Time to Question

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In  HBOs hit, Westworld, the humans are constantly keeping tabs on the Androids and when they bring them in to refurbish them they always ask the question, “Do you ever question the nature of your reality?”  To date, the androids always answer, “No.” And you can tell their human technicians are relieved each time.  They want to keep Westworld going as is.

The nature of my professional reality is being a clergyman in two churches and in the Air National Guard.  And I am beginning to question the nature of that reality.  I do not question God.  I do not question the overall thrust of Scripture.  I do not question Jesus Christ or the people Christ calls us to be.  But I do question whether what we are doing in church is getting us closer to being the people God calls us to be.  Especially after this past year, I question how effective traditional church programming actually is.

Let me just offer one gauge – social discourse.  One would think the more often you see someone active in a church, the less likely it would be that they would engage in discourse that degrades others, that promotes the powerful at the expense of the weak, and that encourages both peace and justice.  I see nothing of the sort in my world.  On Facebook, for example, I have unfollowed (not unfriended but stopped regularly following) the posts of at least thirty people because I find what they post to either be poorly researched, vengeful, excessively partisan, or humor that is offered at the expense of others. And all thirty of these people are Christians.  Of course, this is a small minority of my Facebook friends which come from high school to my present life.  But even among the majority – I don’t see enough edifying posts.

It doesn’t make me question Christians as individuals or even their particular church.  We are a part and parcel of our culture and that includes our churches (if we are active people of faith).  But it does make me question whether traditional sermons and classes as they are generally led produce any measurable results.  One would think that with all the people I have known over the years there would be a distinct difference in what Christians would say, do, and post on the internet and those who rarely go to church or don’t believe in God at all. But I do not see that much of a difference in the views of many inside and outside the church today.  And that makes me question the nature of my professional reality.

We live in pivotal times.  Our environment is changing around the globe.  Opportunities and challenges present themselves.  I think both are going to increase too.  I think it is time that, as Christians, we ponder the core of what we are doing and what we might do differently.  I suspect a real issue is that our model of church worked fine when that was the bulk of new information a parishioner would take home with them every week.  But sermons and classes (for those that take them in) are but a small percentage of what people receive each week in the smorgasbord of information presented to them. “Love thy neighbor” gets drowned out by hours on end of news alerts of the latest terrorist attack, for example.  It’s not so much that good work isn’t being done and passed on by churches today – I just think it isn’t enough to counterbalance everything else people are hearing, seeing, reading, and watching.  So, what do we do?

I think we look at everything we do in church – top to bottom, hour by hour, and question what the results are of what we are doing.  I think we take seriously what it would mean for us to get someone in the church from just starting out to being a soul who is truly giving God glory by what she or he is believing and by what she or he is doing. How do we get people to see their neighbor with Jesus’ eyes versus the paradigms they learn?  I think we stop seeing our mission as being to pay for buildings that previous generations poured their identity into.  I simply think we take seriously anew what we think a fully faithful person should be in our day and age and then work individual church plans and programs with that target goal in mind.

It will not be easy.  But I think the future is going to be in need of fully developed and mature Christians who can help calm the sometimes harsh discourse and help look out for the powerless and lost in our world.

If we hold up the Beatitudes – is that us?  Why is it ok with us if our discourse has gotten so coarse?  Do we look out for the weak, the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden?  Do we try to see everyone made equally in the image of God?

If the reality we believe in is the Kingdom of God, how are we helping people transition from our current fallen reality to that one?

I think it is something for everyone in the church – not just pastors, elders, and deacons to ponder and act upon.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

 

Church World

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Churches are struggling these days, including those of the Presbyterian variety.  I read this morning of First Presbyterian Oswego, Kansas that is closing its doors after decades of service. Basically, the church started seeing significant membership decline in the 1990s and today it is down to where most Sundays recently have had about eight folks.  A fifty year old man said he was the youngest in church.  They have decided to sell the building.  I mourn for the future every time I see this happening.  Churches, particularly of the mainline variety, have developed many current and future leaders in society and helped countless people on the margins.  You can’t simply replace this at home or at the “big box” church down the road.

While there are many factors at play, not all of which rest on our shoulders, I think there is something we can do far better.  And to make the point, I point to an upcoming HBO scifi series I am looking forward to:  Westworld.  It is being made by JJ Abrams off the old Michel Creighton story (I loved the 70s movie as a kid) that was made into a movie.  For those unaware of the old story – basically in the future we start building amusement parks that have very lifelike robots where the rich can go and live out their fantasies. Of course, things go askew when the robots stop listening to their human masters. It seemed a cautionary tale years ago about taking the brakes off our bad impulses.  The new story is much the same but kind of with a different twist.  The androids become sentient and when they become self aware, and aware of who the humans are, they decide they do not want to be like us.

What does this have to do with church?  I think, sometimes, we like to lean on the crutch of saying, “the church isn’t a pantheon for saints but a hospital for sinners.”  Perhaps so.  But shouldn’t we be upping our game a bit?  If someone is getting burned in life – home, work, neighborhood, etc and they want to find a place of spiritual solace and comfort – shouldn’t we be at our very best about not letting our petty, weak, and sinful natures reign – especially at church.  I am not suggesting that church is like “Westworld” where people indulge their darkest fantasies sometimes.  But I do think that we write off bad behavior sometimes and just attribute it to sin.  That may be the cause but it is not the solution.

The last thing we should want is for people to come to church and think, “I don’t want to be like them.”

What do you think?

In Christ,

Tom

http://www.parsonssun.com/news/article_e9423a38-7b99-11e6-84f0-9375a7f329f3.html

http://motherboard.vice.com/read/hbo-westworld-compared-to-orignial-movie

Addressing the Real Problem

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Brock Turner is again in the news.  I am sure everyone by now recognizes, if you are current with the news, the name of the twenty something college student convicted of raping a fellow Stanford Student who was overly intoxicated at a party.  It made news, not only because of the crime, but the exceedingly light sentence Turner received compared to other people convicted of rape.  Affluence and ethnicity all seem to be in play in the sentencing.  The news is being lambasted today for reporting that “former swimmer and Stanford student” had to begin registering as a sex offender, for the rest of his life, four times a year today.  The outrage is identifying him as anything other than a rapist.  Turner is our selected target of hatred.

The problem is that we will use this injustice, and focus most of our energy, in one place and then move on.  Is that where we really want to go?  We all know rape is a worldwide problem. The answer, I don’t think, should be to say, “Oh, here, we caught one, let’s all get him!”  The best it will accomplish is making sure that Turner’s life story goes as negatively as possible.  If this rape really makes us angry (and it should), our energies should be much more effectively targeted.

The problem is rape.  The problem is the culture that perpetuates it.  The problem is the drugs and alcohol which throw gasoline on the fire (and we want to pretend they don’t have anything to do with it).  The overwhelming majority of rapists, unlike Turner, get away with their crimes and focusing on one will not change that.  Even trying to make his life as terrible as possible won’t change that.  Turner, who also was drunk, did not stop and pause and consider the latest sentencing for rapists or how convicted ones are treated.  Why do we think the next rapist will pause at all if we all collectively trash Turner?  Just this morning, I read of a twenty something woman raped while being a lifeguard at a pool.  All the outrage at Turner didn’t stop this rapist (or help his victim).

We need to teach people greater respect for one another.  Men, in particular, when they are raised, need to be taught what a loathsome, repulsive, and criminal act rape is.  We need to take the shame out of the reporting of these crimes.  We need to increase the odds, greatly, that if someone commits this crime that they will be caught and they will be punished.  We need to increase awareness so that more people react like the two brave men who stopped Turner in the act of his crime and held him until police personnel arrived.

We should not let ourselves be lulled into thinking getting mad about one story and venting about it online is going to change the problem.  An individual rapist might get us mad (and should).  But will it make us want to change things, really change things? Let Turner’s story, and his victim’s, inspire us.  Let us make this world a better place and this crime increasingly less prevalent.

God calls on us to make the world a more just place.  Will we?

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

Movie Review

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First – let me say if you are a Biblical literalist – you will hate this movie.  It is about Jesus’ experience in the desert after his baptism and it does not, except in a very general way, correspond to Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  That said, the writers imagine quite a story and it is thought provocative.  Ewan McGregor (of Moulin Rouge! and the first Star Wars series, among many other movies) stars as Yeshua.  He also stars as the Devil!  Jesus enters the desert unsure if he is ready to begin his ministry.  The author imagines what experiences he had there that solidified his resolve, all the while being tempted by the devil.

This is a very human Jesus (although the movie leaves no doubt that he is the Son of God).  He struggles.  He wonders.  He is curious.  He tries to figure out what to do.

In the desert Jesus encounters a family.  It has a father, an older teenage son, and a dying mother.  The tension is between father and son just as Jesus feels a tension between himself and his father in heaven.  It is not a warm feel good story.  But I think the author does an interesting job imagining what it must have been like for Jesus during those forty days.

The geography is quite beautiful.  The acting is solid.  It is a thinking based versus action based movie. I enjoyed the film.

Did it happen like that?  No, probably not.  But I always believe the Gospels are like a connect the dots picture and part of it calls on us to fill it in.  What do we think Jesus was like between 12-30 years of age?  What do we think he was like when he wasn’t teaching and preaching?  How did he feel about carpentry and living in Nazareth?  How did he feel about the Romans and the rest of the world?  How much did Jesus know in his earthly ministry?

I also very much like that McGregor played both Yeshua and Satan.  While I think the forces of darkness appear many ways in our world, we should not think of it just as an external force.  Just as we have a still small voice within urging us to do what is right, we also have another voice urging us to do wrong.  I found it an effective portrayal of good versus evil.

This is a fictional movie.  But a good one.  I recommend it within those parameters.

Have you seen it?  What did you think, if so.

Until next time,

Tom

 

Wading Into the Beehive Stirred

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Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, has sure stirred up what had been the simmering down topic of racial relations in our nation.  By refusing to stand for the national anthem, he has his own fans burning his jersey.  Even his birth mother disclaimed his actions on Twitter reportedly.  A presidential candidate has suggested he even find a new country.  I have seen conservative responses from a wide range of sources.  I have also seen liberal support that even claimed the national anthem is pro-slavery and calls to sit down too.  So much for a calming of the social waters.

In my line of work in the United States Air Force, we not only stand for the national anthem but we stop everything we are doing. When we are on a military base, we even stop driving till it is over.  We stand for it, even before a movie is played inside of a theater. Once, when I was a second lieutenant, I went running on base and was stopped by an irate Master Sergeant.  I had no idea why he was so angry.  But what I had done was run through the national anthem (I had headphones on and didn’t hear it playing). In the end, I felt he was right.  I should have been more aware.  Too many lives have been lived for and given to treat our nation’s standards lightly.

So, Kaepernick’s method of protest is one I never would have even considered.  Our nation has done much good over its history through a great deal of sacrifice.  This has been underscored to me even this week as I watch HBOs “The Pacific” where the first two episodes alone deal with the sacrifices born by a wide variety of Americans on Guadalcanal in late 1942.

Nevertheless, it is worth asking ourselves why our nation, over all other nations, has become renowned in the building of jails.  If I had told any of you alive in 1975 that a single country in the world was going to be building jails like shopping malls in forty years, would you have picked the United States of America?  It is equally true that said jails population do not match the ethnic diversity of our nation.  We jail our citizens in record numbers and at a disproportionate rate of some ethnic groups and less of others.  Why this is so is a complex problem which I believe has wrongly been attributed to supposed rampant racism of our law enforcement personnel.  I know law enforcement personnel in a variety of capacities (and of various ethnicities) and do not think racism is our core problem. But just because that is not the source of the problem does not mean we don’t have a problem in our country.  We all know the status quo is not good.  And there is no fixing it overnight.  But, when lost in the woods, one should take steps to get out of it versus denying we are lost in the first place.

I believe the problems start in many poor neighborhoods – systemically. Many of our fellow citizens grow up with little home structure, poor schools, poor role models, low wage jobs with little hope of advancement, and not much hope of escaping from those places.  Poor housing and easy access to drugs and to guns exacerbate the problems. And these blighted neighborhoods ethnically, tend to more closely match the makeup of our incarcerated population.

Building more and more jails, to me, is like buying more and more fire extinguishers for buildings that keep catching on fire versus asking ourselves what is causing the fires.  The problem isn’t with those trying to fight the fires.  The problem is with the root causes which we are all too comfortable to ignore.  And our penchant to collect as little in taxes as we possibly can further causes problems in many of these regions.  We can neither improve the schools, the housing, nor the law enforcement due to limited and even decreasing funding.  A secularization of society isn’t helping either as churches in many of these neighborhoods were often springboards which helped people escape the cycles of poverty, violence, and drug use.

Jesus saw the people who were hurting in his society.  He was drawn to them.  As his 21st century followers, we should too.  I truly believe Christ should call on us to transform the culture around us.  We need to acknowledge our society has not been on the right course in many of our poorer neighborhoods that particularly make up our inner cities for quite sometime.  We need to acknowledge that the reason why illegal drugs are a problem in our country and beyond is because we Americans are consuming them (and not just in poor neighborhoods either).  We like to blame drug cartels and other countries but the drug trade wouldn’t be there if people in our country were buying it.  We need to connect our churches across our cities and country to be resources for one another and care about what is going on in the worst parts of our towns.  We cannot fix problems until we acknowledge them.  And these problems are far worse than an NFL quarterback who won’t stand during the national anthem.

Our nation is meant to be a melting pot of people from a variety of backgrounds.  We have improved in many ways over the course of our history.  Other countries still look to us and the example we set.  Our TV shows and movies are watched worldwide and have a bigger impact than we sometimes imagine.  But that doesn’t mean we have reached Nirvana and all he need to do is hold on to the status quo.  Our better angels call on us to care for each other and to perpetually build a better society.  Our nation is far from perfect.  But we do need to keep moving forward.

I hope Colin Kaepernick will stand back up.  He is incredibly blessed to be born as an American.  But, more than that, I hope we as a society work to improve the lot of those who struggle the most among us.  It is what I think Jesus would do.  Our blessings stretch far beyond our nationality.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

Perspective

 

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Every year everyone in the Air National Guard takes a physical fitness test.  Part of this test involves running a mile and a half in a certain amount of time (depending on your gender and age).  I have been running a great deal lately to prepare.

Being in my fifties, I also try to run at night.  I live in the south.  Night running means it is significantly cooler and I don’t have to worry about sun exposure (I hate putting on sun block to run, wearing hats, etc).  And since there are no lit running tracks near me, I run on neighborhood streets that aren’t too busy.

What it makes me appreciate more and more is how little power I have in regard to most on the road.  Most are either on bikes, motorcycles, cars, or trucks.  Even those on bikes are moving ten miles an hour faster than I am.  Cars, motorcycles, and trucks even more so.  I can’t just think of running as I run.  I have to be perpetually aware of others on the road (and get out of their way!).

I wonder, when we live in cultures that have much more power, much more money, and many more resources to tap into – how much this is like how smaller countries, ethnic groups, and even individuals experience trying to deal with us.  I wonder how much it parallels with what the poor experience trying to access services that I take for granted.  I wonder how much this is like for someone who happens to be born elsewhere when disease, natural disaster, or personal tragedy strikes.  I wonder if this is how it feels when one (or someone one loves) is diagnosed with a difficult disease or has a major injury and all the healthy people keep flying on with their healthy lives, almost totally unaware.  Bigger and more powerful forces keep flying by when you are worried about your own problem.

I know this – Jesus saw the people and peoples society tends to fly by, and we as God’s people should too.  God cares about people who struggle in the midst of great forces.  God is not so impressed with the powerful and strong of this world.  God cares about his people and God’s love is not based on how important our society or our world rates us.

As we evaluate who we are and who we are called to be, let us care as God cares.  And may we remember God cares about us not matter how big or small we are as we travel down the road of life.

Until next time,

Tom

 

Something Lost In My Generation

6We seem to have lost our appreciation of diversity.  We seem less and less these days to think of diversity as a strength that enriches us.  We want everyone to be like us and it is to our detriment.

Last night, I was sitting in a second church board meeting in two days. I chair the board (we call them Sesssions in the Presbyterian Church) of the church I serve and another that does not have a pastor.  The elders there mentioned they might be considering calling a part-time pastor.  I mentioned to them that I know of another church down the road from them that also will likely be looking for a part-time pastor in the near future but that it is a more liberal congregation whereas they are more conservative.  One of the elders looked perplexed and asked, “Couldn’t a pastor handle that?”  My answer was, “Of course, both congregations and a potential pastor should be able to handle that.  Nowadays though, we aren’t so good at that.”

We used to be so much better.  In the World War II generation, it was not unusual at all for a Presbyterian congregation to have a more liberal pastor with more conservative parishioners in the pews. Most congregations and pastors handled this well.  Outside of the church, many left and right politicians were good friends.  For example, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil famously advocated for very different politics at work but were good friends off of the job.  As time has gone on, we have had more and more difficultly doing this. We see people who have differing theology or politics as our enemies.  This is also true on a personal level.  How many people do you know that are good friends but who disagree on gun control, abortion, or on gay rights?  How many libertarians do you know that like to hang out with liberal Democrats?  We seem to just want to congregate with people who see the world the exact same way we do.  How do we grow sequestering ourselves off like that?

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been particularly bad about this all through my adulthood.  There are publications and websites whose whole purpose seems to be to lambaste people and policies which they differ with theologically and politically, almost never saying a kind word or complementing the denomination.  We form new denominations so we can gather just with Presbyterians who are just like us.  We don’t want to be around people who differ from us.  We vilify them.  We think we are stronger without them.  But really the opposite is true.

And I pray for my United Methodist sisters and brothers who are trying to figure out their way currently regarding gay rights/inclusion in their communion.  I again are reading voices talking of separating if things don’t go their way.  I surely hope they continue to set a good example.

I am grateful that Parkway (the church I serve) seems much more “old school” than many churches today.  People have opinions but they don’t let that divide them.  But I think we need to perpetually be on guard because it is all too easy for smaller groups to go the way of larger ones.  And overall, somehow, as a society, we have to find anew an appreciation for one another.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to stand up for what we believe in but we let go of the idea that our relationship with people is less important than the issues over which we might disagree.

Jesus Christ came to reconcile the world to God.  In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, male or female (and to modernize it – no Democrat or Republican, gay or straight, pro-gun control or gun rights).  There also aren’t denominations in the Kingdom of God.

Stand up for what you believe.  But we need to find anew that our relationship with God and with one another should transcend temporal issues of the day.  And we just might learn and grow more if we talked more with people of different perspectives than with the same ones as us.

What has been lost can be found, if we want it to.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom