Archive for May 2016

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

 

Would we in the north care more about Microcephaly if it happened to our children?
Pentecost 3
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.

In 1960, Ruby Bridges was an Elijah style heroine
Pentecost 4
Memorial Day
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.

Often repeated study shows that we don't know our own ignorance
Pentecost 2
Trinity Sunday
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.

Often repeated study shows that we don't know our own ignorance
Pentecost 2
Trinity Sunday
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.

Paul Bunyan brought name recognition to Bangor --NOT!
Pentecost 1
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.

Paul Bunyan brought name recognition to Bangor --NOT!
Pentecost 1
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.

How do we form community? Make each other shoes.
Easter 7