Friday, August 29, 2008

Pulpits, Press, and Public Policy: the Politics of Abortion

It happens during every election and intensifies whenever a Catholic Democratic (or is it Democratic Catholic?) politician is running for office against a more conservative, perhaps evangelical Republican Protestant (or is it Protestant Republican?). Abortion takes center stage, and politicians from both sides use their own opinions and talking points in vain efforts to appear more pious than the other. It is almost embarrassing to watch these mostly professional attorneys attempt to argue finer theological points as if so well versed in religion and theology that it had come down to a coin toss about whether to go to seminary or law school.

I’ve all but given up politics simply because I’m tired of caring so much about something that is beyond my control. I am not an affluent citizen, and there is nothing so special about me that a political candidate would worry about having his or her photo taken with me or even answering my letters, e-mails, or phone calls. Essentially it is that I have no clout, therefore no politician has time for me. No sweat. I’ve not lost any sleep over it. In fact, I have found that food tastes better and the air smells cleaner and my temper is not so quick to flare after I stopped reading and listening to the political rhetoric precisely because of its lack of substance. Besides, this particular presidential election all but started right after the 2006 mid-term elections. I know I am not alone in “burn out”.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, has been taken to task by Catholic Church leaders this week as she has attempted to use Catholic theology to justify her “pro-choice” stance by citing man’s free will and ultimate responsibility for one’s own actions (not entirely off the mark here, by the way). However, one of her spokespersons, Brendan Daly, dipped into St. Augustine and quoted a passage that was an appropriate and interesting question but is out of its 5th century context in 21st century America: 'The law does not provide that the act (abortion) pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation.'

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this quote from St Augustine can go in several reasonable directions and still miss the point he was trying to make. Pelosi’s crew attempts to use it as a fundamental Church teaching about the conception of a child; a bona fide theologian who specializes in St Augustine stated simply that Augustine was wondering when a soul is actually imparted to an unborn human child. I somehow do not believe that abortion was a big issue during Augustine’s time.

Speaker Pelosi graduated from a Catholic school, presumably when she was a child, but I wonder if that reference is by her own folks or the media in attempting to give Ms. Pelosi a theological or Catholic pedigree, suggesting that she can support her opinions on matters of catechism teachings about life, conception, and abortion. Clearly, however, it is that she has run afoul of what the catechism actually teaches, and several bishops have called her on it. In spite of these learned objections to her opinion, she appears ready to defend herself and what she believes the Church is teaching. She is, in fact, entitled to her opinion, but does it matter?

It is unfair – and unconstitutional – to use religion as a litmus test for public office. It is equally unreasonable and immeasurable to attempt to use faith in the same way – and yes, there is a difference. Jimmy Carter is a devout Christian and man of great faith, and is arguably the worst president of his time. Can it be said that his faith caused these failures, or were failures evidence of his lack of faith? Either way, faith is an unfair standard of measure. So why do we allow the allegedly unbiased media to provoke us to such a point that we would judge a candidate’s worthiness for public office based on his or her standard or measure of faith?

Unfortunately, abortion has been hijacked by politicians who seek favor with a particular group, whether NARAL or National Right to Life. Rather than have serious discussions about formulating serious policy about a gravely serious subject, we allow those seeking office to jerk our heart strings and wreak havoc with our emotions. Speaker Pelosi and Joe Biden are on the Church’s radar screen like John Kerry was in 2004 with some bishops suggesting that these wayward Catholics should refrain from participating in Holy Communion while they actively support abortion. And most likely as in 2004, some priest will ignore the bishops and serve Communion to these parishioners anyway.

So what was accomplished in 2004 that we can reasonably expect in 2008? My guess is nothing, nothing of substance anyway. We will call names and point fingers, the media will report whatever will get folks to pay attention to their news outlet, emotions will churn, yet absolutely nothing will come of it.

It is perfectly ok for church leaders to call on state leaders who share their faith just as some arms of the United Methodist Church have publicly derided United Methodist George W. Bush regarding the US presence in Iraq as well as some economic policies, but I sometimes wonder if these church leaders are not violating some ethical “line in the sand” by making such public comments critical of individual persons? At the very least, when we reduce ourselves to accusations, name-calling, and finger-pointing, we are very un-Christ-like. For this we should all be ashamed.

Voters have to exercise extreme caution when measuring a political wanna-be according to his or her statements regarding faith, regardless of the setting. It is ok to publicly profess Christ as Savior, but it is also much better and the Kingdom much better served if voters can actually see the faith rather than hear about the religion. We must always remember that the US Constitution was written in such a way for a specific purpose. We are not electing national religion leaders, and these wanna-be’s should stop pretending to be religious scholars. Abortion is a moral issue that the Church itself has failed to adequately address over the years. Politics will not turn a heart of stone … unless, of course, it will win votes.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Reality borne of Faith expressed in Works

Isaiah 51:1-6
James 2:14-26
Matthew 16:13-20

Faith, like love, is probably one of the most misunderstood and misused words in the Christian vernacular because of misunderstanding and misuse of the very Bible which proclaims the central role that faith necessarily plays in the life of the individual and in the life of a congregation. The reason such misunderstandings occur may be due to a conflict between the concept of faith and the manifestation of our faith; i.e., “works”. And I don’t think anyone illustrates the seeming conflict better than James when he states: “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show my faith by my works.” (2:18a,b)

The Protestant reformer Martin Luther had enough difficulty with James that he would probably have preferred the book removed from the canon so that faith might not be overwhelmed by James’ seeming overemphasis on works. While I do not pretend to know the mind of Martin Luther, it does appear on the surface that an “issue” was created rather than addressed by what I consider to be a misunderstanding and perhaps a misinterpretation of what James is saying altogether. It could well have been that one single phrase that James uses: ‘NOT by faith alone …’

We should reasonably know that there can be no conflict between faith and works, they being two sides of the same coin. Each is perfected by the other, and one cannot exist without the other, not completely. According to James, one absent the other becomes void of its essence, its truest form.

It is fair to say, however, that Luther came to his understanding of faith and its central role in our relationship with the Lord honestly. The Bible is clear: it is grace, the Lord’s unmerited favor, by which we are justified before the Lord; it cannot be earned by the works of our hands. But there seems to be an element missing in Luther’s understanding, and outright rejection, of how James’ concept of works should relate to one’s expression of faith. Righteous works are not an attempt to please the Lord; they serve as a witness to others as to the true nature of the Lord Himself. And such a witness is not restricted to such obvious acts of mercy as the Food Pantry but does include how we choose to live, work, and play.

Jesus’ entire role is centered on His witness to the true nature of the Lord God; He is showing us by word and deed what the Holy Father looks like not to the eye nor even to the mind but, rather, to the heart. And if we are true and genuine witnesses of Christ as His disciples, then we understand our role in witnessing to His nature so that by the Holy Spirit others can then see the truly Divine Image, the perfection of that Image in which we are all created.

As I have stated so often, I don’t believe that Jesus ever felt a need to “prove” Himself in any way though we might think it would have made His ministry a little easier. After all, maybe many more would have come running each time Jesus turned His hand. But then we would have been left with a lot of magic tricks rather than bona fide miracles performed within their proper context. Such cheap attempts to appease man’s eyes would defeat the entire focus of Jesus’ call to repentance by faith, a call to believe that there is something much greater before us than meets the eye. A warrior messiah would have dealt with the occupying Romans, for instance, but the true enemy would still be present and just as powerful … and just as compelling.

Jesus’ followers were presumably all Jewish. That is to say, it may be a foregone conclusion that they already believed in God. Simply believing in an existence, however, merely acknowledging the reality of a possibility does not constitute faith, and this may be the challenge that Jesus is posing to His disciples, then as well as now. In fact, such a challenge should be overwhelming on any level. Think about our own concepts of the Almighty, all powerful, God: the God Of All Creation humbling Himself to walk among His own creation rather than sit on a throne?? This concept is very nearly impossible to embrace!

It is also worth remembering that Jesus never presented Himself as an “alternate” god or a co-god. His message is a constant reminder that by the teachings of religious leaders and teachers who seem to make things up as they go along however noble the intent, the gap inherently created by false or misleading doctrine such as hand-washing as a divine tradition (Matthew 15:10-20) is ever widening. By losing a true and proper focus, we become further and further separated from the one, true, living God as we create our own gods made a little more palpable to us by our imaginations and personal desires. At that point, faith is completely lost.

Jesus always spoke of the Father as the necessary point of focus and the only One worthy of our worship. This reality alone would necessarily challenge ALL Christian doctrines that divert focus, however slight, away from the One and Only Holy God. And faith in anything less is further separation from the Divine.

With this in mind, consider the seeming shift in focus in Matthew 16:13-20. By the words of this passage, the focus seems to have shifted to Jesus Himself. To further complicate things, Jesus emphasizes the divine faith displayed by Peter in identifying Him as “… the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It is that faith imparted by the Father, Jesus proclaims, that Peter was enabled to identify the true nature of Jesus as Messiah, as the “anointed One”.

Suddenly the Holy Father seems incidental to Jesus, but I don’t think it is fair or accurate to refer to Jesus as “incidental” to God. Still, there is an emphasis that is important to faith which must not be lost as we consider the implication of why Jesus is concerned about how He is perceived not only by the public but also by His own disciples.

So who is Jesus, and what purpose does He serve? Why the sudden shift? Or was there a shift at all? Why the sudden emphasis on Jesus and who He is to Israel, to His disciples, to the entire world? And how is the Holy Father glorified in all this?

Maybe we would do well to ask ourselves: why would Jesus want us to know that He is the Anointed One? And why is our faith in Him important to our salvation? Again, Jesus is not a co-god or a “new and improved” god; He IS God. But perhaps even more than this, He is the perfection manifest in the New Covenant, a Holy Promise that the Lord God our Father chose to make freely. We don’t have to like it, we don’t have to acknowledge it, and we don’t even have to accept it. Our rejection, however, does not diminish the Ultimate Truth.

There is something else to further understand Jesus’ role as the personification of the New Covenant. The Law of Moses demands atonement. Sin has to be called to account. So Jesus is the prophecy fulfilled, but He is also the Law perfected because the Law requires something of us that we humans are unable to bear. There is NOT ONE THING we could possibly do for ourselves to atone for the power of sin. And because the very “wages of sin is death”, our Father in Heaven could not bear this anymore than we can bear to watch our own children endure pain and suffering.

What would we do to spare our own children the unspeakable pain of sin and death? Well, we know what we would do and our own children have faith enough to believe that if someone means to do them harm, that someone will have to get through us first. This, my friends, is the essence of the New Covenant. And believing there is a God capable of this kind of love is what faith is all about; believing that we are loved. And the works of our hands coming from the abundance of our hearts is our joyful expression of this reality, this faith, so that others can comprehend it.

>>>>> What is lacking in our lives that we cannot embrace this and revel in it? What will it take to free us from the tyranny of our human minds and human hands so that we can see this with our hearts? It has to happen because that’s all there is. Jesus is the Holy Father perfected in a manifest way that we can comprehend; simple and perfect.

Jesus never shifted the focus from our Holy Father. He merely made Him clearer to us. AMEN.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Pastor came a-callin' ... or was that the Preacher?

Ok, so I might be splitting hairs on the title because the person who has shown up at the parishioner’s door is one and the same person: the pastor of the church, the spiritual leader, the parson, the preacher. No matter what title is attached, that particular person has taken time to come calling, and that same person will be at the pulpit the following Sunday delivering the sermon. There are questions, however: which is (or should be) the dominant role, and does it matter? Should more emphasis be intentionally placed on one over the other? What can a congregation reasonably expect, and what can they reasonably demand?

I have known and witnessed some exceptional pastors who were marginal, at best, as preachers, and I’ve known and witnessed some exceptional preachers who seemed to have no clue what it means to be a pastor, a shepherd of a flock, a spiritual leader of a people called forth in mission and ministry to the world. Of course there are many who are adept and gifted at handling both roles very well, and they have dynamic and thriving congregations to show for it. There are even some churches which seem to do well with an outstanding preacher who puts very little into pastoral tasks, believing that the dominant role he or she is called to fill is at the pulpit where the Word is proclaimed.

Dynamic and lively worship experiences most certainly fill pews as is evidenced by so-called mega-churches that spend extraordinary amounts of money to hire professional musicians, for instance, to lead worship, but can we reasonably question the mind and the heart of a worship leader who is there only because he or she is being paid to be there? If the church ran into financial difficulties, would that music leader or musician still show up for worship at that particular place of worship for the sake of worship itself … for free? Somehow I think not which is why I wonder what role it is that a pastor should put emphasis on. It is not reasonable to expect any human person to be all things to all people, and a church’s pastor should be no exception to this reality.

Having been appointed only this year to my first full-time appointment (I have been a part-time local pastor since 1999), I now find myself with more time to do the things I really did not have much time for when I had a full-time secular job in addition to my part-time pastorate. Subsequently I find it much easier to manage time for sermon preparation, prayer, and study with ample time left to devote to visiting parishioners. The time I have devoted to sermon preparation, however, is not necessarily planned more than it is allowed. I do not close my office door because someone walking in will be no less disruptive than a knock on a door. Still, isn’t this why I’m here, to be available?

The conflict I wonder about, however, is the seemingly rigid policy that some pastors have in which their study and sermon prep time is an absolute, no-visitors-no-calls-allowed time that will surely from time to time conflict with the congregation’s or a parishioner’s need for a “pastor” when the “preacher” will not allow himself to be disturbed.

Maybe it is not so much the role of the pastor than it is the expectations of a congregation. Does a congregation want to be fed, or does it need to be entertained? This question may seem unfair, but the reality is that for far too many it falls on the pastor to get and keep a parishioner’s attention. If this much is true, has that pastor somehow failed or did the previous pastor fail to do his job? Or is it a lazy parishioner who does not have a heart or a mind set for worship and is, instead, expecting “paid staff” to do his worshiping for him? And is this a pastoral problem, or can a preacher best deal with it?

I have no conclusions, only questions that I intend to answer as I go. I’ve gotten compliments on my sermons, and I’ve been greeted at parishioners’ homes with more surprise and suspicion than with hospitality because too many pastors in the past did not put much emphasis on “pastoring”, so maybe I have found a least a tenuous balance between the two but I also sense that the balance can be tipped either way rather easily without much notice until it is perhaps too late.

This balance surely cannot depend on a pastor’s personal preference, but it also should not be so much an answer to a congregation’s desire above their genuine need for spiritual leadership which would necessarily involve uncomfortable challenges to those most content with “navel gazing” than with social ministry, for instance. Maybe the bigger question would be how dominant a pastor/preacher should even be to his congregation.

I hope for perspective and will welcome input.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Irony of Public Policy

Everyone is out for a bargain. Stores advertise “annual” close-out sales at least four times a year, and many other stores seem to be on the verge of losing their leases, so “everything must go”. We consumers are eager to save a few bucks on things we need and even on some things we don’t need but if we are offered these things at “rock bottom prices”, we show up for these “specially marked down prices”, some of which “will not be seen again”. So many slogans are designed to get our attention and offer to lead us to the Promised Land as we are also led to believe that the store is willing to take a loss just to move merchandise, so we are keen on those bargains that just seem to scream at us. There is nothing, however, that beats a two-for-one sale.

We like two-fers. And in Arkansas it seems that our state government has figured out that if they are going to sell a bad bill of goods, they need only to convince us that we are getting a sweet deal. And nothing – I mean NOTHING – is sweeter than getting two-for-the-price-of-one.

Our own lieutenant governor is trying to convince us that college scholarships and instant wealth are just around the corner; all we have to be willing to do is vote for his lottery proposal. Arkansas is also in need of a medical trauma system, so Rep. Gene Shelby, D-Hot Springs proposes to finance it with an additional cigarette tax, the same tax proposal that failed to even make it out of committee in 2007. There is something sinister going on with these two proposals, and the reasoning for either makes no sense no matter how each is proposed because what may appear to be working in tandem with another is completely unrelated to the first part.

These are four distinctly separate issues being floated about, but our state’s politicians would have us believe that each is somehow connected; i.e., the lottery will finance scholarships, and the additional cigarette tax will fund a state-wide trauma system. There are faulty premises on each that do not consider the tenuous financing that is coupled. For instance, the additional tax (currently at .59) of .50 on cigarettes will raise an additional $70 million to $75 million annual on a system that, according to estimates, will require approximately $25 million. Then the state director of the Arkansas Department of Health says the tax is a good idea to encourage people to give up cigarettes. Surely the irony is apparent.

So what happens if the director’s wish that everyone quits smoking comes true? The revenue source is endangered; then what? One thing is accomplished at the risk of another, and surely the trauma system is a good idea, at least on the surface. So if the state legislature was unable to “find” funding for the much-needed trauma system last time around (in the middle of a colossal revenue surplus, no less), how is reaching for a shaky funding source, perhaps ideally designed to burn itself out, going to make this trauma system a sustained reality? And why should only one segment of the tax-paying public be responsible for a system whose sole source of revenue is unrelated to trauma and will ultimately benefit everyone? If a trauma system is worth having at all, it is worth paying for with a self-sustaining source of revenue. These are two separate issues, yet one irony.

Another irony must acknowledge statistics which suggest that it is generally low-income, uneducated citizens who spend the most on lottery tickets in Arkansas’ neighboring states. The Arkansas lottery proposal does not seek to fund education, per se, but it does propose to make available college scholarship funds so that the poor and uneducated will have an opportunity to change or enhance their social standing. As a result of the poor and uneducated funding their own scholarships, presumably to end their own poverty and ignorance, suddenly everyone is no longer poor or ignorant. They have ideally gained knowledge and wisdom and have come to the conclusion that buying a lottery ticket as a pretense to anything other than selfish gain (at a billion-to-one odds, no less) is nothing more than a tax on silliness, wishful thinking, greed, or a combination of all.

If there is a legitimate need for college scholarships in Arkansas that will offset those who were unable to go to school on grants, loans, and other state and privately sponsored scholarships, then I would suggest that the people of Arkansas be shown those who were unable to attend a state university due to a lack of money. And I would strongly suggest that the people of Arkansas be able to see that otherwise QUALIFIED students were somehow denied the opportunity. How many young people who made the grades in high school were unable to go to college due to a lack of funds? How many did not go because they did not pursue every single avenue of higher education funding? How much scholarship money around the state, public and private, went unclaimed because deserving students did not know the funds existed? My guess is that the number of deserving, qualified students who did not know about the many funding alternatives and did not go to school is not as high as Bill Halter’s proposal might try to suggest.

There is money available for higher education, but it will not be served on a dinner plate and laid before the potential student. It has to be sought, it has to be applied for, it has to be earned (work-study programs), and some must be paid back (student loans), but money is there. If someone has a genuine desire to attend college, the means to do so is already available now without a lottery. Mr. Halter tells us that his proposal will raise $100 million dollars for college scholarships (that number is disputed by other sources). My question is: are we coming up $100 million dollars short of what is currently needed?

Let us at least be honest with ourselves and with one another as we demand full disclosure from the pro-lottery people. A lottery is not “needed” to help educate Arkansans. A lottery is a lottery. It is a game, a game of chance that must not be promoted or used as a means to any legitimate end; it should be sold just as it is. It is a game, period. It is, in my humble opinion, a monumentally bad idea on so many levels, but being sold as an answer to what may or may not be a legitimate need or as a source of state revenue is an insult to the intelligence of voters. And it is made even more so by pretending to cover some shortage when Arkansas has been running budget surpluses for the past several years because of rather aggressive tax policies. How much more surplus needs to be accumulated before we realize that the only thing this state is short of right now is a good idea?

Forgive ME while I consider the other ...

Matthew 18:21-35

I once had a parishioner declare to me that if she heard one more sermon about “forgiveness”, she just could not be held responsible for what she may do next!

I don’t think the issue of “forgiveness” itself was the problem my beloved parishioner was dealing with. Instead, it had become a rather redundant “issue” that had been beaten into the ground. For her, it was time to move on to other things. After all, she said, it’s a pretty big Bible that covers a lot of ground. Surely we don’t have to repeat ourselves in order to be faithful to the Lord.

Maybe not but faithfulness is directly related to the task at hand and if our mission in faithfulness to the Lord is to tell His story and proclaim the Good News, forgiveness is itself the central theme of our faith and must surely be the greatest hope for a new convert as well as for those still seeking some meaning to their existence: how to embrace this God who would do such a thing. It is the greatest of all mysteries, and without it the life of Christ’s Holy Church is reduced to nothing more than a social club.

Still, I can see where my beloved parishioner was having some difficulty with feeling as if forgiveness were being forced upon her because there is an element involved that we don’t often talk about: our sense of justice. Justice demands that a wrong be made right and that some sort of penalty be invoked so as to discourage future acts of injustice.

We Americans are nothing if not a people of justice and while we might say the same thing about Christians, the truth is we Christians – by virtue of the Lord’s mighty act of forgiveness – have been excused from paying the price for our sins, the price having already been paid IN FULL. True justice would demand that we would have suffered the penalty; instead, the penalty was paid in our stead – and this is incomprehensible to many.

Here is something else to consider. We know when we’ve done wrong and we reasonably know that this wrong must be made right; WE KNOW THIS. But we don’t want to pay a penalty, do we? We would rather right a wrong in our own time and according to our own desires. Don’t we often remind ourselves that if we do not repent of such behavior that is not pleasing to the Lord, we will sooner or later answer for it?

However, if someone does US a wrong, then we want them to pay and pay dearly!! We are not typically as forgiving of them as we are of ourselves. And I think it must be the lack of genuine perspective, a perspective that is absent a genuine experience of having suffered in a very real way for our sins.

Maybe it is not possible for us. Maybe it is that there will always linger just beneath the surface the reality that we had been wronged. There is another reality, however, that we must consider and ultimately come to embrace, according to Kenneth J. Collins, professor of Wesley Studies at Asbury in Wilmore, KY. He wrote recently in Good News magazine: “The genius of the Christian faith is that it sees evil for what it is and not as an illusion as in some other religions. It then triumphs over this darkness and transcends it through its central fact of loving forgiveness.”

In other words, we acknowledge the reality what has been done to us while we also acknowledge the humanity of the person or persons who had wronged us. We give them the same break we give ourselves. We acknowledge the possibility that there were extenuating circumstances that we may never be aware of. Even as we acknowledge such realities we must also be aware that whether we choose to avenge ourselves or simply move on, the certain reality will never change. We cannot “undo” what has been done. What we can do is adjust our attitude and refocus our energy while recognizing that such negative energy and hatefulness will harm no one but ourselves. Our “enemy” may never know or care how we once felt, so what’s it to him if we choose to move along?

In the midst of the most intense suffering imaginable, Jesus prayed: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” This was not only a sincere prayer from One fully possessed of true and genuine godly love; it was also a lesson from which we are called not only to learn but to live. The central theme of our faith is, indeed, forgiveness and forgiveness is central to life eternal. To carry any sort of grudge or resentment against someone is to suffer a slow and painful death. To forgive is to embrace divine life. To truly live is to forgive as we have been forgiven.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Divine Stumbling Block

1 Kings 19:9-18
Romans 10:1-15
Matthew 14:22-33

The late comedian Dean Martin was once quoted as having said, “Show me a man who has no fear, and I will show you a man who gets beat up a lot.” It is often said that the greatest motivator OR stumbling block for any person is fear. Fear of risk, for example, marks the difference between entrepreneurs and those who work for them. Take away those fearless dare-devils and stunt actors in movies, and what’s left? Chick flicks.

To be fair, however, it is important to understand that fear and cowardice are not necessarily synonymous. A lot of people are alive today because “informed fear” (aka, healthy respect for danger!) borne of experience advised their decision-making process at one point or another. Many a combat veteran will testify that while fear can paralyze, it can also motivate one to make more reasonable decisions regarding, for instance, when to advance and when to hold or withdraw. For many, the absolute absence of fear is nothing more than evidence of an absolute lack of active brain cells!

We may admire, on a particular level, the courage of someone who will boldly proclaim, “Hold my beer and watch this”, but we will never take them seriously beyond their capacity to entertain us. Besides, I’m not sure this can even fall into a category that might define fear or courage, but it is interesting to see sometimes how differently we can act when we are under certain influences and not necessarily drugs or alcohol, but of other things which can inform us, embolden us, or even trip us up.

It is fear of rejection that can keep many of us from opportunities we cannot define and will never know because we stepped backward instead of forward when opportunities presented themselves. It is perhaps this fear that may at least partly account for the decline in American church membership. In a recent UMNS story about declining membership in UM churches, Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards who is director of worship resources for the UM Board of Discipleship says that while the UM Church should be working to attract “seekers”, we should also be aware that many spiritually inclined people are wary of religious institutions and may resent the data which causes churches to target them as potential “recruits”.

"Every time we do that, we miss the point," Burton-Edwards said. "Instead of adjusting our message to get those people with us, we should be working to be in mission with people, whoever they are, wherever they are." I would also add: regardless of their inclinations, and without judgment or prejudice.
Burton-Edwards said the study's data is useful but shouldn't be the focus in measuring the church's vitality. It takes more than numbers, he said, to address the core question of whether the church is following Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

"We've got the paradigm turned around. … It's not about getting people inside of the church; it's about getting Christians out," he said. "It's not how many people are in our organization, but what level of spiritual impression people are experiencing. How are they being imprinted with the likeness of Jesus Christ? And what is the impact crater around them as a result?" UMNS, Marta Aldrich, 29 Feb 2008

Peter may have had the right idea when he stepped out of the boat (Matthew 14:22-33), but his motive seemed highly questionable. It did not seem to be a matter of faith that compelled Peter to step out of the boat and I don’t think Jesus felt any real need to “prove” Himself, but He may well have been trying to make a point. Before the point of losing one’s focus and “sinking”, however, is the point of motive and what we hope to achieve in stepping out of our own boats.

Defining that motive, that sense of purpose, may be an important step in overcoming the common stumbling block – the fear - that, at the very least, can slow us down as we perhaps weigh the outcome against the potential risk. At most, perhaps, this fear can cause us to stop altogether. In the deep recesses of our being, we know that sharing the Good News of the New Covenant is our privilege, but our fear – rational or not – will help us to justify our choice to stay in the boat. Thus an opportunity lost is a blessing never realized.

We can admire and applaud Peter for being willing to step out as he did but can we follow this as an example of faith, or is there something more to this story than meets the eye? Could Peter have fallen into that category of those who say, “Here, hold my beer and watch this?” Peter was not trusting Jesus more than he was testing Him even if he was trying to affirm Jesus’ identity. He may well have been also trying to “show” the others in the boat something. In spite of his failure and ultimate fear, however, notice that he was still lifted up and rescued! Surely this is something we can relate to!

I want to add a minor twist to this Gospel passage in light of Paul’s words to the Romans. Both Martin Luther and John Wesley cited Romans in having been freed from the notion that one must live and work up to a certain standard in order to please the Lord God, which is to say that striving toward perfection in obedience, while an admirable goal and a worthwhile endeavor, may actually be the greatest stumbling block of all in the development of the faith we need to get us through difficult challenges. We rely on our righteous performance in an effort to please the Lord, thus the potential is there that faith will play too minor a role.

The Bible says that “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” Hebrews 11:6

With this in mind, then, consider what Paul is saying in verse 3 (Romans 10): “…being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God and seeking to establish their own [righteousness], they have not submitted to God’s righteousness.”

I know that sometimes we can split hairs over the perceived contrast between faith and works in trying to find our niche on Christ’s path in our faith journey, but we must always be mindful that the right – and righteous - path is, indeed, Christ’s path and not our own. I think maybe what Paul is saying is that the focus of our works must necessarily be evaluated so that we can be confident that these works, whatever they may be, are acts of gratitude rather than self-proclaimed acts of righteousness. In other words, if we are seeking to please the Lord God by the works of our hands in some misguided effort to “score points”, we have missed the boat altogether! We have vainly sought to “establish [our] own righteousness”.

Socially and for the sake of the local church, the great tragedy in this is that once we have decided for ourselves how we must behave, we then make demands and judgments and then IMPOSE sometimes unreasonable expectations – stumbling blocks - on others who do not follow OUR footsteps along OUR path even if and when we use the Bible as our reference point. We have made a proclamation of OUR OWN righteousness and our place as “proper” examples and soon will demand that others follow not Christ but us. We may be “technically” correct in our endeavors and our beliefs but, according to Paul, we are spiritually in the wrong.

Perhaps this was the essence of Peter’s failure. It is a fine line between Peter’s lack of faith and his desire to believe what he was seeing. The gift Peter received was that first step upon the water in which he was able to stand, but then he turned to his own devices – his own ability to believe – and lost sight of his faith which was the only thing there could possibly have been to sustain him.

It was the righteousness of Christ Himself that saved Peter, not Peter’s. Would we, like Peter, choose to TEST the Lord in our doubts and fears as we embark on our own efforts, or shall we acknowledge that it is Christ ALONE who keeps us from sinking in the first place and that our own efforts and acts are those of gratitude and not obligation?

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Inevitable Struggle

Genesis 32:22-31
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

Struggle is imminent. There is no way to avoid it. Even making an effort to avoid struggle is itself a struggle! The essence of any struggle, however, is the personal growth that can come just as with any learning experience. Regardless of the nature of the struggle, we can come away with a broader perspective even if we firmly stood our ground. Surely we can at least appreciate the fact that we cannot possibly know everything there is to know, especially from the perspective of someone else.

I found myself in the middle of a couple of struggles this week and, like Jacob in Genesis 32:22-31, I also want to come away with a blessing. Yet I must prepare myself for the possibility that I may come away from it all with ONLY a limp … and that’s if I’m lucky! It’s ok, though, because if it were not for these particular two items, it would have been two others, maybe three. As I stated, struggle is unavoidable most especially for the faithful.

The first item was simply an issue of time; there seems to never be enough of it to do everything that we would like to do, let alone everything we must do. When time is compressed – as it always seems to be - then it becomes necessary to prioritize. The problem with this is that while I may have juggled a few things in a particular order I thought best, it may soon be brought to my attention that maybe I should have done something a little differently, maybe arranged my priorities in another way. I did the best I could, but only time will tell the true outcome. Time, however, is an issue that will never go away.

The second item involved the sermon. I thought I was done until I received an e-mail from the Arkansas Conference reminding me that August 3 is “Anti-Lottery Sunday”. I admit that the “reminder” itself suggested that at some point I should have already been aware of the significance of this particular Sunday, but I just don’t recall the first notice. This is not to say that I support the lottery initiative. I don’t. I think it is a bad idea for probably as many reasons as some of you, perhaps many of you, may think it is a good idea. Whether the lottery itself is good or bad, however, is not the point that I hope to make. Not today, anyway.

There is my political self that is ideologically Republican, almost libertarian. That is to say, I think that the less our government is involved in our lives, the better. We can make our own mistakes, thank you very much, or we can enjoy our own successes. Even within the highest ideals of this freedom, we must always be mindful of those who are marginalized by society through no fault of their own either by disability or certain injustices which do still exist whether we like it or not.

With this freedom, then, comes duty and responsibility. We must recognize that our freedom to do as we choose ceases to exist when we infringe upon the legitimate rights of others. Cigarette smoking is a prime example. Smokers have every right to light up but when in the course of exercising that right the clean air is poisoned, the air that non-smokers cannot avoid such as in restaurants or other common-area public places, the right to smoke no longer exists even in the absence of state or city smoking prohibitions. At least, this is my opinion primarily as a matter of common, social, and public courtesy. When our rights become burdensome to others, we then have the duty or responsibility to make other choices. The struggle exists in doing what we OUGHT to do vs. doing what we would LIKE to do. This is, in our society and in our culture, the constant challenge of the faithful. My libertarian self says you have the right to buy lottery tickets when you like and smoke where you like until kingdom come. It is not the government’s business – or mine.

Then there is my religion self, a United Methodist with the honor and privilege of serving as a pastor, a minister – LIKE EVERY BELIEVER - of the entirely social Gospel of Christ, and one who believes that the Church as a whole has remained silent for too long about social issues but is now trying to find its voice and speak with clarity and with moral authority regarding the Church’s social obligations within the context of the Gospel. Admirable, but some elements of the Church have also found themselves advocating for “choice” and “freedom” pertaining to certain social issues and have, in my opinion, jeopardized the moral authority of the Church as a whole by using flawed doctrinal or theological reasoning. My religion self says that the Church must use its voice to speak against the lottery but, perhaps more importantly, help others to understand the nature of our opposition – but, of course, within the boundaries of existing law. Only in America, huh???

So what else is new? Does the past silence of the church require that we remain silent from now on and just let things go as society allows or demands, regardless of the risk potential? Does the fact that most of us probably can be accurately labeled “hypocrite” mean that we should just stop the charade and quit trying? No and No. The struggle exists uniquely in our society because we understand our religion self that is probably constantly struggling with our social and public policy self, our political alter-ego. Lotteries, casino gambling, and abortion spring to mind as issues we may struggle with, but what may not be clear is what we hope to come away from the struggle with, what we hope to accomplish. Can we, or should we even try to, protect people from themselves - even if in the name of Christ?

Jacob’s struggle in Genesis 32 seems to come out of nowhere, yet it is the story of a struggle endured by a man of faith who is moving “forward”, enroute to his destination in Canaan, the Promised Land. But who is this “man” who seems to come from nowhere and is not only not identified but who also refuses to identify himself when asked? And what might the story of this particular struggle suggest for we who continue to struggle on our own journeys as we face that which evokes fear and uncertainty especially when we do what we think is the proper thing but which will face almost certain opposition?

Some schools of thought have suggested that the “man” against whom Jacob wrestled was perhaps a demon or a Canaanite god intent on keeping Jacob from going any further, essentially trying to keep him from entering into Canaan. This theory makes sense in a couple of points: Jacob’s ability to overcome even with injury, and the seeming need of "the man" to avoid the light of day. There are problems with this theory, of course, not least of which are Jacob’s determination to receive a “blessing” directly from this “man” and Jacob’s proclamation in verse 30 in naming the place “Peniel” as he attributes the struggle to a direct encounter with the Lord and has lived to tell it.

I think most scholars agree, however, that “the man” whom Jacob encountered was an angel of the Lord, but it still remains unclear as to why this encounter took place exclusively for Jacob and why this encounter had to end before the sun came up. The timing of the sunrise, however, may only be incidental to chapter 33 which picks up right from this encounter: Jacob looks up and sees Esau coming with 400 men in tow. This impending encounter was one that Jacob was NOT looking forward to!

Maybe the struggle Jacob encounters could more reasonably be attributed to his previous plea to the Lord in chapter 32. Remember that Jacob is very afraid of meeting up with Esau because of the stunt he pulled in chapter 27 when he “tricked” his father Isaac into bestowing the blessing to Jacob that should have rightfully gone to the older brother, Esau, in which it is also written: “So Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father blessed him, and Esau said in his heart, ‘The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then I will kill my brother Jacob'.”

If Jacob was aware of this searing hatred, and he most certainly was, then he had every right and reason to be afraid and flee as he did. I wonder, however, if the struggle we encounter daily is the same struggle between Jacob’s religion self that should have been comforted by his earlier prayer in which he reminded even himself that that the Lord had already told him, “I will surely treat you well …”, and Jacob’s more worldly, political self which recognized Esau’s right to be upset and reason to seek vengeance.

The struggle may well be reduced to nothing more than a matter of faith in believing in, and resting on, the promises of the Lord God rather than turning to our own devices to manipulate an outcome more favorable to self than to the glory of the Lord God. The struggle is imminent, I think, perhaps because we have become too worldly over time and, rather than resist the worldly influences, we have probably resisted the religion.

The good news is that as long as a sense of struggle exists, there is hope. It could well mean that we are attempting to find a place for everything and keep everything in its proper perspective. The spiritual reality is that we cannot segregate ourselves by our worldly inclinations and our spiritual being, they being two parts of the same whole.

Within this struggle, however, we must finally and completely come to understand that it is the SPIRITUAL part of ourselves that will endure long after everything worldly has faded away. It must necessarily be, then, that we shift our focus on worldly things with our spiritual perspective, to be informed by the social Gospel of Christ so that the struggle will finally and completely give way to the will of the Lord God our Father. To His Glory … now and forever. AMEN.