Spirit in Worship

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My home state, Louisiana, has team spirit. We love athletic programs down here, whether high school, college, or professional. New Orleans isn’t even a baseball town, compared to other parts of the country. Nevertheless, when LSU got into the baseball national championship, I heard frequent talk of the series. We came up short; Florida won it all. But people down here were actively tracking the team.

In the fall, our congregation has a tradition called Kick-off Sunday. We kick off a new school year for students and teachers, recognize the beginning of our preschool and Kindergarten year, and begin our fall/winter/spring programming.

What if I proposed that we do it a bit differently this year? Since LSU is our state team, what if we made it Tiger Sunday? What if I encouraged everyone to wear purple and gold in the sanctuary? What if we had the choir sing the LSU fight song for the anthem? What if, during the children’s sermon, we passed out toy tigers, pennants, and purple and gold pom poms to the kids? What if for our closing hymn, we sang “Go Fighting Tigers!”? What if we put up LSU banners on the fences? What if we set off some fireworks too, kind of like how they shoot off a cannon sometimes outside Tiger stadium? It might even get people to come to church who normally don’t, right? What would you think? What would you say to me if I proposed this? What if you were passionate about your own school (not LSU)?

Hopefully, you would come to me and gently but firmly say, “No. It’s nice that you like LSU, Tom, but that is not worship of our almighty God.” It’s not about the redemption won for us. It’s taking something that is not eternal and highlighting it in the wrong place, and at the wrong time.

So, why am I making up this scenario? Because one of the most awkward Sundays of the year is coming up. It’s the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July.

You may think that I am over the top in my description of a Tiger Sunday, but I just read that a major church in the Dallas area did just this with patriotism. They had people wear red, white, and blue. (We’ve done that, but this was so much more.) They brought flags into the sanctuary and waved them. They set off fireworks in the sanctuary! They played patriotic music the whole time. It was all about flag and country. And, to me, it was as off kilter as can be.

As many of you know reading this blog, I have served in the military for decades. I’ve been deployed and will be deployed again. I love my country. I pray for it. I sincerely believe that many of our current problems come from the fact that we have placed our faith on the backburner in our society (not the naming of it for prominence but the living out the values expressed within it). But I do not worship the flag. The Star Spangled Banner will not be playing when we enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And no, God doesn’t love us more than anyone else.

Our country is important, and giving God thanks for our nation, in worship, is right and appropriate. But we never, ever, should get confused about who or what we are worshiping in our sanctuary. Because all things pass one day, except for the Lord our God, who created us, who walks with us, and who lives in communion with us.

I expect to see some red, white, and blue clothing this Sunday. I expect we will sing one of the national songs in The Hymnal. And before all others, I will be happy to go into the fellowship hall, cut up a watermelon, and sing some old patriotic favorites along with everyone else. But, I hope, that in all that we do this Sunday, we point to the Spirit of the Living God we worship – not to the national spirit we sometimes like to focus on.

What do you think?

Core Values

In the United States Air Force, we have something called core values.  In the Air Force it is “Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in all we do.”

Core-Values.jpgBeyond any organization, I think each of us has core values too.  One of the questions I ask myself is why the news this year seems to “punch my buttons” more than any other year?  We have had many different leaders.  Each has had different ideas.  Why now, Tom?  I had a good friend who has a different outlook from me ask why I shared my thoughts as frequently as I do.  “I’ve never seen another pastor do this.”  I responded to her with an initial response but, in the end, the more I thought about it, it is because current events are running head into some of my core values.  There are two that stand out in particular:

  1.  I believe in freedom of religion.  Now, let me explain what I mean by that.  It is not that I can take my religion and shake it in anyone’s face.  It is not about people ascribing to my faith and if not my rejecting theirs if it is different (even if they don’t believe in God at all).  But what it means to me is that I can live out my faith in the public arena and I will advocate for values that are in accord with those beliefs.  I do not believe in personal and private religion, in that we should live one way of life in the church or in the home and then be comfortable with wholly different values advocated and advanced in society at large.  Therefore, if I see my government, at any level acting in a way that is – against the way of God – I am compelled to speak up.  So, counter-intuitively, if Mayor Jones wants to pass an ordinance to say we all must say “Merry Christmas” at the town hall each December – I am opposed to it because we are not all Christians.  But, more importantly, if Mayor Jones wants to install spikes under bridges to prevent the homeless from sleeping there because it will increase property values- I stand opposed.
  2. I believe the stronger should help the weaker.  Our experience of life is like a horse shoe.  We start out weak and vulnerable.  If we are blessed to live long enough, the same thing happens to all of us at the end of life.  The admirable are those who take care of others at those early or late stages.  Likewise, we laud our armed service members for being strong enough to step out of our largely safe and comfortable society and step into some very dangerous and volatile places to help make them and, by extension us, safer.  We laud teachers who work diligently to pass on knowledge to a next generation that doesn’t know what they need to know yet.  We laud our police, firemen, EMS workers – etc for helping those who cannot help themselves.  Ultimately, it is a religious conviction.  God helped us when we couldn’t help ourselves.  We should do likewise.

The news today punches my buttons because I feel we are regularly urged to check our faith at the door.  Again, I don’t mean by that we are asked not to waive our Christian flag or put a Christian Fish on our car.  What I mean by that is we are asked to affirm that we are not to love our neighbor as ourselves.  We are not to believe that the love of money is the root of all evil.  If someone strikes us, we should blow them away versus turn the other cheek. It punches my buttons because I see us taking from the weaker and giving to the stronger – not vice versa.

That is me.  That is where I am.  It is my confession.

I will take a deep breath and try anew to encourage the good.  I will also try not to  compromise my core values.  It is where I am.

What do you think?

Tom

 

 

 

I Protest

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Satire Alert

Satire – trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit folly

(https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/satire)

You know what I can’t stand? Professional sports fans, especially the ones who go to games. I mean, here we are almost at the end of another NFL season, and do you want to know what is going to happen either in Atlanta or in Boston after the Superbowl? One team will win, and fans are going to run in the streets and inevitably cause damage!

Some will be involved in crime and vandalism. There likely will be fights between Falcons and Patriots fans. (Did you know a Giants’ fan was put in an ICU from last year after a group of Dodgers’ fans pummeled him at a game in Los Angeles?) Almost every game – no exaggeration – in any sports league people are robbed. In Philadelphia once, they put a court in the stadium to convict criminals in real time at the games! Plus, I have seen pictures on Facebook about how degenerate, drunk, and desperate these professional fans are.

Our tax dollars are going to have to be used to clean up the trash they’re going to leave all over the place. Plus, our tax dollars are going to be used for all the police, medical personnel, and sanitation workers. Why do we have to help pay so these grown children can go and show their support for their teams?! What a waste!

End of Satire

Why is my above rant silly? Because we all know that when large crowds gather together, some people will misbehave. It reflects little on the games or the overwhelming majority of fans. The cost borne by society is well worth it for the entertainment value to a large portion of people.

So why the satire? I can’t believe the frequent negativity I have seen on social media regarding the Women’s March this past weekend. People make jokes and memes and often serious comments that are no more logical than my trying to indict all sports fans on the basis of the misdeeds of a few.

Some of the stories are blatant lies. My favorite is that at one of the women’s marches, the marchers were told to put their signs in one location so they could easily be cleaned up. The picture got spread with captions about how the women obviously didn’t care much for the environment since they dumped all their signs “all over the street.”

We have some rather significant divisions in our society. Let us rejoice that when people disagree, they don’t pick up guns, by and large, but peacefully protest. You don’t need to agree with every protest to see the value in overwhelmingly non-violent ones.

What I would protest is trying to diss any protest by seeking out and pointing out the misdeeds of a small (sometimes paid opposition) minority. If you disagree with the issues of a march, say why. Don’t try to discredit peaceful protests. Much of the world would give a leg to freely protest. Our own Founders believed that the rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of speech are so important that they are enshrined in the Constitution. And some things we really appreciate about our society today started with marches. They’re as American as apple pie.

What do you think?

Resistance – Properly Done

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This is a post that is ultimately about living up to the ideals we espouse, but before we get there, let me tell you about several shows that I have watched that only in reflection did I see a common theme: specifically, two movies, one Internet TV series, and an email.

Despite my penchant for watching and reading history, science fiction, and fantasy, all the stories are really commentaries about the time in which they were produced. I might throw in a few more cards into this “hand.”

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The first card I will play is the movie Anthropoid. It’s the story of the Czech resistance’s assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich  during the Second World War. It’s a gripping tale of how far they went, not only to kill their target, but also how hard they fought back when the authorities came after them.

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The second card I will play is the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One, which tells the tale of how Princess Leia ultimately got the plans for the Death Star at the beginning of the first Star Wars movie. Without ruining the story, let me just say a great deal of sacrifice occurs in to get those plans from the Empire by the Resistance.

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The third card I will play is the alternate history/scifi story on Amazon Prime of Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. It’s now in its second season and basically sets up what the world might be like if the Axis had won the Second World War. The tale is set in the early 1960s of such a world. What makes it scifi is that the man in the high castle in the story is a man who obtains films of our reality, and key characters get to see them. What would it mean to them to see a world where the Allies won as the Axis powers fight against Resistance fighters and against each other?

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A fourth card was an email forwarded to me, by a Presbyterian elder, in which a WW2 veteran says, “They say that you can’t bomb an ideology into submission. Well, we did. We firebombed the Japanese and Germans and dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, and they submitted.” There was more in the email, but that was the thrust of it. It argued that if we want to win this war on terrorism, ultimately, we have to be ruthless.

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So, what is this deck of cards that culture has dealt and I have been pondering? First, I think all of these stories are showing up in pop culture because of a growing sense that the people who are standing for freedom and diversity are no longer necessarily “the powers that be.” Now, mind you, most of these stories were developed long before the presidential election, and I am not pointing toward that, but I think, overall, people are sensing a growing push-back in our society against values we thought were the default in our culture. And so, what does it mean to be fighting against power? In these stories, the “good guys” are not the powerful ones.

In all of these shows, the basic message is that the good guys have to fight fire with fire. In Anthropoid the resistance fighters kill far more than just one Nazi official. In Rogue One, a resistance fighter kills someone who helped them in case that informant gave away his position. They also kill Imperial Forces with wild abandon. In The Man in the High Castle, a key part of the second season action is a Resistance plan to bomb and kill everyone in an Axis headquarters building (officers, secretarial workers, visitors, etc.). All of this corresponds with the email from our real history. The WW2 vet posited the idea that the good guys simply need to resort to being ruthless, perhaps more ruthless than the bad guys in order to win.

So far, the cards line up, except when we throw in one more card: This is not what the Bible teaches us. Specifically, it’s not what Jesus taught us.

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God was not about overcoming evil with force and fear. Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Jesus came so that the world might be reconciled to God. Christ taught us that we are to seek out and save the lost and pray for those who persecute us. Jesus even prayed for people crucifying him! Can we care, not just for the good guys, but for the bad guys too?

And let me throw in one more secular card:

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I would argue that the better angels of our society, even in our history, did not believe in resorting to being as bad (or worse) than our enemies. In the military, we subscribe to the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), which means we are not, ethically, to engage in some behaviors against our enemies (even if they would do the same to us in a heartbeat). Those actions are illegal and stand against the values of our society.

As we move forward, Christians have to go back to the words of Christ and try to live by them. I also think Americans, and our allies, have to stand up anew for the ideals upon which democracy has long been based. We need to protect the minority, and to stand up for what we believe is ethically correct. While we resist the efforts of those who would work against these ideals, we are not trying to destroy our opponents. We want them to see and accept a better way. In the long run, reconciled relationships are what matters.

I am not naive. I know some people will take a long time to come to this way of thinking. Some may never come to think this way. Some people simply never will affirm diversity, do not believe in democracy, and are opposed to freedom in general. I would not be in the military if I thought we can just be nice to people and educate and advocate for change alone. But force, when it is used, is at best a holding action. Ultimately, we fail if force is what causes change. It’s like a building without a foundation. It will fail in the end. We need for people not only to do what is right but to believe in what is right.

The best part of World War 2 was how it ended – with us helping to rebuild our former enemies’ countries and helping them to see that dispatching whole swaths of their people was wrong. The best part of Star Wars was when Luke didn’t strike down Darth Vader, but got him back to being who he was meant to be. The best part of The Man in the High Castle is when the central heroine realizes that she has to fight against the Resistance at one point to do what is right.

If we engage in the tactics of our enemies, how, in the end, are we different from them? I fear we feel, at our core, that what Jesus taught is all fine and good during good times, but that we need to cast it aside when we see fit. When we do this, are we really Christians? As Americans, does the Constitution really mean anything to us, if we are ready to cast it aside when we don’t like the people it protects? If we cast it aside, does America really stand for what we say it does? We need to keep our integrity as we move forward in an uneasy age where power may shift away from the ideas of Christ.

What do you think?

To God be the glory, forever and ever, amen.

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