Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Theology Thursday: Midwinter Sermon

Yes, I know it's not Thursday. But since I'm in seminary classes all day on Thursday, I'm now going to post "Theology Thursday" articles whenever I want. So here ya go. 

The following is a sermon I gave at a recent Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in OK youth weekend retreat. The theme of the weekend was "IMPACT" and focused on how the lives we lead make impressions on others. The weekend also served as a work-project retreat, as youth completed improvement projects throughout the campground and facilities in preparation for Summer Ministry season. 


This is a quote from Jewish Teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel:
 “…when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.”
 Let me begin by saying that if Christianity has become for you just a system of rules that you’re supposed to live by – I’m sorry. Somebody has been teaching you wrong. Or maybe someone has had a larger impact on your life than maybe they should. Or maybe their message is slick and hip and trendy and gets 20 million hits on YouTube and it’s soo attractive that it must be true.

Respecting Newt's Religion(s)

Recently, GOP Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich complained that he was tired of being asked to respect everyone else's religion. In his statement, he uses "religions" and "religion".

Here's the clip:

Gingrich, clearly talking to a conservative audience is apparently suggesting that the religion of the politically conservative movement in America is Catholic. See, Gingrich is catholic, or at least converted to catholicism after marrying his third wife Callista. Since Gingrich is catholic, and he used the phrase "our religion" - that makes me think he believes the conservative base is also catholic because he's associating his supporters with himself.

Or maybe it's Southern Baptist. While married to his second wife (and presumably during his 6-year affair) he was a God-fearing, church-going Southern Baptist. It's Newt's religious Flavor-of-the-Month club.

Even though his vision for things like space technology is broad (remember he wants to reach the heavens and build a lunar colony by 2020), his understanding as a historian that the USA is a multicultural, multi-religious, ethnically diverse melting pot seems selfishly narrow.

He wants a government that respects "our religion(s)." To Newt, that is clearly conservative Christianity.

I'm just making assumptions here, but there surely are politically conservative folks who practice Islam, various forms of Judaism, and Buddhism. Surely there are conservative republicans who are Rastafarian's, Pastafarians, Universalist's, Mormons, Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Christian. And I know for certain that there are politically conservative folks who practice the many, MANY forms of Protestant Christianity.

I don't think this has anything to do with Newt's faith or his religious background. I think this is another page in the republican's false claim that there is a "war on Christianity". Unfortunately, this message sells to evangelical Christians - but it's false. It's down right false to claim that the federal government is waging war against Christianity. Anyone claiming that the President, or liberals or whoever is taking our country away from its religious roots (presumably Christianity) doesn't know, or is ignoring their US history lessons.

The first European immigrants to the Americas were escaping religious persecution - why would successive generations develop a government that puts one religion in charge? Some of them may have been Christian, but they certainly were not out to establish a theocracy.

It might be good politics for Newt. But it's bad, bad religion.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Theology Thursday: Hating Religion?

Recently, YouTube gave us Jefferson Bethke- a young, passionate and skilled spoken word poet. He posted a video entitled "Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus". I won't link to it, but you can find it easily enough if you want to watch it. Surely you've already seen it.

Bethke raises some very important concerns about religion that I think are worth exploring. For starters however it must be stated that Bethke, in his description of the video mentions that he is talking about what he calls false religion. I assume based on his poem that he means practicing a faith for the wrong reasons.

I do not think that Bethke is condemning religion as a whole, because he certainly seems to be a practitioner of Christianity - but I do think he comes from a religious background that teaches an individual relationship with God through Jesus as the primary salvific act, and reduces the interpersonal experience to corporate worship alone.

But is that the gospel?

I say not completely. The gospel I read calls me into community with others, for mutual forbearance and care. To reduce the whole of the New Testament to an individualistic relationship between me and my own personal Jesus,* based on supplementary atonement theology is to ignore the ministry of Jesus who sought justice for the outcast, healing for the diseased and inclusion for the alien.

Seeing Christianity as an equation [ Me + Jesus = God ] is selfish.

Bethke, you speak to an audience who listens to you, nearly hanging on every rythymic, rhyming word. Be not only responsible to those hearers, but for the Love of God, be responsible to the story of the faith you claim.

* I won't link to Bethke's video, but I will to a Depeche Mode song.

Family Matters To Newt

After CNN's John King opened the South Carolina GOP Presidential Debate with a question regarding Newt Gingrich's alleged "open marriage" request to his second wife, the candidate blasted back with a show-stopping response.
"To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine,"
Gingrich went on to suggest that his campaign had several of the Speaker's closest friends at the time ready to testify that the allegations were false, and that ABC News was not interested in interviewing these persons. His reason why ABC News wasn't interested? Because they wanted any chance to attack a republican.
"The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period said the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren't interested because they would like to attack any Republican."
CNN apparently discussed it with ABC News, which informed John King that the only persons provided to ABC News on the matter were Gingrich's own two daughters from his first marriage. Pressed on the issue by CNN's reporters, the Gingrich campaign finally relented and said that the candidate was wrong in his assertions.

To clarify: Newt allegedly requested from his second wife an "open marriage", or he'd divorce her and marry the woman he'd been having an affair with. The affair is fact, the open marriage request is what is debatable. And to comment on Newt's outstanding character during this time are not his friends, but his two daughters. From his first wife. Who he divorced because he was having an affair.With the lady he requested an open marriage from.

Not surprisingly, Jon Stewart had something to say about this:

Always the victim, never the perp. Get ready folks, he is a serious contender for the presidential nomination from the Family Values Republican Political Nutbar Party.

Theology Thursday

I watched a NOVA episode yesterday about an Alaskan island. Living on it were 4x the brown bears found in Yellowstone, yet at a fraction of the size. The ecosystem remained balanced through life, death and rebirth. The salmon from the salt water ocean return to the freshwater streams summer after summer. They return to complete their lives, to spawn among the rocks and roots, and the trunks of fallen trees- ultimately to die. They come to be food for the bears, who carry the fish into the woods to eat. The remains become a nitrogen rich supplement for the trees. And the trees provide thick habitat for the wildlife, in their living and in their dying.

Ought not the church recognize this pattern, embrace it and anticipate the life, death and rebirth of ministries in a celebratory way - bound not by tradition or fear - but emboldened by the grace and mystery of God?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Yard 2.0

It was a sunny and mild mid-January Saturday, so what the heck- lets build a compost bin!

Long ago there was a half-fence dividing the yard. We took it out and kept the lumber.
Mysterious shadow-man added for dramatic effect.

And while we're at it, let's remove the rest of the old fort too!
The tops of the sawn off posts can barely be seen. Now there's room for 2 more garden beds- later this winter...

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Theology Thursday: Tending the Flock

I mentioned before that the church I serve is soon to be facing some tough challenges, mostly in the face of grieving the retirement of, and replacing the Sr. Pastor of over 25 years.

With the understanding that there will be heavy hearts from the congregation, and much congregational soul-searching during the interim, I posted some excerpts from an Ethics Daily article on the church Facebook page: 

Spiritual discernment begins with disorientation. Something happens to knock us off our feet.

Some event or series of events conspires to turn our world upside down. It may be an unpleasant experience such as a death, a beloved pastor's departure or some crisis.

Whatever it is, our life and world is shaken, and we experience high anxiety. Throughout Scripture, disorientation is the portal God uses to break into ordinary lives and do extraordinary things. (See Joseph, Moses, Esther, Mary, Paul, Peter, etc.)

God's people are constantly finding themselves thrown off balance and unable to manage things using old frames of reference.

The next phase of spiritual discernment is a time of reorientation. On the heels of our crisis, we look around for something or someone to hold on to that will help us make sense of our shaken world.

We find that the promises made by culture, leaders, politics, money, possessions and an array of false gods are empty. We turn once again to the One who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

All of our self-made structures, programs and hollow leadership models collapse under the weight of the issue before us.

In their place we rediscover our reason for being as a congregation. Our pride gives way to brokenness and humility as we reconnect to our mission and purpose.

We lean into our future with a willingness to lay aside those things that have distracted us from our true calling.
Finally, a spiritual discernment process leads us to a new orientation to life and ministry.

We reorder and re-prioritize our life as God's people so that we are on his mission, not ours.

We find a depth of meaning and fulfillment that has been missing. We sense passion and engagement rather than lethargy and apathy.

Because we have taken seriously the voice and movement of the Spirit, we no longer rely on others to prescribe our future, but we create that future as collaborators with God in an ongoing process of regeneration and renewal.

Our time spent in re-visioning our future has produced a new spirit of openness to God's leadership. We begin the hard work of aligning every part of our life with our new vision.

My work now begins, along with that of the other pastoral staff, elders and church leaders, to both embrace and help others to embrace the difficulty of re-visioning the needs of the church. It is important to recognize that this is not a moment for strategic planning, or for the re-evaluation of ministries offered. Rather, this time of transition should be used to reaffirm the real strengths offered by the congregation, and to also affirm the challenges we face.

As is true in personal lives, the members of the congregation must be honest with themselves if they are going to be a sustained and healthy congregation. I hope to be the kind of leader that is honest with church members about both the joys of ministry and the difficulties. I hope that growing edges are clearly and openly identified - this will make room for increased involvement. I hope that conversations about past and future clergy can be open and frank. I hope that as a congregation we don't look to other churches for inspiration, or to companies for a business model.

Certainly the congregation I serve (nor any congregation) is not either the church down the street, or a business to be managed, purchased and sold. Rather, I pray that as we engage this season, the inspiring light of the Creative Mind of the universe will guide us into, and out of a refining fire.

How do we find God in the midst of such turmoil and disorientation? By opening our eyes to the possibility that God of our ancestors is still spinning and weaving and planting and nurturing the opportunities that make life meaningful, and our relationships powerful. We must recognize that God is not concerned with doing the hard work of discernment for us, but rather is overjoyed to be walking beside us on that often dark journey - sometimes holding the flashlight, sometimes turning it off and saying "just feel your way, I am with you."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Snow-maggeddon 2012

It started snowing a little while ago. Needless to say, we are a little excited to see some white stuff.
Buuuut it's not going to last long. We're in the red circle & it's moving eastward. *sigh*

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Monday, January 9, 2012

In the transition

I serve a church that is average.

Average attendance (175-225). Average community (blue collar, military, community college town). Nice numbers of all age groups. Quality people - warm and inviting.It is stable. It is suburban. There is a history of keeping pastors in long tenures. There is sobriety and level-headedness  in the lay-leadership. It is egalitarian in leadership, yet surprisingly lacking in ethnic diversity.

Of the pastoral leadership I'm the newest - and I've been there 7 years. The Sr. Minister has been there 25 years. But that comes to an end on February 19th, 2012. Just 40+ days from now.

I was privileged to preach on the Sunday that the Letter of Retirement was read during a board meeting. I was aware of what was going to happen, and had the opportunity to speak to the congregation a message that they didn't yet know they needed to hear.

It was the first Sunday after Epiphany, and we marked the time by examining the travels of the characters in Matthew's second chapter. Considering the extensive journey the congregation was about to be forced to take, I prepared what I hoped was a thoughtful piece that spoke to the journeys of transition.

Here are some excerpts:

     To borrow from Luke, Mary and Joseph have just traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the Roman census. The shepherds, at the direction of the angels have come in from their flocks in the fields to give witness to the scene. The angel and heavenly hosts have come down and around to sing Hallelujah – and the Maji, who have come from the east, have traveled to worship and give gift to the child who has been born king of the Jews. But in time, they all must return, travel back to where they came. To the fields, to the heavens, to the distant land. They must all make the journey back to their normal, regular existence.
And this is where we find ourselves now.

      We’ve spent the last 6 weeks anticipating, waiting for, wondering about the Christ child, looking for him, preparing for him, singing about him, decorating for him, giving for him. We’ve sent greeting cards and baked delicious treats and made video calls and phone calls to friends and relatives far away. We’ve celebrated his advent and hosted the party and sung the carols and attended the Christmas programs and opened the presents and eaten the dinner. And now, as the tree comes down, we move back, slowly - into the regular pace of life. These events happen to us. We learn about them, we prepare for them, we travel into them, and we journey with newness of faith beyond them.
And this, after discussing King Herod's plan to destroy the infant Jesus, (the one who the Magi proclaimed as the "King of the Jews"), and emphasizing that all too often something interrupts our plans and we must change course:

     But Herod’s plan doesn’t work – The Magi hit the road without telling him where to find the newborn king. They leave town and return to their homeland by another way. A different way. And Joseph, having been awakened by a dream and warned of Herod’s plan, gathered his family and escaped to Egypt.

     We can’t complete the Christmas story yet, their journey is still continuing. The Magi, having had an encounter with the holy, now travel a different route. Walk a new road. They journey together into their mysterious future. Joseph and Mary and Jesus, having encountered the holy flee their homeland to escape persecution only to go into a land that once held captive their own people. They too journey into their mysterious future. And it’s not even until after Herod’s death that they return, but not to Bethlehem, but Nazareth – by a different route. They walk a new road.
     That’s what we’re doing today on this Epiphany. We are recognizing and revealing the holy in our lives – allowing it to get deep within and change us at our core – so that we may walk on a new path in this new year, together in faith as friends, together guided by holy light as family, together in step with each other as church.
My prayer is that in the coming 18 months, the church I love to serve will walk a different path, not back to where it came, but one boldly into the mysterious future.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Theology Thursday

During this early GOP Primary season, I've endured many conversations about, and read many articles on the different candidates. Two things stand out to me as common among the candidates. The first is that almost all say God told them to run for President. The second is that they all support policies that promote individualism, whether that be for corporate people (GE, Haliburton etc.) or real people (you and me). And I say individualism in the sense that you and I have the free choices to do what we want.

Ron Paul, the grandfather of the GOP pack and (this year's) classic liberalism Libertarian champion leads the charge against socially responsible policies. Many of his ideals are valid and true to classic liberalism, that government shouldn't get in the way of one's own individual choices.

[Now, I like to vote. Call me a patriot. I like the process, I like the power I feel, and I like the little sticker I get. However, in Oklahoma they primaries are closed, meaning that only the members of the political party that is holding the primary can actually vote in it. So, every so often I change my political affiliation back and forth in order to engage in the electoral process of my state.]

So about this individualism business- the basic tenant is that one has the free will to do as one pleases without interruption or impedance by an outside authority. But what about communal responsibility? When does someone's individual freedom become problematic for the community they live within? How might the topic of healthcare be both an individual freedom (the right to choose having it or not), and a societal requirement (protecting citizens from the spread of disease through mandatory vaccinations etc.)?

The right likes to frame their positions behind moral and religious glass. And this is understood as many on the right affirm an evangelical or traditional Christian heritage. And for many voters in the right's base, the more religious the candidate, the more moral, ethical and Godly they seem. But when it comes to this connection between seeking a merger between individualism and Christian piety, the argument begins to unravel. Using western, capitalist, post-industrial, post-enlightenment theology to support biblical claims about personal morality and individual salvation is problematic.

Initially, one can argue that the Jesus of the gospels doesn't speak in an individualistic way, meaning - he does not know what it means to be the self, or the individual. These are enlightenment themes, certainly not first century Palestine themes. The person in Jesus' time wasn't the individual we think of today. The person then was an element of a larger organization; the family, the community, the town, the religious experience. The person wasn't a person, the self identity wasn't understood, but rather the family was your identity. Your hometown was your identity. Your father or other male relative was your identity. You were not something unique and set apart from the others. You were the others and they, you.

When politicians use religious themes or statements to support a political viewpoint, take a careful listen to what they say. Then see how it compares with what the gospels say. The gospel I read speaks to me not always as just one person, but to me in the larger context of how I relate to my family, coworkers, friends and neighbors. The gospel I read and try to live by guides me into better ways of living in community with others, not better ways of isolating myself from others.

As to whether or not a person should be mandated to get health insurance or not, well the gospels don't talk about health insurance, per se - but they do tell the story of a man who often gave out free healthcare, and called on others to do the same.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Science Museum Oklahoma

Today we went to Science Museum Oklahoma, which I and many of my readers have known as the Omniplex of our childhoods. In short, it's awesome! Tons of new exhibits and hands on learning and discovery, plus the old favorites like the shadow wall and earthquake house. Science Live is an experiment demonstration show that I got to participate in (below). The rest of our adventure follows.

Sign in the men's room.

Playing in the water works area, discovering how to manipulate the flow.

Riding a Segway!

Eliza landing in the moon!