Saturday, September 30, 2006

Blood of the Innocents

In December 1997 in Paducah KY, a young student walked into his school with a problem. As a result of his state of mind, 3 innocent persons were killed and 5 wounded.

Almost a year later near Jonesboro, two young boys set off the fire alarm at their school and opened fire when everyone began filing out of the school; 5 were killed and another 11 wounded.

Though these two incidents were tragic enough, the nation was rudely awakened when in April 1999 two boys walked into Columbine High School in Colorado and opened fire, killing 13 and wounding 24 others before finally taking their own lives. Since May 1927 when 45 children were killed and another 58 wounded in Bath Township MI, this was the worst disaster of its kind. This kind of attack provoked all kinds of questions about parental authority and responsibility, school responsibility, our culture, our society, gun control, and a host of other issues. Now, it seemed, the nation was ready to get serious.

Just this past Friday a 9th grader entered into a school in Cazenovia WI and shot the school’s principal. Though there were no others killed or wounded, the principal died later as a result of the inflicted wounds.

Each of these incidents are in themselves tragic, but I do remember that the Jonesboro shooting hit a little close to home probably for all of us because the shooters were so young and this took place literally a little too close to home. The most tragic and common denominator in each of these shootings, with the exception of the 1927 MI shooting, is that it was children who committed these terrible crimes.

It might be notable to some social scientists as to why these boys decided to take such drastic measures but for most of the rest of us, it should only be notable that these were children who shot and killed children. Randomly.

What could possibly possess children to do such things? Why does the sanctity of life mean so precious little to these and so many other children? And since children learn best by watching, what are we as a society doing that would lead children to believe that such violence is going to solve any of their problems or that life is so cheap and expendable?

Now I know that it is the typical “bleeding heart liberal” thinking that seems to suggest that these boys are not to blame, that it was society or bad parenting or poverty or a host of other problems that many of us have also endured without deciding to end someone’s life. I think, however, there may be more to this than we can possibly imagine, and it is more likely that we can speculate from now until kingdom come and never fully know what can provoke such extreme acts.

I have a theory that keeps coming back to the front of my mind whenever I offer prayers after such tragedies that have led many to believe that I’m really reaching, but I ask only that you indulge me.

In 1973 in the name of “privacy rights”, the United State Supreme Court in the infamous Roe vs. Wade case decided that women had unrestricted rights to an abortion. Since that time there have been in excess of 40 million unborn children in this country alone who never saw the light of day. Yet unlike other social issues that were controversial in their own rights and in their own times, abortion today is likely THE hot button issue that divides us as a nation and even as a Church. It is also an issue that we are very vocal about consistently, so it is an issue that is discussed and argued publicly and often. EVERYONE knows about it. Think about this: for everyone under the age of 33, legalized abortion has been the law of the land their entire lives.

In this continuing debate, there are the pro-lifers who insist that all life, regardless of circumstances of conception, is precious, sacred, and given only by the Lord God. There are also the so-called pro-choicers who insist that each woman has the right to decide whether she will terminate her pregnancy or carry the baby to term.

I do not intend to delve too deeply into the abortion debate because this stand-alone issue is not my point. Rather, it is that even many who consider themselves pro-choice but who are also “personally opposed” to the tragedy of abortion continue to insist very publicly that this issue is at the heart of “women’s rights”.

This is wrong. It is a HUMAN rights issue, and our Declaration of Independence acknowledges a biblical truth: that we are endowed by our Creator with the “unalienable” RIGHT TO LIFE. “Unalienable” simply means that these rights are inherent to our existence and that we cannot by any means be separated or “alienated” from these rights. They are given to us by the Lord God, and man cannot take them away.

So what does this have to do with a young person’s faulty reasoning that taking an innocent life is somehow going to enhance the quality of his own life? In each of these shooting tragedies, the boys who fired the shots were ostracized by their peers. They were deemed either too weak or too weird. In KY and WI, each of the shooters felt that they were the constant targets of bullies. In AR, one of the boys had been jilted by a girl whom he had a crush on.

So it would seem that in their desperation to make things right, at least in their own minds, taking lives was the only option left. Of course it requires maturity to slow down and think things through, but then prepubescent and teenage boys have never been well known for thinking things through.

But why would these boys somehow come to believe that killing anyone for the sake of their own misery is a good idea? How did they come to place such a low value on life itself that killing not just the one person who may have done them wrong but opening fire randomly would somehow be ok even in their twisted little minds? What kind of rage is this??

Be aware that these are the killings that made the headlines. If you read the Arkansas section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette carefully, you will find all kinds of teenagers arrested for shooting someone. It happens more often than we might like to believe.

My theory is that children are enabled to place such a low value on life by the standards and practices of the society in which they live and are raised. By not standing firm against the despicable practice of abortion and making known our belief in the God and Author of LIFE, we are teaching young children that the value of life is whatever we make of it, that we get to decide who lives and who dies according to our own needs. Terminate a pregnancy because one “chooses” to regardless of the reason, be it personal, financial, emotional, or medical? Then why can’t these young children believe that they, too, can take such decisions upon themselves? Who are we to set such ambiguous terms in that “this” life is ok, but “that” life is not? And how are children supposed to be able to tell the difference when we don’t even know ourselves?

But as I warned one lady some time back, be careful about suggesting that a MOTHER can decide whether her BABY lives or dies. Think about the nature of that statement and what such a careless proclamation makes about the sacred and societal value of life. There is the very shallow argument that it is “my” body and “my” choice, so it may be with a youngster who decides that perhaps since his own life has no significant value according to societal standards or that he has somehow suffered at the hands of someone who is making his own life miserable, life itself then has no significant value.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that we are a very angry nation. We are rushed, and we are under enormous pressure to maintain a certain standard of living. In our endless quest for that ambitious “Great American Dream”, we are forgetting that there are some fundamentals that require our attention. One of these fundamentals demands that we teach our children well and responsibly.

It seems, though, that in our never-ending quest for more, we also fail to acknowledge our weaknesses – and they are many! But how do we address our weaknesses which we inevitably hand off to our children? What will be required of us? More importantly, how committed are we to address these issues and repent from our path to self-destruction?

Tomorrow is Yom Kippur, the Jewish “day of atonement”. In the tradition of Judaism it is the day in which fasting and prayer are central to the commemoration. It is the day in which the Lord promises, according to tradition, to come near to hear the prayers of the faithful. In the faith of the Hebrews, it is the day in which one is devoted to making a commitment to the Lord. So what sort of commitment would He be looking for from us?

To “atone” is to require that we make amends for our past failures. If we have wronged someone, atonement would require that we make a deliberate and intentional move to make it right.

To “repent” is to commit to turning away from the paths that led us to commit these sins of our past, those paths that led us away from the Lord, the paths we know causes pain on any level, those paths that lead us AWAY from YHWH. And as mature and responsible adults, we should reasonably know when we are doing harm, either directly or indirectly.

The commitments we make now determine the path we will choose to travel from now until our time on this earth comes to an end but more importantly, it will help to determine the path on which our children will choose to travel for themselves, their journey of faith, and the journey of generations to come.

It is our duty. It is our privilege. It is our legacy. It is, indeed, our life.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Groveling and Diplomacy

Pope Benedict has not, to my knowledge, issued an outright apology for remarks he made in an academic setting in a speech that so enraged the Muslim world (how can he apologize for what someone else said?) but instead, "regrets" the strong reactions. In meetings with Islamic diplomats recently, the pope encouraged Muslims to actually READ the entire text and then judge for themselves whether he was intentionally or recklessly disparaging Islam. For the time being, the pontiff is satisfied with continuing to reconcile and mend fences.

I am not an "in your face" theologian nor am I a confrontational politician. I believe that in order to be heard, one must be willing to hear. Am I perfect? Hardly. But I can also reach a point when, in the order of an apology, I will finally draw a line. I will not grovel and beg. If I am moved to apologize (and I often am because of my big mouth), my apology is sincere. Is it then my problem if others cannot, or will not, accept my apology?

I don't think it is any matter of pride in which I find myself finally fed up with those who won't listen to reason. It is easy for me to convince myself that, unless my words or act is a complete violation of reason and respect for others, if they will not accept my apology the first time it is very likely they never will.

So why is Benedict allowing himself to be continually beat over the head especially by those who seem intent on trying to convince the world that they have a legitimate beef and that they are being mistreated? Why is no one taking the pope's invitation to actually read the entire text of the "speech" seriously enough to actually read it? Prominent Muslims the world over act offended at the suggestion that Islam is not a violent religion, yet they refuse to take any stand against the violence this speech is purported to have provoked? How, then, can they expect to be taken seriously when they believe that Islam has something to offer to the world beyond bloodshed?

The pope cannot be held responsible for what someone said 600 years ago anymore than I can be held responsible for slavery in the United States in the early days of this republic. Why, then, must he or I apologize for something over which we had no control? I can speak of facts regarding slavery but if I do not specifically mention that I believe the practice to have been abhorent, does this then make me a proponent of that which I find personally and socially repugnant?

The pope has issued his regrets and I have no reason to believe that he is not sincere. Why can we not move along in favor of something else?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Tombstone and the War on Terror

One of my favorite movies is “Tombstone” with Kurt Russell playing the part of the legendary Wyatt Earp. Wyatt and his brothers finally come together in search of a normal life in Tombstone, AZ where they can finally live as a family.

Tombstone being born during the rush on silver, there was a law enforcement presence but the town itself was pretty much overrun by the lawless gang known as “the Cowboys”. They carried weapons openly and killed and stole indiscriminately. It seemed they were unstoppable.

Soon there was confrontation between the Earp brothers and the Cowboys when Virgil Earp accepted the job as town marshal after his predecessor had been murdered by one of the Cowboys. Though the Earps did not want to become involved again in law enforcement (they were retired lawmen), Virgil nevertheless felt compelled to take his place out of a sense of both guilt and obligation knowing the town was being overrun by lawlessness without a law enforcement presence. He had determined that if he was going to continue living in Tombstone, there would have to be law and order.

Long story short, youngest Earp Morgan was shot in the back by one of the Cowboys and Virgil was seriously wounded so much so that he could not continue as the town’s marshal, so they decided to leave town. Or so the Cowboys thought.

The rest of the movie is focused on Wyatt Earp and Doc Holloday with some others chasing the Cowboys down and putting them out of business. During one particular gun fight, Wyatt pulled a rather miraculous stunt in which he unnecessarily exposed himself but came out without a scratch. After the battle, Doc was talking to another man about Wyatt’s need for vengeance to which Doc replied, “Make no mistake. It’s not revenge he’s after. It’s a reckoning.”

The word “reckon” has several different meanings and applications but for the purpose of its context in “Tombstone” and Wyatt Earp’s quest against the Cowboys, it was time for the Cowboys to be judged and to “settle accounts” between good and evil. Evil had reigned for too long.

We know, or should reasonably know, that vengeance settles no score. In fact, for the faithful the act of vengeance is prohibited according to the Word of the Lord because man can never truly judge appropriately against acts perpetrated against himself as an individual. The act of judgment rightly belongs to law and the community for the sake of security and peace not for individuals but for community.

The war on terror is not completely unlike the situation which was portrayed in the movie. There are several renegade bands of men around the world who have declared themselves to be Allah’s messengers bent on “jihad”, and they are ruling their own worlds not according to the true teachings of the Koran but according to either what they are being taught or what they want to believe as it suits them and if the community does not acquiesce accordingly, the community is judged and murdered. The only sense of order which exists in this world is the order by which men rule by the edge of the sword.

The Cowboys’ terrorist grip on Tombstone was finally vanquished not because Wyatt Earp negotiated with them or considered their upbringing or their level of education or poverty, and Wyatt Earp did not consider himself to be at fault for the murderous rampages of this pack of wild dogs. Instead, the Cowboys were systematically destroyed by duly appointed law enforcement.

In the movie, Doc and Wyatt were talking about Wyatt’s upcoming duel with Johnny Ringo, the leader of the Cowboys. Wyatt asked what makes a man like Ringo act the way he does and Doc replied, “A man like Ringo has a big empty hole that can never be filled. He can never kill enough or steal enough or cause enough pain to fill it.” All a man like Johnny Ringo wants, says Doc, is revenge for just being born.

Is that all there truly is? Are these terrorists so filled with hate because they hate themselves and their own lives and resent being born at all? Is there such a thing as a level of hatred so profound that the sanctity of life is no longer worthy of consideration? If this is true to any degree, it would seem then that this war is not winnable at all except when civilized nations band together and finally realize that these crazies will not be dealt with except by force, and they cannot be contained within any border as evidenced by 9/11. They must, however, be dealt with and at least controlled.

The world community demands a reckoning; justice itself demands that accounts be settled. These murderers cannot be allowed to perpetrate their goals at the expense of international order and security. Liberty demands that mankind be left to his own devices and his own unalienable rights to live according to his calling without violating the unalienable rights of others. These outlaws (please do not call them practitioners of Islam. They do not worship Allah; they worship death) are looking for trouble, not a deal.

What are we really giving Him?

Leviticus 27:28-34
Matthew 23:23
Mark 12:41-44

One of the most difficult topics for pastors to discuss or to preach about is tithing. Too many pastors are acutely aware that if the subject matter is not handled delicately, many persons will have guilt heaped upon guilt in recognizing that they truly do not give what they should. The guilt heaped upon guilt is coming to this realization while up to the neck in debt. The truth of the worshipful nature of tithing comes stabbing into the heart, and the “guilty” person cannot see a way out because of the blindness of debt.

When my wife and I were just starting out together, we attended a large church in which there was the senior pastor and a younger associate. It happened that the younger associate was usually the celebrant of the Mass, but nearly monthly (it seemed) the senior pastor would show up only to reprimand the congregation about their lack of giving. When money was tight for my wife and me, we felt about “this big” when we walked out of the church. It may have been even more so for my wife whose father was a very intentional and dedicated giver. So we walked out of church many Sundays with my wife feeling pretty badly and me just plain angry.

Looking back on those rebukes from the senior pastor, I can remember very little Scripture reference to why what we gave mattered beyond paying the light bills at the church. In fact, at least for what little I knew, the congregation had very little to say about how the money was spent. It all belonged to the diocese. In this context, then, it almost seemed as though the bishop told our pastor that his church was not living up to expectations, so he had better kick a few cans!

I doubt that’s true, but who knows? We as a Church don’t share a common understanding of what tithing actually means beyond the legal definition. For instance there are some who will debate about whether one should give 10% of the gross or 10% of the net, reasoning that it would not be fair to pay a percentage of an income we will, for all practical purposes, never see.

Talk about missing the mark! These types of discussions are not even worthy of theological or doctrinal consideration.

The last thing folks want to talk about in church is money. It is a depressing topic, and it is almost as divisive as any “hot button” social issue because attitudes about money vary in a congregation of any size. One pastor seemed to believe that the differences in financial perspective had more generational tones and this may be true to a degree, but I am more inclined to suggest that our attitudes about money have everything to do with how we were raised, how carefully our parents taught us about financial management and giving, and our own experiences. Folks from my own grandmother’s generation, for instance, survived the Great Depression and WWII. They knew what it was like to be unsure of “tomorrow”, so they had a tendency to horde.

This is not to condemn an entire generation at all because, truth be told, it might be better said that we learned more not about money but about FAITH and COMMUNITY, things that are truly important, during those hard times. Either way, the attitudes about money from similar experiences are acquired honestly and not necessarily by any sense of greed.

We are certainly called to be responsible with what we are given and we must always be mindful that EVERYTHING we have is the Lord God’s gift to us. And as it is said so often and so well, what we do with what we have is our gift to Him.” A prevailing attitude about money, however, might underscore an understanding of our possessions, including cash, in whether we are either BLESSED with it or ENTRUSTED with it. There is a huge difference between the two, and our understanding of those differences will have everything to do with how we respond with what we have AND what we believe about the type of response our giving may evoke.

Our response, then, has everything to do with what we understand about the whole purpose of tithing to begin with. Are we doing nothing more than simply pooling our money so that we can pay the utilities and insurance on the building? And if we are hording the money for a “rainy day”, how hard does it have to rain before we stick a crowbar in the wallet and let go of some of it?

Our United Methodist system of apportionments is a very good teaching mechanism for what we are called to do with our money. Though I am aware that there are some items that many disagree with, especially with those leaders who are a little more politically outspoken than they ought to be, but there are many items which work toward the mission and ministry of the WORLD-WIDE church. And that is really who we are and what we do, isn’t it?

The Leviticus statement, “A tithe of everything … belongs to the Lord” is a teaching from the Torah which addresses a reality about what we should know and what we should do. The problem with this statement is that it LEGALLY compels tithing, and there are too many scriptural references that deal with the Lord’s attitude toward those who give to Him only because they HAVE to.

Matthew’s reference deals with this matter further. Jesus is blasting away at the Pharisees – the TEACHERS of the Law which seems to compel tithing – about how they LEGALLY give their tithe but fail in other matters such as “justice, mercy, and faithfulness”, but He also does not let them off the hook by suggesting that faithfulness is a matter of making a choice between one or the other.

Our giving should be personified by Jesus’ lesson to His followers from Mark. It is not enough to give only from our abundance, our wealth, what we have to “spare” at the time. Rather, our giving must come with an attachment but no strings. Giving “till it hurts” is a testimony not only of our faithfulness to biblical teachings but also speaks to our level of trust. Are we so afraid of tomorrow that we would withhold an extra dollar from the Lord expecting – or at least hoping - that He will understand? The widow gave her ALL and yet her gift had very little to do with money.

Read this section of Mark again while remembering that widows in that society, in that culture, did not typically own property and had little – if any – means. Hear the poor widow say, while dropping “all she had” into the temple treasury, “Lord, I need YOU more than I need this, and I do truly trust You with my life.”

“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

Saturday, September 16, 2006

So What of Knowledge?

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Mark 8:27-38

What do we mean when we say we are possessed of knowledge? When we tell someone that we “know” of something to be true, what are we really saying? To paraphrase James, “You believe there is a God; so what? So do demons.”

So we can honestly – or can we? – say that there is a God; so what? What do we mean? We can see a rickety old rope bridge with some pretty questionable planks crossing over a deep canyon gorge and we can honestly say with absolute certainty that there is a bridge that crosses over the gorge, but are we prepared to bet with our lives that the bridge will do what it is supposed to do? That the bridge has a purpose and is currently serving that purpose?

We have knowledge of the bridge, and others who see it can attest to the fact that there is indeed a bridge. This knowledge cannot be disputed. What IS in dispute is whether or not that bridge is going to support our weight. That knowledge is lacking. So what will it take to make a determination about whether there is a usable, serviceable bridge that crosses over that gorge? The answer is obvious: someone is going to have to step out onto that bridge to find out. The only way the true value of that bridge will be determined is by interacting with the bridge, engaging the bridge, studying the bridge, and then actually stepping onto the bridge.

So to have knowledge of this bridge's existence serves no useful purpose because if the bridge is never going to be tried and tested, what good is it? It’s just there. It may have a rustic charm as a testimony to a pioneer spirit of days long gone but if no one is willing to actually use it, it may as well be cut down and put away forever. Right?

It is not enough for us to simply acknowledge the Lord as an “existent” God. In fact, while I know many make general reference to the term “God” as meaning the Holy Father, I sometimes wonder if the word “God”, like the words “love”, “truth”, and “justice” have any real value, any real meaning toward who we are and to Whom we belong. If we cannot comfortably refer to Him as our Lord in the presence of others who may be non-believers, what sort of a statement are we making about our Creator? About our faith? About our willingness to give that old bridge a try?

In Mark there is more to this story about Jesus and the people’s perception of Him than meets the eye and I think there is far more to what is being offered than a simple “pop quiz” about what the disciples may think they know about Jesus.

Actually, in order to be able to get more out of this passage, it is necessary to back up to verse 14 where it is written that “the disciples had forgotten to bring bread except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. Jesus said, ‘Be careful. Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

Jesus is obviously not talking about the kind of yeast that makes bread rise. Instead when He makes reference to the Pharisees and to Herod in relation to yeast, He is warning His disciples about taking too much worldly - if useless - knowledge for granted. We can see for ourselves that there is constant conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees about matters pertaining to the Mosaic Law; spiritual vs. man-made interpretation. Now Jesus is warning His followers to be aware of the “yeast” of the Pharisees, the teachers of that Law.

But just when the disciples think they have figured out that Jesus is talking about the left over physical bread they left behind, they get a pretty sharp rebuke from Him. “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?”

Clearly Jesus’ followers have no clue what Jesus is talking about. Do you ever get the feeling that this is as true today as it was then? Do you ever get the feeling that maybe it is that the more we think we know about theology and doctrine that we know even less now than the disciples did then because of our dependence on man-made doctrine that has gone through centuries of metamorphoses? Somehow, though, the excess bread that was left over from the feeding of the thousands has everything to do with what Jesus is talking about, and He is getting pretty exasperated with His followers maybe just as much today as then.

Then we come to the “pop quiz”.

“Who do people say that I am?”

“What about you? Who do YOU say that I am?”

Peter’s answer is one we are very familiar with. He gives the correct answer for the moment but when Jesus begins to teach His followers about His impending Passion, Peter gets it wrong all over again and Jesus even calls Peter “Satan”! “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him. Then Jesus said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

So where did Peter go wrong? What is it that Peter has missed? He has confessed Jesus as the Christ. And in Matthew’s account in chapter 16, Jesus replies to this confession: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man but by my Father.” Matthew 16:17

Then recall that Jesus goes further in the much disputed statement about changing Simon’s name to “Peter” and referring to the “rock of faith” upon which the Church is to be built. This part is lacking in Mark’s account, but the rebuke that comes is present in both texts. Peter does not care for this knowledge that Jesus is predicting His own death - it does not give Peter his own sense of comfort - but it would be unfair to fault Peter for his remarks to Jesus about “allowing” Himself to be persecuted in such a way. I think we would each be guilty of asking Jesus to take whatever precautions necessary to avoid this impending confrontation.

Even today there are questions asked about why it had become necessary for such a cruel death. When we enter into a relationship with the Lord through the life of Jesus, we grow fond of this Man who did nothing but call the faithful to repentance and remind mankind that there is indeed a God and that He loves us. So to turn this very gentle Man over to hateful, vindictive men whose way of life and teachings that do nothing but repress a people makes no sense. “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to You!”

Peter is obviously lacking knowledge about the intent of the Lord God through the ministry of Christ, but I think we still do today. When the law clearly demands animals without blemish – perfect in every way – for the atonement of sin, suddenly a Man is about to be offered as the “perfect” and “FINAL” sacrifice for our sins. Even now some 2000 years later, it still does not make sense to us.

I think, then, that it will never make sense to us as long as “God” is nothing more than a general reference to a generic “higher power”, that until “God” becomes “Lord” to us we will never get it. And I am deliberately and exclusively speaking to the faithful because we are here and we claim to “believe”, but do we possess genuine KNOWLEDGE that He is Lord and God of all creation including our lives? And do we have KNOWLEDGE that He has established a Law by and through which His faithful must distinguish themselves from the rest of the world?

The distinction is made much like with the old rickety bridge. We KNOW there is a bridge; we BELIEVE there is a bridge. But do we TRUST the bridge?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Yet Another Anniversary

September 14 marks the first anniversary of this blog. This is my first post.

I've been trying to think of something earth-shattering that happened during the past year, but I cannot think of anything that completely overwhelms me. In last night's American Government class, we discussed events that stand out in our lifetimes, events that we can not only recall but those events during which we can remember where we were when they took place. I remember where I was when the shuttle Challenger blew up, I remember the attempted assasinations of President Reagan and Pope John Paul II and, of course, 9/11. I even have a vague recollection of President Kennedy's funeral on TV when I was just a child.

Yet after all these events, one thing is clear whether we consider such things to be "history-altering": life goes on. So allow another year to pass and allow the children to grow up and watch old friends pass and new friends enter and, above all else, say your prayers. The Lord has not forgotten us; let us not forget him.


Sunday, September 10, 2006

What to do?

I am a part-time local pastor and certified candidate for ordained ministry and have been serving small, rural congregations since '99. Most of these churches I've been privileged to serve are out in the boonies, not close to anything, and not sitting on any beaten path. They are, for the most part, remnants of communities that once were though the people who continue to serve and worship in these churches have had a tremendous impact on my life and my faith. These have been experiences I would not trade for anything.

The problem that is beginning to manifest itself is my wife and our youngest daughter. These are two persons who have always been actively involved in the life of a church and who are both used to having lots of things going on. My youngest, unfortunately, has missed out on being in church with kids her own age, and it has been trying for her. My wife has tried to become more actively involved in these churches, but the life she is seeking is simply not there. No one is at fault; it simply is what it is.

My current charge has early worship service, so it has been pretty easy to have that time with them and then go to worship at a larger church near our home. My wife and daughter have each grown very fond of this larger church and are both excited at the ministry prospects.

As a local pastor, I am a member of the Conference. My family does not have this distinction, and it has really bothered them both that they are not "members" of an active, vibrant ministry. As a compromise of sorts, I agreed that my wife and daughter should make their membership in the larger church official and come share in worship at my little church from time to time. Up until tonight, that matter was settled.

We attended a brief meeting with other seekers and the pastor and an associate pastor of the larger church who answered questions for those considering membership in this church. As a brief intro I offered my status, but I left out the details of my wife's and my compromise. During the course of this meeting, the associate pastor made a comment that just got me all upside down. In essence, it was implied that when I was finished "playing" church I could then come to "real" church.

The thing is I had already visited with the senior pastor some time back, so he was aware of our situation. I was not seeking membership, and he knew it. The comment that was made by the associate may not have been intended to come out like it did, but it did very much so. Now it is that I am beginning to wonder where my place really is and how serious the UMC is about part-time pastors.

I've struggled with my ministry for some time now, having a difficult time trying to go full-time and essentially being told "no" for various reasons. Now it is that I wonder if my family would just prefer that I relinquish my license and go back to being a lay speaker. I don't fault my wife for wanting more than rural churches can provide. Indeed, the rural church life is not for everyone, and not every pastor is cut out for that particular ministry. By the same token, not all pastors are gifted for a full-time pastorate at larger churches.

My greatest fear is that there may be future conflicts. For instance, how effective can I be as the pastor of a church that my family does not care to be a part of? How does the congregation look at me or my family if anyone gets the impression that my wife may think herself to be "too good" to worship in such a setting, which is NOT the case. How will my family respond if come next appointment season I am actually tapped for a full-time charge? It is a given that if such an appointment comes, it will not be the caliber of church they are now seeking to join.

What upsets me most in all this is the asinine comment made by the associate who is also a licensed pastor. Unfortunately, there have been DS's who have made similar remarks in my past. Is this how it really is with local pastors? Are we really seen by some as "play like"? Are our ministries and the churches we serve not taken seriously? Are we really only good enough for the churches that elders can't/won't serve? Is the United Methodist Church serious about the mission and ministry of the local pastor?

I would love some feedback on this from any pastor or layperson but especially from part-timers who may have faced similar circumstances.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Truth, Justice, and the "Way"

James 2:1-17 Mark 7:24-37

All virtue is summed up in dealing justly.

It is in justice that the ordering of society is centered.

Man perfected by society is the best of all animals; he is the most terrible of all when he lives without law, and without justice.

The moral virtues, then, are produced in us neither by nature nor against nature. Nature, indeed, prepares in us the ground for their reception, but their complete formation is the product of habit.

Before the time of Christ, there was already a sense of order and a system of justice which demanded that man treat man with the respect and dignity granted by his Creator, the One to whom our own Declaration of Independence refers to as “nature’s God”. This the God who conferred on humanity those certain “unalienable” rights, rights whose ownership cannot be transferred from one to another. Even during a time when slaves, fellow human beings, were OWNED, these rights conferred by “nature’s God” were still inherent to humanity even if humanity did not recognize these “unalienable” rights in blacks or women.

Justice, like love, is a word we use almost daily without giving much thought to its true meaning but is as misused and as misunderstand if not more so. Oh, we are pretty sure we know the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, but there is more to this sense of right and wrong than a simple matter of determining how we are personally affected and when we think or speak of justice, it is usually within this context.

When we speak of justice, what do we really mean? How do we determine what is just? How do we decide what is “proportional” such as in the case of Israel’s recent battle with Hezbollah in Lebanon? Many cried “foul” that Israel’s response to Hezbollah’s cross-border raid in which Israeli soldiers were killed and kidnapped was “disproportionate” and unjust. Many felt Israel’s hand was too heavy in its response and that they went too far. True? I suppose it is a matter of perspective, or it depends entirely on where one lives.

Here in the United States, many feel that true justice is a little hard to come by considering the disproportionate number of minority and “poor” inmates in US prisons. And indeed, we can read the newspapers and see that there are some of our more affluent citizens who seem to walk away from certain convictions with nothing more than a slap on the wrist while others are doing time for committing the same crimes.

Can we say we know what justice really means when we throw food in the trash or to the dogs knowing that there are many who will go to bed hungry the very day we dispose of this edible “trash”? That at the moment when we open the top of the garbage can, somewhere a child is praying to the Lord God for something to eat?

“…and I will hear them when they cry out to Me…”

Is it just that we lavish ourselves and our children with the very best of what money can buy (or what we think we can afford) with no thought of the reality that many do without through no fault of their own? We consider that there are things we have to provide for our children. We have to feed them, clothe them, and educate them, of course. Yes to all these things, but where is the justice when we give ourselves and our children more than we could possibly need knowing that others are doing without?

What does justice really mean? The Bible speaks of a concept of justice known to us as “an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, life for life”. In other words, if we cause harm to someone in some way, it is just that we surrender that portion of our lives at least equal to the loss suffered by our victims. Yet Jesus teaches us that if someone slaps us on one cheek, we should offer to them our other cheek. If the Lord calls us to a sense of justice, what is just about that? Would not a slap on the face deserve a slap back? Not according to the One we call “Savior”, “Teacher”, “Friend”, “Christ”, “Lord”.

The death penalty is another form of justice that requires our very serious consideration. I cannot say that I completely oppose the death penalty, yet I also cannot fully endorse it. It has little to do with statistics that show a disproportionate number of males, minorities, poor, etc sitting on death row, though this should also raise reasonable eye brows. My main concern – if not downright objection – is our perverted sense of JOY when the “switch” is thrown. It is my great concern that justice is not as “blind” as we would wish and that an innocent person could be sitting in that chair or stretched out on that gurney. It is our state of being which demands blood for blood not for the sake of justice but for the sake of vengeance or, as some might say, “closure”.

The problem with we mortals trying to define justice is our own humanity. In our compassion we may be inclined to forgive without realizing that bringing consequences to bear against adverse actions might just save a soul. By the same token, in our humanity and our weariness of rampant crime, we may be much harsher than the crime may require due in no small measure to our human emotions. See our dilemma?

So it is that as we explore justice and what it really means, our judgment must be considered in the context of the mercy that has been extended to us, as it is written in James. This is not to say that crime does not deserve punishment, but the punishment must fit the crime – without passion or prejudice. We must never allow our human emotions to so overwhelm us that we are blinded by fear, rage, hatred, or a hunger for vengeance.

It is good for us that we live in a nation of laws. An ordering of society and what man can or cannot do was established long before the US ever came into being. Within this order was a sense of justice by which man was taught how to act toward others, even (if not especially) “foreigners”. It was the model blue print that has been used for centuries all around the world.

But there are certain elements within this just law by which we work hard to figure out how the law best benefits us as individuals rather than as a nation. And if we feel threatened or fearful, we take it upon ourselves to decide that these laws have been rendered useless and only tie our hands to prevent us from deciding what is just and what is not.

The admonishment that comes to us from James is entirely about justice, equal treatment, and faith. It is JUST that we treat everyone the same regardless of how they dress or what side of the tracks they come from. It is JUST that if we are aware of hunger that we move to address that need. It is JUST that our faith be made manifest in our actions.

But consider this. We serve a God whose sense of justice is tilted in our favor. Why? It is written that the wages of sin is death. It is also written that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…

How just is it that we do not get what we truly deserve? How just can it be that the sentence our sin justly deserves has been taken upon Another?

And yet by the very grace of a Holy God, we are spared that sentence. When we consider justice, this must be our rationale even if it does not make sense to the world. We cannot degrade our humanity and our sense of Christ if we demand the blood of others without considering that it is our blood that should have been shed were it not for the Son of God.

There is a New Covenant which calls each of us to account. Our trial will truly be a trial of justice by which we will be asked how much mercy we should be granted. What we are granted will be the same measure by which we offered it ourselves in this life. This is JUST; this is CHRIST.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Thoughts on a Silver Wedding Anniversary

My wife and I just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. To surprise her, I had a pastor friend come to my church to officiate. I bought silver rings for us to exchange, and I even had a bouquet made for her to carry. I opened the worship service with Scripture and prayer and then launched into my intro before I went to her pew and, on bended knee, proposed. Then the Rev. John Farthing, pastor at Greenbrier (AR) UMC, offered the homily celebrating the great gifts that come from the Lord and our response to these gifts. I've always thought very highly of Dr. Farthing even if he and I are on opposite ends of the political and - to an extent - theological spectrum but I have to say that as often as I have enjoyed his classes (he teaches at Course of Study), this tremendous man really outdid himself. Then he turned on the CD player to "Pachebel's Canon" and summoned us to come forward. After service my little congregation offered us a cash gift from a collection they had taken up during the week, and I whisked my bride away for a weekend in Eureka Springs AR.

While we were driving, I asked my wife about her thoughts and reflections on 25 years. I have to say that as grateful as I am that this wonderful woman didn't kick me out years ago when my drinking was at its worst, I had never really considered how much we've grown over the years together. I also had not really considered how much a part of our "trouble" years were guided by her faith. Though I suppose I know deep down, I never realized how much pain I caused her with my binge drinking. St Paul had it right: I have truly been sanctified by this woman's vision, courage, strength, and faith.

Dr. Farthing wrote the vows that he would ask us to exchange, and I have to say that I could not have done better myself. It is amazing what a difference 25 years can make in what these vows really mean when we stand before the Lord God and a congregation of believers to declare our allegiance to one another for the remainder of our days on this earth. I am quite sure that we don't think enough about what these vows mean when we say them in our youth. It's sort of like the Lord's Prayer; we can recite from memory but few can actually break the Prayer down and expound on the richness of its meaning.

It is not enough to say that I love this woman who said "yes". It is not even enough to say that my level of respect for her is too profound for words. I also admire her beyond words, and even this does not seem to do justice to what I feel for her. All I can say for sure is that the Lord was watching out for me when He put this woman into my life. Maybe I would have grown out of my carelessness sooner or later, but a lesser woman would have put me out long ago. Now it is that I cannot imagine my life without her.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Intelligent Design and Rational Thought

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Declaration of Independence

In 1776, the United States’ Declaration of Independence acknowledged the reality of nature but also injected into the Declaration another reality, a reason for nature’s very existence: “nature’s God”. This document was not only a declaration of independence from another state but was also a document that declared a certain amount of faith in a “Creator” who had granted to man certain “unalienable” rights. With the acknowledgement that this “Creator” God had granted to man these rights is an acknowledgement of a “Creator” God with superior, if supernatural, intelligence.

I do not pretend to fully understand the arguments for or against “intelligent design” as a theory of the creation of the world, but suffice it to say that I believe it to be so. To say otherwise would be, for me, to deny the existence of any god, particularly my God, and my faith would not allow this to be. I cannot deny that which has been seared into my soul. For me, then, and other like-minded believers, the matter is simple. We cannot have come from nothing by mere chance. Logic alone does not allow for such thoughts, and faith renders these thoughts impossible.

Even for the faithful, the matter of the creation of the world and of man is incomprehensible. The weightier matters of the substance of our physical being and that of nature cannot be explained sufficiently for the relatively simply mind of man. The immeasurable “intelligence” responsible for such awe cannot be grasped, let alone explained. For the faithful, then, the matter of how we and this world came to be, and by Whose Mighty Hand, is settled.

Does this discussion about what might be appropriate to teach our children in public schools have to be a choice between science and faith? Must it be so that if we embrace any scientific explanations for the origin of our being that we would by default be in denial of our faith and our God? For children who come from homes where faith and religion are taught, this conflict alone must surely be a source of enormous distress especially for those who are perhaps taught a more fundamentalist scriptural viewpoint. It is not fair to demand of a child to make a choice, for instance, between embracing “natural selection” as the theory it is and risk being accused of rejecting his or his parent’s God. From the “peanut gallery”, this is my observation. It seems to be a battle between those who reject the notion of a supreme “creator” God and those who insist that there can be no other way outside of God.

From faith, from Holy Scripture, and even from the Continental Congress in 1776 is the firm belief in “nature’s God”. There can be no other way. But am I forced to deny my faith if I declare that perhaps Darwin’s theory is not unreasonable even within the context of a divine realm? That perhaps Darwin was on to something minus one key element: divine design?

For me it is completely reasonable. Darwin was a man, no more or less so than I. As such, he was as capable as I of drawing conclusions based on observations made. Whether or not Darwin would acknowledge or embrace it, I will still declare that he was as “blessed” with his mind as I am with mine and that it is no “accident” or chance encounter with some natural phenomenon.

Even still, I look upon the theory of intelligent design and its being taught in public schools with more than a little trepidation. I get to choose the churches and the pastors and Sunday school teachers who have access to my children. I do not have such control in a public school setting. And because of the divine nature of intelligent design, I am not so sure that many public school teachers are equipped to deal with it as scientific theory. This is not to say that I am completely opposed to it being explored in public schools, but I think the school boards will have their hands full in trying to make sure it is handled fairly and without passion or prejudice. With matters of faith, this is most difficult.