The Beams of New Oxford Hall

New-College-010

New Oxford Hall

I love a good story, and this is one of my favorites. I first read it in Stewart Brand’s The Next Whole Earth Catalog. It was told to him by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson.

New College, Oxford, is of rather late foundation, hence the name. It was founded around the late 14th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top. These might be two feet square and forty-five feet long.

A century ago, so I am told, some busy entomologist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because they had no idea where they would get beams of that calibre nowadays.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some oak on College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country. So they called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked about oaks. And he pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks has been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for five hundred years. “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

Now that is how to run a culture.

The story, unfortunately, is probably a myth. But the power of myth is not that it actually happened. It is true in other senses. Good myth teaches us powerful life lessons. God myth is suitable, in the word of the Apostle Paul, for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in right living.” i don’t have to believe in a historical Icarus to learn that flying too close to the sun is dangerous.

As a pastor, I know that I have to be thinking about how our church is going to survive five, ten, twenty years after I am gone. Current trends do not offer much hope (although our church is currently bucking current trends).  Part of what I do as a pastor is to assure, as much as I can, a solid future for our congregation. Part of what is do is to plant seeds that may not be harvested until much later, when they are mature, and useful. Part of what I do is to remind us of our past, and the resources we have there, as well as our future, and how we must prepare for it.

I am but a blip in the history of the congregation I serve. (We just celebrated our 133rd anniversary.) If I am remembered 133 years from now, I hope it is because I planted seeds which were able to come to fruition years after I was gone.

Oh, and while we are at it, why not manage our planet this way?

Posted in Church, Church Growth, Intelligence, Mission, Parable, Presbyterian, spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Heart, and “Da Noirve”

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The two boys were a bit different from the other parishioners, even from the other kids in the church. One was 15, the other was 17. They were both in a band. There were both on the cutting edge of culture. Their parents were active in my church, but their two boys were not. One Sunday they call came to church together. It may have been Mother’s Day, I don’t remember. One of the boys had blue hair, the other had dyed his green. Their dress was about as provocative as their hair. But they were there.

As they sat down, a voice behind them said, in a voice loud enough for anyone within two pew lengths to hear, “I think it’s disgraceful the way some people come to worship. If they can’t dress appropriately, they have no business being there.”

The family got up and left, and the two boys never came back. The parents did not leave the church but scaled back their participation to almost nothing.

I was on the evangelism committee of the church I attended before I became a pastor. One person had an idea for outreach. It was not well accepted by the group. They didn’t think it would be very successful. The person who brought the idea stormed out in a huff, saying, “I thought this church cared about lost souls!” He never came back.

The Catholic novelist Walker Percy has a character in his book The Second Coming ask, “A mystery: If the good news is true, why is one not pleased to hear it? And if the good news is true, why are its public proclaimers such [jerks] and the proclamation itself such a weary used up thing?”

He has an interesting point–what is it about religion that can turn good people into self-righteous jerks? From Fred Phelps gay-hating Westwood Baptist Church, to the racist Christian Identity movement, to the local street preacher yelling at people, what is about religion that can bring out both the best and the worst of people?

Billy Joel wrote a song, The Angry Young Man, about, well, an angry young man:

He refuses to bend, he refuses to crawl

He’s always at home with his back to the wall

And he’s proud of his scars and the battles he’s lost

And he struggles and bleeds as he hangs on the cross

And he likes to be known as the angry young man

Unfortunately, when I was in college that song described me to a tee. I was full of faith, and had traveled to third world countries, had seen the poverty and hunger, and I wanted to change the world. I was positive the Gospel of Jesus Christ called us all to do our best to eradicate poverty and hunger. That should be our number one priority as a church, and I was frustrated because not everyone else shared my values. And I am sure there were times when I was an obnoxious, angry young man. I had conviction–but no heart.

I wanted others to join me, and when they didn’t quite see things my way I was more than capable of letting them feel the full brunt of my self-righteous (and misguided) anger.

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When Dorothy and the Scarecrow meet the Tin Man, he is a rusted wreck. Frozen in place because of a rain storm, he can barely mouth the words “oil can.” But that is not his biggest problem. He tells his two saviors that he has no heart.

I’d be tender – I’d be gentle and awful sentimental

Regarding Love and Art.

I’d be friends with the sparrows …

and the boys who shoots the arrows

If I only had a heart.

To have a heart—to care—to show compassion for others, that is what the Tin Man wants. And he is right to want that. When I look at the current climate in our country, I feel like we are a Tin Man, in need of a heart. The political discourse has grown heartless. I am prone to get into discussions on Facebook, and sometimes they are political discussions, and I have noticed that with many people, when they run out of arguments, they just start attacking me as a person. Of course when I watch similar discussions on TV news shows, I know where they get it. We have people marching in the streets, openly, under banners of hate. About once a week there is post where someone has videoed a person being ugly to another person, often an immigrant or a person of color, saying things that are just plain hateful. I read letters in our newspaper from people who are concerned about the homeless in our community, and some of comments show absolutely no compassion for others.

On the face of it we have become a country of self-interested individuals. According to novelist Marilynne Robinson, that makes us a “moral blank slate.” She goes on to say, “Self-interestedness is not a trait well thought of in traditional moral systems…That it is presented to us as uniquely and inevitably our governing motive puts an end to all the old struggles of the soul, and moots old considerations like loyalty or compassion.”

In other words, she says we have become like the Tin Man sees himself–empty of empathy and compassion.

And the shocking things is that we find the same attitude in churches. One thing I noticed when I got back into ministry several years ago was how much had changed. Where once a lot of churches were able to get together to help one another do works of compassion, now that is blunted. I have been meeting with a group of people about getting a permanent, regional shelter in our community. The group includes people from various social service agencies as well as governmental bodies. And at every meeting one question has consistently come up; where are the churches? And of the ones that are involved, why can’t we work together. I don’t have the heart to tell them that our various theologies keep us apart.

Perhaps I am overstating this a bit. I can look around here and see many, many compassionate people. There are some churches involved. You can find civil discourse in some places. But the loudest voices are often the ones that are heard, and the loud voices tend to be the people who have little in the way of compassion for others. Where are the loud voices crying for compassion? Where are the voices that are speaking for you? Like the Tin Man, it seems sometimes that our mouths are rusted shut.

We need more spiritual Tin Men. We need people who care deeply, who have and exhibit compassion for others in need. We have too many angry people. We have too many apathetic people. We have too many self-absorbed people, who just don’t care about others. We need spiritual Tin Men.

 

 

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Before we go any further with this, I need to talk about one more character–The Lion.

He gets a bum rap. He is known as the Cowardly Lion, because he is constantly scared. However anyone who knows anything about courage knows that cowardice and fear are two separate things. Sometimes being afraid just means you are paying attention, and the fact is the Lion finds himself in some really hairy situations. The Lion, as he says, lacks “da noirve,” but he tries.

Aristotle says that courage is the golden mean between two things–fear and stupidity. The person who does not act because of fear is not courageous, but the person who is just too stupid to know any better is not courageous either. People who are never afraid may not be courageous–they may just be to stupid to know how dangerous things can be.

A few years ago I wrote an editorial denouncing racism. Some people complimented me on my courage, but it was not a courageous action. I had no fear about writing it. In fact I was thinking it would be a good thing for our church if people knew we were not racist. So you might say I wrote that editorial out of self-interest.

On the other hand I have been in situations where someone said something that was racist, and I didn’t say anything. I told myself I was just being polite, but in fact I didn’t speak up because I was afraid. Clearly my silence was not courageous.

Courage is when you overcome your fear, but act with intelligence. Yelling at someone who makes a racist remark is not necessarily courageous; it could just mean you are a jerk.

The important thing about the Lion is that for the most part he overcomes his fear. That is the definition of courage. He is scared when he goes to the witch’s castle to rescue Dorothy, but he goes nevertheless.

I will admit that when we first meet the Lion, he is a mess, and the name seems to fit. But as we get to know him we realize that just like the others, he has within himself the very virtue he seeks. When it counts, when the well being of others is on the line, he rises to the occasion. If he just looking out for himself, his fears seem to get the best of him, but when, for instance he has to help storm a witch’s castle to save Dorothy, he is there, flying monkeys or no flying monkeys. The overall arc of his journey is learning what he can do when he has to, and learning that he can overcome his fears.

Spiritual Lions are people who can face their fears, and can charge in where angels fear to tread. Like Martin Luther, who stood up the entire Roman Catholic church, who stood on his convictions and said, “Here I stand! I can do no other,” or Martin Luther King Jr., who stood for peace and the dignity of all people, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stood against Hitler and for Jesus, spiritual Lions are able to live out their convictions no matter the cost.

But more than that, you need to know that the

A spiritual journey is not for cowards. A person whose spiritual journey is driven by fear is a dangerous person, for fear can push into some real destructive behavior. It is fear that causes people to distrust people of other races and ethnic groups. The complexity of faith can scare us to death. If our own faith is shaky and we see someone else who does not believe as we do, but is doing just fine, we can feel threatened. And some people, when threatened, lash out and attack. Others hide out, and shut themselves off. Either way we lose our connection with the broader aspects of faith. When we are afraid, it is all about us and our fears. When we overcome our fears is when we show real courage.

 

 

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When I talk about compassion and courage, I am talking about how we practice our faith.

In the Micah passage we heard, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness.” To do justice, to act with courage. (To be a spiritual Lion.) And to love kindness, to act with compassion. (To be a spiritual Tin Man.)

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus is confronted with a man who had a withered hand. He has compassion on this man. But it is the Sabbath, and the Powers That Be had said that healing on the Sabbath was forbidden by the law. To heal this man would be to publicly break the sabbath laws, and would mean, at very least, that Jesus would be ostracized by the religious powers of his day. It would mean he was picking a fight with them, and for the most part, they held all the trump cards. They could make or break Jesus.

And what does he do? He acts with courage and compassion. He heals the man. He tells them why: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” And then he does good. He is not afraid. He is compassionate.

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I have been talking about Spiritual Scarecrows, the Tin Men, and the Lions as if they were all different people, as if you can be one, but not the others. That is not really the case. In fact, we should all embody aspects of all three. We are to love the Lord our God with all our minds, all our hearts and all our strength. Anyone who exhibits just one of these is wildly unbalanced.

I talked about compassion. One of the biggest hindrances to compassion is fear. “What if I help that person, and they latch on to me and never let go? What if I try to help and I fail. What if I say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing? I will look stupid.” What if, what if, what if? And before we know it, we are paralyzed.

But courage without compassion can be brutal. Have you ever met one of those people who just tells it like it is, without any thought of how their words may affect others? When I was in college, I wanted to do justice–but I lacked compassion. When Jesus confronted the Pharisees in the Gospel lesson he grieved. He did not confront them with self-righteous anger. He grieved that they were so far from God they could not see how helping a man was an act of God. His courage was backed by compassion.

And finally, we need an intelligent approach to both compassion and courage. You can have the compassion, you can have the courage, but that all needs to be tempered with making sure you are doing the right things in the right ways.

I worked with pastor who drilled this into me. He got it from a friend of his. The friend was driving home from work, and saw smoking rising from a neighbor’s house. He had compassion. He did not want to see the house go up in flames. He did not want his neighbor to lose his home. He had courage. He stopped his car and went into the house. And what happened? When he opened the door, it caused a back draft, and an explosion of fire raged out the door, and he was almost killed. About that time the fire department showed up, having been called by another neighbor. They treated the man, and put the fire out and told him, “If you ever see anything like this again, call us. We know that feed a smoldering fire with oxygen, like when you opened the door, causes the fire to flare up. We know how to fight the fire without making it worse.”

I have seen programs started to serve people that lacked intelligence. I have seen people who were afraid to help others, because the lacked the courage of their convictions. I have seen people work so hard to do good, that they forget to be good.

That is why we need each other. While we should have brains, a heart and the nerve, some of us have more of one of these things than others. People who have great big hearts often need to listen to people who have great big brains. People who have ‘da noirve” need to listen and learn from people who have compassion, and brains. None of us are perfectly balanced in these three areas, but all of us can be.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, tells the story of three brothers, all of whom are dysfunctional at a basic level.   Dmitry, Ivan, and Alyosha represent the sensuous, the intellectual and the spiritual, respectively. What makes the three brothers dysfunctional is their division. Ivan, for example, has nothing of Aloysha’s spirituality or Dmitry’s love of life. Dmitry throws himself at life with abandon, but also without any thought to his actions, nor with any thought to how his actions affect his own soul. You would think that Alyosha the monk, the spiritual brother, would be the ideal for the novel and the first time I read it, I thought he was. But as I got to know him, I saw his naivete, and his fear of life, and realized that if he had more of Ivan and Dmitry in him, he would be a better person, a better Christian.

We need each other. As Dorothy made her way down the Yellow Brick, she needed a brainy Scarecrow, a compassionate Tin Man, and a courageous Lion. As we make our way down the spiritual yellow brick road of life, we need the same thing; brains, a heart, and “da noirve.”

We need to love God with all our minds, all our hearts, and all our strength.

Amen.

 

Texts

Micah 6:6-8

“With what shall I come before the Lord,

and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old?

7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

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Mark 3:1-6

1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

 

Posted in Compassion, Courage, Follow the Yellow Brick Road, Intelligence, LGBT, Micah 6"8, ministry, Musings, Preaching, Sermons, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Wizard of Oz | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If I Only Had a Brain

Third in a series of sermons on the Wizard of Oz. This week we are looking at the Scarecrow, and the need to be thinking Christians.

 

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I was a young Christian, trying to figure things out, and I was looking for a Bible. A friend told me I had to get a King James Bible, because, he said, it was the only true Word of God. Even at my young age I was familiar with other translations of the Bible, and I asked him why the King Jimmy?

“When they were translating the Bible,” he said, “King James put 40 people in 40 separate rooms, and told them to translate the Bible. All 40 came up with the exact, same, word-for-word translation even though they never spoke to one another. That proves it is the only translation of the Bible we should use.”

Great story. If only it were true. First of all, there were 51 translators of the King James, not 40. Second, they were very Presbyterian about it. They worked in committees. There were six different committee, each working on a specific part of the Bible. The history is clear, and not up for debate. But even so, there are people who still believe the King James is the only real translation approved of by God.  It is, in fact, a translation like any other translation. It is beautiful prose, but it is a translation, no more divinely inspired than the NRSV we use in church.

It was clearly a tragedy. People were at a party in a hotel in Kansas City. While they were dancing, people on a ledge above were watching them. They started to sway and dance to the rhythm of the music, and the beat of their footsteps destabilized the ledge and it fell on the dancers below, killing 144 people. Soon after the event I had people telling me that it was God’s justice because the people were dancing to a song about Satan. But in reality, the accident had nothing to do with Satan. the song they were dancing to was Satin Doll by Duke Ellington, clearly not a paean to Satan.

After every hurricane or earthquake, before the rain stops falling or the earth stops shaking, some preacher goes on TV and says this is God’s judgment on wherever it happens.

A friend in Alaska told me of a great investment opportunity being peddled at a local church. It sounded like a Ponzi scheme to me, and I said so. “No,” my friend said, “The person offering it is a Christian woman, and says this is blessed by God. I am going to double my money!”

He lost half his life savings in that investment, which was a Ponzi scheme.

What is it about our faith that causes some people to turn off their brains as soon as they turn on their faith?

 

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There is a common misconception that if you are going to be a spiritual person, you cannot also be a smart person. Spiritual people base their understanding of the world on faith. Scientists and other right-thinking people base their understanding of the world on knowledge. “Weighing in at 128 kilos of pure brain power, in this corner we have Science! And in the chartreuse trunks, in the far corner, weighing at .03 in the brain department, but 134 kilos of pure faith, is Spirituality! Let the fight begin!”

The motto of Duke University is Eruditio et Religio, knowledge and religion. When Nannerl Keohane became the thirteenth president of Duke University, she gave an address where she addressed her uneasy feelings about the school’s motto. “The emphasis on religion seemed hard to square with the restless yearning for discovery, the staunch and fearless commitment to seek for truth wherever truth may be found that is the hallmark of a great university.” Was she saying that “the restless yearning for discovery cannot be found in religion? Was she saying that there was absolutely no commitment to truth in religion? It seems so.

She solved her dilemma over the motto by talking about science as the pursuit of knowledge and “religio” or religion, or spirituality, as a moral impulse. Spirituality is what tells us to care for the disadvantaged. Science is what tells us how.

To Pilate’s question, “What is Truth?” Keohane would say, “Whatever it is, you won’t find it in spirituality.”

That is a grave mistake. One of the biggest problems facing spiritual communities is the lack of an intelligent approach to faith. The idea that you check your brains at the door when you enter the House of Faith is a wrong-headed notion. When we love God, according the Great Commandment, we are love the Almighty with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. Faith is not supposed to make us fuzzy minded. Jesus told his disciples that they should be “as wise as serpents, but as innocent as doves.” The problem we have is that too often we are wise as doves and as innocent as serpents.

You don’t have to take an IQ test to start your spiritual journey, but at the same time, you don’t have to throw your brain out the door. Too often I have encountered refugees from churches who were told by their pastors, “You are thinking too much. You should just have faith.” Jesus talked a lot about faith, but he never told anyone to commit intellectual suicide.

If you are going to journey on the Yellow Brick Road, you are going to need your wits. This is not an easy journey, and it is not always a safe journey. I hate to say it, but there are a lot of unscrupulous people out there, who are more than willing to take advantage of you.

About three weeks after I was installed in my very first church as pastor, I got a call from a salesman.  “Hey, Murray, I have been trying to get a hold of you. You are one busy guy. I hear your ministry is going gangbusters in your church. I have a welcome gift for you, and I’ll just send it to you along with your standing order of light bulbs. Do you just want one box, or two this time?”

I thought that one would be enough. What did I know? I had only been at the church for a couple of weeks. The light bulbs came, and after that did it occurred to me that we met in a rented building, and the landlord should take care of the light bulbs. They showed up, along with a really cruddy gift. I asked the treasurer about the bulbs, and she didn’t know anything about a standing order of light bulbs.

Fool me once, shame on me. The next time he called, I called the Better Business Bureau. Fool me twice, shame on me.

So let’s rejoin Dorothy on her trip down the Yellow Brick Road, and see what we can learn about Spirit and brains.

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The first companion Dorothy meets on her journey is the Scarecrow. He is not a very good Scarecrow, but he does make a wonderful traveling comrade. He is kind, brave, and funny. On the whole you could do a lot worse in your choice of traveling companions. He just lacks one thing–a brain. He sings:

I’d unravel every riddle for any individ’le,

In trouble or in pain.

With the thoughts I’d be thinkin’

I could be another Lincoln

If I only had a brain.

 

He wants to experience the intellectual rewards of life. He wants to think deep thoughts, bask in that, and then think some more. He wants to enjoy chasing down the premises of a logical argument and finding the flaws in the reasoning, construct a better one. He wants to consume new information, new ideas, and new ways of looking at the world, like a gourmand eating a fine meal. When his brain is working overtime, all of his self sits in delight.

The Scarecrow is a handy guy to have around. When they encounter the Angry Apple Trees, who do not give up their apples, the Scare taunts them, so they start throwing apples at them. He is the one who develops the plan on how to get into the witch’s castle to save Dorothy.

And this is how many people approach their faith. They love Bible study, theology, church history. They love it when ideas connect. They love learning new paradigms to help them further understand their faith. They are voracious readers, and heaven help you if you get into a theological or philosophical discussion with them. You might be there all day.

(Full disclosure: This describes me to a tee. I used to do my daily devotional by reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics–sometimes in the original German.)

Being a Spiritual Scarecrow does not mean you are any smarter than the other people in room. It just means you really appreciate an intelligent approach to faith. Some Spiritual Scarecrows may be smarter, but they may just appreciate smart people more than most others. Some Scarecrows I have known were brilliant. Others just thought they were, and still others were not and knew it, but really appreciated smart people.

Some of the greatest Christians in history were like the Scarecrow, from Augustine of Hippo to Thomas Aquinas, to John Calvin. Where ever you find the advancement of Christianity, you find someone who has spent time thinking about their faith, thinking about God and thinking about how God connects with us humans. You find people who love God with their minds.

Not everyone appreciates a Spiritual Scarecrow. “All head and no heart,” is a common dismissal. I cannot tell you how many times I stumbled on what I thought was a very important thought, only to have someone say, “Yeah what does that have to do with the price of tea of in China?” The assumption is that everything that goes on in our brains has to ave practical value, meaning immediate payoff. The idea that a theological insight may have significance all by itself just does not lodge well in some people’s brains. I learned a long time ago never to tell people I had been reading Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologia, or the works of some obscure French philosopher. “Why?” people would ask? “What is the value in that?”

“Because I enjoy it,” did not seem to work as an answer. “It has to have practical value,” I heard time and time again. One pastor told me he gauged all his seminary knowledge by how well his mechanic, a devout Christian man, accepted it. If he shrugged and said, “Yeah, that is deep, but who cares,” he figured it was useless, and consigned it to the dustbin.

And what happens when we do that? What happens when we assign our attempts to understand our faith in deeper, more intellectual ways to the dustbin? We become empty-headed people, “hollow men/leaning together/headpiece filled with straw” in the words of T.S. Eliot.

In fact much of what Christians do may be considered impractical, and people do it because they enjoy it. Take worship. What practical value is a Bach cantata or 25 choruses of a praise song? It makes the hearer or the singer feel good, but not much more. Except that when I say it makes them feel good, what I really mean is that it makes them feel closer to God. In the same way, reading deep insights into the nature of God make me feel closer to my creator.

There is a downside to this. Feeling good about God is only a small part of what it means to love God. I have known people who really never got out of their intellectual ivory tower, but those were rare individuals, most of whom also suffered great social anxiety as well. Their books were a refuge.

In the Old Testament lesson, David outwits Goliath. In a world that valued brawn, David beat the biggest guy on the block using his brains. In the New Testament Lesson, which is a real corker, Jesus is commending a man for using his brains to get out of trouble. In both of these stories, the people who used their brains were good examples of how we should be acting as Christians.

The theologian Anselm, who lived in the 11th century, had two sayings that showed how he connected his faith with his brain. The first is “Fides quaerens intellectum,” Latin for “Faith seeking understanding.” That means that we can augment our faith with the search for knowledge. The more we know about the world, the better we can understand our faith. The second is “Credo ut intelligam,” Latin for,”I believe so that I might understand.” That is the other side of the coin. Our faith helps us understand the world. In other words, far from getting in the way of knowledge, faith augments our knowledge, and knowledge augments our faith.

We need Scarecrows more than ever these days. The ability to think critically about theological issues is more crucial today than any other time I can remember in my life. People are not thinking; they are buying into bad and even false theologies hook, line, and sinker. With the proliferation of false information on the internet (and it often gets passed around in Bible studies and even from the pulpit) we need critical thinkers, who can take the best of the theological traditions we have inherited from our forebears and make it applicable for our world and our spiritual journeys today.

Like the Scarecrow, I wish for a brain–not just for me, but for every preacher who dares to stand before congregation. I wish it for everyone who ever posts anything about God or their faith on the Internet. I wish it for everyone who wants to bring their faith to bear on the current topics of our day. We have too many people who are cocksure that the Truth is plain and simple, and anything that is not plain and simple is not worth knowing. I wonder how many would go under the knife of a surgeon who held that view? “My doctor does not need any book learnin’. I just wants someone who believes in health.” How many would take their cars to a mechanic who insisted that motor vehicles were simple, and he was not going to waste his time on complicated “book learnin'” stuff.

The Spiritual Scarecrows are right to want a brain. I just wish there were more of them.

 

1 Samuel 17:38-40,

38Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. 39David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. 40Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.

 

48When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

50So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand. 51Then David ran and stood over the Philistine; he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head with it.

When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.

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Luke 16:1-9

 

16Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth[b] so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

Posted in Church, Church Growth, Intelligence, ministry, Musings, Preaching, Sermons, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Wizard of Oz, Worship | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Queer Eye for the Christian Guy

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When I gave my life to Christ in 1975 there was a lot of clean up I had to do to follow God the way I really wanted to. I invited Christ into my life, and the next thing I knew, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit barged into my life and went to work. “What’s this?” said the Son, holding up a few joints I kept stashed in some hollowed-out books on my shelf. “These magazines just have to go,” said the Father, weeding through my “reading” material. “I think it’s time to permanently retire these,” said the Spirit, holding at arm’s length my nasty, well-worn jeans that could have stood up by themselves in the corner. “Who’s that knocking at the door?” all three of them said as one my party friends came by, looking to lure me away from my faith and back to my former life.

Within a few days I had changed the way I dressed, the people I hung out with, what I read, even the music I listened to, for the sake of my newfound spiritual life. My life goals got a going over by the Trinity, and I decided that graduating from high school might be a good thing after all. All those things needed to change if I was going to change. And I really did want to change.

I was reminded of that first week of faith when I was watching an episode of Queer Eye. In case you are not familiar with the show, someone gets nominated by a friend to be on the show. If the person nominated is accepted, out of the blue five gay guys, Jonathon, Bobby, Karamo, Antoni and Tan, show up to give their life a complete makeover. It all starts when the Fab Five plow through their apartment or house. They literally throw away clothes, furniture, food, and useless knickknacks. In one episode they cut up their victim’s favorite shirt. In another they blindfold their subject, and drive him to a landfill to watch them toss his favorite lounge chair in with the other garbage. (It really was a gross chair, stained by years of use and neglect.)

Then they go to work on the person. In Jonathon’s hands, beards are shorn, hair is cut, and skin that has never experienced any kind of treatment is bathed in honey compounds, green sticks or in extreme cases, make up.  Mani-pedis are given. Tan gives them a whole new wardrobe. Bobby redecorates their home and lawn. Antoni teaches them a few, basic, cooking skills. And Karamo helps with their social life.

The guys can be a brutal in their judgments of the person’s life styles before they appeared. One hirsute person was referred as a yeti, another is told he needs to lose the gnome effect of his red beard. When Jonathon goes into a bathroom he likens it to a skin tag–harmless but really bad looking. Antoni goes through the refrigerator, making faces at the spoiled or unhealthy foods he finds inside it. Often all five join in the chorus with “yucks” and “ee-yews.”

If this sounds cruel, it is not. The fact is, they show up because the people needs help of some kind. Many are stuck in endless ruts, and are not enjoying their life. Some just have bad ways of relating the world. One person couldn’t tell the truth about some very important things if his life depended on it. Another was making the female to male transition, and needed support. Yet another wanted to come out to his mother.  Often the people whose lives they entered would be considered losers by the world at large.

After tearing apart the dysfunctional vestiges of their former lives, the Fab Five go to work on showing them a new life. When Tan takes a person for a new wardrobe, he is trying his best to find clothes that can show the person off in the best possible light. “Style is not fashion. Fashion is not trendy after a season. I couldn’t give a sh** about fashion. Style is dressing the way that you feel confident and what is appropriate for you, your age, body type.”

Confidence. That cannot be emphasized enough. They are doing their best to create confidence in people. They are not trying to make people over in their own image. They are trying to help people find their true selves. Quoting Tan again, “You being your true self isn’t going to offend anybody. It’s very unlikely that people are going to cause you an issue just because you are being yourself. And if they’re concerned, that’s on them. You’re happy.”

Often the people they work with have shut themselves off from others, others who care about them. “When people build up walls, they end up keeping other people out. But they’re also keeping themselves in,” says Karamo, the Fab Fiver who is there to help the person with the personal, inner lives. He took a young man who had consistent problems telling the truth to take a lie detector test. After the test he held up the results and asked him what he thought they would show. “I don’t know,” said the person. “Yes, you do,” said Karamo, “YOU know what the truth is,” and then he tore up the results. “This was not for me,” he said. “This was for you!”

While barbs about the person’s dysfunctional lifestyle are abundant at the beginning of each episode what quickly follows is an overwhelming affirmation of who the person really is. Time and time again people are told they are beautiful, exciting, talented, and most important, worthy. Usually there is an important event the person is preparing for–a party, a speech, a performance, a date, and in one really emotional episode, a proposal. This event often determines the focus of how the Fab Five work with that person. But the upcoming event is really an excuse for them to get out of their rut, and face and accept who they really are, and who they really want to be.

Sometimes I am surprised at how pliant the people are. If the Fab Five showed up at my place and tried to rip up my barbecue pants, they would have a fight on their hands. But the fact is the people who they are working with really do want to change, and they all accept it. They know they need to change, but they just don’t know how to do it. When Antoni teaches a person how to cook, what he is really doing is instilling confidence in them. “You can make this,” he says, “and it will be delicious.” When Tan helps them with their wardrobe, he is showing them how to respect themselves in the way they dress. When Jonathon does the makeover, he is encouraging them to take care of their body and their looks on a daily basis. When Bobby redoes the dwellings, he is giving them the space they need to flourish. And when Karamo gives them a life lesson, it is always a confidence builder.

Often the Five have their own transforming experience while working to transform others. Karamo, an African-American, worked with a cop, and during their time together they talked about Black Lives Matter and the many incidents where people of color were killed by policemen. He shared that he really didn’t want to do this particular gig. The policeman affirmed Karamo in his fears, and told him there were bad cops out there, but that there were good cops too. By admitting the injustices, a healing took place in Karamo. It was a cathartic moment to hear a policeman admit that police brutality existed. Bobby spoke at length with a devout Christian woman about how he was ostracized by his church when he came out. His story was heard, and his pain was felt by the woman, and she did not judge him, but showed him love. Tears were shed, some of them by me watching this profound moment of reconciliation.

There’s a part of me that watches the show wishing the Fab Five could enter our churches, and who us a new way of being who we were created to be. Maybe that is what church consultants do, but I have read enough books on the subject to know that if I hired one, one thing I would miss, that the Fab Five provides, is consistent and overwhelming encouragement and affirmation.

Then I wish that church could be this way. Part of the appeal of the show is the understanding that we all have things we need to change, and who is going to help us? Imagine if a group of people barged into your life, at the invitation of a friend who knew and cared for you, and started cleaning house, and showing you a better way to live, a way that really reflected your true self, that helped you be the person God created you to be.  Imagine if the church could be loving but firm about what needs to change in a person’s life, while also simultaneously treating the people with deep and abiding respect. If only we can work to pull people out of their self-imposed ruts, and into the lives they really want to live, a life that glorifies the God who made them, and respect the image of God that lies in all of us. We can work to tear down the self-made walls that we create to keep others out. We can learn to be vulnerable with each other. “Being vulnerable,” says Karamo, “is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. It shows that you are in tune with yourself.”

Toward the end of every episode there is a scene where the Fab Five gets together with the person, and they say their goodbyes. Often the person ends up crying as they say goodbye, because they will miss the guys, but also because they realize just how important and life changing their work was.

But too often church is the last place people feel safe being vulnerable.

Years ago the Holy Trinity entered my life and made some radical changes. I wanted those changes, but it took a long time for me to feel the complete love and acceptance that comes from God. Over the years, I have learned that God’s love is complete and unchanging. I have learned that when I am myself, I am the best person I can be. Watching Queer Eye was like watching my own life over the past forty years, and how God has remade me.

And as I write I realize it does happen. Maybe not enough, but it does happen. I was lucky to have a few people enter my life who could be my personal Fab Five–friends, a counselor, a wonderful wife. But it took years and along the way there was no shortage of people who wanted to make me change, but without the accompanying affirmation.

Maybe I will nominate the Church of Jesus Christ for a Fab Five make over. Maybe we will see our need to change, and invite the mostly unlikely people to come into our lives, love us and change us.

Jonathon says, “When people say, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,’ it’s not true, because you can reinvent yourself and learn new things whenever you want.” Maybe we can learn new tricks. To quote Jonathon again, “Can you believe?”

Posted in Church, Church Growth, Conversion, Healing, Musings, Queer Eye, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Transformation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Leaving Kansas

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TEXTS: Isaiah 6:-1-8, Matthew 5:1-11

Dorothy and Kansas

In the late 1990s Alaska Airlines ran an ad that showed a beautiful scene in Alaska, tagged with the words, “When you’ve seen Alaska the rest of the country looks like Kansas.” It was a short-lived ad campaign and needless to say the people of Kansas were not happy with it. [Note:  I have searched in vain for this ad and have not found it. Either Alaska Airlines buried all evidence of it (not likely) or it was a fake ad, and I thought it was real. Having lived in Alaska, I can agree with the general sentiment, but I have to admit that I have never seen Kansas, so I could greatly mistaken.]

The opening scenes of the Wizard of Oz take place in Kansas and are definitely not suitable as a tourist bureau ad for Kansas.  The Kansas parts of the movie are all shot in black and white, a neat trick showing us how spectacular Oz is, and how mundane Kansas is. The farm Dorothy lives on looks like it comes straight out of the first part of the Grapes of Wrath.

Dorothy Gale, Kansas farm girl, would have understood that Alaska Airlines ad.

# # #

Two Things

During the movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wants two contradictory things. At the beginning, she wants to get the heck out of Kansas.

She is stuck on the farm and is clearly not a happy farm girl. Although the movie does not make a big deal of it, her parents are absent, presumably dead, and she is the charge of her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. Her companions are the farmhands, and her life looks to be one long trudge of chores. Her only real friend is her dog Toto and mean ole Miss Almira Gulch wants the dog put down because he bit her.

But she has her dreams.  She dreams of a place that is not Kansas, a place where there isn’t any trouble. “Do you suppose there is such a place?” she asks Toto. “There must be,” she says. “It’s not a place you can get to by a boat or a train. It’s far, far away.”  She cannot get to that new land, because she is stuck on the farm in Kansas–the dull, boring, same-thing-day-after-day Kansas farm. Her wings are clipped, and her home is a cage. She is not a bluebird, free to fly to whatever exotic place tickles her fancy. She is Dorothy Gale, and there are chores to be done, and no one listens to her, and Miss Gulch wants to take Toto.

So where is this place? It’s over the rainbow of course.

That’s where Dorothy wants to go, to a place “over the rainbow.  Where is “over the rainbow?”

She has no idea, but she knows it is not anywhere near Kansas.

Somewhere over the rainbow

Bluebirds fly;

Birds fly over the rainbow

Why then, oh why can’t I?

# # #

Dissatisfaction

We need to note here how Dorothy gets into this wonderful story. She is dissatisfied with where she is. If she were a happy, Kansas farm girl, with a crush on Hunk, one of the farm hands, and had no goals beyond Kansas, there would be no movie. (In fact in one of the scripts Dorothy did have a crush on Hunk, which only survives in the final script when she says to the scarecrow that she will miss him most of all.)

But Dorothy is not happy where she is. She knows there is more to life and she wants more out of life. Maybe life has dealt her a bum hand so far, but that does not mean she has to accept it. If nothing else, she can dream.

Dissatisfaction is often what moves us forward. If all humanity were perfectly happy with their lot in life, we would still be living in mud huts, hunting and gathering. But time and time again someone said, “I’m happy with this. There has to be a better way!” Time and time again, someone looked “over the rainbow,” and changed their life, and sometimes changed our lives in the process.

To those who think the church is fine as it is, and needs no change, the great writer C. S. Lewis says that our desires are not strong enough. “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” There is something to Dorothy’s dissatisfaction in Kansas that is right. We should not sit in our comfortable pews and think we have reached any kind of pinnacle, no matter how long we have been at it.

What do you dream of? Is there a part of you that is looking somewhere over the rainbow? Is there a part of you that is dissatisfied with your life, if only parts of it? If you are perfectly satisfied with your spiritual life, for example, you can expect to really grow spiritually. But if there is a part of you that is saying, “This could be better. Is it possible I could be closer to God? Is it possible I could be more spiritually fulfilled?” If so, then you are in good very good company.

# # #

I Wanna Go Home

But almost as soon as Dorothy lands in Oz, she wants to go home.

As much as she longed to be away from the Kansas, she has plenty of reasons for wanting to back. Her house, airlifted by a twister to a strange and dangerous land, full of munchkins, witches, wanna-be wizards, flying monkeys, now sits on top of a wicked witch, who’s sister, the Wicked Witch of the West is not pleased with the deadly landing. The Wicked Witch of the West is even less pleased with the fact that her sister’s ruby slippers, which should now be hers, are planted firmly on Dorothy’s feet, not to be taken off while Dorothy is alive, a minor inconvenience she hopes she can soon remedy.

Welcome to Oz.

Isaiah was in the temple one day, a very familiar place to him, when suddenly something very strange happened to him. A tornado blew through. He saw six-winged Seraphs, one of whom was carrying a live coal toward him. And he saw the Lord. He was blown into the spiritual equivalent of Oz. At some point he must have said to himself, “I don’t think I am in Jerusalem any more.”

And what happens? God needs a messenger to tell the world a very unfortunately message and Isaiah says, “Here I am, Send me.”

Jesus stood up to preach, and says, “Blessed are… the poor in spirit.” Wait. He must have meant blessed are those whose spiritual growth is off the charts, not the poor in spirit. Why would the poor be blessed? “Blessed are…those who mourn.” Jesus, you are getting this all wrong. People who mourn are not blessed! Who wants to mourn? “Blessed are.. the merciful.” No, he could not have meant that. If you show mercy, you are weak, and will be overthrown. “Blessed are … those who are persecuted.”

And his followers must have said something like, “Peter, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.”

Dorothy is no longer in Kansas. The twister comes, swirling and twirling Dorothy to the place of her dreams, the place over the rainbow, but when she gets there her dream feels more like a nightmare than a dream. Once she is in Oz, once she is blown over the rainbow, she longs for the familiar climes of boring old Kansas. Apparently “over the rainbow” is not all it’s cracked up to be. She doesn’t say the actual words until the end of the movie, but “There’s no place like home” becomes her mantra as soon as she realizes that she and Toto are no longer in Kansas.

And her experience in Oz turns out to be a quest to get home.

She misses Kansas. She misses her home. She feels dislocated and lost, and no amount of lollipops or even ruby slippers will ease her the ache.

She wants to go home.

 

 

# # #

Home

“Home” is a common spiritual theme. Churches are full of people who, like Dorothy, are looking for a home. Most of us are not so different from Dorothy. A large part of our spiritual journeys is the quest to find and maintain a sense of home. We talk about our “Church home,” and we work to maintain the traditions of that home.

One of my colleagues was into creative worship. (When I was first applying to churches I was warned that putting down “creative worship” as one of your strengths was a great way to assure your resume stayed to the bottom of the pile.) But my colleague charged in where angels feared to tread. One week he moved the pulpit and communion table to the middle of the sanctuary and placed all the pews in a circle around it. He was constantly tinkering with the liturgy and throwing symbolic actions around left and right. The final straw was when he started to baptize babies naked to symbolize their entrance into the Church as new Adams and Eves.

Needless to say, the church found a way to sack him. It was a painful experience for him, and while he was between calls, he attended a local Episcopalian church. He and I met for weekly coffee, and one Tuesday morning he launched into a diatribe about Sunday’s worship service.

“He just went and changed the liturgy on us. I mean, here I am expecting the Lord’s Prayer, and he launches into the Creed. I was totally thrown off kilter.” Then he paused and said, “Now I know why my old church got so upset every time I changed things.”

You could say he was just hoisted on his own petard. He who lives by the creative dies by the creative. But what he did was to rearrange his parishioners’ home–their spiritual home.

In every church I have pastored people tend to sit in the same place week after week. I can tell who is missing by which seats are empty. Church services are a second home for us. We no more want someone coming in a monkeying with the liturgy (whether it is a formal or informal liturgy) than we want people to come into our homes and rearrange our furniture.

Church is a stable place, where we can enjoy a modicum of stability, familiarity, and acceptance. As the world whirls out of kilter around us, as our personal lives are affected by radical changes, the church is a place where we can be somewhat immune from the chaos. Often when people think of church they are like Dorothy–they just want to go home.

When we come to Church, that last thing we want is to be blown into Oz, or that matter, to be confronted with the reality of God the way Isaiah was. But if we were to encounter God the way Isaiah did, I’m pretty sure we would want to do it in the context of something that was familiar to us.

# # #

The same thing

While it sounds like Dorothy wants two very different things, to go over the rainbow and to get back to Kansas, in fact they are two sides of same coin. What is Dorothy really looking for? Not Oz, and really, not Kansas. She is looking for home. That home that lies in her heart.

She is looking for a place where she is loved and accepted for who she is. She is looking for a place where her heart can hang its hat. She is looking for a place where home is not just the surroundings but a state of mind. She has to go on a journey to find it, an incredible journey. Isaiah has to go on a journey to find his spiritual home, as did the followers of Jesus. Usually the essence of the journey takes place in our hearts.

  1. S. Lewis called this home “joy.” He says that we have fleeting experiences of Joy in this life. “…they are,” he says, “only the scent of of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

But they are real. They are fragments of what we call eternal life. And by that I don’t just mean life after death. I mean the abundant life Jesus promised us here and now, as well in our eternal future. They are reminders of our true home.

Like Dorothy we have a part of us that longs for Home, that longs to find the place where we are loved and understood.  We long, deep in our hearts, for that place which seems over the rainbow, which seems far, far away, which is the place of our dreams. And the good news is that place is real, and not just a pie-in-sky, one day after we die kind of place. We cannot fully experience it here, but we can experience it here.

Ironically, in order to find that place, in order to find our true home, we have to leave Kansas and we have to leave Oz.  Because, as Dorothy found, what we really want is bigger than Kansas, and bigger than Oz. Its bigger than our reality and bigger than our dreams. We live, in the words of C.S. Lewis, under the weight of Glory, and that glory spills into our lives at expected and unexpected moments. It is not a wispy thing, for the glory we seek is much more real than our dreams, even more real than the reality we currently inhabit. In the Gospels, the resurrected Jesus could go through walls. He could do that, not because he was insubstantial ghost-like creature, but because he was more real than the walls.

Isaiah got a glimpse of what lies behind Oz that day in the temple, and it changed his life. Jesus offered, in his teachings and his life, a glimpse of what lies beyond Oz.

And what lies beyond Kansas and beyond Oz?

The heart of God. That is what we really seek. That is what our true home is. Everything else is a pale imitation. Deep down, like Dorothy, we know this is not our real home, our true home. We know that there is something further, something deeper, something more real that the reality we know now. We look at this world and we know there are things seriously wrong with it. We should be able to live in peace, but we don’t. We should be able to share, so that everyone has enough, and no one has to go without, but we don’t.

And we long for a place where it is all right, where things are as they should be.

And our life here is no movie. These problems will not be resolved in two hours and twelve minutes. And that is OK.

We should nurture that longing. It is what ties us to eternity and what ties us to the heart of God. When we lose that, we lose a big part of our spiritual life.

And, we should let that feeling, that yearning, that longing guide us in this life. Maybe we cannot create Oz on earth, but we can do what we can. We can let eternity spill over into our lives as much as possible, and live as if the Greater Reality were starting to take root here.

Because when you do live that way, it is starting to take root.

Amen.

Posted in Beatitudes, C. S. Lewis, ministry, Preaching, Sermons, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Wizard of Oz, Worship | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Presbyterians and Politics Part Deux

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06-16

Back in the 2000s, during the presidency of George W. Bush, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “I never thought I would miss Nixon.” A few weeks ago I saw one that said, “I never thought I would miss Bush.” Given the trajectory of events, I can a envision future where we will see bumper stickers that say, “I never thought I would miss Trump.”

I hope and pray that day never come, but if it does, I would hope that I would not remain silent.

In a previous post I recounted my experience in politics, and my hesitancy to endorse specific candidates for public office. In spite of that, I said I was opposed to the recent proposed amendment to our constitution (in Presbyterianese, it is 06-16) that would prohibit ministers and other official representative of the PC(USA) from publicly doing that. 06-16 reads:

“No congregation, session, presbytery, synod, or national office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), nor any individual acting on behalf of or in an official capacity for the above institutions, shall publicly endorse or oppose, or otherwise encourage or discourage others to vote for or against an individual running for public office.”

Presbyteries will soon begin voting on whether this will become a part of our Book of Order.

I oppose this for a variety of reasons.

 

# # #

Power of the Pulpit

In the Presbyterian Book of Order, our constitution, ministers share their work and authority with others, most notably our boards of elders, with one major exception–certain aspects of the worship service, including the preparation and preaching of the sermon.

The pulpit is the one place where a pastor has ultimate authority. In all other ways we share power with the session, but in the pulpit we are subject only to the Word of God. At no point is any restriction put on a pastor when they preach–except in this amendment. Only here is the preacher told what they can and cannot say.

In the Presbyterian Church we give a lot of leeway to pastors in pulpits. Historically we are loathe to police what they say, or do not say.  A Presbyterian pastor can talk about the nature of Jesus, the Trinity, other theological issues, and not fear they will be punished. A Presbyterian pastor may support or oppose same-sex marriage without fear of negative repercussions from the denomination. We can talk about abortion (pro or con), immigration, poverty and homelessness, or hunger, and we do not worry that someone above is making sure we are toeing the denominational line.

Granted the pulpit is not the place for a pastor to force their opinions on others. My rule of thumb is that I have to be able to defend what I say using the scriptures. For example I talk about social issues, but in broad terms. I will talk about homelessness, but not necessarily in support of a specific policy concerning the homeless. The Bible clearly talks about taking care of the needy. It is notoriously short on specifics, and there are places where good Christians can disagree.

I have said previously that at no point in my ministry have I felt called to jump into partisan politics from the pulpit. Members of my congregation have run for office, and I never supported or opposed them from the pulpit. I never publicly supported them with letters to the editor or endorsements, no matter how much I privately supported them. Nor have I publicly opposed candidates, no matter how I felt about them privately.

But if an avowed Klansman, or Neo-Nazi were to make a run for office, and if it looked like they had a chance of winning, I hope I have the courage to speak up. I respect my denomination. I love my denomination. But I refused to be silenced by them if there is a large principle at stake. No session can dictate what I say in the pulpit. Nor can they prohibit me from speaking. That my denomination would, saddens me.

 

# # #

Not an Establishment of Religion

In the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, they were clear they did not support an established church in the new United States of America. They wrote, “we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: we do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others.” We have affirmed that in thought, word and deed since those words were written.

But 06-16 is not about an established church. I agree with every word from that first General Assembly, but I do not see that affects the pastor in the pulpit. If I endorse or oppose a candidate that in no way means I am calling for an established Church. It in no way means that I believe that church has a special place in choosing or rejecting candidates. If I were to endorse a candidate, I have zero expectation that any governmental body, local, state or federal, will say, “The Church has spoken! We declare this candidate the winner!”  (As a matter of fact, I hardly expect my own congregation to say, “Our pastor has spoken! Let’s go vote his person into/out of office!”) My voice would merely be one in the many.

An established church is one that is recognized by the government, and receives special treatment because of their relationship. Endorsing or opposing candidates assumes no special treatment by the government. As a matter of fact, were a pastor to do so today, they should expect an unpleasant call from the IRS. Currently a church can lose its tax-exempt status if they publicly support or oppose candidates.

# # #

Johnson Amendment

There is the argument that speaking in favor or against candidates is a violation of the Johnson Amendment, and would cause churches to lose their tax-exempt status. If a denomination supported pastors who spoke out publicly, it is possible the entire denomination would lose its status. (The Johnson Amendment was enacted by then Senator Lyndon Johnson, and states that any non-profit that are exempt from taxation are “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” according to the IRS website.) They may not donate money to candidates nor may they support or oppose them publicly.

I support the Johnson Amendment, especially the part that prohibits campaign donations to candidates or parties. Were the Johnson Amendment repealed, I can hardly imagine how much of a game changer that could be. Churches would become funnels for tax exempt political donations. We have enough problems with campaign financing. We don’t need to add others.

Were I ever to violate the amendment, I would expect to be treated as any other pastor would. As long as the tax code prohibits it I would expect to pay the full penalty for violating that part of the code.  (Our current president has promised to do away with the Johnson Amendment, however it can only be repealed by an act of congress.)

I have no problem with having an extremely high cost for endorsing or opposing candidates, although of the 2000 or so clergy who have publicly violated the Johnson Amendment on “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” only one has been audited, and he was never punished.

An even higher cost is the possible loss of trust by a pastor’s congregation. That cannot be taken lightly. To jump willy-nilly into the political fray is a very bad idea. I hope and pray I never have to.

But if, God forbid, the time comes when I feel I must, I hope to do so wisely, and without fear of my denomination.

 

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Great Ends  and Politics

The fifth Great End of the Church is, “The promotion of social righteousness.” That can mean a host of things, from speaking out against social ills to working actively to make positive changes in our world. Because the actual work of politicians often means compromise, backroom deals, and partisan positioning out of a concern for party power and not social righteousness, it is a good idea for pastors to keep that part out of the pulpit. Because good people of faith can end up on opposing sides of issues and partisan candidates, it is a good idea not to toss a political hand-grenade from the pulpit.

But these are dangerous times. We have seen children ripped from the arms of their parents. We have seen the President of the United States say that some people who marched with Neo-Nazis were “good people.” We have seen a record number of avowed racists run for public office. Political discourse, which has never really been civil, has moved off the charts with its incivility. I hope and pray we start to move in a different direction. I hope and pray that people of faith can oppose racism of every form, and that we can commit ourselves to taking care of the least of these. I hope and pray that these troubled times are a blip on our social radar, and not a portent of worse things to come.

But if they are not, I hope to be ready. And I hope the Presbyterian Church (USA) will support me, and not oppose me.

Posted in ministry, Musings, Preaching, Presbyterian, Presbyterians, religion and politics, spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

(This is the first in a series of sermons using the Wizard of Oz as a way of understanding the spiritual life. Texts at the end.)

 

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Come with me on a journey—a journey down the Yellow Brick Road.

This is a journey unlike any other you have taken.

You may be just beginning this journey or you may have been doing this for a long time. But it is the journey of a life time.

A lot of churches have this tradition where people get up and share their “testimony.” Although I grew up a Presbyterian, I also attended a lot of different churches and Bible studies, and for some of them that was one of the major parts of the meetings. Now if you have been a part of a Christian group where this is the tradition, it looks something like this. The pastor says something like, “who has a testimony to share,” and people get up and they tell their stories. Now when I say “tell their stories,” I mean a specific type of story—a conversion story. The basic outline of these stories are all the same. “I was lost, I was steeped in sin, I was in the gutter of life, I had hit bottom, and then I found Jesus (that part of the story is always a little different) and my life turned around, I am saved, redeemed, washed in the blood, headed for heaven, I am on the glory train! Hallelujah!” And if your testimony was really good, there might two or three people there who find Jesus right while you’re talking.

Now for the most part I think these stories are fine. It’s good for people to tell their stories, and it’s good for people to hear them. But I have two problems with the whole tradition. First, not everyone has an exciting story about how they met Jesus. “I went to Sunday School, and then youth group, and one night at church camp I decided to start taking my religion a little more seriously.” Now that is a fine story—just not all that exciting. The other problem I have with the whole testimony tradition is that the story stops when people come to Jesus. As far as I am concerned, that is where the story really starts.

And then I found that Presbyterians actually have a similar tradition—except a) we don’t call it a testimony, b) you don’t have to be lifted up from the gutter to have a good story, and c) the bulk of the story takes place after people have a significant encounter with the love of God. We don’t call them testimonies either. We call them spiritual journeys. You may be on a retreat or in a Bible study and someone says, “Does anyone want to share their spiritual journey.” That I like.

Because from the time we have our first inkling that God exists until this very moment, we are on a spiritual journey.

I have a testimony. It’s not as exciting as most, but it is a testimony, about how I came Jesus. But when I started hanging around people who shared the spiritual journeys, my story really changed. In my testimony, I gave my life to Jesus Christ in August of 1975, sitting on the back porch of my parents’ house in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I had actually done that a few times before, but it never really stuck until that hot, humid day in August.

But my spiritual journey? When I started telling that story I realized that God has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My testimony is all about me and Jesus. But my spiritual journey includes Sunday School teachers who patiently listened to me as I tried to provoke them by asking the really hard questions in class, or youth group leaders who put up with my shenanigans on youth retreats. It includes friends who walked with me along the way. It includes what I learned over the years from all the people who wrote all those books in my office. My story includes all the wrong turns I took, and the people who helped me find my way back. It includes colleagues and parishioners who have walked with me all these years.

A testimony is like Lindbergh flying solo across the Atlantic. A spiritual journey is more like the moon launch, which required the work of thousands of people.

Or, a spiritual journey is more like Dorothy making her way to Oz with her friends, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man the Lion, and Toto. It’s not a journey she could made on her own.

For the next seven weeks we are going on a trip with Dorothy down the Yellow Brick. We are going to look at Spiritual Journeys, using the Wizard of Oz as a kind of template for our journeys.

You see, we are all on a spiritual journey of some kind. And frankly, the more seriously you take your spiritual journey, the more you feel, as Dorothy told Toto, that you are no longer in Kansas. A spiritual journey is, in many ways, like a trip through Oz. Being Presbyterian, I realize that may sound far-fetched, but I assure you, it is not.

So come with me for the next seven weeks, down the Yellow Brick Road, to the Emerald City, to the place where there is a promise that we can find our heart’s desire. Come travel with me, as we make our way through this strange and fascinating land. Come and meet some really interesting people along the way, some of whom will want to help you in your journey, and some of whom want to stop your journey dead in its tracks. It’s not an easy trip, and its not necessarily a safe trip. But I ask you to come with me, down the Yellow Brick.

Jesus made a similar request. Of course, he did not ask people to follow a yellow brick road. But he did ask people to follow him. In today’s lesson, he calls Peter and his brother Andrew, then later, James and John. He found them in Kansas, or the Galilean equivalent of Kansas. Peter was casting nets into the sea, just like he did the day before that, and the day before that, and just like he was planning on doing for most of the rest of the days of his life. He was a fisherman, and that is what fishermen did. James and John were mending their nets. It was a normal day for people whose only real hope was that they would be able to feed their families with the day’s catch.

And then a tornado named Jesus blew into their lives. “Come and follow me,” he said, and lifted them up, up from their nets, up from their ordinary lives, up from all they knew about life and fishing. “I want you to leave Kansas, and come follow me down this Yellow Brick Road,” Jesus said, “and I will show you things you cannot even imagine right now. I will turn your worlds upside down. For a while you will not know up from down. I’m going to spin you around like you have never been spun before.”

Now you may be thinking, “Why on earth would anyone take up that offer?”

Well, in the first case, not every gets to choose. In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy did not choose to go to Oz. She was blown there. The tornado that picked up Dorothy’s house and blew her to a foreign land was in many ways the door to Oz. The tornado of God that blows into our lives is the door to a spiritual journey. Some people are blown into their spiritual journeys like Dorothy was blown into Oz. The tornado might be a major life change, or we start asking the kinds of questions that only God can answer. We may feel a deep absence in our lives, like there is a hole in our heart, and we don’t know how to fill it. We encounter the truth of Augustine’s words, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

Unlike Dorothy, who had no choice, when the tornado came it blew her without her consent, we can choose to enter the tornado of God that blows through our lives. We can enter by choice. Hear again the words of the First Lesson.

“Your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God. It cost God plenty to get you out of that dead-end, empty-headed life you grew up in.”

That would describe me. I told you my testimony was not all that exciting. It basically runs like this: I realized I was in a dead-end, empty-headed life. I was wasting my life, doing nothing of importance, yet knowing that I was capable of more. I was coasting through school, doing just enough work to get C’s and D’s. I figured the best thing I could do was to hitch my wagon to something bigger than me, something really big. The biggest thing I could think of was God.

The tornado of God had blown close to me many times, and sometimes I managed to step in it, but not for long. But I got to the point where I realized my life was dead-end, and pretty empty-headed. And that realization blew me to Oz, put me on the yellow Brick Road, on that spiritual path, the one that leads to our ultimate heart’s desire.

How is your spiritual journey going? Maybe this is a new idea to you, the notion that your relationship to God and the Church is actually a journey.

Maybe you have been on a spiritual path for a long time, but that path has changed recently. You were comfortable in your spiritual life, going with the rhythms and patterns you have been following for years. But now that path seems to have you in circles. Or it has led you to places that no longer feel comfortable for you.

Maybe you have just started down your spiritual path. For reasons you don’t fully understand you know there is “something deeper,” something that occurs below the visible surface of your life, and you have found yourself in a spiritual community that looks a lot more like Oz than Kansas. That can be stranger and scary territory. …

There are two ways to understand the spiritual life. Ann Tyler wrote a book called The Accidental Tourist. The book is about a travel writer, Macon Leary, who writes tour guides for people who hate to travel. If you have to go to say, Brussels, and you have Macon Leary’s guide, you will know where all the American hotels, are, where you can get English newspapers, Kentucky Fried Chicken or MacDonald’s hamburgers, and where you can find other Americans. In other words, if you follow the advice of his travel guide, it will be as if you never left home. You will never have to experience anything foreign, anything strange, anything that is out of the ordinary for you. That is the way some people approach their spiritual journeys.

When I lived in Germany, I met some other American students, and went on a couple of trips with them. It was like traveling with accidental tourists. They wanted to eat in Pizza Huts, and go to bars where everyone spoke English. I traveled with them to Bruges, in Belgium, and we never saw the city. We never ventured outside the bounds of our comfort zones. As we were leaving I realized I had been in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, and I totally missed it. That was my last trip with them.

Yet that is the way some people approach their spiritual journeys. Long ago they joined a church and have been a faithful member of worshiping communities ever since. But they cannot say their involvement with God or a church has really changed them. It is just a part of their ordinary lives, never life-changing.

I want to offer an alternative. I want to invite you to Oz, to walk on the Yellow Brick

I want to say there is more. There is more to the spiritual life than just sitting in a pew, soaking up a good sermon, and then getting on with your life. It is a journey, and like a journey, you will not find yourself in the same place day after day.

I must warn you though, there will be difficult moments. A spiritual journey is not always a walk in the park. There can be some tricky territory along the way. Many people who take their spiritual journey seriously often come to a point where they might feel they are losing their faith. They find they cannot always believe the very things they have always believed. They start asking uncomfortable questions. That’s all OK. It is part of the journey. I once heard someone say that traveling is like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer. You do it because it feels so good when you finally stop!

But there are rewards. A few months after I visited Bruges with the American students, I went back to see it a second time. This time I saw the city. I saw the beautiful canals that go through the town. I saw one of Michelangelo’s first sculptures. I ventured into the magnificent and overwhelming Gothic cathedral. I wondered through the art museum, and was introduced to Gothic art. I ate some horrible tasting cheese. I got lost a few times, and in getting lost saw things off the beaten path. I talked to people who actually lived there. I found new traveling companions, and we enjoyed the city together.

It was marvelous.

Come with me, down the Yellow Brick Road. Come and join us on this journey.

 

Texts: 

Peter 1:18-21 (from The Message)

18-21Your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God. It cost God plenty to get you out of that dead-end, empty-headed life you grew up in. He paid with Christ’s sacred blood, you know. He died like an unblemished, sacrificial lamb. And this was no afterthought. Even though it has only lately—at the end of the ages—become public knowledge, God always knew he was going to do this for you. It’s because of this sacrificed Messiah, whom God then raised from the dead and glorified, that you trust God, that you know you have a future in God.

 

Matthew 4:18-22

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

 

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