Archive for January 2016

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.

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

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.

The Syrian widow takes in the refugee Elijah
Epiphany 4
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
I Corinthians 12:1-11
There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

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?

Pope Francis understands it
Epiphany 3
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.

We fill the jars -- Jesus does the miracle through us.
Epiphany 2
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
Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-22
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. Through the flame, you will go. But it will not consume you.

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.

James Taylor
Epiphany 1