12:23-24). We hold onto our establishment people and familiar rituals too long. We all need an outsider. We better be careful to choose a good one. Whichever one we choose, though, we will be led to a cross.

Palm Sunday
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
When outsiders become too popular, they become insiders
Rosa Parks for President

I saw a photo of Rosa Parks in a display for International Woman’s Day and thought of the qualities that made her a great leader. We know now that she developed gradually into her role, attending workshops and reflecting carefully about the problem of segregation and how to effectively demonstrate in opposition to it, long before she refused to give up her bus seat on December 1st, 1955. Though she was always clear that “she was tired of giving in” — not physically tired — her demeanor and method of protest fostered sympathy and a consideration of our shared humanity, even among her opponents. Further, she was willing to utilize her strengths as an introvert.  Her whole life exampled dogged determination, as well as, a willingness to let others take the spotlight. Notably, she teamed up with Martin Luther King and complimented his more outgoing leadership gifts.

Lao Tzu writes:

A leader is best

When people barely know they exist

Of a good leader, who talks little,

When his or her work is done, the aim fulfilled,

The whole community will say, “We did this ourselves.”

additional author: 
International Women's Day
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126

There is a wonderful refrain in Isaiah 43, “I will make [for you], a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”  This is the promise that God gives to us just before we launch into a new adventure. This is the promise that we hear just before something traumatic upsets the fruit basket of our lives. It’s Lent and the disciples are following Jesus towards Jerusalem. Things are about to get interesting. For the last three years, the Jesus movement has been enjoying the quiet hills of  Galilee and steadily growing as people come out for picnics with the greatest story teller that ever lived. Now Jesus says that we are going to where he will be betrayed into the hands of angry men and crucified. Trauma. And after trauma, wilderness. When it happens to us, can we remember the promise about streams in the desert? 

 

Life has three phases; growth, maintenance, and wilderness; which one are you in now? Note that trauma often accompanies the shift from one phase to another in life. Boom! We are born. That was pretty traumatic. But, it led to a long phase of growth for us as individuals. Then boom, a trauma, such as going off to war or getting married. Often we move right from growth to wilderness. Sometimes, though, we have a long phase in which we do our career or maintain things on an even keel. Then Jesus says, I’d like to do Jerusalem for the holidays, where I will be betrayed and handed… Boom. Trauma. Could be cancer. Could be the loss of one’s job. On the Saturday after the crucifixion, did the disciples remember the promise that God will provide a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert? Will we?

 

If you want to see more on Wilderness as expressed in Psalm 126, see http://billkemp.info/content/past-present-and-future

Lent 4
Sunday, March 13, 2016
Winter is also a form of Wilderness
How valued are the people in your pews?

Bill Easum recently wrote that the pastors who serve churches that have no hope of growth are wasting their time. This sentiment, often repeated by bishops and leaders who should know better, reminds me of Simon Newman, the college president who urged his staff to "drown them bunnies" when they were dealing with a student who may not make it all the way to their four year degree. The assumption of the college president was that his school existed to profitably collect four years of tuition and maintain an excellent rating with their accreditation agency. Those of us who look for a college education to broaden a person’s life, even if that person doesn’t complete their degree, will find little common ground with Newman. Similarly, I happen to believe that congregations have a higher purpose than longevity or institutional growth.

  

There is something repulsive about the whole exercise of clergy passing judgement on congregations and basing that judgement solely on whether or not a situation can sustain a full-time, ordained, pastor.  I have served situations of various sizes and been the elder in charge of group ministries that involve various clergy categories. I am convinced that vitality can be maintained in situations with limited resources, if the supervising elder is willing to be creative and employ trained laity. Each of the situations that I served were "of God" and remained a part of His overall plan of salvation, even when they weren’t growing. Further, local churches are instruments of a mysterious grace, even when they are ineffective or in the final decade of their lifespan. 

 

Easum’s point about the clergy who feel that they are wasting their time serving certain churches says more about how some have lost their servant’s heart than about the loss of sustainable ministry in poorer rural and inner city situations. Three of these small membership churches that I served, closed some years later (I don't think I had anything to do with it). If the Lord tarries, all of the churches that we serve will eventually close. I reflect back on Winterport UMC (Maine Conference), Prouty UMC (Central PA conference), and Fellowship UMC (Western PA conference) and see them now as instruments of God's Holy Spirit. I cherish their memories as one would a departed loved one. No, my service with them was not a waste. It was an honor. I am humbled.

Luke 15:11-32
Psalm 32

Let’s talk about sin. When the wayward youth in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son takes the money and runs, he sins in three ways: first against the mores of his village and second against his parents, that is, the relationship that he was commanded by God when He spoke through Moses saying, “Honor you father and your mother.” Regarding these first two sins, Jesus would be the first to grant a deferment to the youth if the reason for his trip was to fulfill his inner calling or to come and be a disciple of the Lord. But alas, the kid only wanted to get away to chase fast women and drink sloe gin. The third sin committed that day is one that Jesus never grants us a deferment from; the calling to be compassionate to my neighbor. Young people grow into an ever widening circle of people for whom they must show love and compassion. First it is their siblings and parents, then their playmates, then the people at school, especially those who are being bullied or ostracized. As we enter into adulthood, our calling to compassion must extend to those who are poor, or subject to abuse. The circle widens out, as it becomes for us sin to exclude those who come to our shores because of famine, persecution, or conflict in another land. Jesus challenges us to love even our enemy. To do less, is sin.

 

For each of these three sins, the boy receives appropriate punishment. First, the laws of our state and the customs of this youth’s village have been accumulated through the practical experience of the community. The Palestinian village of the prodigal son knew through experience that a windfall of money shouldn’t be given to an immature person. Nor should one travel or enter into business without making plans. We have banking laws and requirements that people obtain visas and vaccinations. Our laws are probably no better than the customs of his village, but they are better than nothing. The boy soon falls prey to the natural punishments that whack the foolish and the unlawful. Psalm 32 says, “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.”

 

The second form of sin, however, does not relate to the blunt rebuke of the physical world (as in the hangovers one receives from too much gin) or the imperfect laws of society (which often locks up the innocent). It relates to the ought-ness of family relationship. We ought to love our spouse and those in our immediate family, even when they bring pain into our lives. It is hard to make much progress in the rest of life, or spiritually, until we resolve to the best of our ability, the relationships we have with those nearest to us. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we each have a Kansas of the heart. Here the prodigal son may have had the most justification to break God’s laws. Here he is most subtly and completely punished. Strangers treat him worse than his family ever did. Yet when he does return, he receives grace upon grace. 

 

The above two sins are, as mentioned before, the ones where our actual experiences on earth vary the most from the perfection that we will know in the world to come. Sometimes people who break all the laws become rich and run for president. Sometimes we find a peace out in the world that eludes us back home. This is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

 

About the third sin, earth offers no escape and heaven no place to hide. If we fail to develop ever-widening circles of compassion as we mature, then we will become narrow and bitter people. If we fail to love, we will die alone; and according to my theology, live on beyond death in the torment of regret.

Lent 4
Sunday, March 6, 2016
Punishment often fails to relate to sin
Is this caution flag on your next church?

Joe:  OK, so it is Monday after “one of those weeks.”  During the past seven days you have (1) conducted two funerals, (2) been informed by the chair of your Trustees that the church’s air-conditioning system is dying and the Fellowship Hall’s roof still leaks, (3) are facing the need to exit a long-time staff member because of ongoing performance issues, and (4) have verified that the church’s worship attendance was lower this quarter than any time during the past three years. Plus, giving is down and an anonymous parishioner has sent you another message complaining about your sermons. You are at the end of your rope. Is it time to move?

 

Bill’s response: It is important to view these experiences in the context of what is “normal” for ministry today. The average pastor ministers to an aging membership. Meanwhile, religious participation is way down in our country. While two funerals in the same week may be bad news for your calendar and the church’s membership role, these gatherings tend to be cross generational and an opportune time for effective evangelism. Every funeral gives you a chance to share deep spiritual truths with dozens of people, many of whom rarely attend church. Further, if the service or the funeral dinner occurs in the church, your people have a chance to demonstrate hospitality. Consider this a “give back to the community” situation and rejoice.

    Every pastor is plagued by facility issues. Our task is to remind ourselves and others of two truths; first, that church buildings aren’t meant to be cheap, perfect, or lovable, they are meant to be functional.

    Second, all church structures are tools for ministry and caring for them is a spiritual task. Ministry tools, whether they be buildings, church staff, or organizational structures, need to be constantly upgraded with an eye to their performance. They should be replaced when they no longer serve the church’s mission. 

    The bad news is that staying on target is expensive and progressive pastors are bound to be unpopular. The worse news is, offering real leadership requires intelligence, honesty, objectivity, and a commitment to constantly upgrade your own skills. Whether you move or remain in your current situation, you will need to lead others by; posting transparent budgets, seeking professional assessments of structural issues, displaying honest usage and attendance figures, and communicating how each facility, staff member, and program, supports, or fails to support, the church’s overall mission. These tasks separate the okay clergy, from the great ones. They should cause us to raise the bar on our own plans for professional growth.

    It’s hard not to take it personally when people criticize your preaching, administration, or pastoral care. Often there are underlying issues relating to the pastoral role. A misdeed or overreach of authority committed by a previous pastor may be prejudicing your ministry. Or there may be latent issues in the congregation that were bound to erupt in conflict. Today you stepped on a land mine. Are you willing to dig further and identify the root causes? How does this incident relate to the congregation’s history and self identity? Was this criticism an outlier or does it reflect an earnest yearning on their parts to make the church a better place? Your job is to educate and gently lead your people through today’s theological and cultural shifts. This task will be quickly derailed if you adopt a defensive or authoritarian attitude.

    The individual components of a bad week are indicative of the complex problems ministers face everywhere. What you run away from in one situation, is likely to haunt you in the next.

 

Joe: We all go through rough stretches. The patient approach you outline above requires time. Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Burnout is rampant among clergy persons.

 

Bill:  I think it is important that we reflect upon why we feel burned out. Is it related to our failure to manage our time well? Are we constantly running behind? A simple change in ministry locations is unlikely to fix this. Time management is a skill that needs to be acquired, irrespective of where we are doing our ministry.

 

Joe: Is it just a bad week or have we stumbled a battle that can’t be won? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? If we can find just a few reasons for hope, and pull ourselves away for just a second to glimpse some greater purpose, then our positive attitude will bring others around and shape our response to conflict and criticism.

    But, it may have been months since you caught a break. You feel tired, fed-up, and discouraged. The thought creeps into your mind, “Is it really worth it for me to keep grinding it out here?”

 

Bill: I use the mouse in the maze seeking for cheese analogy to describe burnout. We who have a vocation, that is, a job we feel called into, are like the mice that learn to run a particular pattern in a maze to be rewarded with cheese. Our cheese is whatever first excited us about ministry. Researchers test the mice by moving their cheese. The mice get frantic and expend extra energy seeking the cheese. Similarly, today’s post-religious culture is moving everybody’s cheese. Pastors often find themselves working harder and harder to experience the same level of rewards that marked our early years in ministry. 

    Burnout begins when the cheese just isn’t there, and we respond by running harder. Burnout blossoms, when we are aware that the cheese may never be there again, but we run the same patterns anyway. Some label this as “work addiction.” From time to time, we just need to stop and ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing.

 

Joe: Those evaluation times can lead us to the conclusion that our current situation is no longer the right fit for us. There is no shame in realizing that what we had to give to this church has already been given. Now it is time for someone else to lead them the next step.

 

Bill: Yes. Sometimes pastors who love small churches and intimate pastoral counseling, find themselves lost, when appointed as the lead pastor of a congregation with a high standard for preaching and an expectation of flawless administration. Conversely, those who love administration and having everything detailed in their day planners may find themselves frustrated by the consensus-orientated/relationship-driven ministry of smaller congregations. We should each train our ears to hear our inner concerns about fit and develop a sober appraisal of where we need to serve in order to feel fruitful. 

 

Joe: But, the opposite is also true. Sometimes we have to set our doubts aside and keep at it. Years ago I assumed the senior pastorate of a very large suburban congregation. The first few years there were very challenging.  My previous experiences in the ministry had not quite prepared me for the demands I was to encounter in this new appointment setting.  Much of my stress related to assuming oversight of a staff of about fifteen full-time and numerous other part-time persons.  The second year there was especially draining and hard.  I found myself questioning whether this church was a good “fit” for me personally.  I wondered seriously if life was too short to keep trudging through all of these deep valleys.

 

Bill: I think its good for clergy to hear this, especially younger pastors. Too often we fall into the trap of thinking that moving to a larger church will solve everything. In your case you found the extra responsibilities of the more prestigious situation to be a problem. But, I take it you stayed on and grew into it? Sometimes the bishop and cabinet sees potential in us that we don’t see in ourselves.

 

Joe:    Early in my ministry, I made a personal commitment not to run away during the middle of a storm.  The heart shouldn't overrule the head. Over the years, I have dealt with a number of very tough situations. In each case, I remembered my commitment to stick things out. I wound up serving the above congregation for twelve years. In retrospect, my last several years were the most productive and positive for the congregation. If I had succumbed to my temptation to flee, that fruitful period wouldn’t have happened.

 

Bill: Fruitfulness often requires learning new skills and “eating our vegetables.” I often say that Bradford was my favorite church to serve, because when I arrived, it was ready for the skills that I already had in my tool box. My next appointment was more of a challenge. The rural congregations that I had served before this were more relaxed and relational. The administrative and staffing challenges of the next church combined with family health issues to make this a very uncomfortable appointment for me. Over all, I felt less productive in the new situation, but I learned more. God seems to believe in on the job training. 

 

Joe: So, the opposite of the knee-jerk, get me out of Dodge impulse, is an intentional period of discernment. We all can benefit from prayerfully looking at where we have come in our ministry. We need to find healing, first. Our spiritual goal is to see our current reality clearly, and accept it without blame or shame. Where we have failed, we need to hear God’s forgiveness. We need to offer our own forgiveness to those who have blocked us, or who continue to be a thorn in our sides. Note how the Apostle Paul puts a positive spin on God’s failure to move him out of his bad appointment in II Corinthians 12:7-10.

 

Bill: A number of studies have shown that longer pastorates tend to be more fruitful. It takes time earn the trust of parishioners needing pastoral care. I’ve noted this as I have compared my recent short-term, intentional interim, assignments with the normal length tenures that I had earlier in my ministry. Whether you are teaching, preaching, or counseling, it is easier to bring healing into people’s lives when you’ve known them for a few years. Helping a local church become a better organization also involves overcoming intractable obstacles and deep seated issues. It is rare for a church leader effect lasting change in less than seven years. One attitudinal key that correlates highly with effectiveness, is your ability to state that you are in it for the long haul. Unfortunately, many United Methodist clergy move every three to five years. 

 

Joe:  Sadly, the “DNA” of short term pastorates is deeply embedded within the United Methodist Church. Unless the circumstances merit an intentional interim, short tenures are not healthy for the Church. It takes time to develop trusting relationships and a shared appreciation of  this congregation’s unique mission and identity. Some pastors take an organic, sowing comes before harvesting, approach. They build relationships, develop small groups, train leaders, refine the organizational process, and then with patient hearts look forward to fruitful ministry arriving after the third or fourth year. Would that this maturity was the norm!

 

Bill: Besides that, in most conferences the ladder is gone. If you want to advance your career as a clergy person, don’t put your hope in moving steadily upward to larger and more prestigious appointments throughout your ministry. Across the country, mid-sized “First Churches” and county seat locations are financially struggling. These used to be dependable stepping stones for cabinets to provide a substantial raise to a pastor in his or her second or third appointment. Some of these former plums are dropping back to near minimum salary. Others are asking for younger pastors and/or shifting their salary dollars into non-ordained or part-time leadership, valuing energy and the potential growth of their contemporary worship over having an experienced lead pastor. Unless you have proven gifts for church growth, your next move is likely to be a lateral one.

 

Joe: Historically, career minded United Methodist pastors have thought of itineracy as the primary way to “move up” to a bigger church. Denominational leaders have catered to this myth by implying that being effective in a smaller church entitles one to be rewarded with a more responsible appointment.

 

Bill: Any one who has ever served a small membership church or a multi-church charge knows that it requires special skills. These skills don’t always translate over to larger, staff-oriented, church settings. Effective pastors deserve to be rewarded within the ministry context where they excel.

 

Joe: Further, the goal of our connection is to enhance ministry in every place. Every pastor should want to see their congregation grow, with the possible exception of hospital chaplains. Simply moving up the ladder, which as you said no longer exists, doesn’t bring job satisfaction. Nor should we join that faction who long to serve a more prestigious church. If we see a strong church out there that we want to serve, chances are, it used to be like our current church. What made that church exciting, was an effective pastor that stuck with it through a long period of transformation. 

 

Bill: This circles us back to the time management issue. Often our motivation for wanting a move is the fact that our current situation has overwhelmed us. We don’t know if we can face another week of the time sucking obligations, most of which we accepted in our first year. Rather than retooling our time use, and discovering how to say the word ‘No,’ we bail, hoping to rediscover a more relaxed and joyful ministry in the next situation.

 

Joe: Someone has moved our cheese and we don’t have time to look for it.

 

Bill: Today, every clergy person needs to be a life long learner. As parish appointments become more and more diverse, experimenting with new mission combinations, cross-racial appointments, group ministries, satellite campuses, etc., clergy must be willing to radically change their style of ministry from time to time. To remain in the same situation for long enough to be fruitful, they will need to spiritually reboot their ministry on the fly. These things require a form of time management that intentionally incorporates personal renewal. 

    This brings us to the one constant, whether we move or stay in our current situation, planning for our continuing education is critical. We need to enlist the support of our clergy peers and our Pastor-Parish Relations Committee to push us to devote more time to appropriate educational experiences and work-related reading. We shouldn’t be left to our own devices when it comes to professional growth.

    Family and sabbath time are also sacred. I came to realize this too late. After much personal pain, I developed the following form for talking about my need for renewal:

    I have considered the needs of this congregation and what I know of my own personal and spiritual needs. I think the following balance will help us to have a long and fruitful ministry together. The following guidelines will be observed, unless there is a pastoral emergency (parishioner in crisis, funeral, local flood, etc.):

    1) My weekly day off is ______. This day will publicized and I will inform the church secretary whenever it is changed, so that church leaders will know when not to call. If you have a regular dinner time, you may wish to list that as well. 

    2) I will seldom schedule myself  to attend more than four evening functions per week. (This number should be reduced to three if you have school-aged children at home or a similar family obligation). This includes premarital counseling sessions and individual meetings.

    3) I tend to structure my personal study, retreat, and continuing ed time as follows…  I have also committed x days per year to conference work, camp leadership, mission trips, etc. These offsite periods are not to be considered vacation.

    4) I will utilize the vacation time allotted each year by the PPRC and the Conference rules. This will mean ___ weekends out of the pulpit. These weeks will be publicized a month ahead so that church leaders can plan not to interrupt these recreational periods.

    Verbalize your time management guidelines early and often. Don’t present them as an authoritarian fiat or pawn them off as a Conference requirement. Work to bring people on board. Admit that you did a lousy job at this before and need their help so that a year or two from now you’re not running around like a chicken with your head cut off. Enlist the support of your staff and spouse in wording your time usage guidelines and communicating them.

 

Joe: Honoring our need for sabbath and recreational time is vital. When we are stressed and exhausted, the grass quickly begins to look greener on the other side of the fence. Even if we are faithful to the above guidelines, there will still be times of conflict in our ministry and personal turmoil in our lives.

     I think it is a wise policy not to make big, life-changing decisions during a period of personal vulnerability. Pain avoidance is a great motivator, but a poor teacher, and an even worse career counselor.

 

Bill: Well said! I don’t know if this has any statistical basis, but I heard that most pastors experience a parish conflict about every eighteen months. Every church has one or two instigators who love to stir the pot. Times of conflict and transition are meant to force us to develop healthy policies and flexible organizations. These leadership skills are never learned by those who run from their problems.

 

Joe: So how do we know if this is the year to throw our hat in the ring and ask for a move?

 

Bill: First, those of us with families need to enter into dialogue with our loved ones. We need to tune our ears to hear what God may be saying to us through others. Plan some time apart with someone that you trust. In your prayers, seek for distance and perspective. 

    Often stress and dissatisfaction in ministry is related to the role we take on for ourselves. We may think that our role as pastor is to fix the church. No, it is to guide the spiritual process. Our work isn’t to improve metrics, but to help the church to be healthy and fruitful. We often think that our role as preachers, teachers, and counselors is to fix people. No, our role is to be compassionate, share the word with relevance and integrity, and to uphold the mystery and joy of worship and the sacraments. Word, Sacrament, Order — focus on these three.

    Also, refrain from framing your situation in passive terms. Instead lamenting how this church is driving you crazy, not paying you enough, failing to advance your career, etc., take an active an honest look at your spiritual formation and professional growth. If the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and the cabinet, keeps you in this situation for another year, how will you use that time to become a better leader and a more sane human being? If the next step for you in life’s journey is to move on, how will you change so that the next situation receives a better you?

 

Joe: Changing churches is not the way to fix flaws in our style of ministry. For many readers, though, that decision has already been made. They have asked for a new appointment and some have already been announced at their new church. I hope the dialogue above has expressed our concern about pastors moving too frequently without making them feel guilty for asking for a move.

 

Bill:  The critical question that I hope everyone is asking during this time is, “Am I seeking to solve certain problems by making this move?”

    I am reminded of a wedding I was asked to do on a date just a few months ahead. It turned out that one of the bride, who was from another country, had a work visa that was expiring. The marriage solved the problem of an imminent deportation. Moving to a new church, like marriage, should never be entered into as a way to fix a problem.

    After a lengthly counseling session, I was able to discern that they really did love each other and were ready for marriage. This eased my conscience and in the end I felt good about officiating at the ceremony. Discernment is often helpful, even after a decision has been made. We often do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and spending time in prayerful reflection can ameliorate the common phenomena known as “buyer’s remorse.” Sometimes we do the wrong thing for all the right reasons. Coming to the place where we can be honest about this, allows us to have a teachable moment. We accept our mistake and seek forgiveness. The grace of God, then, helps us to live with our mistake and be fruitful in it.

 

Joe: The truth is that when we change ministry locations, we simply swap one set of challenges for another.  Family systems theory suggests that we will find the same personalities in our next congregation, they just will have different names and faces. We will face similar conflicts, just with different contexts and narratives. Understanding this should help us to dig in, whether we stay or move, and commit to doing Kingdom work where we are.

 

Bill: Yes, and I think it helps if we learn something as we are traveling between churches. Still, there is a deep need for discernment and inner searching to understand our role in each new location of ministry. 

    You may have come to think of the upcoming move as the best idea since sliced bread, but what about your family? What about your current parishioners? What about the people in the next church who don’t know if they particularly need you? Doing your spiritual homework and having role clarity will help you to help them. Remember, it isn’t a matter of winning an argument or being proved right, transition instead presents us with opportunities to do process well and to grow together in the fellowship of the larger church.

additional author: 
Joe Fort
Luke 13:1-9

The events of this past week reminded me of what Thomas Friedman wrote about how people adjusted to the random horror of the civil war in Lebanon. The conflict reached the point where mortar rounds fell indiscriminately on both the rich and the poor neighborhoods of Beirut, on both the Christians and the Muslims, on both the loyalists and the rebel sympathizers. It didn’t matter which side you were on, you died. Jesus was in a similar Middle-eastern city when people asked him to comment the unfortunate victims of Pontus Pilate’s killing spree. Like Thomas Friedman, Jesus was blunt in accepting the total unavoidability of life’s traumas. Whether you are a good person, who never misses church, or a bad person, who sneers at God, a mad gunman may pop out of the darkness and shoot you in the parking lot of Cracker Barrel.

 

The human heart is not built for such randomness. We crave for order in all of life. Friedman describes how the people of Beirut developed complicated folk cures for the daily violence. They said, “Don’t shop between 11 am and 1 pm,” or “Walk on the right hand side of the street when you go   west.” In Kalamazoo, the news interviewed a man who was planning to walk home from a party, but when he heard that someone was shooting people, decided to call for an Uber cab.

 

Jesus said, unless you repent, you will fare just like one of these victims (Luke 13:3). What do I need to repent of? I used to think he meant that I should get saved, but that doesn’t fit the context. Jesus never teaches that his religion will bring certainty to those of us who struggle with life’s randomness. This is an area where evangelical preaching often strays far from Jesus’ whole message. In a nutshell, Jesus calls us to live as people of compassion in every moment. We are not to expect our religion to coat us with teflon so that bullets bounce off. We are instead, to live as if we were a man going up from Jericho to Jerusalem. We do not know if on this journey we will fall victim to random violence, or if we will have an opportunity to bring healing to a broken person that we un-expectantly stumble upon.  The only thing we know for sure, is that the kingdom of God is among us. This is grace.

 

We all share a theological error with the unfortunate people who Pilate killed as they were going into the temple to make their offering. We all seek to join something, sacrifice something, or believe something, that will protect us like an amulet from evil. Will my family be safer if I vote for Trump or Bernie Sanders? Will our jobs be more secure if we unionize? Will I be healthier if I decaffeinate my coffee or put saccharine in my tea? Fanaticism is born in such religious hopes. The Jesus that no one listens to, is the one who blesses us with the paradoxes of the beatitudes, who insists that those who morn will be comforted, and who calls us to love even our enemies.

 

Jesus follows up the question about the random violence in Jerusalem, Beirut, and Kalamazoo, with a parable about a fig tree. This must have been frustrating to his hearers who wanted him to tell them how being saved, baptized as an adult, and voting republican, would prevent them from falling victim to such tragedies. We each are like fig trees that God has planted in fertile ground. We have the constant sunshine of our relationships with others, though often human sin interrupts things, just as storms affect the fig tree. Never the less, most of us get enough love from others to grow into mature adults. What does God expect now? The fruits of compassionate living. I know no other preparation for the coming time of judgement, than to do our best with the spiritual gifts and relationships that God has gifted us with.

Lent 3
Sunday, February 28, 2016
To this child, the reason for the shelling doesn't matter
Dog telling me to simply enjoy this day

Yesterday we laid to rest our faithful dog, Bella. She was a small shepherd mix, with a gentle disposition, who loved to travel. She suffered more than she needed to over this winter because she refused to take her medication, and I ran out of ways to sneak the pill into the food that she was losing interest in eating.  As we held the graveside service, I realized that I had crossed a line. Before Bella adopted us, I was uncomfortable offering up to the Lord requests concerning the welfare of pets. “There are no cats in heaven. And no, Lassie doesn’t have a soul,” I would say. Now that grief is upon my own house, I find myself paraphrasing Psalm 8:

 

Oh Lord, Your majesty is expressed through all of your creatures.

Through the praise of children, infants, and household pets 

    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,

    to silence the foe and the avenger. 

With Bella, I have often considered your heavens,

    looking upon the moon and the stars,

as she did her late night business.

 What is the Kemp household that you are mindful of us?

Our souls, that you have placed such nobel creatures in our care?

You have made our pets a little lower than the angels

    and crowned them with natural grace and patience.

We are thankful and humbled.

Psalm 27
Job 42

The Gospel teaches us to love our neighbor and that no one truly loves God who isn’t in a right relationship with others. Yet Psalm 27 talks about the other side of our religion. There are times when you go it alone. It may be that someone, or an organization, is oppressing you. You may be driven out of your home or separated from those you love. I think of a family member who is struggling with a messy divorce and has a broken relationship with one of his teenage daughters. Perhaps distance, illness, or death has separated you the one person that matters most to you. What does this Psalm say to you now?

 

For in the day of trouble

    [The Lord] will keep me safe in his dwelling;

he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent

    and set me high upon a rock.  (Psalm 27:5)

 

This and other psalm also speak to the individual’s need to seek God for themselves. We go it alone into the wilderness, knowing that the God we find there is sufficient to make our lives whole. Religion is its own reward. Seeking God, purely in order to know him, is enough.

 

The common book of prayer does an apt thing in the responsive reading of Psalm 27:5, instead of  speaking about God’s tabernacle, it says, “He shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling...” How important are the secrets of God to us? It is easy to get the wrong idea about our reason for practicing religion. It’s not like we go to church to buy an insurance policy. Instead, we go to church to learn skills for navigating the wilderness. Then, counter to our intuition or commonly held wisdom, we go to the God-forsaken places, or we are trust into wilderness by trauma, and there we discover the reality of God.

 

Remember what Job said? At the end of all of his trials. When God finally appeared to him, Job said:

 

“I know that you can do all things;

    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’

    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,

    things too wonderful for me to know.

“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;

    I will question you,

    and you shall answer me.’

My ears had heard of you

    but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore I despise myself

    and repent in dust and ashes.”

Job 42:2-6

Lent 2
Sunday, February 21, 2016
I have often found comfort in the lonely places
Church leaders need to learn how to speak about minorities

In Genesis 2:20, Adam was given the task of naming all of the creatures, and so it is said, science was birthed. In almost any subject, advanced study requires learning the precise names of things. Potters learn a vast number of words to describe the hue, texture, and luster of various glazes. If they say, “its only words,” they will condemn themselves to an incredible amount of wasted time and fruitless experiments before creating anything of beauty. How much more so, the art of living, even an ordinary life, in the midst of a complex society. If we desire to be Christ-like, compassionate, and peaceful in all of our dealings, then our word choice, especially when we describe someone else’s sexuality, race, or religion, must be appropriate. 

 

When we use politically correct language, we say, “I care enough about you and your unique needs to learn the terms that you wish me to use.”  A member of the people group that we have referenced may not be present, but as Chaos theory teaches us, even the most subtle action has a way of rippling through the network of society. In 1930s Germany, Hitler didn’t create antisemitism out of a vacuum. He used the politically incorrect language of the shop-keeper and the person on the tram. 

 

Politicians who refuse to use civil language are to be despised. This should be obvious, their job description is to serve in their elected office as one who knows well the needs of their constituents. Those who haven’t bothered to learn the language of America’s diversity, are like craftsmen who don’t care about the qualities of the glaze they are putting on earthenware jars. They’ll use lead glaze on vessels intended for drinking water. Worse yet, they’ll deliberately manipulate popular sentiment by presenting simplistic solutions. For them, people are always objects. I can call a thing anything that I want, so I will.  It is one way to win an election. It is as unAmerican as Auschwitz.

Psalm 91

Because they don’t provide the evangelical fervor of Paul, or the face to face encounter with Christ of the Gospels, many pastors don’t preach the Psalms. Yet, the Psalter provides the steady middle way of spiritual formation. Few people leave worship thinking that the responsive reading of Psalm 91 was the best part of the hour, but in their heart, the psalm is often the most resonate voice. So, it may be good to not only make reference to the psalms throughout Lent, but also wrestle with how these ancient poems help us to grow as Christ’s disciples and spiritually integrated persons.

 

If you focus is on the Gospel narrative for the first week of Lent, then the best thing you might say about Psalm 91 is that it provides the inspiration for the Devil as he tempts Christ. Out of context, “No harm will come to you… you will not strike your foot against a stone” (Psalm 91:10-13), looks like the makings of a dare. “If you have faith, then you will____,” (just fill in the blank).  Who doesn’t want to test their God and go walking on coals or handling snakes when they are told, “you will tread on cobras and lions [without harm]”? 

 

Reading the whole of Psalm 91 is the key. It speaks about the continual, day to day, trust of the believer in God. God doesn’t bail us out from our self-inflicted injuries. He instead is with us in the midst of the terrible trauma that is life. We will sometimes experience the deliverance lines of this Psalm. We will slide down a snow covered hill, missing by millimeters the cars that have spun out to our right and our left.

 

The spiritual formation power of Psalm 91, however lies in how it gives us the same message from two points of view. First is tells us about the heart of the believer. The believer experiences God through these ‘mighty acts of salvation.’ The believer responds by trusting. Trust is meant to escalate; the believer becomes more and more rooted in their dependance upon God.  The end of Psalm flips the viewpoint and shows us God responding to our trust. If we trust God, he will not forget us.

Lent 1
Sunday, February 14, 2016
God is in both the tree and the people who come for us
This life is worth more than a Micheline Star

This morning, there was news about a french chef who committed suicide after losing one of the Micheline Stars that had been awarded to his restaurant. The commentators spoke about the eighteen hour work day that chefs/owners regularly put in and the competitive grind of the business. Whether you become a doctor, a cook, a lawyer, or an importer of fancy candlesticks, someone will say to you, “If you want to succeed in this business, you need to give 110 percent.” You will hear that and interpret it to mean that your career is worth 9, 13, or 18 hours of your life each day. In the church we call this being a ‘good’ pastor. Today we learned that giving 110 percent can be life threatening.

 

I have blogged about this subject before, but today I find myself simply saddened by the maddening pace we call normal. We live without reflection. We allow external things, such as stars in our crown, to drive our daily habits. We devalue relationships. We fail to care for our own mental health. Our self-image is like a balloon, puffed up by success in certain areas, then bursting because we have failed to achieve spiritual balance.

 

Others have said this better:

 

Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm. If we strive to be happy by filling all the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all of life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth.

 

If we have no silence, God is not heard in our music. If we have no rest, God does not bless our work. If we twist our lives out of shape in order to fill every corner of them with action and experience, God will silently withdraw from our hearts and leave us empty.

  • Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island

 

A jar is fashioned out of clay

 absence makes the jar work

Doors and windows cut in a house

 absence makes the house work

Presence gives things their value,

  Absence makes them work.

   - Tao Te Ching 11

additional author: 
Chef Benoit Violier
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36

Under the old system of religion, religious leaders were called reverend (as if they were to be revered for their higher degree of holiness), those who prayed or spoke with God were thought to have halos or skin that glowed, and keeping track of all the petty laws and rituals of orthodox belief was a full time job. Moses represents the old religion when he veils his face. Many of us represent old religion when we expect people to treat us as holy people just because we spend an inordinate amount of time in church. Hear the good news; in Jesus Christ we are all equal inheritors of holiness. The old divisions of lay verses clergy, secular verses holy, are falling away.

 

Paul writes, “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, [see] the glory of the Lord…” (II Corinthians 3:17-18). This is part of the democratic spirit that runs through all of the apostle’s letters. Having left behind the self-righteous practice of religion as a Pharisee, he embraces the fact that the spirit of God can touch anyone’s life. The new religion doesn’t send Moses to speak to God for us. It encourages everyone to go and kneel before the holy one. When we clergy, who are expected to be more holy than others, find ourselves emeshed in the stuff of our world, we don’t veil our faces like Moses so that people don’t see us becoming worldly. We instead admit our human-ness. We repent and admit the hold sin has on our lives. It is in being honest, that Paul finds freedom.

 

This is transfiguration Sunday and we see Jesus going up on the mountain and having a transformative experience. Please note that Jesus didn’t go alone. And, I don’t think he took Peter and John because they were going to be future clergy. I see Jesus sharing the thrill of God’s grace with these two who were ready for it. Then he takes them down the mountain and throws them into the messiness of the world. He doesn’t allow them time to veil their faces. Do as much as you can, he seems to be saying. Then go back for more. Don’t veil your face this Lent. Let the world know that it gets to you and that you, like everyone else, needs to retreat to a place where you can find a sweet hour of prayer. Going up the mountain is a practice that we want to share.

Epiphany 5
Transfiguration Sunday
Sunday, February 7, 2016
We need to be honest about our need for prayer
What caption would you provide?

When LCD projectors became popular in the church, I was delighted. Now, I could put my sermon outline before my congregation and when I rambled off track, they could point to the screen and nudge me back. It seemed the perfect cure for my tendency to keep them past lunch.

    Soon,  I realized that I was doing something that I hated. Going to continuing educational events, I was often subjected to a speaker who had little to add beyond his or her powerpoint bullets, that we could read for ourselves, at home, in our pajamas, on our iPads. If what I have to say can be boiled down to four take-aways and a prayer, then why don’t we tweet the service to social media and be done with it? Wasn’t I putting my own shallowness on display for all to see when I gave a message that clung to the outline on a screen?

    Yet there was something about combining worship and the visual arts that just felt right. Indeed, there is historical precedence for giving people something to look at while they worshiped. Stain glass windows have been a key component of church architecture for the last eight hundred years. Before stain glass, there were mosaics and murals. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Actually, pictures often do things that words can’t. Jesus invited people to observe the world around them as they reflected on his message. As they sat in the fields, he said, “Consider the wildflowers. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-29). And, his parables were not mere illustrations hung onto his teachings. These dramatic vignettes invited the audience to visualize something. What they saw in their minds couldn’t be reduced to a mere set of bullet points. Images have a way of living apart from whatever text or caption came with them.

    So the good news is, modern technology is providing us with new ways to incorporate the visual arts. The bad news is that boring, literal minded, church leaders are using this gift for evil. Jesus expected his ministry to cause people’s minds to jump the track and head off in new directions. His gift was metanoia. The visual that goes with this greek word is a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.

    When I speak, I always go looking for great photographs. I put them up on the screen and then talk. Some people will get lucky and see the connection between what I say and what is being displayed. A few, though, will get even luckier and see something I had never intended. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Yea, even in spite of my powerpoint.

I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time... but he only stayed with a foreigner
Luke 4:21-30
I Kings 17:7-16

Jesus has a way of telling stories that no one wants to hear. He is like that sister-in-law at the family reunion who gathers the young teens and tells them how their grandfather drank his way into an early grave. In Luke 4:21-30, Jesus is in the pulpit at Capernaum, and he goes reaching for an illustration to help him make his point. He reaches back to the Old Testament and tells about the great prophet, Elijah, once took shelter in the home of Syrian widow. Elijiah was a refugee and the Syrian people, including this defenseless widow with her orphan son, took him in. Now, stand in the pulpit of your church and tell the same story.

Elijah was following God's orders and, as Jesus points out, he walks by the homes of hundreds of normal people, in order to cross the border illegally and become a beggar, feeding off of the charity of the Syrian people. Now anyone who thinks that Jesus didn't mean to make people angry by pointing out their racism and nationalist-zenophobia, doesn't know Jesus. Jesus could have chosen a story that didn't involve people putting aside their prejudices -- perhaps a safe story like the one about the good Samaritan.  No, Jesus talks about God's holy man being dependent upon a Syrian. Perahps Jesus didn't have forsight to know that two thousand years later Syrian people would be begging to cross a borders and be taken in during their time of need. Perhaps, Jesus' words were only meant for the people of his time. There are pretend holy men today, who need to say that in order to preach this passage. 

We have to note that Jesus was indeed taking an Old Testament passage and using it to make a political statement. He didn't believe in avoiding political discussions, especially when religious people were already on the scene making a mess of things. The Herodian royal family of Jesus' day were a lot like King Ahab and Jezebel or Elijah's day. Soon, John the Baptist would be executed for speaking truth to power. In our time, Martin Luther King walked a similar path, using Old Testament stories and text to lend authority to his prophetic voice. 

Jesus' purpose in talking about Elijah and the Syrian widow is to underscore the fact that the Gospel belongs to those who are ‘outsiders.’ It belongs to the poor of our nation. It belongs to the Syrian people who are fleeing violence in their land. It belongs to the Hispanic worker who crosses our border and works the job that none of us are willing to do.


I like telling the stories. From time to time, I tell one too many and people look like they want to throw me off a cliff. When Jesus says that a prophet is without honor in his own home, he is referring to that particular kind of prophet that tells stories about God’s people being petty, intolerant, and self-centered. The point of most of Jesus’ stories is that we need to mingle with the poor, listen to the broken, and love the sinner. There’s a nobility to the Widow of Zarephath, the Good Samaritan, and Philemon the ex-Slave. If we can’t tell these stories without getting someone mad, we’re not telling them right.

Epiphany 4
Sunday, February 3, 2013
The Syrian widow takes in the refugee Elijah
Simple answers are the easy and broad path

Many of the politicians that I’m not voting for have one thing in common, they distrust science. They may be respected physicians, but they’ll balk at the fundamental theories that have enabled science to provide us with genetic testing, and one day, will cure cancer. Or, they may be savvy business pros, but they’ll ignore the environmental red-ink of climate change, or the science that says that this debt cannot be deferred. This primary season has be marked by a constant stream of bogus statistics, created by candidates to support their pet policies. Scientists have a term for this, they call it Confirmation Bias.

 

Confirmation Bias (or My-side Bias) is the tendency to only accept data or experiences that confirm ones preexisting position. If you don’t believe in evolution, you only post to your Facebook pictures of dinosaurs that have human footprints beside them (photoshop comes in handy here). Scientists recognize the problem and have developed tools, such as the double blind experiment, to ameliorate it. Because the fundamental principle of all science is that all of the relevant data must be considered and recognized in the results, scientists and social researchers always speak with some ambiguity. A scientists will say that a result has plus or minus this much uncertainty. Statistics will be presented as being within a certain range. The better reports and surveys provide their sample size and details on how the research was done. This care to avoid Confirmation Bias goes right over the heads of most people, and makes some simple-minded souls, distrust science.

 

Many politicians, as well as, many church leaders, are ill equipped to function in the new millennium because they are unwilling to note their own Confirmation Bias. Nor are they willing to accept the ambiguity that all professionals must live with. I don’t want to go to a doctor that only believes the test results that support his favorite diagnosis. I don’t want to listen to a preacher that ignores the ambiguity inherent in every interpretation of sacred text. I don’t want to participate in a building project, or a stewardship drive, where the team leaders have blinders on regarding the congregation’s financial reality.

 

Those of us who lead in the church, or in critical positions of responsibility, should consider ambiguity to be our friend. We should go to the mat for those experts who recognize the human frailty of Confirmation Bias. It will make us better leaders, even if it doesn’t make us popular.

additional author: 
Wiley Miller - Non Sequitur
There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
I Corinthians 12:1-11

I like the word, 'vocation.' It is built upon the Latin for calling and reminds us that what we do in life, whether it is a paid career or a volunteer service around the neighborhood, is done because of what God spoke into being when he made us. We are called and we respond. I also can’t help but notice what Paul says about our vocations in 1 Corinthians 12. He says that they are related to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual gifts are given to everyone of our members. Many use them to build up the church. Humor me, let me apply Paul’s words here to the broader realm of the service we give in life, to our jobs, to our community, and to our loved ones. Both the roles that we take on (father, mother, boss, pastor) and the skills that we need to perform in those roles, are from God. They are a sacred trust. He assigns them as He wishes.

    When I was a youth, I remember hearing my parents and teachers people tell me that I could become whatever I wanted. “One of you boys here might become president, someday,” my third grade teacher said. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I was being told this so often because I was white, male, and a product of the American suburban class. I went to college in the early 1970s and was told to “choose my own major.” It wasn’t long before I heard a classmate complain that she was being pressured to leave the engineering program because she was a woman. Another woman told me that her parents expected her to marry someone of the same ethnicity. Remaining single or dating the people she wanted to date, was not an option.  Meanwhile, my cousin was being ostracized from his family for being gay. Over the years, I have come to realize how privileged I was to grow up in an environment that encouraged me to become what I wanted to become.

    Elsewhere, Paul speaks eloquently against prejudice in the Church. Here, I feel a further challenge, as we think soberly about our own lives (Romans 12:2) and reflect on our gifts and graces, none of us are free to become whatever we decide to become. God instead plants deep desires in our spirit, and these become connected with talents and temperament and eventually with daily tasks. So we become, lover, mother, servant, writer, caregiver, etc. Our role, is not to be the decision maker, but the willing participant in the journey. We hush our personal ambitions, in order know the creator’s spirit. 

    In a similar fashion, we must be careful to be open minded and supportive of others as they explore their own vocations. The Holy Spirit may be preparing them for just the thing we are raising objections about. How often have we grieved the Holy Spirit in matters related to our own relationships and work? How much more sin are we capable of as we meddle in the spiritual formation of others? How should I respond when to the cousin or friend who takes as a partner a person of the same gender? When a person of the ‘wrong’ gender, background, age, or whatever, seeks for a job in the church or in a secular workplace, how do I respond?  Is it possible that my response reveals more about the privileges I have enjoyed, than about the wisdom and discernment that I have learned?

Epiphany 3
Sunday, January 24, 2016
Pope Francis understands it
Taken from street level of a 2nd story  window

A Facebook friend of mine has a really big camera. He took it to Italy and posted a picture that he took of a second story window. Imagine this; on crowded cobblestone street, he has set up his tripod and the camera, which is about the size of a microwave oven. It has bellows and takes pictures on sheets of film that are as big as a paperback book. It has a special feature that allows you to raise the lens to correct for the natural tendency of buildings to go all pointy at the top when you look up. The parallel lines in my friend’s photo of a crumbling Italian building, did not converge. In fact, I noticed the window frame having longer lines at the top than on the bottom. In correcting one thing, he had undone another.

 

This is the nature of human existence. We labor to make things perfect, only to have something we weren’t controlling rise up to bite us in the ass. We identify with the mythical Tantalus, who was endlessly in pursuit of a pool water, only to have it slip away when he reached for it. Often, our desire for perfection keeps us finishing projects. In the film “Six Degrees of Separation,” a kindergarten teacher is asked why her kids produce artwork that is more beautiful than the neighboring classroom. She replies, “I know when the piece is done and I take it away from them.”

 

Often our desire for perfection ruins the relationships we need to develop in order to have teamwork and synergy in the church. Perfectionists are often late to meetings, unwilling to leave things half-finished on their desks. Perfectionists jump in to finish other people’s projects and sentences. Perfectionists have a way of making tomorrow’s gourmet meal ruin the opportunity to give bread to the needy today.

 

The real question, though, is my friend’s Facebook photo worth the effort he put into it? I think it is a great photo — but, not because he got it perfect — because his eye saw it and his heart was willing to sit with it for a while until he could communicate what he saw.

additional author: 
photo by Doug Hanson
John 2:1-11

Jesus seems to be disrespecting his mother at the wedding in Cana (John 2:4). She asks him to do a miracle in front of everyone. “Jesus this is your cue,” Mary says. “The wine has run out and our family is responsible.” His response is, “Not my wine, not my time.” Later in John 7, he will tell his disciples that everyone expects him to do miracles on cue, but it really isn’t his time, yet. There is a messianic kingdom coming. We won’t always be scrambling to keep our kids fed. In the world to come, the lion will lay down with the lamb, we will feast in the presence of our enemies, and death shall be no more. That time hasn’t come yet.

 

Having made his objections known, Jesus does go ahead and change water into wine. But, he makes the miracle happen in the hands of others. He never touches the water jars. He doesn’t wave a stick and say abracadabra. Just as he will do in John 6, when he multiplies the bread to feed the  five thousand, Jesus puts the action into the hands of his friends. This is how things will be in the time before the coming of the new age; we will be the accomplishers of God’s miracles. We will share bread and wine and speak grace to those who are thirsty and hungry. We will be the peacemakers and mediate between lions and lambs. When things run out and there is famine, plague, or war, we will bring food, find medicines, and vote, or revolt, against those who rattle sabers.

 

Bible scholars point out that what Jesus actually said to his mother wasn’t really an insult. He uses a form of speech that includes Mary and himself; what does the world’s running out of wine have to do with the two of us?  Mary hears him saying that we are not yet in the age of obvious miracles. We must see the kingdom in a more subtle form. She calls upon people to help Jesus. The servant’s hands work the miracle. In this parable, we are the people Mary sends to help Jesus do his miracle. Our place it to fill water jugs and act surprised when what we do makes a difference.

Epiphany 2
Sunday, January 17, 2016
We fill the jars -- Jesus does the miracle through us.
Orthodox priests standing between Ukrainian protesters and Ukrainian police

“In the way we regard our children, our spouses, neighbors, colleagues, and strangers, we choose to see others either as people like ourselves or as objects.They either count like we do or they don't. In the former case we regard them as we regard ourselves, we say our hearts are at peace toward them. In the latter case, since we systematically view them as inferior, we say our hearts are at war.” 

Arbinger Institute, The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict

 

One of my resolutions for the new year is to reread some of the excellent material on conflict resolution that has come out of the Arbinger Institute. Few things are more essential to ministry than becoming adept at peace-making. When Jesus chose this as one of the nine beatitudes (Matthew 5:9), he was prioritizing the relational mechanics of having our hearts at peace.

 

Central to both the Gospel and the conflict resolution process from Arbinger, is an awareness of how easily we all fall into objectifying others. Our hearts become at war with those who don’t agree with the changes we want to bring to the church. We objectify them as “well intentioned dragons” or “old fuddy-duddies.” We fail to treat them as people like ourselves. We attribute to them motivations that are inferior to ours. We complain that they don’t love the church the way we do. Our hearts are no longer at peace, because Jesus is no longer guiding our words and actions. Lord, help us to value compassion above our own need to be right.

additional author: 
Arbinger Institute
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. Through the flame, you will go. But it will not consume you.
Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-22

The passage from Isaiah about God promising to be with us through hell and high water is almost as famous as James Taylor’s song: 

I've seen fire and I've seen rain. I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I'd see you again.

Isaiah’s lyrics were a comfort to the people of Israel as they returned from exile in Babylon. Most congregations have either a fire or a flood story, or both, in their archives. Unfortunately, for those being effected by this year's El Nino, the memory is in the process of being made. If you are currently in the midst of the flood, this scripture speaks over the millenium about our God, who never tires of saving us. If you are dry and comfortable, this is a good time to dig in the archives and discover your church's flood/fire story.

For James Taylor, the fire and the flood deals with his struggles against heroin addiction and mental illness. His lonely sojourn in a mental institution, forms the second of three stanzas about deep loss. Fire and rain seem appropriate metaphors for James to use to describe the wilderness that surrounded the suicide of a friend, the brutality of shock therapy, and the breakup of his band and friendships at Apple records.

I think it would be a mistake to simply think that its only the theme of water and flame that links James Taylor and Isaiah with Luke’s account concerning the fiery preaching of John and the Baptism of Jesus. All of these stories and lyrics hit us with a two by four. They scrape raw the memories of our darkest days.

We face in each of these stanzas the blunt fact that disaster can happen to anyone and to any congregation. That in the midst of fire and rain, God will be present. After disaster, there is usually the long wilderness of transition. We name our loss, perhaps not as eloquently as Taylor does when he says, “but, I always thought that I’d see you again.” The world at the other end of our experience is not the same.

The cross and its fiery pain was present when John baptized Jesus, just as the resurrection and its hope were there when James Taylor emerged from rehab. We each need the courage to tell our story.

Epiphany 1
Sunday, January 10, 2016
James Taylor