Archive for August 2016

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.

Are we seeing or picture taking with our spiritual eyes?
Pentecost 18
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.

Bouveret's "The disciples at Emmaus" - at CAM, Pittsburgh
Pentecost 17

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.

A well read Bible changes your life
Pentecost 16
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

Real faith is often embarrassing
Pentecost 15
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.

By letting us see the invisible, science often opens the door for wonder and faith
Pentecost 14