Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Sports Ethic

This interesting story on Yahoo highlights a parenting delima I am having.
A nine year old boy who is not allowed to pitch because he is too 'good'

I took my oldest son to his first soccer game.
first, and I admit, this particular post is a bit of a 'bitch' on my part.
He had one short fall season of instructional soccer last fall and this year he just plays games.
Mind you, he has a high-school kid as a coach who doesn't explain anything about the game at all to any of the kids. The referee for the game is also a high-school kid who doesn't bother to explain the calls he makes. so most of the kids are clueless as to what is going on.

But here is my main concern.
The opposing team had a 'competitive' soccer player. there is 'competitive' and 'recreational'
My ex-wife signed our boy up for 'recreational' which I always thought meant fun and instructional. this was neither. It wasn't instructional and it wasn't fun. My boy handled the 12-2 drubbing we got thanks to the competitive kid, without much care. He just likes to get out there and run around. some of his team-mates were in tears because they just couldn't hang.

Back to the pitcher story. As a boy I was awful at sports. No one explained any of them to me and so I would should up at little league, ready to learn, with no one interested in teaching. they just wanted to play and win. there was no way for me to learn in that system. I'm sorry, but I'm having a hard time feeling bad for the pitcher who was told he couldn't pitch, because I'm the kid who already isn't that good at hitting to begin with, who isn't going to learn a thing by striking out in three pitches.

I'm not saying, don't let him play, find a league where he can be competitive and where the batters can compete with him. If he continues to strike out kids who can't keep up, what will they learn and what will he learn.

What is my son learning about sports from his experience at soccer? How to be a punching bag?

Here is my failing. I got so upset about the game I was trying to coach him for the whole game, which increased his stress levels trying to make me happy. I completely forgot the only reason I wanted him to play sports anyway; to get some exercise, meet other kids, and HAVE FUN.
I am disapointed by the apparent lack of concern on the part of the soccer powers that be, that including competitive kids in recreational leagues ruins the fun for everyone.

What I have to remember is my sport ethic. Play because its fun, you meet some people you like and you feel good about accomplishing something. I'm not going to push my son any more to keep up with little mister Beckham on the other team.
Learn something new, have a good time, introduce yourself to a team-mate
then soccer is worth something.

Oh, and yes, I want my son to learn to be concerned with the other players and the opposing players. I don't want 'winning' to be his only goal. I want him to value sports achievement for everyone, not just himself and his team.

Now I just have to remember that myself.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to A Sermon; The Sermon

Matt 15: 21-28
Amazing and Uncomfortable Faith
'Woman great is your faith'

What does the word 'faith' mean?
Does 'having faith' mean that we proscribe to a set of beliefs? Accept certain ideas about God?
We affirm that God exists in trinity even though that is a hard concept to understand and explain.

Does 'having faith' mean that we belong to the Church or a church? We are a part of 'the faith because we regularly attend worship at a Christian church, and take part in the practices of that church, Baptism, communion or in some churches the larger list of sacraments?
Does 'having faith' mean that we believe in something? I mean just a generic sense of belief that things will be ok?

Last week Jesus seemed to chastise Peter's 'little faith' although I really thing he was chastising with a smile. This week, Jesus points out the 'Great faith' of the Canaanite women (and by the way, this is the only instance in all of the gospels of Jesus calling anyone's faith 'Great', so we are witnessing something very special, very unique.)

I think 'faith' has become a bit of a cheap word to be honest with you.
Just about everybody would say they have faith. A vast percentage of American's say they believe in or have faith in God. But by that they often just mean that they like to believe that someone out there is a nice warm soft cuddly old man with a beard who smiles a lot and gives us a couple bucks when we mow the lawn. We really don't have to pay too much attention to God and God generally just sits back and lets us do as we wish in life, occasionally giving us a pat on the back.
'You've got to have faith' I've heard one person say to another, before they get on an airplane. Have faith in what, the plane? The pilot? So faith is trusting in the laws of physics or in technology.
'You've got to have faith' I've heard one person say to another, who is going through a tough time, financially, or in their relationship or with their health. Its kind of a way of say , 'Oh, it will be all right.' When we really don't know if it will be all right.
Much like the dollar, the value of the word 'faith' has been sinking.

The Canaanite woman has 'Great' faith.
What makes it so great?

Well, she is a woman, publically approaching a man. Women just didn't do that in this time and place and culture. Faith has urged her flaunt what is considered respectable, proper, and polite in public to make a shocking scene.

She is a Canaanite woman. Canaanites were the enemies of Israel. When Moses and then Joshua, lead Israel into Canaan, God commanded Joshua to actually destroy Canaanites (in a particularly unsavoury Bible story) They were dangerous to the children of God and so Israel was to avoid them and even in some cases destroy them. This woman is braving thousands of years of history, ethnic tension, and even, genocide. She is crossing the boundaries of race and religion and extending a hand to the enemy in order to help her daughter.

If you are keeping score with me, notice how different this 'faith' is from the popular concept of faith. While the popular idea of faith does not risk anything and does not cost anything and is just a general 'everything will be ok,' in this story, the Canaanite woman is risking public shame and courageously breaking through age old walls of distrust, difference and violence. Faith doesn't erase questions and risks, at least in this case, faith drives the Canaanite woman into the teeth of danger and doubts.

Now, an interesting and unpleasant thing happened to me on the way to this sermon. Sitting in my office making initial notes and thoughts and struggling with what I could possibly do with this story, I got a phone call. It wasn't so much that it was a phone call any different from the rest. A woman calls, doesn't have rent, just moved to RI with her husband to find work, but he got terribly ill and she lost her job caring for him and now they are about to loose their apartment (they have two kids too by the way) and she needs help. Well, she only needed $200.00 and I figured we could swing that through the deacons fund. Then I asked her address. It wasn't a Burrillville address, or Harrisville or Pascoag... She lived in another part of the state.
Well, I'm sorry I say, we have to limit our assistance to people in our community. We try to be generous, but we do have limited funds and we can only serve people in our community. Why don't you call; and I listed some Baptist Churches in her area.
What was troubling me about this story suddenly became very real.

You see we have this idea in our heads about Jesus; he is not troubled by women who make public displays, he has stopped to listen to and heal many. He is not troubled by foreigners, he has healed them or their children or their servants too. We have this idea in our heads about Jesus who looks at the crowd with compassion, his guts torn out by their pain, which he alieves as only he can. And that is what we expect...

But in this story, he completely ignores the Canaanite woman. Perhaps he even rolls his eyes and tries to pretend his attention is elsewhere.
She persists.
He does turn to her and speak to her, but he says, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.
I'd like to help you see, but I can't because I'm only here for Burrillville residents. Did you hear it?
She persists again, getting on her knees.
It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.
Did you hear that. Jesus just called her a dog. This is not the Jesus we are accustomed to.
And I didn't know what to do with this story.

The next day I sit, still struggling with what on earth to say about this Jesus who would ignore and then belittle someone who needed help when the phone rang again.
It was the woman.
Help me, she said.
I rolled my eyes, I don't have time, I've got to get this sermon done and do some visits.
Help me, she said.
I can't you are from burrilville. You aren't one of my children, Ask someone else.
I did. They don't return my calls, they only help church members.
they accuse me of being a drug addict or a scam artist.
Did you hear it?
How do I say No?
How do I say Yes?

In the end I never did figure out why it is that Jesus ignores the woman, says he doesn't have time or resources for her, and then, calls her names... I still don't know why that is in here.
I do know that
I don't have time for this
I don't have the resources, the money, the energy for this
I don't have to help you because I don't think you deserve it...
I do know now that whether or not we like to hear Jesus say these things, and I don't think we do,
we often (I often) utter these excuses.

For those of you keeping score; we have a snapshot of what faith isn't. I don't know why we get that snapshot of what faith isn't by looking at Jesus. It almost sounds blasphemous to say, but there it is.
What is that saying, Life is what happens when you are trying to do something else.
Perhaps that is true of faith. For me, a chance to practice faith and faithfulness came while I was trying to do what is central to a pastors faith in God and to his congregation, write a sermon.
Being in a hurry or focused on other things, is an obstacle to faith.
Viewing challenges and situations with doubts as to our resources, is a faith block.
Judging the worthiness of others walls in our faith.
When we don't pay attention, don't have enough time or resource, don't think others are worth it...
we aren't walking into the teeth of doubts and fears and risks , where faith is meant to be.

I went into our gospel lesson assuming that the most uncomfortable part of it was Jesus reaction to the canaanite woman. I came out of this story particularly uncomfortable with what I had learned about faith. While the world and many popular preachers present faith as a peaceful presence and a blessed assurance that all will be well, demanding little from me but a positive and hopeful attitude... this story instead tells me, this Canaanite woman tells me, that faith is that which afflicts me to move from comfort and apathy or passivity, into the jaws of peoples needs, God's call and the tension that comes when we realize that the answers are not always easy, that God has called us to move, to act, to change. Faith doesn't mean that it will all be quickly well, it may get worse before it gets better, it may not get any easier for me... but it will be the will of God and it will bring glory to the Kingdom.
Faith makes us queasy. The Canaanite woman must have felt that awful sick feeling in the pit of her stomach as she approached Jesus, was ignored by him, chastized by him. But the queasy feeling didn't stop her. Jesus must have felt queasy when he heard her voice; queasy because he was weary, queasy because there was so much left to do and he didn't need this interruption, queasy because the Canaanites had never wanted God before, but now, this canaanite, never praying to God before, now, that life was particularly tough, now she wanted God. Great Faith will make your queasy...

William Willimon tells a story that he saw on the television immediately after the attacks of 9-11. A mother and father were being interviewed as they had tragically lost their daughter. The interviewer closed by wishing that the mother and father could find solace in worship. To which the mother replied, 'we are christians. Jesus taught that we would forgive those who wrong us. I'm not ready to forgive yet, so I might need some space from Jesus for a while.' That is a great faith, that understands that following Christ's commands is not always an easy or comfortable prospect.

But I ended up amazed.
Amazed at this woman. Amazed at the utter determination that she exhibited. The conviction she had that God could and would transform the reality of her daughter possession to a new, healthy, happy and free reality. Amazed that she could see the impossible and demand the impossible.
I ended up amazed that this woman could accomplish so much when her faith didn't promise easy answers, quick solutions and refused to demand much of her. Instead her faith, her great faith, pushed her into a difficult and even painful situation, Her great faith shoved her to do that which the disciples found distasteful, inconvenient and even Jesus seemed to find annoying. Her great faith lifted her to new heights of love and sacrifice for her daughter and frankly shamed Jesus himself into action.
I stand amazed that this story tells us the faith does not shelter us from the storms of life.
faith, great faith will urge us into those storms, as Jesus did Peter in last weeks reading.
But that same great faith will show us, as it showed the Canaanite woman, just how strong, how resilient, how powerful and loving and tenacious we can be when we trust God in the worst of times...

Walter Wangerin Jr. tells a parable from his childhood. “When I was a boy, I told people that my father was stronger than anyone else in the world …. In those days a cherry tree grew in our back yard. This was my hiding place. Ten feet above the ground a stout limb made a horizontal fork, a cradle on which I could lie face down, reading, thinking, being alone. Nobody bothered me here. Even my parents didn’t know where I went to hide. Sometimes Daddy would come out and call, Wally? Wally? but he didn’t see me in the leaves. I felt very tricky,” Wangerin recalls.“Then came the thunderstorm … It was usual for me to dream in my tree and therefore not to notice changes in the weather. So if the sky grew dark or gave any warning, I didn’t see it.”But one day a wind tore through the Wangerin backyard and hit the tree with such force that it tore the book Walt was reading from his hands and threw him from his limb. “I locked my arms around the forking branches and hung on. My head hung down between them. I tried to wind my legs around the limb, but the whole tree was wallowing in the wind.”“Daddy!” As the wind blew he felt that his arms were going to slip from the branches.“Daddeeeee!”Then he saw his face at the back door, peering out. “Daddy saw me, and right away he came out into the wind and weather, and I felt so relieved because I just took it for granted that he would climb up the tree to get me. But that wasn’t his plan at all. He came to a spot right below me and lifted his arms and shouted, ‘Jump!’“‘What?’“‘Jump. I’ll catch you.’“‘I screamed, ‘No!’” But as the wind continued to blow, he changed his mind. He let go. “In a fast eternal moment I despaired and I plummeted. ‘This, I thought, is what it is like to die?’”“But my father’s arms caught me.“Oh, my daddy — he had strong arms indeed. Very strong arms. But it wasn’t until I actually experienced the strength that I also believed in it.”
That brothers and sisters is an amazing, uncomfortable and great faith
God Bless You All.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Am I an Ox, an Ass, or a Floozy

Today I officiated at a very strange funeral.
It was not a church funeral, no one from the church I serve as pastor. Just a pick-up that I do frankly for extra cash, as a service to families that have no church affiliation.

Without really getting too much into details, the fact that I was proclaiming the warm welcome of Gof for a faithful servant, for someone who apparently wasn't really bothered me. the family freely admitted that neither the deceased, nor they, her family had any association with any church or faith.

For the first time in my nine years of ministry, the theological point of the funeral liturgy that i use came home to me. the funeral service is a celebration of a life of faithful witness on the part of the deceased, a daily taking up of one's cross, as did christ, that allows the person to share in the blessed hope of christ's resurrection.

But (and I a do hate to feel judgmental) this family and particularly the deceased, made no effort to take up the cross. There was no faithful witness. I am not condemning the woman to eternal torment (that is not my job).

Here is the question you see. I am not claiming that God does not love or care for this person, BUT, she (according to family) had little to no relationship to Christ, so how can I stand and celebrate the reward of faithful witness to Christ, when there was none (that I am aware of anyway)?

I began to imagine the funerals I will someday perform (with sadness) for the blessed saints of my church who do daily take up their cross and who have over a life-time done so. I will say the same words for them and to their families. Aren't those words somehow cheapened by also proclaiming them for people who made no effort in faith and through grace, to be Christ-followers?

while Christ did preach the love and mercy of God, there were many, many instances of 'gnashing teeth' and eternal darkness for those who simply did not choose the Kingdom or make any effort to live as God expected.

In other words, am I not proclaiming a cheap grace in the these funerals. Am I not misrepresenting what God is all about if, through proclaiming eternal reward for those who never sought that reward. Live however you want and in the end god will still love you is not quite the story Jesus told. god loves you madly and wants to know you and be close to you and guide you. but if you will not be lead by God, how can I say that you still get the reward?

Is salvation universal I guess is the question.
I once read that an ancient church father once said, 'he who does not believe in universal salvation is an ox, but he who preaches it is an ass.'
I used to like the idea of universal salvation. I'm not so sure anymore.
It seemed a good idea so as to preserve the love and mercy of God, but it denies the choices of humanity, our freedom, I think. My mother loves me unconditionally, but if I ignore her, and miss out on that love, that does not make her cruel.

I feel like a gospel floozy (not exactly the word I wanted to use, but I didn't want to offend my millions of readers) selling a picture of a really tepid loving God who makes no demands of us 'His' creation and who therefore really creates little to no justice by simply loving us no matter what. Just pass me a check and I will make you feel better.

so should I stop doing funerals for the unchurched?
A very wise friend suggested that funeral for the unchurched is a good opportunity to reach out to the family. I appreciated those thoughts.
But that is not quite the point.
In the liturgy at the commendation I say... accept now we pray a sheep of your fold, a lamb of your flock, a son/daughter of your own redeeming. But what if they really aren't. They are created by God and so generally a child of God, but they have not chosen to be a part of the redeemed fold and flock. I can't say that with any integrity.

Do i create a different liturgy for such folk. one that doesn't promise the reward of the faithful, but does focus on God's love and mercy for all humanity? Is that still cheapening grace?

Just some thougths that I hope the one or two faithful will respond to so as to help me figure this all out.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Feeling Punchy

Joel Osteen's expression when asked if he could spell 'perichoresis'


His lovely wife, Victoria.

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to a Sermon

So I'm trying to figure out how to preach this weeks gospel lectionary, Matt 15: 21-28. I get a phone call from a woman, with kids, no rent, sick husband, no job, and frankly I'm thinking that this is the usual story that I've heard before and I wish I could just hand up the phone. Well she only wanted a couple hundred bucks, so I figured the church could probably swing the assistance. Until I asked her address and found out she wasn't from Harrisville. Berean is extremely generous in helping people, but we restrict that assistance to families in our community, and I think that is a good policy. so I suggested a few churches in the womans town and went back to writing my sermon.

Matt 15: 21-28 is all about a Canaanite woman who approaches Jesus requesting his assistance for her demon-possessed daughter. But she is Canaanite and so Jesus doesn't even respond. She persists and Jesus final answers that he has come for Israel first. She gets on her knees and here is where the story gets tough. Jesus basically calls her a dog. Why should he feed the dog when the children are hungry. (Israel being the children of course). She flips it on him and says that as the dog she doesn't need a full meal, just a few crumbs. Jesus relents and exorcises the daughter from afar.

Now, this is no fun to think about. Jesus ignoring someone in need. Jesus calling names and succumbing to prejudice. A good friend of mine said whenever this comes up in the lectionary he promptly switches to the OT text.

so I'm sitting around trying to figure out what to do with it.
Guess who calls. The woman calls again. Every church is turning her down. Some don't return her calls, some are downright rude. She is desperate. Now, I ask you, how do I say again, 'Sorry, there is nothing I can do,' and then preach a sermon this sunday. How do I encourage the church to let their hearts be broken when I wouldn't let mine be touched by this?

I know what you are thinking. I don't know her. This could be a scam. She could be lying. She might just buy crack although the money is going right to her landlord, but maybe she and landlord split it. I don't have much money myself and my own kids to feed. Berean already gives without ever complaining, I can't ask for more. So many reasons to apologize and hang up the phone. apparently every other church did. Jesus certainly was tempted. But the Canaanite woman persisted and Jesus relented.

Following Christ is not easy. If we take seriously what Jesus said about giving generously to any who ask, forgive over and over again, turn the other cheek, well, it will not come naturally. It goes against our better judgment sometimes, it will not come easily, will not be convenient and will connect us with people that we might rather not know. Apparently even Jesus struggled to listen to his own sermons sometimes.

I still don't quite know what the sermon will be although I'll never forget the illustration that God apparently sent my way.
I feel a bit queasy writing out the check.
there is a good sermon title, follow Jesus and feel queasy.
It costs something, demands risks, makes us look and feel foolish

Then again, how queasy did Christ feel as Judas kissed his cheek?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Boston Show; Strange sense of Nostalgia

Do you recognize this man?
Last night my wife and I and her brother and his wife went down to Mohegan Sun to see Styx and Boston.
I must admit sitting through the Styx show waiting for 'Come Sail Away.' Never was a big Styx fan.
then Boston hit the stage. You know that you are at a classic rock concert when the main attraction, Tom Scholz, a guitar and effects wizard, hits the stage wearing a knee brace. I was a bit worried about seeing Boston. I have always loved their music. They create such a majestic wall of sound, rich textures and harmonies. there are a few bands that I listen to that give me an experience of the Divine...and Boston is one of them, along with Santana, U2 and Duke Ellington. Anyway, I worried that live they just couldn't reproduce that experience. I had no need to worry. Every song had that incredible wave of sound that was beyond words.
But I found it strange that their guitarist/lead singer ran about the stage looking like such a rocker. Both Scholz and Pihl, original members, looked like regular laid back guys, and at around 60years of age, they just stood still and played. but this new guy ran around, often 'head-banging' ala the 80's hair-metal craze, and Boston just isn't head-banding music. He looked very rock star, perfectly coifed rock-star hair, eye-liner, designer rock-star outfit, custon Paul Reed Smith guitar, flinging picks to the crowd without missing a note, and hitting all the slightly cliched rockstar poses. You know; 1. Hit Power Chord. 2. Lift Guitar and show to the audience. 3. Shake guitar as chord rings out. 4. Hit another power chord. Or, another of my favorites. 1. Bend left leg to a 90 degree angle. 2. Extend right leg back and straight, a classic power guitar pose. 3. point guitar at the crowd as if aiming a weapon to shoot at them.
I was having a late 80's Poison, Cinderella, Dokken, Europe, White Lion flashback, both giggling at him and sighing for days gone by.
but man he could sing and he could play. and he looked strangly familiar.
so I looked him up.
It was Michael Sweet most famously the singer and guitarist for the Christian Hair-metal band Stryper. I was a fanatic in my teens. To Hell with the Devil!!!!
Two other interesting facts about Boston
their drummer, excellent by the way, is a native Mainer!!!
He only tours in the summer as he is a high school history teacher.
Michael Sweet shares lead vocals with another guy, Tommy DeCarlo.
He is accounts manager for Home Depot who made MySpace videos of himself singing Boston songs which landed him a gig touring with the band. And can he sing. He can hit some of the high notes that Michael Sweet can't, and Sweet is known for high notes.
If only they had thrown 'Honestly' into the mix the night would have been perfect.
Rock on Michael Sweet.