Easter – Love Wins

Easter season is the brightest and best of brightest days on the Christian calendar.  It shows us that despite the darkness in this world, we have hope.  Life trumps death.  Love is stronger than hate.  Health defeats sickness (mental and physical).

It is vital for us not to keep this message under a bushel but to put it on a lampstand.  That means, for we the people of God, to pay attention to stories that are sometimes difficult to read.  It means going to places that are difficult to go.  It means being in contact and helping people that the part of us that yearns for safety might rear back from.

Jesus told us to fear not.  I don’t think that message is for us hunkered down in our safest places.  I think it is for those who go to the place and are among the people who need to hear the Good News the most.

Easter means love wins.

Let’s be a part of the winning team.

Until next time,

Tom

Excommunication

     I woke up the second day of Holy Week to my usual routine of prayer, coffee, and scanning the news.  In this modern day of news reading, I have learned how to custom tailor which news to receive. This for me includes anything about New Orleans, Louisiana, international news, ​various sports teams, the Air Force, the Air National Guard, Christianity, and​, specifically, ​the PC(USA).  It was the last one that generated the following headline, “Is the PC(USA) Even Christian Anymore?”  I took a deep breath and dove in.

     It was a blog entry on Patheos (a website that generates all sorts of reflections on faith).  Not being familiar at all with the person who just “excommunicated” me, my parishioners, and hundreds of faithful Christians I love and know well, and some 1,760,200 of my fellow Presbyterians across the country, I looked him up. Dr. Reynolds is the ​Chief A​cademic Officer of Houston Baptist University.  This explains​,​ perhaps​,​ why Patheos would give him a forum,​ but his assertion is profoundly disturbing and shows the theological myopia that is not, unfortunately, ​uncommon in Christ’s Church. Why is this brother willing to show us the door of the Church and declare that if Christians are talking to us,​ it is not an ecumenical dialogue but an interfaith one? It is,​ of course,​ because of the recent ruling by the Presbyterian Churches (USA) that in states where it is legal, where a same sex couple wants to get married, ​where they ​come to a Presbyterian Church expressing that desire, and where ​that particular ​church board and pastor agree that said congregation can marry said couple, it is now possible to do so​. The number of congregations in which this can and will occur in the PC(USA) is remarkably limited.  ​The Baptist denomination is not normally a connectional church. They are not well known for their interdenominational dialog. The PC(USA) is a far more connectional denomination, almost by definition, and very involved in interdenominational ties and discussions. We are not, though, very interested in excommunication and calling each other anathema (any more). ​But this ​leader of a Baptist University is willing the excommunicate the lot of us over this solitary issue and declare us members of some other religion.

     I refuse and refute this idea.​ The crux of his argument rests upon the fact that ​we now celebrate ​something that ​he feels the Church traditionally has called sin.  But I would contend to my brother in Christ that churches around our country politely ignore or even celebrate scores of activities that are listed as sins in the Bible. I will just list a few. When is the last time churches called people in their communities to task for usury (the immoral practice of lending money at high rates of interest)? I would suggest that John walk out from h​is university, or his church wherever it is, for just a few blocks and see if he sees any places which charges​ high rates of interest (usually to the poor), and then reflect how often this is raised from the pulpit in his church. I would suggest that he consider how many adults, even adults in Baptist churches, are cohabiting prior to marriage. I am sure Dr. Reynolds may object and say his university and his church would call that sin. But I don’t read about Baptist churches rescinding membership of Christians who live together prior to marriage – something the church traditionally has called sin – and declaring that they are now practicing some other religion. They may hear talk about these being sins, they may even be kicked out of worship in some traditions, but they are not called non-Christians or members of some other religion.​ I would even raise up simply that most Christians, in every branch of the ​Church in our society, live a lifestyle much more akin to the Romans in ​biblical times than that of Jesus and his followers. Jesus remarked that he often did not have a place to lay his head. He also had little to no material possessions. He and his followers spent most of their time with the poor and the reprobate in his society. I do not think that describes many of us today: Baptist, Presbyterian, or other Christians​. It would be easy to go on.

     But the core of our disagreement concerns what it means to be Christian. A Christian is someone who professes faith in Jesus Christ and who lives out that belief in actions that reflect that Jesus is our Lord​. A Christian is someone who believes that God has saved us through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A Christian is one who believes he or she is saved by grace through faith. A Christian is one who believes that we have been treated with tremendous grace and that ​our God is a just God and,​therefore,​we, as followers of Christ, should treat everyone with the same grace, We should then structure our lives with justice,​ as it has been offered to us. Being a Christian,​ therefore,​ is not dependent upon which particular denomination we join or which particular social practices congregations decide to uphold​ in order to show justice and grace to all.​

     Dr. Reynolds may be trying to show us the door,​ but we aren’t going anywhere. No matter his thoughts on the matter, we still are very much followers of Jesus​,​ who depend upon him to guide us​. Scripture tells us that through Christ God is calling all people to himself.  “All people” is a pretty inclusive term. The ​One who chose to make us Christians is God.  ​W​e share the pews with people who can and will differ with us. All of us are flawed. We accept that we can be wrong sometimes,​ along with everyone else. But blessedly being right or wrong is not what makes any of us Christian.

     God has brought us together. We are called to go out and bless the world. He may not think my sisters and brothers Presbyterians and I are Christian,​but I share no illusion that he is not one. It is on that basis that I call Dr. Reynolds to task and hold him accountable​. His essay did not build up the Body of Christ. His essay just ​foments conflict within the body.

     Dr. Reynolds essay does nothing to proclaim the coming Kingdom and shows little grace. I hope that the day will come when Christians stop trying to decide who is in and who is out. This seems to be what got the religious leaders in trouble in Jesus’ time, yet here we are again. ​It simply isn’t our call,​ and who is in Christ’s Church might just be more than we imagine.

In Christ,

Tom Paine, Pastor

Parkway Presbyterian Church

Consider the Cultural Context

Way back in the 1990s I was taught sermon writing 101.  It included translating the passage from the original languages; examining the textual criticisms of the text; reviewing the passage in the context of its times (both the time period portrayed and when the text was actually written), reviewing where it is in the book, in the Bible, and the book’s origin; reflecting on it in light of other passages on similar topics in the Bible; reviewing it in light of the other readings for the day; reviewing how the text has been received historically in the church; reviewing what the Reformers had to say about the passage; reviewing how it has been received by current preachers and theologians; and reviewing it in light of the cultural context of the day.  It was the perfect prescription of taking sixteen to thirty six hours of sermon preparation – something no church ever affords a minister (or really expects).  Nevertheless, I was grateful, I learned much going through all those steps more than a few times.

While I could write about all of the above steps to some degree going into Palm Sunday as I have now been through eighteen Palm Sundays since ordination ~ I find the last step to be one that is most difficult to hone in on.  Currently:

~ My denomination (the Presbyterian Church (USA)) has voted to allow congregations that exist in states where same sex marriage is legal, where a gay couple would like to get married, where the church session (church board) is in favor, and the minister is in favor to allow them to do so.  The number of congregations that would meet all those criteria is remarkably limited. Nevertheless, this has led to widespread lauding by the largely secular community and younger adults (most of whom do not attend church) and widespread derision by the larger church (most of whom never go to the Presbyterian Church either).  We are in the spotlight nevertheless.

~  We are at a point of greater ecological change on this planet than at anytime in my lifetime.  This is quantifiable by some of the best minds in the world.  Nevertheless, there seems to be no significant plan to address the issue or even passion to do so among many.

~ Our nation is gearing up for another major political campaign already (the 2016 elections) which is likely to increase divisiveness, not unity. This is at a time when I feel our nation is more divided than ever before.

~ The Iraq War, no matter the original intent, seems to have been a domino that began a series of events that is causing significant change throughout the Near East, the Middle East, and Africa.  The change probably would have occurred without it but there is no question that our invasion and toppling of Sadaam Hussein began a series of events that is still ongoing.  Whatever the long-term outcome, the world we knew is shifting significantly.  Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel are all major regional players and what we can or even should do now is not clear.

~ The religious sensibilities of Americans seems to be very much in flux.  Commitments are not what they were in days gone by.  Financial giving to religious institutions and religious causes is not what it was.  Churches do not want budgets to define their missions.  Nevertheless, bills have to get paid.  Convincing people that giving to the local church is important has never been easy but it is growing even more challenging.  Also, young people who go  to church today twice a month are considered to be very active church people.  This is a big contrast with the previous generations, who even up to today, will go to church multiple times in a week (and still give significantly to the church).

~ The Church universal is under mortal threat in many parts of the world today.  Yet this gets little coverage or seems to generate much passion in the larger Church (but our denomination’s votes on what stock our pension program holds and who can get married does).

~ Many church members face significant financial or health care or family care issues.  They are simply trying to find their own way.  They are not looking to go out and convert anyone or try to make the world more Christlike. They are looking on what they need to do to make tomorrow work at home or work or school for them or their loved ones.  Many church leaders are worried how to make their local congregations viable.  Issues of the larger world are hard to focus on when more immediate issues close to home seem to be pressing. Reassurance of God’s love and active presence are needed now as much as in any time.

I therefore am finding the cultural context to be challenging as I sit down to write Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter sermons and homilies and consider what God’s Word says in our context.  Yet, I know this is true for each and every pastor that is out there this week. I also know God’s Holy Spirit surrounds us and Christ himself is with us in the midst of it all.

Pray for Christ’s Church this coming Holy Week and Easter.  It is an important time for all of us.

Until next time,

Tom

Klingons R Us

When I was a child, my favorite show was Star Trek.  Even into adulthood – Star Trek in various incarnations kept coming well into my 30s. I recognize that even though we have Star Trek movies today, which have done quite well, it is not quite the pop culture icon that it used to be.  Nevertheless, I often think of it as a bridge in modern storytelling.  So, for my older readers (or younger ones into scifi) excuse the explanations that you might readily know.

In the Star Trek universe, the Federation (good guys) venture out and explore the universe and run into various aliens along the way.  Some are peaceful and friendly.  Some become their enemies.  When I was young, I thought the various opponent aliens represented adversaries of our country around the world.  But today, I see all the aliens as our “shadow selves.”  In other words, the aliens are us when we aren’t our noble best.  The Ferengi (ruthless capitalists) are us at times.  The Romulans (paranoid and into spying) are us.  The Cardassians (a race who is always trying to recapture its past glories) are us.  Even the Borg (we will assimilate you) are very much us.

But of all the aliens, the ones we have become most like are the Klingons.  The Kiingons in the first series were the opponents of the Federations.  By the time of the next series they were frequently Federations allies.  But what was the hallmark of the Klingons?  They were warlike.  Run into a problem?  Fight first, ask questions later.  Even when they put a Klingon on the bridge of the Enterprise, he always would advise the captain to take the most aggressive course in any dilemma.  The captain seldom took his advice but I would say Worf’s type of advice tends to be pretty mainstream in our culture.

I am not only a clergyman but I am also a military officer.  I well recognize we live in a fallen world and that sometimes we must respond with force to stabilize various places.  But I am dismayed with how frequently I will hear people, even in Christ’s Church, offering up the most aggressive response to various problems in our world.  Jesus approach and the Klingon approach differ quite a bit.  It means nothing to say we follow Jesus if we only follow him in the easy times.

If you raise up that there are more than one option in addressing problems, the aggressive types will frequently call you naïve.  Have no doubt that this was how Jesus’ opponents saw him.  Nevertheless, Christi’s way is the better way.

We need to keep all options on the table when approaching a problem.  But heaven help us if the aggressive option is the only option we ever truly consider.

Until next time,

Tom

A Different Take on Sony’s “The Interview”

Probably most everyone knows the basic storyline – Sony Pictures makes a movie called, “The Interview” in which two of our citizens, who look bafoonish, are sent to North Korea to interview King Jong-un their Supreme Leader. The purpose though is for these two Americans to assassinate their Leader (at least that is what I get out of the plot watching the trailers). It is not a serious movie. It is supposed to be a comedy. The North Korean leader, and North Korea, are painted in very uncomplimentary ways.

Probably everyone knows what happened next. Hackers attacked Sony Pictures, stole a bunch of data, and threatened the company and its employees. They even threatened theaters that would show the movie. Sony decides this week to pull the movie. Freedom of Speech advocates, Hollywood artists, and even the President cry foul. Sony denies they crumpled under pressure. We say its not over. The real life story goes on.

Here’s my question – if we live in a society largely made up of Christians, why are we supporting movies like “The Interview?” A parallel question is if Sony is indeed a Japanese company, why don’t they have the cultural sensitivity to know this would not go down well?

This isn’t a question of freedom of speech or artistic freedom. It is a question about being a neighbor in the community of nations. There probably is no nation that we get along with more poorly than North Korea. Their values are vastly different from our own. Few people over here have any desire to visit that nation state. Likewise, they view us as ground zero of what is wrong in the world. We have spent vast sums of money over the years helping to make sure it’s southern neighbor isn’t invaded again. They continue to spend inordinate proportions of their budget on their military.

So, why make a movie that is intentionally provocative to them? We might not want a supreme leader. The very idea may be anathema to us. But different cultures operate in different ways. Why try to make a buck on low brow humor at the expense of a country that views much of the world as their enemies and we well know would take great offense at such a plot line? What is the profit is there for anyone?

Christians all espouse that we believe in Jesus’ golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Did Jesus mock the Romans or the Greeks? Was ridiculing Jesus’ way? Jesus went further though. He told us to love our enemies. He told us to do good to those who hate us. I just can’t imagine Jesus smiling at the people making, or anyone watching the movie.

And even if one is not a Christian, just as an American, is this the best input our great nation has to a small nation that hates us?

Likewise, for a Japanese corporation, whose best interest are in selling movies worldwide, and knowing the regional sensitivities that exist, I have no idea who would green light this project. Whatever ticket sales would come from such a venture would surely be accompanied by more expensive costs on the public relations front (and that doesn’t even count the hacking costs).

I don’t know what everyone should do at this point. I’ll let other writers speak to that. I just want to step out of the real world for a moment into a theoretical one and ponder why we allow situations like this to occur. Can’t we be bigger than this? Most importantly, can’t we be better in the future?

If North Korea is ever to change, embrace democracy, and join in the community of nations, this is not the way for us to help make this happen. This is not the way to sell freedom to a nation that has none. We have more to offer the North Koreans than comedy that is offensive to them.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

Ferguson

I was not surprised by the Ferguson decision.  The steps taken seventy two hours before, and even announcing the decision at night (during a Monday night football game no less) told me the powers that be were doing everything they could to mitigate a negative response.  Unfortunately that has not occurred.  Violence, looting, and lawlessness have returned to the streets of this troubled St. Louis suburb.

When you look at the evidence put forth: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/national/ferguson-grand-jury-findings/?tid=sm_fb  you surely understand the ruling.  If events occurred as presented – someone who had physically attacked a police officer on solo-duty, was moving back toward the officer, and the officer feared for his or her life, such a person is likely to be shot.  I think this is true no matter one’s race or the setting.

I do believe our law enforcement officers need better non-lethal tools at their disposal. “Set phasers to stun” might sound like science fiction but technologically, it is possible if we should desire it (I am not speaking of literal phasers but of various non-lethal weapons that we have the scientific know how to develop now).  But all that is not on the particular officer’s head in this particular setting.  It is a societal problem that we have an absolute love affair with guns and send out our law enforcement officers with little recourse than to kill in many settings.

The reaction of many to respond with lawlessness in Ferguson is disheartening.  And, so is the reaction of the general public that I have read all over the media this morning. Violence isn’t teaching anyone anything.  The rioters are likely torching their own neighborhoods and innocent shop owners who had nothing to do with the ruling.  But, in like manner, for many in the general public to treat this as a singular case and the rioting as nothing more than a spoiled and dependent culture in Ferguson is fairly myopic (and shows a willing disregard of history).  There are systematic problems that exist across our country that pertain to the criminal justice system and to pretend otherwise, that everyone is treated totally equally under the law, and justice is totally blind in our nation, is to be fairly naive (or uncaring).

Ferguson does not bring out our better angels in any manner or form.

The overwhelming majority on all sides would call themselves Christians.  Jesus Christ was the prince of peace.  Jesus Christ called for justice.  Jesus sat down with people “on the other side” of so many issues in his society.  Jesus had compassion for both people in power and people with no power.  Christ is with many today.

Let us highlight those working for peace, justice, and the rule of law on all sides of this divisive event.  Let us pray for peace.  Let us work for justice.  Let us stop demonizing people and thinking of “us” versus “them.”  Let people stop wearing masks.  Let us be a lawful and graceful people.

Let us work for a better America.

Until next time,

Tom

Getting back to an Equilibrium in the Church

I am a big reader of science fiction (at least when I find the time). I began when a high school friend got me to sign up for the “Science Fiction Book Club” and I have been hooked ever since. Some of those books were kind of written like Star Trek. Aliens would generally look like humans with different bumps and ridges but generally the same size as us and the same issues. But a few of the books portrayed alien life as it would develop on other planets – ones with more gravity and pressure. If human ships visited, they would have to alter their own internal pressurization or they would start crumpling like an aluminum can when you step on it. A ship designed for Earth’s atmosphere wouldn’t be ready automatically simply to swoop into a planet with significantly more gravity and pressure. Without adjustments, the ship would slowly get crushed.

In seminary, I remember thinking after watching a science fiction show which showed a ship experiencing greater and greater external pressure and starting to compress – “That’s just what is going to happen to many mainline denominations when I grow older.”  My reasoning was that in church after church I went and visited, they were stocked full of active folks who were going to age out of leadership within a decade.  Human beings, even when blessed with many years, can only lead so long.  Take out those internal supports and outside pressure will start collapsing decks of the big ship Church.

Of course, the answer everyone had (and often still has) is that we must restock the church with younger people to reestablish the pressure balance.  It sounds good in theory.  In practice though, what worked in the 20th century does not translate for many in the 21st century.  We just aren’t going to swoop into this 21st century world and find enough folks not just to refill our pews but to perform the same functions as their parents and grandparents. And the structures they built, and the norms they established, aren’t compatible with the new atmosphere of family, single, or even retired life today.

What I didn’t foresee then though, but see more and more today, is that as the pressure increased, loyal souls within the church who stayed even as numbers dwindled rallied and often took up the roles of two, three, or more leaders to keep the ship stable.  But, as time has gone on, these “support structure” leaders are getting tired and burned out.  Particularly in neighborhood churches, I see this as a major issue.

We often rally to the cry of, “we need more people to help our leaders not burn out.”  But if someone is doing the job of three or four leaders, it gets harder and harder to say, “Hey, why don’t you do this for awhile?”  It may be fair but it isn’t exactly what folks thought of walking in the door of the church years ago.  We also will say, “Hey, the ‘hired guns’ are supposed to do this, aren’t they?” referring to whomever the church has on staff.  But a staff member is supposed to be a spiritual coach, teacher, and leader versus a player on the field.  Staff members today must step into the gaps and help connect the dots more than ever.  But, hiring someone to do what members and friends of the church used to do isn’t exactly the solution the church needs either.

Re-Design is the only answer that makes sense to me.  If the church isn’t structured for its current environment, the answer isn’t to keep pushing on till the ship can go no further.  It is to redesign it for its new environment. This may mean sharing our (“ship”) i.e. facilities.  It may mean having smaller staffs.  It may mean moving.  But the bottom line is we are called to follow God together.  And we have to lose the blissful image of the way we think things should be and start building for the atmosphere that really surrounds us.

One thing that is vital and absolutely central is for us all to get back to why we gathered in the first place (or why our parents brought us to church).  It has to be about a deepening relationship with God (and with one another). If church is not accomplishing this central purpose, then we need to figure out how we can restructure to do just that.  It may seem like an odd question, but if you go to church, when is the last time you talked about God in church? When is the last time you felt God in church? When is the last time you felt God answering a prayer you lifted up in church? If the answer to these questions are hard to answer, it may be prime time for us to take a step back and re-evaluate. It’s important to remember – our classes, our choirs, our meetings, our buildings, and even our worship services are not eternal. The only thing promised to last are our relationships with God and one another are.  We’ve got to get back to that being our central focus versus all the things “church” has come to mean over the years.

Stepping away from it all may seem like a healthy answer if we are wearing out.  If you are tired, you may need someone else to step in for a time. But I surely do not think God wants us to burn out worshiping him.  God certainly doesn’t want us to feel hopeless. Just as the moment came for Elijah in the wilderness when he was numbly lying on the ground ready to give up but God had not given up on him – so I know God has not given up on us. God called Elijah back to lead through that still small voice. I know that voice is present still today.

When it comes to the community of faith, we simply have to seek a way that makes it work for us in this time and place.  That might call for a radical redesign.  But God has redesigned his people many times and in many ways over the eons.  Despite our thoughts about the church being stagnant, it has changed and continues to change. But will we be a part of what God is doing?

We can find a way to get back to a healthy equilibrium.  I just don’t think it involves keeping or “fixing” the status quo. I really believe more than at any other time in history, local neighborhood churches are being called to be innovative and they need innovative leaders. Following God’s call, we can adapt and even thrive in this new atmosphere – especially if we let go of designs meant for yesteryear.

I hope that wherever you worship, you will continue to give a part of your life to helping a community of faith redesign itself to bring us all closer to God and to one another.  It isn’t just a nice thing to do.  I truly believe it is part of why we are here.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

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