Thursday, March 30, 2006

I Never Thought I'd See the Day

There was a time when I would lament about how too many people hold the pastor personally responsible for attendance. After all, if the pastor is not a good preacher, how can the congregation expect to sit still for a mediocre sermon? How can we take ownership of what the pastor is saying if the pastor himself/herself does not seem to believe what is being said?

Now I find myself in an odd position. When it comes to worship, there can never be too much music for me. I love to sing and I love good singing, but I am not for drums and electric guitars or anything "funky" in church; it's just not my thing. I am something of a traditionalist, but I do also love many of the more contemporary so-called praise choruses.

After this comes the sermon. Now I'm having a problem. We visited a church this past Sunday where the preacher went on for FIFTY MINUTES! FIFTY MINUTES!! Yes, I timed him because Dan over at Common Saints has written many very good posts about the attitude of worship and what we expect, but he also has conducted polls to find out how long the typical church has music during its worship services. This is why I was timing the church where we were. Did I mention that the sermon was FIFTY MINUTES long??

The first 1/2 hour was entirely devoted to music which also included an exceptional solo. When the music was done and the offering collected, the pastor got up to preach. At the 30-minute mark he stated, "Can I talk to you for a minute?" ... OH ..... MY ...... GOSH!! What has he been doing for the last 30 minutes?? Then he continued to "talk" to us for another 20 minutes. What was worse is that he kept repeating himself.

Another church I've attended has what I believe to be an exceptional pastor with a good heart, but his preaching leaves me extremely thirsty. I've not timed him, but it honestly feels like an eternity because he has yet to really make a point and then DRIVE IT HOME. To be perfectly honest, I cannot tell if he is ill at ease or if he's completely bored with the whole thing. Either way, I am not convinced that he is completely convinced of what he was trying to convince me of. Now I don't want to go back.

Why am I seemingly on a never-ending quest for the perfect preacher? Why is my Sabbath focus on demanding that the pastor get my attention and keep it? Why is my worship not complete unless a pastor "wows" me? That my heart is not in the right frame when I show up at a church is a given. I miss preaching. I think I have control issues, but I also think that I cannot get settled because I have been called to preach.

I once thought that I lacked the genuine heart of a pastor, but now I wonder why I resigned my church. Preparing and preaching a 15 or 20 minute sermon was not so great deal that I couldn't do it. I was more afraid that if/when the time came when someone in my congregation would be in genuine need of a pastor, I would not be available. Or that I would not be completely at their disposal. Between secular work, school, children events and family time, I was afraid more than anything else that I would be forced to make a choice. I thought that my family, my congregation, and I deserved better.

Now I am miserable, and I cannot find my way. Even more than this, though, is the haunting thought that keeps crossing my mind: how can I lead worship if I cannot free myself to worship? There is an element missing, and I cannot put my finger on it.

I ...... feel ....... lost.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

I Just May Do It!

For years I've wondered what it must be like to serve as a representative in the state legislature or the US Congress. Having finally taken my first trip to Washington DC a couple of years ago, I was awed by the sheer history that surrounds everything. Though we did not get the chance to tour the Congress or the White House, I could not help but to wonder how any politician could lose that sense of awe and wonder in being a part of history.

I really began paying attention to national politics in 1980 when President Carter faced a challenge from Ronald Reagan. It was then when jobs were not so easy to come by and interest rates were out of control. Though I hesitate to blame President Carter now (I was happy to at the time!), I am convinced in my heart and mind that President Reagan was the right man at the right time for the job. I was so inspired by Mr. Reagan that I joined the US Marine Corps to become a part of something much bigger than self. In fact, during a battalion inspection in boot camp just prior to graduation, this is exactly what I told the battalion commander when he asked why I had joined up.

Over the years I was quite caught up in the "fight" that has since come to define politics. I sometimes wonder if my involvement somehow helped to fan the flames to the low point that politics has reached now. It is becoming more difficult to wade through the "mud" and find out exactly what a political candidate stands for. We have become a complacent nation that seems to be satisfied with sound bites and name-calling candidates. I suppose the nature of political campaigns has become so much worse over the years because we voters have rewarded the nastiest of these people with an election win and, ultimately, a lifetime job and pension.

So I am seriously considering a run for a house seat in the Arkansas legislature. Whether I will actually do it this time is still a big question. I've just learned that the only other Republican who is running for the same seat is an attorney; I have yet to earn a degree though I am in school. In order to get voters to take such a candidacy seriously would require the kind of political savvy that I am not so sure I possess.

Is it possible to run a campaign without trashing one's opponent? I think this would be where I would like to start. Having a face-to-face debate is one thing, but throwing charges and counter-charges through the media in a campaign is somewhat over the line and not conducive to giving voters real choices. If a candidate did nothing more than to educate voters and give them some things to think about besides a political opponent's nocturnal habits, much more could be accomplished.

In my own congressional district is a gentleman named Vic Snyder. He is a Democrat and has served this district (honorably, I might add) for ten years. Love him or hate him, but he commands respect not because he is some awesome creation but because he is a gentleman. He is of sound character and, I think, profound intregity. His sense of ethics has never been questioned though his politics has been challenged more than once. However, I think he has run for re-election twice without opposition; once for sure that I distinctly recall. Why? Maybe it is for the same reason I have seriously considered voting for him as much as I disagree with him. I know I can trust him. Not everyone can say this about their congressman or senator and for me, this is worth a lot.

I have only a few issues that I believe to be important in Arkansas politics. Whether I actually get to introduce these proposals myself remains to be seen:

  • Arkansas constitutional officers are term-limited by a vote of the people. In response, the Arkansas legislature changed the formula by which they qualify for pension. They now need only to serve five years - FIVE YEARS - to qualify for a LIFE TIME pension. My proposal would be to simply have the state make a contribution to an officer's existing retirement fund; whether IRA, 401(k) - with no matching funds - or other similar retirement plans; only during their active service, and that's it. Once they leave office, there is no more money coming to them from the state. These are supposed to be citizen-legislators, not career politicians.
  • Term limits would apply to the person and not the position. As it is now, a person serves in the House, term limits out and then runs for the Senate. From there, maybe a run for attorney general and then, perhaps, governor. Surely the term limits were intended to prevent the person from consolidating power and thus corrupting the system. It happened here not with a house seat but a person.
  • Currently Arkansas is home base to the largest publicly traded trucking company in the United States as well as several other very large commercial carriers. Yet each of the vehicles, trucks and trailers alike, are all licensed in Oklahoma. Why? Because Oklahoma is cheaper, and a company is only required to maintain an office in that state. Arkansas misses out on enormous revenue by trying to be greedy. In exchange for making licensing in Arkansas an attractive alternative, the state could also cut the state's fuel tax on diesel for every carrier who tags its vehicles in Arkansas. In the end there would be more revenue for highway building and maintenance projects. There are also more jobs prospects in this kind of proposal not only for the state but also for carriers who might considering changing their place of domicile.
  • Public school funding must be centralized to the state's Department of Education. This way, rural districts would be able to share in the wealth of districts that have more money only by virtue of their location and tax base. Each of the 75 counties in Arkansas would have only one school superintendent who would be an employee of the state, specifically the Department of Education, and would oversee the equitable disbursement of funds. They would be accountable to the state superintendent of schools. Teachers would also become employees of the state and not the local school district. The Lake View case in Arkansas has demanded that every student is entitled to equal educational opportunities. This consolidation of funds and other resources is the only way to make this happen without a substantial increase in taxes.

There is much more to what needs to be done in Arkansas, but how can an uneducated rube such as I run against a lawyer without telling lawyer jokes? For my way of thinking, at least, it could be that there are too many lawyers running the state now. An esteemed profession it is, but being an attorney does not imminently qualify one to run the state or to speak in my behalf.

More later.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

More Arkansas Education

The Little Rock (Arkansas) School District had offered a proposal in which teachers would vote to be eligible for merit pay increases and as much as a $10,000.00 bonus; the proposal was soundly defeated. The proposal was to have served as a pilot program for whether a bonus or merit pay proposal for teachers is even feasible. The school’s administration embraced the idea; the teachers evidently did not think so highly of the proposal. So is it a fair question to ask why teachers would turn down a chance at making more money and getting a $10,000.00 bonus to boot especially when all we seem to hear about is how poorly teachers are paid? In this case, yes. The answer, however, comes from the teachers themselves and demands our full attention.

The vote and “letters to the editor” feedback from the state’s teachers indicate that there is a fundamental objection to the entire proposal for only one reason: the merit pay and bonuses would be directly related to how well students perform on a standardized test.

Letters from teachers told the story very well, and their perspective is a must for any legislator or school administrator if these people truly have the children’s best interests and education at heart. The teachers, in order to qualify for the merit pay and bonuses, would be hamstrung to the standardized tests that the students would have to do well on. In short, the teachers would not feel so free to teach the students HOW to think but, rather, WHAT to think. "Teaching the test", as they say.

The teachers have a point, of course. Children have to be taught how to reason and how to think. The conclusions they reach, based on information not only given to but also processed in their little minds may not always be dead-on correct, but credit must also be given where latitude can be allowed. Two plus two will always equal four and this will never change, but simply memorizing this formula without the reasoning required to come to the only conclusion is perhaps more important than the correct answer itself.

Teachers have to be accountable to parents for the jobs they do, but I don’t think they have a problem with this although as a parent I’ve been forced to contend with a certain level of arrogance that I thought to be highly inappropriate and undeserved. The teachers I know personally, however, are not afraid of a challenge, and they have no fear of accounting for how they spend their days.

Of course there are bad teachers. There are some lazy teachers, there are some mean teachers, none of whom have any business being in their profession. There must be some equitable and reasonable way to weed these people out. By the same token, there must also be an equitable way by which those who are truly dedicated to what they consider to be their calling to be rewarded. These professionals deserve to be rewarded just as any of us in the secular working world would expect to be rewarded for going above and beyond expectations.

I still stand by what I have maintained all along. Money alone is not going to solve the education problem even though there are government people who have somehow become convinced that pumping more money into an unsolved problem will somehow make the problem disappear. It would almost appear as though these legislators and school administrators received the same kind of education they are trying to hand off to our children.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Matter of Priority

GM has reached agreements with the UAW that if up to 113,000 hourly-wage employees will leave the company and waive their company-paid health insurance, they will receive a severance of $140,000 even though the workers will still be entitled to their accrued pension benefits. It seems that the auto maker is only concerned with the cost of the health insurance which some financial analysts believe to be GM's greatest financial burden.


The story itself is not a major concern to me (I have never cared much for GM products) although I hate that so many are about to lose jobs. $140,000.00 is not a lot of money all things considered. However, CNN has a poll that asks readers their opinion about the question of the day, and today's question asked whether the reader would leave his or her job for a $140,000.00 payout. I voted "yes" and clicked to see the results. Out of 170,000 votes, a whopping 140,000 said they would take the buy-out even though analysts do not believe many workers will take GM's offer. What do the workers know that these 140,000 voters do not?

I could not help but wonder if there are that many dissatisfied workers who feel somehow trapped in their current jobs. I am relatively young; $140,000 would not go far with me. I have two daughters at home, one of whom is about to enter college. I'm a (part-time) college student myself with a mortgage and bills out the wazzoo. What was I thinking??

I was once enrolled in a private university in which an accelerated program offers only two degrees: organizational management and information technology. These are two very good programs, but the truth is these things do not hold any interest for me. So I quit. I am currently enrolling at a public university that offers courses of study more in line with that which interests me. Whether this course leads to seminary or law school or an early grave only the Lord knows. But I entered into the program so that I could "hurry up" and earn my degree.

Life is too short to waste time worrying about how much money we will be able to make. The world is filled with lawyers and MBA's; I cannot help but to wonder how many of these educated persons are actually doing what makes them happy and gives them a sense of accomplishment. Are we so ambitious and concerned with doing what is expected of us that we do not stop to think about what genuinely pleases us? Do we really shy away from social work or teaching only because of the lousy pay? How many good cops and firefighters will we never know about who chose the MBA route to fame and fortune only because of the earning potential?

I admit that I am still far too concerned with how much money I can make. I love to write, but I have every intention of one day hitting it big. My daughter asked me just yesterday why I can't become a teacher and share my passion with words. The truth? The pay scares me.

Talk about priorities.

A Moral Dilemma

Suppose you are a conscientious social services worker and you stumbled across a family of illegal immigrants. Suppose you came across knowledge of this family strictly by accident or fate. It happens that this family is working several jobs, paying rent, and doing all other things that citizens do. They stay within the bounds of the law, they pay taxes, and their children are as precocious as the next door neighbor's kids. And suppose you came across information about this family because one of the kids is in desperate need of the kind of medical attention that, because of expense, would almost certainly require health insurance. And because this family is doing everything just to provide food, a home, and decent clothes for school, they cannot afford health insurance. What to do?

A citizen is required by law to report illegal activity. A Christian is required to obey the law for the sake of "good order". Whether we would agree or disagree with the law is not a matter for us to take upon ourselves. If there is no reasonable and lawful order within society, anarchy would ensue. We have an obligation to do our part to help maintain this order within our society.

I wish I could remember what I must have heard on the radio driving home from work, but something pushed this notion into my mind. No, I am not a social worker but I've often wondered about the dilemmas these professionals must confront on a daily basis. In such a case as what I have offered, what would be the "right" thing to do? Being illegal aliens - including the children - they are not entitled to any government assistance. Publicity would only reveal this family to the media and, ultimately, the authorities.

So does it then become a matter of law or a matter of morals? Can the two be separated? Must there be a distinction between the two? This fictitious family is "playing by the rules" with one glaring exception: they have broken the law by entering into this country illegally. Even still, there is a child in desperate need of medical attention. It may even be a matter of life or death for this child, but the expense of her treatment would be prohibitive for most citizens.

There is no real point here except to say that we seem to hinge every argument we would care to make on one simple point: they broke the law by entering into this country. They are "criminals" by definition. Does this somehow make them less than human? Judging by callers to one particular radio station, it would seem so. Is this how we really feel?

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Church Mission Statements

“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” Deuteronomy 6:4-9

In the Religion section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette each Saturday is a feature story about a central Arkansas place of worship (I hesitate to say “church” because I think there have been synagogues featured). The feature highlights a brief history of the church and its ministries and pastor. It is usually the run-of-the-mill stuff that almost any church is interested in: serving the community and one another. Not to suggest that such “stuff” is routine but for the most part, it reads almost the same from one week to the next. Except for this week.

As part of the introduction of the featured church, there is a “mission statement” attached to the story to offer the reader what that church feels is its own essence, a brief description of how the church views its ministry and mission.

The reading from Deuteronomy cited above was listed as the “mission statement” of yesterday’s featured church. It is a non-denominational congregation that was apparently created from the collective vision of several from other denominations who felt that the true mission of the church can be easily lost to denominational doctrinal understandings (or misunderstandings). The church as a whole loses its proper focus when that focus concerns itself so narrowly on what we as a people would like to see, according to what we specifically believe.

The mission of the church: to love the Lord your God with …everything you have and everything you are, and to love your neighbor as yourself. How much simpler can this be and yet so profound at the same time? And as I read and re-read this “mission statement”, it occurred to me that other mission statements I have reviewed in the past came across as commercial fluff that might be appealing to a particular segment of society, or it might be eye-catching to that particular neighborhood it serves. Not to dismiss any church statement that is not a direct quote from Holy Scripture, but the appeal that this particular church had in conjunction with its stated purpose for existence was powerful in a way that I am seriously considering the 45-minute commute every Sunday. Even as the United Methodist licensed pastor I am, at least on the surface this is a church I would be proud to serve as a preacher and pastor.

Jesus Himself quotes this passage from Deuteronomy when asked what He considers to be the “greatest” commandment. And then He states, “The second greatest commandment is LIKE the first …”

So simple and yet so powerful a statement that contains not what we might like to see from a church we would choose to attend and be a part of but, rather, a statement of purpose which is more a reflection of the Lord’s will rather than our own. After all, is this not what our common prayer usually focuses on, "Thy will be done"?

If not, it certainly should.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

South Dakota Steps Up

Although a court challenge is sure to come, South Dakota has taken a definitive step in recognizing something I believe to be fundamental to our very existence: life. In recognizing the sanctity of life and in defending the concepts of our very Declaration of Independence, at least one state in this great Union has demanded that we answer for our duties and responsibilities toward our fellow man: defend the defenseless.

How odd it is, then, that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports statistics about abortion that I find to be ironic. “Most believe that having an abortion should be a personal choice, but they also think it is murder.”

Citing an AP poll in which it is stated that “most” Americans believe abortion should be legal, it breaks the poll down into four categories. 19% believe that abortion should be legal in all cases, and 16% believe it should be illegal in all cases. 32% believe abortion should be legal in most cases while 27% believe it should be illegal in most cases. “Most cases” is not defined though I suspect the usual litany of political excuses, none of which addresses the moral implications of the act itself.

Karlyn Brown, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, states, “When we as a society make up our minds about something, as we have about abortion, most people tend to pull away from it.”

Have we really “made up our minds” about abortion? The AP poll would suggest otherwise. My math indicates that 59% cannot make up their minds. It is only the 35% who believe that abortion should be legal or illegal “in all cases”, and even these Americans cannot agree.

I suppose where I am having the most difficulty in grasping a concept is in those who claim to believe in “personal choice” yet seem definitive in calling abortion what it is: a deliberate termination of life. Premeditated murder. This legal definition tells the story: a life exists, and a move is made to intentionally end that life. For reasons unknown? Hardly.

We know exactly why this horrid procedure is being allowed. Under the guise of “personal choice” and a constitutional right to privacy, women undergo this procedure for one reason: they do not want the child. For one reason or another, these women have decided that the quality of their lives will somehow be enhanced by ridding themselves of this … what? How can it be that an unborn child is so dehumanized with scientific terms as “fetus” while medical science clearly shows life in abundance? What do these women seek when they make such a rash choice? Especially if “most” Americans believe it to be murder?

There are plenty of political organizations that seek to undo the horror of Roe v Wade, but the reality is that judges will decide based on legal precedent and politicians will decide based on what polls say it will take to be elected or re-elected.

There is only One who can end this scourge that we have allowed to “pollute our land”, and He does not answer to “personal choice” nor is He defined by a desire to be popular. Justice demands that blood be answered with blood.

My fear for the future of this nation is not in high taxes or Iranian nuclear power or Islamic terrorists or illegal immigration. Rather, my fear comes from watching this slaughter continue right under my nose while I have remained virtually silent for fear of upsetting some delicate sensibilities. South Dakota has set the pace. What shall be done from here? Because it is not a legal issue or a political issue; it is a moral issue with eternal implications. It is life, and without it we cease to exist.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

For the Love of a Child

Many of you may be aware that I resigned from the pulpit for a time due to acute conflicts in my schedules between a full-time secular job, school at night, and my family. I felt that if there were to ever come a time when a pastor might be needed, I would not be able to give all that would be required. With a very heavy heart, I resigned.

This particular church I was honored to serve is filled with some of the most wonderful persons the Lord God put on this earth. They are just regular folks with good hearts and very hospitable souls. They were very good to my family and me, and I will always have a special place in my heart for them.

There was this one particular child who seemed to take quite awhile to warm up to me. She pretty much kept me at a distance even as she was quite the cut-up! She was two years old when I got there. The most endearing thing about this precious child was that she reminded me of the character, Boo, from the movie "Monsters, Inc". She even had dark hair that she sometimes wore in pigtails just like Boo. She was just beginning to really talk, and she had that muddled bunch of verbs and consonants that she was proud to use, and I'm also pretty sure she knew exactly what she was saying!

Well, she didn't much care for me calling her "Boo", so I started calling her "Fred" (her name is Sarah). She confronted me one day with hands on her hips, looking extremely exasperated, and finally said, "Pweachew, I guess I can live with 'Boo'; I don't like Fwed".

Her grandmother called me this evening although I had not yet made it home from work, so my daughter called me on my cell phone to relay a message. One was that grandmother had read an article I had published in the state's Methodist newspaper and was complimenting me on it, and the other was that "Boo" thought the new preacher who replaced me was ok but she was still wondering and waiting for my return.

There are the little things in our lives that make getting out of bed worth the effort, and this was one of them. When my daughter told me what "Boo" had said, I nearly had to pull off to the side of the road because my vision was suddenly and mysteriously blurred (it surely must have been a speck of dust!!).

It always feels good when folks give compliments about a particular sermon, but it is literally heaven on earth to be missed by a child.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Voice of a Prophet

The Voice of a Prophet

“Then the Lord said to me, ‘There is a conspiracy among the people of Judah and those who live in Jerusalem. They have returned to the sins of their forefathers, who refused to listen to My words. They have followed other gods to serve them. Both the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken the covenant I made with their forefathers. Therefore this is what the Lord says: I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.’” Jeremiah 11:9-11

The Hebrew Scriptures make it abundantly clear that the Lord God has nothing but love for His people but once in awhile, they incurred his wrath. This small portion from Jeremiah is only a small sample of the “judgment” verses in which the Lord had been provoked to anger by their actions of disobedience; “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Exodus 20:3

Verses like these cannot be overlooked when we read the Bible as an exploratory of a budding relationship between the Lord and ourselves. Just as we take time to get better acquainted with a new friend by learning as much as we can about them, we are touched by the Holy Spirit in such a way that provokes a genuine hunger in the soul that can only be filled by Him. This is the way He seems to work in His constant efforts to draw us closer to Him. He also uses His "witnesses" to send out the invitations! That would be you and me.

When we are convicted of our sins, verses like these strike a little harder at the conscience because a relationship has been established, and our hearts tell us that the One who loves us with an “everlasting love” has been hurt. I’ve often wondered if the story of King David’s son Absalom in 2 Samuel 18-19 and the king’s mourning over the loss of even a rebellious son was as much historical as it is theological, indicative of a “king” who still weeps for His own children when they perish even while actively working against Him.

The Westboro Baptist church in Topeka KS first came to my attention in 1998 when a young man by the name of Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die tied to a fence in Wyoming. We learned later that Mr. Shepard was homosexual and had been beaten by two other men who maintained that Matthew had “made a move” on them. Whether this was all true or not is irrelevant.

What is relevant is that it had been reported that on the day of Matthew’s funeral when he was being laid to rest and his parents were mourning the loss of their beloved son, these “Christians” from Westboro church in Topeka showed up at Matthew’s funeral to “protest”. It was their intent to remind everyone of what the Bible says about homosexuality. These Westboro people even went so far as to try to raise money to build a monument which would essentially state that Matthew is in hell for all eternity.

If this is not enough, these people showed up in Lincoln NE on February 25 of this year to protest, or picket or whatever the heck it is they think they are doing, at the funeral of Army 1st Lt Garrison Avery. Why? Because he was killed in a war defending a nation that “promotes” homosexuality. Their banners read, “God is your enemy”, and “Thank God for IED’s”, an apparent reference to the ever-present roadside bombs our brothers and sisters in Iraq contend with almost daily.

Would Jeremiah have been so bold? Would he have even thought it necessary to show up at Matthew’s funeral? What does this “reverend” Fred Phelps hope to achieve by leading this crowd around the country to do nothing more than anger and genuinely hurt decent folks? Incidentally, an online search will reveal that Westboro church is made up almost exclusively of Phelps’ own family. Little wonder why this church is not a growing concern.

Is it possible that Phelps truly is the “prophet” he apparently claims that he is? I suppose anything is possible and if we believe the Bible as it is written, what is it about this man and his “message” that can be theologically challenged? I realize no one takes him seriously; I certainly don’t.

The Bible makes it clear that the Lord God “hates” sin, and He curses those who curse Abraham’s descendents. Jeremiah and other prophets also make it equally clear that the Lord, when provoked to anger, pronounces judgment and people die. What does it all mean? Can it really be that such a mean-spirited, hateful, angry old man and his family can be entrusted to “translate” scripture for us in such a way that they would virtually spit in the face of a family in mourning? Is this representative of the Lord our God?

In the face of this brand of Christianity, it is little wonder that the Church struggles to be relevant.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

How Much Longer?

Shane at Wesley Blog laments about more UMC scandals in which adults are accused of misconduct. There are also two articles on CNN involving another American Catholic bishop and Catholic clergy in Ireland. While the accusation against the Spokane bishop is highly suspect due to a claims deadline, the situation in Ireland is a little overwhelming. Both, however, have come as a result of the Roman Church's acknowledgment of severe problems in the past that were swept under the rug in too many instances.

Having said this, however, I must say that I grew up in the Catholic Church. I have absolutely no recollection of any priest ever coming close to doing anything remotely inappropriate. I have also grown cynical over the years. It is difficult for me to believe that the problem of such abuse was so prevalent. It seems to me that there are far too many who are a little eager to find fault within the Church so much so that all these people suddenly have these repressed memories that surface twenty, thirty, or even forty years later.

I wish I had something profound to offer, but I don't. These revelations sometimes leave me breathless because it is unimaginable to believe that a grown man can do such a thing. Maybe I am too idealistic and trusting for my own good or maybe it is that I have a chip on my shoulder from having grown up Catholic in a predominantly Protestant town, but the Catholic Church seems to be too preferred as a target.

This is not to say that some of these accusations were not true. Some priests and other ministers have been sent to prison for these crimes. This is not even to say that the Church should be given a break if these allegations are proved true, and the Church should most certainly be called to account for bishops who knew or even suspected that such things were taking place and did nothing. The sheer numbers of those coming forward to make claims, however, leaves me to wonder how many are just jumping on the bandwagon in hopes of a pay-off in exchange for their silence.

Something to consider, though. How many parents and other parishioners leaving their children in the care of a pastor without other adults present are doing so just so they can have some time to themselves? How many of these parents have offered to help supervise some church-sponsored activities so that the kids could have a safe place to go and play? How many pastors took it upon themselves to provide these services for children because no one else in the parish would care to be bothered with it?

This provides no excuse for the accused, of course, but as a minister, I WILL NOT be found alone with others' children. If this would mean that the church would have to close its doors for lack of interest, I would provide the lock. I offer no excuses or alibis for those found guilty of such misconduct, but I also offer no excuses for parents and other church workers and members for leaving children alone with another adult.

We parents had better begin simplifying our lives so that we do not depend on others to care for our children because we are "too busy". We parents had better get used to the idea that WE are primarily responsible for the well-being of our children. We are also responsible for the well-being of the children of others. If we see situations in which only one adult, for instance, is willing to do a lock-in or camp-out with children, then we either better be willing to help or pull our children out.

As is often the case, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Headlines from 2029 AD

"Ozone created by electric cars now killing millions in the seventh largest country in the world, Mexifornia, formerly known as California."

"White minorities still trying to have English recognized as Mexifornia's third language."

"Spotted Owl plague threatens northwestern United States crops and livestock."

"Baby conceived naturally. Scientists stumped."

"Couple petitions court to reinstate heterosexual marriage."

"Last remaining Fundamentalist Muslim dies in the American Territory of the Middle East (formerly known as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon)."

"Iran still closed off; physicists estimate it will take at least 10 more years before radioactivity decreases to safe levels."

"France pleads for global help after being taken over by Jamaica."

"Castro finally dies at age 112; Cuban cigars can now be imported legally, but President Chelsea Clinton has banned all smoking."

"George Z. Bush says he will run for President in 2036."

"Postal Service raises price of first class stamp to $17.89 and reduces mail delivery to Wednesdays only."

"85-years, $75.8 billion study: Diet and Exercise are the keys to weight loss."

"Average weight of Americans drops to 250 lbs."

"Japanese scientists have created a camera with such a fast shutter speed, they now can photograph a woman with her mouth shut." (Hummmmmmmmm)

"Massachusetts executes last remaining conservative. "

"Supreme Court rules punishment of criminals violates their civil rights."

"Average height of NBA players now nine feet, seven inches."

"New federal law requires that all nail clippers, screwdrivers, fly swatters and rolled-up newspapers must be registered by January 2036."

"Congress authorizes direct deposit of formerly illegal political contributions to campaign accounts."

"IRS sets lowest tax rate at 75 percent."

"Florida voters still having trouble with voting machines."

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Root of Christianity

Back when I began taking classes through Course of Study, I was not sure what to expect. Here were a bunch of middle-aged men and women who had heeded the call to proclaim the Gospel of the Lord, many of whom had never set foot in a college classroom, suddenly being asked to write college-level papers and read college-level theology books. It was exciting to begin this new journey, and I was looking forward to the challenge. I had only one stumbling block that I had to get past.

Having grown up Roman Catholic, I have a certain set of expectations and beliefs that have been a part of what I believe and will likely be with me until my last breath on this earth. Even (and perhaps especially) as a Methodist, much of the catechism has been affirmed for me though Protestant doctrines have presented an interesting portrait of our religion (Christianity, not Methodism) as well. Actually, I have found much of doctrinal studies to be strangely similar even though we use different words to make essentially the same point.

The stumbling block I encountered in the Course of Study was, oddly, John Wesley and the emphasis on his life and his teachings. Even though John Wesley was no more or less a disciple than many who have devoted their lives to service in the Gospel, it is still the Gospel of - are you ready?? - CHRIST. Let's face it: John Wesley is only a PART of the total history of the Church itself. It's funny to me how Protestants can find fault with the catechism of the Catholic Church because of its "lack of scriptural authority" but will constantly refer back to some dead Protestant reformer as the "light" toward which we must all move.

That's right. The Eternal Covenant that came from the Lord God of all creation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth has come to all of mankind, even to those who do not believe. This is the root of not only our religion but of our faith. We believe that the Lord God is so filled with love for all of His creation that He has made it possible for us to be reconciled to Him through an act that He performed for our sake. And the last time I checked, John Wesley is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Nor is John Calvin or Martin Luther or even John Paul II. Heck, I couldn't even find Billy Graham!

None of this is to disparage John Wesley or the work that he did. Though he was as fallible as the rest of us, his take on the Gospel still reverberates today. Much of what he believed is the banner under which we Methodists meet and march and proclaim. But must we return to the root of Wesleyanism or Methodism (whatever that is), or should we perhaps be more concerned about returning to the root of Christianity instead?

The Methodist Church has a rich history, but it is a minor part of the history of the Church itself. After all, how many churches / bodies of Christ can there be? (If you say, "thousands", then you're not keeping up.)

Now we are involved in worship studies and options and doughnuts and other snacks in the sanctuary, etc., all in an effort to attract crowds. We will do virtually anything short of prostituting our mothers to get one more body inside the church. What they do from there is their own business, right? As long as they put enough money in the collection plate so that apportionments can be paid, right? And if they don't want to participate in the life of the church, then this is ok, also. Right? After all, we don't want to upset them and risk running them off. Right?

The Church, whether Catholic or Protestant, is about Christ. And if there are "many" bodies of Christ, then there must be more than one God. And the Trinity is a joke. And that is not the Holy Spirit moving you - it's the sugar in your fourth doughnut you've had while in worship. Oh yes, I saw you get up and go out to the table all those many times and come back with perhaps a cup of milk or juice and a new doughnut. I've even seen you go fill up your coffee cup. Had you stayed in your seat and paid attention, you might have learned something about - what - the LORD?? How do I know all this if I were truly paying attention to the sermon? I know because you stepped on my foot going after your third doughnut! In fact, you very nearly spilled grape juice on my new shirt!

Do not bore me with dead preachers and bells and whistles and dancing bears in church. If my soul is in danger, tell me more about the one - the ONLY One - who can save me and teach me and guide me. Tell me about the One who has a history of doing such things. Do not suggest to me even for a moment that I need to be more focused on John Wesley in order to save the church or my soul.

And by the way, he was Anglican. And Jesus was a Jew. The pope is Catholic, and a bear does crap in the woods. So there.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Journey that is Lent

"In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as He was coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. And a Voice came from heaven, 'You are My son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'"

"And the Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness. Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on Him."

"Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God and saying, 'The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news." Mark 1:9-15

Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we are now into the season of Lent and this reading from Mark is the Gospel lesson from the lectionary for the first Sunday of Lent. I've read comments from other bloggers who live for this season as well as from others who either don't get it or would just as soon forget it until Good Friday. I can appreciate where both are coming from because there are times when I'm not sure that I fully comprehend exactly what it is we are supposed to be doing.

Forty days of focus is a tall order for many of us simply because we are too wrapped up in our own worlds. We have jobs to do and kids to raise. We are running here and there just trying to keep our heads above water. For many, the idea of giving something up for Lent is not a fair proposition because we have been taught that to give up something for Lent is not simply for the purpose of seeing whether or not we can but, rather, whether or not we will. It is for the purpose of preparing for something. It is a time of self-denial and sacrifice to be mindful of something much greater than anything in this world. Unfortunately, that "something" we may be trying to give up is that very "something" that gives us a little respite from such a crazy, hectic world!

In the spirit of the season of Lent, I think maybe the forty days of preparation and introspection may be something akin to why the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness after His baptism. Jesus was preparing for something Himself, and it would seem that this very radical kind of preparation was what it would take for Him to be fully empowered. Forty days of fasting?? And we can be pretty sure that it wasn't chocolate or TV that Jesus was taking a fast from!

When Jesus emerged from the desert, He was proclaiming a message of good news. GOOD NEWS!! "The Kingdom of Heaven is upon us!" And then He went about His ministry.

It may be significant that John had just been arrested when Jesus came out from the wilderness. It may be that the timing was simply there. John had proclaimed One who was coming who was "greater" than he. Now it is time for Jesus, the "greater" One whose arrival had been anticipated. John's time was done.

Now Jesus has ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Holy Father. Though He has promised to be with us "until the end of the age", something is still lacking. We can believe through our faith that He is walking with us and crying with us and praying with us and laughing with us, but all this is not quite the same as the physical presence of the One who truly has all the answers to our questions. He is the only One who can put an end to the constant bickering between the "liberals" and the "conservatives", both of whom proclaim themselves "right" but who are probably to a greater degree wrong more often than not. He is the only one who can settle the score. And yet He is not so readily available to us, not so easily accessible to us because we cannot touch Him. We cannot feel him. And all too often, we cannot hear Him. And yet, Jesus did not leave a void. He commissioned His followers to pick up where He left off.

Forty days of focus is indeed a tall order. It will require a lot from us. But I don't think that the season of Lent is as much about giving something up as it is a time of preparation for those of us who claim to be His followers. And what we are preparing for, what we are asked to prepare for, is not the day of Good Friday nor is it the glorious day of Easter. What we are preparing for goes far beyond a specified day on the calendar, and its demands and opportunities will be never ending.

Jesus proclaims that the "kingdom of God is upon us" which could very well mean that it never left us. Indeed, if He is with us "until the end of the age", then this must mean that the kingdom is STILL very much "upon us".

So what exactly are we preparing for? What would He ask of us during this time? If we are distracted by the trappings of this world and we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed and overcome by this world and if we do not stop and put something aside that only serves to distract us, the answer may be just beyond our grasp. Forever.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

How Dare We?

When Terri Schiavo was denied food and water by order of the court, it took her thirteen long, slow, distressful days to die of dehydration. Thirteen days. It would have been kinder to shoot her. But that would have been against the law, and we know the law is just.

Funny how, long after you've forgotten everything else about some big story, one detail will stick in your mind. Have you ever sat by the bedside of a dying patient - a father or mother, perhaps of some other loved one - and given the patient a little cracked ice? And seen the relief and the inaudible "thank you" in the drug-dimmed eyes? After all the futile treatments and the succession of helpless doctors, when grief has come even before the death, you sit there with a little cracked ice and think, "At last I can do this one thing right. I'm not totally useless." However much or little the ice might help your patient, it does wonders for the caregiver. You suddenly realize why people go into nursing. Can there be any greater satisfaction than this?

But when the law decreed that Terri Schiavo was to be given no food or water, it MEANT no food or water. That's what the court, the sheriff's deputies, the whole clanking machinery of the law was there for - to see that the severe decree was carried out. That's what the new art and science of bioethics at the dawn of the 21st century had come down to in the end: NO CRACKED ICE FOR TERRI SCHIAVO. The doctors and nurses who had cared for her for years were now forbidden to give her even a single chip. That's the detail that has stayed with me.

All credit due Mr. Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

It is not enough to simply remain silent and "respect" a law that is immoral. Sometimes it is not enough to declare that the "law is the law". The perverted laws in this country that have allowed courts to declare a life not worthy of respect are laws made by blinded man. Whether we are talking about Terri Schiavo or the over 40 million unborn children who have been slaughtered, we are still talking about LIFE and not some mass of flesh to be used or disposed of at our leisure.

I will say it: Terri Schiavo should not have died in such a manner. Her death was ordered by the courts, appealed to by a man with suspect motive. Of course we will never know whether Terri had actually spoken words to her "husband" to the effect of, "let me die..." under certain circumstances. But there was enough doubt and her family's willingness to take over her care that the LAW OF THIS LAND should have acted with caution and restraint. Terri's death should not have been ordered by the US GOVERNMENT.

I applaud President Bush and the Congress for coming together to address this issue. I am equally saddened that the momentum for doing the right thing died with Terri. We are nothing if not life itself, an incredible gift the value of which is immeasurable.

How dare we?

A Question of Salvation

As I was driving to work this morning, a thought crossed my mind that I could not readily answer given our differences between the doctrine of "once saved ..." vs the concept of free will enabling us to "walk away". The thought - actually, the question - that occurred to me was this: Can the Savior of the World save us from ourselves? This question is not designed to diminish His sovereignty. Rather, it is to help me to understand the thought processes behind the doctrines that have evolved since the time of Christ.

I just came home from an Ash Wednesday service in which the pastor reminded us that through this powerful thing that He has done, we should be able to walk confidently and without fear for we have been FORGIVEN. The pastor even mentioned specifically the sin of rejecting His grace that is so freely given. Indeed, I've preached in the past myself that refusing this enormous gift is not unlike spitting in the Hand that feeds us! However, it is not a matter of rejecting the gift; it is for me somehow a matter of declaring myself worthy.

Make no mistake. I have personally encountered the overwhelming presence of the Lord. Though I cannot put into words anything that could come close to describing it, I can say with confidence that these encounters have been more about a kick in the pants than a pat on the back. Maybe it is because I cannot so easily reflect on my past without feeling a profound sense of shame and guilt that keeps me at arm's length.

"I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins NO MORE."

What an overwhelming promise! This is not like writing something on paper and then trying to use an eraser which will still leave a mark on the paper, and it is not like how we humans can forgive but not so easily forget, bless our hearts (the pastor's words). "I will ... remember their sins NO MORE." It means that He, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, will be as though it never happened. Incredible. Absolutely mind-boggling. And yet I cannot embrace it ... not because I do not believe it but because I am afraid to ask.

Am I hopeless? I cannot say this if I truly believe what I've preached in the past. For the life of the faithful there must always be hope, or He cannot be the God of our lives, of my life. Still I keep my distance as if I dare not approach perhaps for fear of being exposed for what I truly am: a sinner who is not worthy. This is why it is so difficult for me to declare for myself my own salvation. I don't reject it at all. In fact, I declare it for many who are so easily condemned by others. I have even found myself able to pray for child molesters! Those who make me want to wretch and who make me want to believe in torture as a legitimate law enforcement tool, and I have actually spoken prayers for these people. And yet in my own prayers, all I can do for myself is to say, "Have mercy on me, Lord".

I do not live in fear of the judgement. It will come soon enough, and there is nothing I can do or say to change it. I can only hope that His mercy is everything I've believed and preached.