Sunday, August 08, 2010

Sermon onConsumerism and Possessions; Material Girl

Luke 12:22-34
The Spirituality of Pants II or We are Living in a Material World and I am a Material Girl.

Intro to the problem:
I’d like to begin this morning by jumping in the pop music time machine and going back to the days of my youth; the days of jelly shoes and leg warmers, up-turned collars, learning to do the Thriller dance and really bright neon colored clothing… the 80’s…
Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me
I think they're O.K.
If they don't give me proper credit
I just walk away
They can beg and they can plead
But they can't see the light, that's right
Cause the boy with the cold hard cash
Is always Mister Right, 'cause we are

C D D Em
Living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are
C D D Em
living in a material world
And I am a material girl

[Note; Yes I did sing this... No I did not sing it well]

Our first reaction as a Christian Community is… No we are NOT materials boys and girls. We are spiritual. We do not over value possessions and we know that there is more to life than having stuff.

On the other hand we are all familiar with George Carlin’s classic rant about stuff…

Now, its funny, because we do identify with it. We do collect stuff. We throw away lots of stuff. We ease our troubled souls by shopping for more stuff. And we feel a little conflicted about our stuff and the amount of stuff we have because of Jesus’ words today….

Lk 12:22-23
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.

Lk 12:32-33
33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor.

Don’t worry about your stuff… its sound’s like Jesus is saying… Get rid of all your stuff… which sounds impossible, impractical and well, no fun at all. Like you I feel conflicted about the amount of stuff that I have collected, but I also find comfort and meaning in my stuff…

What Jesus is talking about in saying ‘don’t worry about food and clothing’ is that the pull of the security of possessions is subtle. We don’t think consciously that cars and computers, cells phones and shoes are more secure than God. But without thinking about it, we can act like it.

But what exactly does Jesus mean? What are we supposed to do with these commands to not worry about what we eat or what we wear? And wouldn’t following these commands cause us to end up on the doll waiting for a state check?

What gets complicated, I think, is that we tend to interpret what Jesus says as meaning we shouldn’t care too much for things… so we try not too… but we are also in a society where stuff is cheap, easy to get, and constantly thrown at us. And stuff can be easily discarded and replaced. How many of us call a tv repairman anymore, or go to a cobbler? So as Christians we don’t really know how to fit what Jesus is saying into our existence. We don’t over-value stuff, which is what Jesus is saying… but we also collect a lot of stuff, and discard a lot of stuff. We don’t know where it was made or if the workers were paid or treated with dignity. As long as after it has run the course of usefulness it is out of our house we tend not to think about where it is, although we have a vague sense that the world, the natural world is increasing clutter with all of our cheap plastic crap.

As a parent I see it. It causes me anxiety. I do worry about the amount of stuff that get accumulated in a house with kids…. All those toys. And on the one hand, they make the kids happy and in some cases cause enjoyment and even intellectual and physical development. On the other hand a growing pile of stuff in the basement shows me that most of the stuff doesn’t get used. The thrill was the getting and not the having and using. The high is pursuing something new and once the new has worn off, we discard it and move on to something else. And that does concern me. What is that teaching my children about living carefully in God’s creation? What is that teaching them about using money? What is that teaching them about other things like relationships? The connection may not seem obvious, but recall the story of Esther. (explain)

And I know that adult too consider these things and worry over them. We buy something, a car, a motorcycle, jewelry, clothing… because it makes us happy and we enjoy it… but we also feel a little guilty about spending when we could have used that money for someone in need or for a cause that we believe in and support.

We are bothered by what Jesus says about stuff, his warning that we place too much faith in things through our actions, but not exactly sure how to navigate through the conflict of needing, wanting, caring for others, enjoying things for ourselves…
We don’t want to keep up with the Kardashians, but neither do we want to become Amish…

What struck me about Jesus words is the fact that to my ears, he is reminding us of the creation story. I know it is subtle and scholars would probably disagree with me. But notice how Jesus encourages us not to place too much value on stuff by calling our attention to the beauty of Creation. In the midst of the anxiety we feel about our stuff Jesus reminds us of the story of God Creating.

Lk 12:24-28
24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

27 "Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you,

God speaks and the constellations are cast in the heavens; God breathes and the planets flow on their courses through space. At a word from God all this exists and part of this story is the story of Adam and Eve being invited to participate. Name the animals, serve and protect creation.
It seems as if jesus is saying, God is still creating and you are invited to participate in that creating.
Come on…
That is exciting stuff…
You and I were created by God and called by God to join in the creating.
It isn’t just about getting stuff… it is about being creative…

In a world where we read stories of violence around the globe, the shooting of aid workers in Afghanistan, oil spills not just in the gulf, but in china and Michigan, surrounded by unemployment and the poverty that it spawns, it is so tempting to feel overwhelmed, to feel unimportant, to feel that we have nothing to contribute to such overwhelming and complex brokenness…
I just need to go home and forget about it all with some of my stuff…
For me that stuff is brownies and my Lord of the Rings DVD’s…

But Jesus is saying that we have a place in Creating and Redeeming all this brokenness… we are called participate creatively in the healing of the nations…

And I think that point for Christians today is that our stuff, our possessions is not outside or separate from this calling, this healing this creating… our stuff is a part of our call, a part of our message, a part of our creativity with God.

Let me ask you a question. In your high school year book under my picture was a list that summarized who I was at that point in time… a list with items like… Most prized possession…

Did you have that in your yearbook?
If you did, can you remember what your most prized possession was?
My most prized possession was my collection of Dokken tapes.
Dokken was a heavy metal hair band that was kinda popular, but not terribly popular.
It was my prized possession because of what it said about me.
I was NOT into pop music like Michael Jackson or Madonna or NKOTB…
I was into an edgier, more musically complex, slightly more esoteric type of music…

Our stuff, our possessions are important because they do say something about who we are.

I drive a Prius. Now if you think that I drive a Prius because I love it you are wrong. (I do love the gas mileage) but I do not like the size, its very cramped with three kids and the performance is lacking. I do not love stepping on and the gas and watching joggers, bicyclists and residents of Ashton court out walking their dogs pass me by as the Prius whispers up to top speed.

I have the Prius because I do believe that humanity is having a negative impact on God’s Creation and because I worship the Creator God, part of that worship means the practice of caring for Creation. The Prius means that I care about the Earth because God created the Earth and if I must sacrifice performance for loving care of what God created, so be it. The prius tells people a bit about who I am and if they ask, it is an opportunity to tell people about my faith.

Our stuff means something. Possessions are not only things that we own or have, they are an extension or an expression of who we are and what we are becoming.

I remember a moment that really made this apparent to me especially the difficulty on our consumer culture of maneuvering through the meaning of our things. I was visiting a friend at work, stopped by for lunch and he said, come out and meet one of my clients. Now I want you to look at the pin on her coat and then her vehicle. Ok. So I go out into the parking lot, shake hands, exchange pleasantries… on her coat a button that says NO FUR. So, she is taking a moral stand against the use and abuse of animals for conspicuous consumption. She was driving a Cadillac Escalade with a leather interior.

My point is that it is easy for us to think consciously that our values and beliefs are embodied in our lives by our thoughts and our ideas, but to connect that to actions and possessions, takes careful planning and thought. AND, without careful consideration and awareness we can contradict what we believe with what we have, pursue, value, own…

To best honor what Jesus is saying to us today, I think we need to embrace that we are Material boys and girls.

And instead of keeping our spiritual life separate from our stuff, we need to let the Spirit invade our stuff.

If you think about it, that is the heart of our faith. The word became flesh and dwelt among us, John says. The spirit invaded, flesh, stuff. God doesn’t want faith and stuff separate, but together, working in concert, for the renewing of Creation. We proclaim it every month when we say together, this bread is my body, this cup is a new covenant. Spirit and stuff, together creating us, recreating the world.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to start taking a spiritual inventory of my stuff and how I use my stuff. The biggest struggle for me will probably be the TV, I can so easily become entranced and addicted to TV. But I will honor both my spirit and the Creative Holy Spirit if I turn it off and have game night with the boys, or take Anna for a walk with Bert, or read a book.

Your inventory will be different. There will be different things that cloud the image of God that you were created to be, and different things that help you to realize your creative potential. The struggle will be to rid ourselves of the things that twist us, subtly out of the shape God is trying to mold us into. The challenging but hopefully redeeming practice for us as Christians embracing the spirit of our stuff, will be to pause and ask ourselves, when we are thinking of getting more stuff, is how will this stuff feed my spirit? How did its production affect the spirit of the one producing it? Will this develop the image of God within me or distort that image? Will others see my faith through my stuff?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Earth Day, A Celebration of God's Love

Should Environmental Concerns be a part of the gospel proclamation of the church?

This week I am working on a sermon for Earth Day Sunday. Having done some environmental justice sermons before what most often seems to be the hurdle to jump is the political overtones. In trying to encourage Christians to think about the environment from a Biblical perspective, I often hear responses from a political perspective, from the left or the right, republican or democrat, conservative or liberal. While I must admit that my own awareness of the environmental 'movement' came after watching Al Gore's video, I very quickly began to study the bible with eyes open to what it had to say about Creation, so that the theology of the church I serve would be shaped by theology and scripture as opposed to politics.

This weeks sermon is inspired by a number of sources;

First; John 13:34-35

34 "A new command I give you: Love one another . As I have loved you, so you must love one another . 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another ."

Second; Lk 12:27-28

27 "Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!

Here is the point I am considering. We are commanded by Christ to love one another in John. The text from Luke illustrates God's love for creation by caring for creation. (I know that isn't the overall point Jesus is trying to make, but he is using God's love of creation to illustrate God's watch-care over humanity)

If we are commanded to love, to participate in the love of God as illustrated by Christ, and Christ himself refers to God's love and care for all of creation, even the lilies, are we too then, not called to love all of creation?

Three: Willis Jenkins in his book 'Ecologies of Grace' refers to the work of James Nash and summarizes Nash's thoughts with this; 'by learning to love nature, we participatively imitate God's love.

Caring for Creation then, becomes a spiritual practice in which we contemplate God's love for us through the beauty of creation. By making creation care a part of our spiritual lives, even through simple things like recycling, gardening, participating in farmer's markets, walking or biking instead of driving when we can, etc. we are imitating God's love and learning how to love more fully.

To see a previous Earth Day Sermon:

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

6 Prayer Steps to Healing Broken Relationships: The Painful Exercise of Building Community

This is Lenten Update 9:
Ok, so first of all, I know that Lent is past.
Here is the thing. During the final three weeks of Lent I got so distracted that praying the Office, Memorizing Scripture and abstaining from TV completely fell by the way-side.
First I spent a great deal of time for a week or more at the bedside of a dear friend and member of my congregation who was dying. Lots of long days and nights in the hospital with him and his family. It was a sad time to say the least, but an honor and a privilege to be included in such a intimate time with this man and his family. I did a lot of praying, but not the Office. I don't regret it one bit, although I'm still saddened by the loss of such a wonderful man. In these times caring for others had to take priority.
After that I had two weeks of flu-fighting and frankly, I couldn't be bothered with anything but sleeping and well.... other flu connected activities that I won't describe.

So I've decided to make my Lenten Disciplines my Easter Disciplines.

So two brief notes.
First, I ran across this beautiful post by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

In this post he speaks about how we react to our culture by wanting community, but then want it to come instantly and easily. But Community only comes through time and effort. I have experienced this personally and more profoundly as a pastor, as my church has a wonderful track record for welcoming the un-churched and the church-damaged, but still struggles with how to hold these folks long enough for them to develop the relationships they so earnestly seek. Building community can be messy and painful. We disappoint one another. So often I have witnessed folks new to the community of church distance themselves because of tension within the community.

How to rebuild fractured relationships?
1. accept that it is not something that you alone can do. In prayer you must trust that God can speak again to the chaos and create life.
2. Meditate on God's love for you. Otherwise the dialogue with the other will seem like competition or fighting. When we are firmly rooted in God's love for us, we can accept the criticism and pain of others as a gift.
3. Be silent. Don't respond. Don't form a defense or an argument. First, just listen. Perhaps the criticism is unfair or inaccurate. but that will only be clear after.
4. More prayer. Return in prayer to God's love and then ask God to reveal the wisdom of the other's words.
5. Pray for this other person. That God will allow you to see them as God sees them. That God will allow you to remain with them a moment in their pain, even if you haven't done anything to cause it, and it is being projected at you. Perhaps you didn't cause it, but your calm loving presence might be the gift God wants to give them to allow them to heal from this pain.
6. Keep up the holy conversation. express yourself truthfully. Listen carefully. Don't give up or give in and isolate yourself, but stay open. Read Phil 2 for a guide.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Lenten Discipline Update 8: Ps 63; dry and weary prayer

Sometimes I just don't feel like praying, there I said it...

O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you
my soul thirsts for my
my flesh faints for you
in a dry and weary land where there is no water
Ps 63

that is how prayer feels to me sometimes... like a dry and weary land. Prayer is dry and I'm weary.
That is why I haven't posted any Lenten Discipline updates... I've been in the dry and weary land of not feeling prayer.

Part of my own practice for Lent is silence and solitude in prayer, so that I can listen.
Which is that much harder when I'm not feeling like it.
When I'm doing 'talking' prayer, at least I can talk about not feeling like praying
When its silent prayer, what can I do?
so random thoughts float into my head.

What was the name of my first cat when I was a kid? Pussy-willow. Why did I name a cat pussy-willow?
Bacon, I like bacon.
which reminds me I like fruit loops too. but Michael Pollan says fruit loops aren't food because they change the color of the milk.
I bet we need milk.
DAMN! I did it again...

I fill in silent time because I want prayer time to be effective.
There must be a result, if not an instant result than a result within a reasonable amount of time, and I get to define reasonable.

That is why prayer became dry.
I wanted to define prayer,
wanted it to be what I wanted, which is effective.
I wanted there to be some result to my prayer.

Just wait

that is what I heard after I finally pieced together about five minutes of silence..
just wait.

this isn't about what you want, it isn't about results yet.

just shut up and listen

Let the thoughts go, do worry that you them, just let them float on through

Don't try to accomplish anything or learn or discover anything

Just listen and wait

That is what I got. I should wait. Prayer isn't a task to be completed or a tool for the accomplishment of some item on my agenda. Prayer is for its own sake, and therefore it takes time. It isn't about benefits and rewards. not instantly anyway... Not right now for me anyway. Right now it is about the discipline of being still and silent for no other purpose, whether I like it or not.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Haiti and Tony Campolo

Tony Campolo in an essay entitled 'Making Matters Worse' suggests that the mission work done by thousands of American Christians is Haiti is the reason for the poverty of the country; 'thousands of church groups that have taken "mission teams" to Haiti to build schools and churches in Haitian villages across that little country. Yet Haiti has continued in a downward spiral into greater and greater poverty and social disorganization, not in spite of all these "good works," but in great part because of them. So much of what has been done in Haiti has disempowered Haitians and diminished their dignity by doing for them what they could have done for themselves.'

I'm all for incisive and intelligent criticism, and I think one could also make some critique of some of these mission trips. But in this case Campolo's critique is woefully lacking in any historical or political perspective. Now I'm no expert in Haitian History, but here is a sample of what I do know

Haiti was a slave plantation controlled by France. In 1804, inspired by Toussaint L’Ouverture (after whom the now barely functioning airport in Port-au-Prince is named), the slaves rebelled, founding the world’s first black republic. Under military threat from France in 1825, Haiti agreed to pay reparations to France for lost “property,” including slaves that French owners lost in the rebellion. It was either agree to pay the reparations or have France invade Haiti and reimpose slavery. Many Haitians believe that original debt, which Haiti dutifully paid through World War II, committed Haiti to a future of poverty that it has never been able to escape. (While France, as part of the deal, recognized Haiti’s sovereignty, slave-owning politicians in the United States, like Thomas Jefferson, refused to recognize the black republic, afraid it would inspire a slave revolt here. The U.S. withheld formal recognition until 1862.)

Loans from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) imposed “structural adjustment” conditions on Haiti, opening its economy to cheap U.S. agricultural products. Farmers, unable to compete, stopped growing rice and moved to the cities to earn low wages, if they were lucky enough to get one of the scarce sweatshop jobs. People in the highlands were driven to deforest the hills, converting wood into salable charcoal, which created an ecological crisis—destabilizing hillsides, increasing the destructiveness of earthquakes and causing landslides during the rainy season.
this comes from a piece entitled 'Haiti Forgive Us' by Amy Goodman.

another essay on this issue by William Fisher In this essay Fisher says, 'Aid to Haiti has been marked by fre­quent inter­rup­tions, par­tic­u­larly in assis­tance from the U.S., for polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons. Within Haiti, mas­sive and con­tin­u­ing gov­ern­ment and pri­vate cor­rup­tion has siphoned off large chunks of fund­ing and mis­di­rected money to peo­ple who didn’t need help.'

My point is this. It is easy to blame small church groups, even though there are thousands of them, for Haiti's poverty and corruption. But what Campolo's essay does is over-simply a terribly complicated issue (more complicated than I understand I'm sure.) There is no mention of the historical injustice imposed by France or the lack of support from the U.S. There is no mention of the corruption of government which is surely not the fault of the citizens. No mention of the policies of our own government, and no mention of American consumerism, and its role in this isseu. Campolo provides smoke and mirrors to keep the public from learning of the another possibility; that governmental policies, our own governmental policies for hundreds of years, and our own ongoing interests, not to mention institutional racism have caused Haiti to find itself in poverty.

What so many of the world's poor need is for American consumers to better research their purchases to ensure that slave labor wasn't used, as well as the American consumer to stop consuming so much. If Tony Campolo challenged the U.S. government to create more just policies or American Christians to live lives of justice and generosity in solidarity with Christian sisters and brothers around the world, now that would have been radical, risky and prophetic.
But this essay falls far short of prophetic.

Glen Beck, Jim Wallis and Social Justice

Glen Beck. Everybody is talking about what he said about social justice.

Its been blogged about already, I'm late to the party. I found out about Beck's rant against 'social justice' through The Huffington Post.

There have been many responses such as Rev. James Martin, Dr. Richard Beck and of course Jim Wallis .

Acknowledging that much smarter folks than I have responded, I will say a few quick things on this issue.

Leviticus 25:10And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. 11That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. 12For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces. 13 In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property.
The Entire Exodus Narrative, Matthew 5, Matthew 25, Acts 4, the list goes on and on of texts that Christians have interpreted as teaching Social Justice.

One of my favorites is 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

This is Luke 4:16-19 and Jesus is quoting Isaiah 61.

Language is all about context. Beck is claiming that the words 'social' and 'justice' were part of communist and nazi rhetoric. History isn't my expertise. However, to understand the meaning of words we must watch the context in which they are used. The scriptures I mentioned above provide the context for what 'social justice' means in the Church. While communists and nazi's may have used the same words (although, I doubt Beck knows history any better than theology)the context is very different. By context I mean, violence. The words 'Social Justice' IF they were used by communists and nazi's in those cases would have been used in the context of violence, imprisonment and enslavement as opposed to the Scriptural context which is peace, freedom, and prosperity.

Think about the phrase 'Shut-Up.'

Now, we don't really know what that means unless we know the context. We have to know the conversation that preceded using the phrase. We have to know the tone of voice and the facial expression. 'Shut-up' could be an expression of anger demanding that the other stop talking. 'Shut-up' could also be a friendly expression of surprise or disbelief, or even delight. It depends on the context.

Or 'He's a friend of ours.'That could be a coded way of speaking about being Mafia, OR, I could simply be introducing a friend to another group of friends. Beck is suggesting that one use of the words social and justice, one possible context, Communism and Nazi Germany, is the only possible context for understanding the words. While there is a rich biblical narrative and church history that provides a very different context for understanding the words. In this case Beck is either putting his ignorance on display or purposefully misrepresenting social justice.

But why should we care? I have read some bloggers criticize Jim Wallis for speaking out against Beck. Why bring more attention to him? Here is the thing. Recent polls have shown that fewer and fewer people attend worship or belong to a church or even claim association with any particular faith... BUT they still 'believe' in God. As if that was the point. It appears as if the predominant view of 'faith' is that it is an intellectual activity, or perhaps emotional. If I hold the 'right' idea, that there is God, and 'feel' peace because of that idea, I have faith.

But that is a very different idea of 'faith' than what Jesus himself taught when he told the disciples to take up your cross. Discipleship, or, faith, is about idea's and beliefs, but it is also about actions and practices that follow from these new ideas. Social Justice is a vital part of the Christian Tradition because it is a voice reminding us that we are not called just to think different thoughts, but engage in alternative practices, such as generosity, forgiveness, peace-making, and compassionate care. And this is why Wallis is right to do what he is doing. He will not change Beck's mind and he will not succeed in a boycott of Beck's show... but perhaps he can help re-establish the fact that Christianity is not just about a personal emotional and spiritual experience, but about living a life of justice and mercy in the world.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Social Networking: Web 2.0 vs. John 15.1 or Are Virtual Relationships Authentic Relationships

Will facebook kill the church? Has it already?
This is an interesting question posed at Experimental Theology Richard Beck, who posts this blog offers much to consider. Millenials are leaving the church in droves and Beck thinks it has to do with facebook and other social networking options on the internet. Millenials, like other generations find the church annoying, but have no need of church for socializing because they have twitter, facebook and myspace.

This came up in Adult Sunday School today as we considered John 15.1:‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.' Particularly the bit about the pruning of the vine. Will the church really die? I don't think so. But it may change radically. If social networking via the web is the preferred way of relating for Millenials and younger generations (?) having a church building, a regular meeting site and time may not be a priority. One could simply twitter a bible study, worship, mission time and place and work with whomever gathers. Is this really relational though. In John 15 Jesus seems to suggest that the intimacy of the community of faith is integral to the working of the Holy Spirit, which is in turn integral to the presence of Christ.

John seems to present a very high ecclesiology especially in chapters 14 and 15. Jesus is one with the Father, and his glorification will enable the Paraklete or Comforter to come to the church. Where disciples gather, the spirit is present and so then is Christ. This is a slightly confusing, but strangely comforting web of relationships that promises the ongoing creative presence of God with the church, but also places a high priority on human relationship in the worshiping community. Does this Christology and Ecclesiology adapt to twitter and facebook relationships?

I am eagerly awaiting 'You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. I'm borrowing it from a friend and from what I've read, Lanier offers an interesting critique of web 2.0 connectivity.

Right now I'm experimenting with twitter, facebook, blogs and a website for the church. But I am not as optimistic as Richard Beck seems to be in his essay about the reality of social networking relationships. Briefly, I find that fewer and fewer people know how to live in community or intimate relationship. Influenced by Hauerwas I'm sure, I'm of the opinion that twitter and facebook are an extension of the consumerization of relationships. We want to feel connected, but post-modern consumers do not seem to really want to be committed to any long-term relationship. We want to be free to buy any product we want, and to change brands if we wish, and I think we see this influencing our ability to socialize and the way in which we socialize. regardless of what Beck says, I'm not convinced that even the very best of friends that I have on facebook or twitter, would be such if we relied on internet social-networking. Facebook is a useful tool, but not legitimate replacement of life together in community, like church.

What do you think? Are Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace and YouTube the future of the church, tools for the church that cannot replace a time and place and community of worship, or a phenomena to be resisted?

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Mind of Christ: Lenten Discipline 7

Which is the more valuable virtue; Certainty of our beliefs and perspectives, or, the courage to question our own opinions and willing adopt new understandings?

As a preacher I should be sure of what I believe right? I should be the one with the answers. But I don't. It frustrates me. Sometimes I can't make up my mind. I don't mean boxers or briefs by the way. I can't make up my mind about real issues.

Like music in worship. Sometimes it just seems like the traditional hymns do not speak a language that people understand; I mean, what is an 'ebenezer' and how do I raise it anyway? from the hymn 'Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing'

On the other hand, so much of modern worship music has no theological content. I don't mind if the music is simplistic, but most of these songs, understandable thought they are, don't communicate anything of value. I can't make up my mind.

Or a serious issue. Abortion. I was raised in a more biblically literal church in which abortion was always wrong. Just look at Jeremiah. God knew him while he was in the womb. Those who follow God should hinder the ongoing creation of God, ever.
Then I started to run in more 'liberal' circles, where we talked about women's rights, are pregnancy due to abusive 'relationships'. I changed my mind. But now it seems like we are doing theology more focused on 'human rights' than on the call of God, and I go back and forth, I can't make up my mind.

I just changed my mind again recently. Didn't even realize it. two conversations in a week on the same topic... two different opinions. Wasn't trying to be political for my own gain, or play games with people. I really just couldn't seem to decide where I was.

Should have been silent.
Which is the connection with my Lenten Prayer Discipline.

1 Corinthians 2.16:
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?’
But we have the mind of Christ.

I pray the Divine Office so that I can seek the mind of Christ. that is hope anyway. I'm just not as certain as Paul seems about the whole thing.
Seeking the mind of Christ means quieting my own mind, and the more I think of it, my mouth too.

Prayer as time to have my mind changed. Prayer as time to wait and listen for wisdom that just might change my opinion, my perspective. If I only get around to prayer when I have time, or when I am frightened or frustrated, might have a purpose. But I'm not sure that prayer changes me. Paul seems to think we will have the mind of Christ. That takes time, patience, silence, and a willingness to change.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Lenten Discipline Update 6

The current challenge of the Divine Office is that even though I find myself in the rhythm, carving our 20 minutes four times a day for prayer, my thoughts do not always cooperate. Especially during the work week, yesterday and today for example, as I close my eyes to breath and center, and then go to the book of prayers, my mind wanders to all the other things I 'should' be doing. I find myself watching words go by as my mind is planning the activities to pursue after this brief interlude. Especially when I begin to recite Ps 63 which I am memorizing for Lent, I am bombarded with frustration at the interruptions of the day that have prohibited the work I hoped to get done, and then I begin to recite the list of things undone, the things that are important, but I can't find time to do. Then come regrets at choosing some things over others. I have been studying Paul for a bible study, but perhaps I should have been preparing the Mark study guide for new members and their mentors. Then find frustration slowly becoming anger as I imagine the people who would criticize these decisions and the use of time and it almost becomes unbearable to pray... it is a waste of time.

I came upon this reading by Nouwen that I go back to again and again...
a life without a quiet center, easily becomes destructive. When we cling to the results of our actions as our only way of self-identification, then we become possessive and defensive and tend to look at our fellow human beings more as enemies to be kept at a distance than as friends with whom we share the gifts of life.

I've been reading this during my prayer time. Prayer time is slowly changing, the list of things to-do going away. I find that I enjoy prayer because my day is no longer so much about what I must be doing so as to prove my worth to God or the church or others. My day is about this quiet time in which I am worth something just because I am. I needn't do anything to be loved and cherished by God. As a matter of fact, sometimes the work and the list of things to accomplish, inhibit this relationship... the relationship, even minstry, is more about getting things done than about growing closer to God. What am I teaching folks at church about faith, if I live a life of constant action that really doesn't accomplish the goal of the Christian life, to grow in God's love.

The benefit of this time is that the rest from planning and thinking and doing and acting has allowed me both the time to prioritize my tasks, and to find peace to respond when others might not understand this prioritizing. That is a benefit, but the ultimate gift is simply the quiet time.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Mustard Seeds

Some of the things I'm reading:
A few weeks ago I shared a post by Jesus Radicals regarding Goshen College's recent decision to begin to play the National Anthem after 116 years of abstaining from this action. Sheldon C. Good recently posted a blog at God's Politics regarding this ongoing issue. What I especially appreciated about his perspective is summed up in this brief quote: So the question becomes: How might we draw on the best traditions of all three allegiances (country, world, God)? Perhaps it is through compassionate peacemaking as global citizens. Because in a violent world, Jesus, our Prince of Peace, has a message of peace that is ordinarily radical.

In my post on this topic I took a pretty weak position. Having not wanted to engage in a debate at my church about our allegiances and the presence of the American Flag in our sanctuary, I didn't offer much of a reflection. I like Good's response... see what you think.

I have recently discovered Duke's Call and Response Blog
Specifically I am enjoying thinking about two posts on this blog that engage theology and economics: One by Dan Rhodes and a response by James Howell Frankly I'm still thinking this over. While economics does need to be engaged with more theological vigor in the church, I feel more comfortable thinking in the realm of the church, and not theorizing about how banking itself should change. It is an important thing to do, I'm sure, but above my pay grade. I tend to spend more time thinking along the lines of John Howard Yoder In Body Politics Yoder highlights how the traditional practices of the church offer a political witness to the world. In the area of economics, Yoder sees Communion, the sharing of the common loaf and the common purse as a practice of alternative economics that the church lives and offers the world. Ben Witherington III has a new book on this topic that I have on my wish list, and having viewed some of his blog posts that summarize the content of this book, I think I this would be a useful read for many in this area.

I've discovered a new blog I like very much Groans from Within The latest blogs are dealing with a similar issues, ethical buying. I have been doing some reading in the area of consumerism and so find this blog really engaging and well thought out.
finally, I discovered this little gem by Shane McGowan formerly of the Poques, with Nick Cave, Johnny Depp and others. A little benefit tune for Haiti.
hope you enjoy.

Final note, at the bottom of the right side of little blog here you will see a link, 'My Music on RYM'. Rate Your Music is, obviously the musical equivalent of LibraryThing. On this you will find a listing of my music, what I own and what I covet. I know you've been dying to find out what I listen to for music, so here is your chance to peep in on my ipod.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lenten Discipline Update 5

"Our minds are always active. We analyze, reflect, daydream, or dream. There is not a moment during the day or night when we are not thinking. You might say our thinking is 'unceasing.' Sometimes we wish that we could stop thinking for a while; that would save us from many worries, guilt feelings and fears. Our ability to think is our greatest gift, but it is also the source of our greatest pain. Do we have to become victims of our unceasing thoughts?'

These words of Henri Nouwens came to mind as I became aware of the racing of my mind just a few minutes ago. A list of things going on in my mind included; I want a cigarette, the carpets needs vacuuming, I really don't like my sermon for tomorrow, I forgot to write out my work-schedule to post for next week, my oldest son is starting little league in a couple of weeks and he is going to struggle, which reminded me of how much I struggled with little league and I don't want it to be the negative experience for him that it was for me, I wish i had spent more time researching Paul for next weeks Bible study, I watched more tv than I wanted to today, I'm sick of eating chicken for dinner, I wish I could preach like Rob Bell, I really want a cigarette now...
I was spinning. I didn't even realize that I was spinning. I am grateful that my wife notices my body language and picked up right away on the fact that my mind was spinning based on my movements and facial expression. As I sit to reflect on this I notice how negative most of this is. I noticed that I'm not in the moment, and that causes me to pause and reflect on the fact without realizing it I can spin out of the sermon writing moment, spending time with the kids or my wife moment, listening to a church member during a visit moment. I don't mean to do this. I want to be present in the moment and be still in my thoughts. No wonder I forget things some times...

Nouwen goes on to say; 'Do we have to become victims of our unceasing thoughts? No, we can convert our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer by making our inner monologue into a continuing dialogue with our God who is the source of all love.'

i appreciate what nouwen doing. Instead adding to the unceasing thoughts the added thought that we shouldn't be thinking so much, which just makes us think more. Trying not to think about something just makes you think about it more. Don't think about a pink elephant. See? you can't not think of it now can you. Nouwen encourages us to use this as the material of prayer for in denying it, we actually compound the problem, but in accepting these thoughts, and using them as prayer, they actually drift away and stillness can come. Writing helps too. or blogging in this case. Can blogging be a form of prayer?

Lenten Discipline Update 4

Praying the Divine Office is a bit more of a challenge that one might expect. As I previously posted, I have added to the Divine Office short readings from C.S. Lewis and Henri Nouwen. I am finding the Nouwen readings especially fulfilling, as he reflects on prayer. It's still the time factor. as I've said before, the prayers of the Office seem to go by too quickly. But its not really the Office, its me. It is a struggle to slow the mind, (insert here any 'isn't your mind already slow enough' jokes). Seeking silence and time for contemplation takes planning and requires making choices. I have to choose not to do other things in order to take the time to pray and reflect. But there are so many other things to be done, that I have found myself charging through the Office to get back to doing other things.

I am reminded of the work of a good friend, mentor and colleague Kirk Jones and his pastoral theological work on this issue which resulted in two books, 'Rest in the Storm and Addicted to Hurry.'

It is, no doubt, important to get things done, regardless of our careers, vocations or callings. But especially as disciples of Christ in a complex society, it is also important to etch out moments of reflection so as to clearly discern exactly what it is that must be done so as to best serve Christ and bring Glory to God. I may very well be repeating myself with this post. But this is apparently what I must learn, this lent, to slow down and listen.

this morning I read this from Nouwen's work entitled 'Prayer Embraces the World'; 'To pray is to unite ourselves with Jesus and lift up the whole world through him to God in a cry for forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, and mercy. TO pray, therefore, is to connect whatever human struggle or pain we encounter - whether starvation , torture, displacement of peoples, or any form of physical or mental anguish -- with the gentle and humble heart of Jesus.'

I suppose this encapsulates my hesitation about the very popular 'Missional Church' movements and some of its proponents who suggest that worship is less important than active service. This point of view seems to be falling into our cultures desire for hurry, action, busyness. While a faith that remains inactive and cerebral is certainly offensive to the Christ who called us to take up a cross, I fear that the action of the 'church' will be in vain if it is not rooted in worship, prayer, study and discernment.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Transgendered Paul

Wednesday I finished reading a new book, well new to me anyway, 'Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul's Mission' by Davina C. Lopez. Interesting read. Lopez begins by describing her intention, which is reinterpret the term 'ethne' or nations, which is found throughout Paul's work, specifically in this book in Galatians. In Lopez's reading of scholarship, 'ethne' is a term used to describe 'gentiles,' and therefore refers to the theological separation between Jews and Gentiles. Paul's work is purely a theological work. Lopez position's herself clearly in the 'Empire-critical' school of reading Paul;

In this mode of interpretation, Paul turns away from his previous life in Judaism and becomes a different kind of zealot, a politically oriented Jewish person encouraging religio-political resistance to the Roman Empire through declaring a crucified Christ as savior from the evil age. This opposition mainly manifests itself, according to Richard Horsley and similar proponents, against the Roman imperial cult, the primary religio-political system operative in Paul's context. Here the emperor was worshiped as god and called lord, benefactor, and savior. Positioning the God of Israel as the only and most powerful god, the best benefactor and law-giver, who guaranteed certain destruction of Roman-configured peace and security, constitutes the political view of Paul. Such a view positions salvation as not concerning individuals from the law or Judaism, but the whole of humanity from Caesar's world.

The first part of Lopez's project is to suggest and then prove that 'ethne' was not simply a term used by Jews to refer to Gentiles, but a term used by Romans to refer to all others. If this is true, and I find her argument compelling, then Jews, too, are 'ethne' for 'ethne' refers to all the nations that are subjigated to roman imperial power. This would suggest a significant shift in understanding Paul, for his mission would cease to be a purely theological one to gentiles, and become a political one, to all oppressed nations. So Lopez's first point is that scholarship that view's 'ethne' as purely a theological term used by Jews, has missed the larger or wider social meaning of the term.

Where Lopez seeks to explore new territory in this Empire-critical stance is in the area of sexuality and gender. Lopez goes to great lengths in the book to re-create for the reader the context in which to understand what the signifier 'ethne' would mean. She draws upon sculpture, coinage and other artwork in which the nations that have fallen under roman rule are represented and explains in detail the theology at work in showing Rome's superiority to the nations. She also draws upon literature of that same time, such as the Aeneid, to make the same point. This is where gender comes into play, because the defeated nations are described in artwork and in literature are feminized. Nations are represented as women in positions of weakness, about to be raped and/or killed. This representation continues in literature. The reason why the nations are attacked and brought under Roman rule is because of their femininity. They are weaker and lesser, and Roman rule, therefore is a gift to them.

Lopez's final point is to highlight those places where Paul feminizes himself;
Gal 4:19
19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,

Ge 1:1 - 1 Th 2:7
7 but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.

1 Co 3:1-2
3:1 Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly — mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.

Lopez writes, 'I aim here... to begin to re-connect Paul's appearance as a woman and (single!) mother with the transformed consciousness and downward mobility among the defeated nations in the context of Roman imperial ideology. The weakness and brokenness characterizing the Paul of just a few verses earlier in Galatians is here manipulated into an act of creation. But this creation does not appear to happen the proper or natural way, that is, with a man. It is a creation out of nothing, form the bottom, by a seemingly defeated woman.' (p 142)

Lopez's point, as I see it, is that Paul uses the language of Roman Imperialism in feminizing the 'ethne' the nations, but he does so with a particular eye to the prophets who also see Jerusalem as a woman, particularly Isaiah, who see sees Jerusalem as a barren woman who will give birth and sing. But it is also in Isaiah that we read that Israel will be a house for all nations. Paul takes the Roman language of the weak, oppressed feminine and combines it with the feminine language in the prophetic tradition so as to undermine Roman political theology. Rome's way of gathering the nations is oppression and violence. God's way of gathering the nations brings life. so Paul is undermining Rome's theological and political claims. Paul is also calling the nations to a new way of living, which, under God, leaves behind the ROman way of life which is violent and oppressive. Paul calls them to join together peacefully to anticipate the world that God will create, a world of peace and not violence and oppression.

I'm still thinking about my responses to this work. A small criticism I have is that I wish Lopez has devoted as much time to carrying through on exegesis as she did setting the historical context through art and literature. Still, having read it I think that I will find her reading of Paul very interesting as I work on issues of modern slavery and human trafficking. The idea that Paul feminizes himself, becomes one of the 'raped women' that is the nations oppressed by Rome, holds a lot of potential for biblical application to the issue of slavery and sex trafficking. I am also intrigued by the potential to see Paul as a pacifist, again, become one of the oppressed instead of fighting back against rome. Paul is certainly responding, but not in a violent way.

Lopez offers a unique reading of Paul, certainly one that I have never encountered before. but I think this might be a useful new reading that especially puts a new perspective on those who find Paul misogynistic. And it also opens up new areas of current ethics in which Paul can be looked to for guidance.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lenten Disciplines 3

Quick update today. Lot's to do.

Yesterday I mentioned the fact that the Divine Office seemed to go by too quickly.
So this morning I slowed down, sang the responses to the readings. At the end of the morning, noon and afternoon office are two prayers, one the prayer for the week and one the closing prayer. In between the two I inserted brief devotional readings. I found a daily devotional book on the writings of C.S.Lewis, so I read that. I also have a book of various brief excepts of the writings of Henri Nouwen. I think I will carry that around with the Divine Office and insert a brief reading in my practice throughout the day. They are not long, but Nouwen is always good. This morning's excerpt was about prayer. 'If we live a prayerful life, then there is a growing desire to spend more time with God and God alone... the desire to pray and to spend time with God and god alone is always growing.'

Which reminds me that my work is not just labor for a paycheck, but prayer in and of itself. The studying and writing, planning, listening, study and preparing I do, are all forms of prayer. Launching into work without a time of silence and contemplation leads me to just see this as labor. Beginning with prayer reminds me that it is all a form of prayer. Perhaps I won't way this well, but instead of rushing to an end result for my labors; a sermon, a lesson, a plan, I can slowly savor these things as prayerful connection to God.

read this Nouwen quote for the noon prayers and thought I'd share; ' Spiritual disciplines are not ways to eradicate all our desires but ways to order them so that they can serve one another and together serve God. --Bread for the Journey

Monday, February 22, 2010

Lenten Practices Update 2

So, for Lent I am cutting back on tv viewing, praying The Divine Office
The weekend wasn't so bad. I'm finding I don't miss television all that much. It's just second nature to turn it on, so after I turn it on without thinking, I turn it off and read. I joked with my friend theobilly on the phone today that I gave up television for lent, but am spending more time on the internet. He replied that this was like giving up beer for lent only to start drinking wine.

Somewhat more seriously, praying the hours has been more challenging than I expected. It seems a bit anti-climactic to stop what I am doing to go through these very brief prayers. it seems like there should be more. I just settle my racing mind into the moment and it is over, the prayers are said and I don't feel like I was present for the moment. I think I am reading them, and I tend to read fast. So i started singing the prayers as Phyllis Tickle suggests in her brief introduction. At first it feels funny, but I do slow down. some. I find myself singing too quickly too. and this is perhaps the lesson I am meant to learn... to slow down.Or the practice I meant to begin, slowing down, my reading, my thinking, my doing. I was just extolling the virtues of contemplation and discernment to a church member the other day, who did not feel effective or active enough.

It is a tough lesson to learn, that sometimes we serve God and others best not by a knee-jerk action, but by quietly listening, thinking, praying and learning so that when we act we act effectively and for the glory of God. Guess I need to learn it better myself. If we learn anything from the recent news about the mid-west baptists involvement in haiti it is that acting without learning leads to more harm than good

I am reminded of a line from Tolkien, 'Not all those who wander are lost.' I suppose I fear that i am loosing time for important actions if I wander in prayer. Wandering might not be such a bad thing though.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

My Lent Discipline Update

Quick review of my Lenten disciplines:

Discipline One: Cut back on TV. Not bad. Bit of a challenge with the Olympics on. I received some new books in the mail yesterday and so they distracted me.
1. Apostle to the Conquered: Reimaging Paul's Mission by Davina C. Lopez
2. Postmodernism, or, the Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson
3. Up to our Steeples in Politics by Will Campbell
4. Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We are with What we Buy by Tom Beaudoin

I'm starting a thursday night bible study on Paul soon and so I dove right into the Lopez work. Already she has provided much to consider. Lopez does her theology and exegesis from the margins of feminist, queer and post-colonial theory. So I am learning much about those perspectives. So far she has spent a great deal of time discussing the coins, statues, and other various works of art of the ROman period and its political and theological implications. Her point, in the end, is to go back to Paul's use of the self-descriptive phrase 'apostle to the nations' to argue that when Paul used that word 'nations' or 'ethne' his context was wider that simply 'non-jewish' which traditional exegesis and scholarship has assumed. Instead, 'ethne' was a political term to all who were less than the Romans. Should be interesting.

Back to Practices. So I found myself very at peace having no television, or very little yesterday, just a few moments at lunch and after dinner. Amazing how little there really is on. I turned it on before starting this post, and began my usual flip through the channels, then, amazing, just gave it up as a waste of time.

Praying the Hours has been rushed at some points. Attended a lecture in Cambridge by Luis CdeBaca on 'the Fight to Abolish Modern Day Slavery'
Two interesting points, at least for me, in the lecture. One, Ambassador CdeBaca suggested some ways in which everyone could combat modern slavery; by buying cotton shirts not assembled in sweatshops, buying food not harvested by slave labor and... this was the best... buying free trade chocolate. I've dropped the chocolate line as a way to combat slavery in two recent sermons, so to hear the Ambassador mention it was affirming. Second point. Ambassador CdeBaca was asked what efforts his office was putting into combatting the sex trade in South Africa due to the upcoming World Cup Events, he replied that he was enlisting the power of the pulpit, connecting to churches and clergy in South Africa to combat the demand side of prostitution and slavery.
The lecture was interesting, but it came right at the time when I needed to be doing the vespers prayers. I did them before the lecture, in a crowded and noisy room which was not ideal. Friday's prayers were always a bit behind because I spent the day visiting the saints of the church. But I got them all in and they kept me focused all day.

Memorizing the 63rd Psalm is going ok. I've got the first three verses pretty firmly ensconced for now. It takes repetition. The phrase of the psalm, earnestly I seek you, is a constant prayer for me throughout the day. How can I seek God in the minims, the details, the normal events of my life.

Now, it is time to pray

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lent, Ashes, and Figure Skating

Last night was the annual Ash Wednesday service at the church. I've tried some non-traditional things in this service, like have people come forward to plant seeds, in the hopes of symbolizing the new growth that lenten practices of prayer, study and sacrifice can bring. Last night we went fairly traditional with the imposition of ashes and partaking in communion.

I'm trying a couple of things for lenten practice, because personal discipline, as in structure, is not my strong suit. For instance, while some must finish a book that they have started before they move on, I get a little bored and move on... so that right now I think I have 5 books going. Sticking through on a plan isn't my strongest suit. So lent has always been a challenge because adding a practice or taking away a habit for 40 days really requires sticking to your plan.

So here is my plan... we'll see how it goes.
My Lenten sermon series is entitle 'God at the Center' and the first thing I will ask the congregation to do is make a map of their life patterns by answering questions about their priorities(which will lead to a discussion about who our gods really are you see); what can't they live without, what do they look forward to most, where do they spend the most time, money, energy. I did this mapping myself and was ashamed at how much time I spent in front of the TV. So I'm giving myself 1 hr of tv time a day. I think. Yeah, 1 hr. see, I'm wavering already. I'll watch TV just for the sake of watching TV. I'll watch a fishing show, and I have no interest in fishing shows, before I'll turn it off. terrible habit.

Second, I've had in my possession Phyllis Tickles 'The Divine Hours' a prayerbook for praying the Divine Hours, for years. I've used it now and again, on and off, occasionally. So for lent I am going to carry the sprintime volume with me wherever I go and follow its prayers throughout the day.

Finally I am going to work on memorizing scripture. My mom taught me to do this when I was little. I'm teaching my boys now. My Dad and I were watching the Olympics the other night, figure skating, which I don't think is a sport really, but that is a post for another time. Anyway, he remarked at how amazing it was that the skaters could remember such intricate routines. I replied that memory is like a muscle, the more you use is the stronger it gets, the less the weaker. The hypocrisy of my statement hit me. I'm not exercising my memory. Those of you who know me know that exercise isn't my favorite thing anyway. So I'm memorizing Ps 63 right now.

There you have it; cut down on TV, pray the hours, memorize Ps 63.
What are you going to do for Lent?
If you are hesitant to do anything, PLEASE read this post over at Talk With the Preacher. I met this pastor while at St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church in NOLA and this Ash Wednesday reflection is one of the most beautiful pieces I have read. I wish I'd written it and know you will enjoy. My only complaint about her blog is that she doesn't write more.
Wishing a Blessed Lent to my two faithful readers!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tithing Resets the Center of our Lives

I'm considering a special note in each monthly newsletter at the church which would accomplish three things: The readers would be able to identify the spiritual purpose of tithing, the ethical/theological purpose of tithing and the practical purpose of tithing. Below is the first note, which is largely spiritual, but also kind of ethical I guess. anyway, would you my 2 dedicated readers look this over and tell me what you think?

Tithing Sets the Center
‘The patterns in our lives form about the deep and usually unarticulated attitudes we hold toward ourselves, the world, and others. ‘ Luke Timothy Johnson

I’ve decided that instead of waiting for the fall to unload a big stewardship and tithing sermon on Berean, I’m going to write a note every month about tithing for the rest of the year. And the theme for this month is, Tithing Sets the Pattern. North American Christians live in a notoriously consumeristic culture in which we are bombarded with two confusing messages. One message tells us that the stuff we buy is of the ultimate importance. We can buy pthat ills will save our love life and our marriage. We can purchase cures for baldness that will make our careers more successful and improve our prospects for dating. We can buy a car that will make us a better parent and cause us to be admired by neighbors. We can charge some new clothes which makes us feel better. Advertisers promise that the pursuit and purchase of consumer goods will bring us the happiness, peace and satisfaction we desire.
But the competing message that we may not be conscious of, but still, I think sense, is that all this stuff is replaceable and easily discarded. As soon as you get a PC, cell-phone, ipod, and get it home, it is obsolete. A newer version has come out which is new and improved, making your version ‘old’ and ‘out of style.’ Of course I am exaggerating a bit, but you get the picture. New styles of clothing and shoes have come out as soon as the Macy’s bag with new purchases has settled in the back seat of the car outside the mall. Have you ever noticed how rare it is to get things repaired? Why bother to get the TV repaired, just replace it. Do you know if there is anyone in Rhode Island who can repair worn out shoes? It is easier to discard, producing more waste, and replace with something new, than to treasure and care for the old we already have. So the stuff we buy is of great importance for our satisfaction and well being, BUT it is easily replaceable and quickly discarded. It doesn’t last, isn’t meant too, and made to cast away. So we are caught in a cycle of pursuing, possessing, momentary satisfaction, then casting away so as to pursue again.
Is it any wonder our society suffers from anxiety and depression? We are caught in a system or a pattern, if you will, where we are promised happiness, satisfaction and safety in consumer good, but they never last and so we must constantly pursue these goods and the satisfaction they promise but can’t quite deliver. We buy it, use it, discard it and must chase it once again. No wonder our culture largely feels dissatisfied. This pattern keeps us always wanting more and trains us to place a high value on created things. Over-valuing created things is Paul’s definition of idolatry and according to Paul in Romans, is the cause of sin, the root of sin. Instead of seeking and abiding in the presence of the Creator, we spend our time seeking and abiding with created things.
This is why we tithe. One reason anyway, the spiritual reason for the tithe, because the pattern of our lives in this culture is based on putting our hopes in created things. Tithing resets our pattern. In sitting down to plan our budgets so that we offer thanksgiving to God for all God’s gifts, we are re-setting our pattern. Through the tithe we are putting our finances and the material goods they provide at the service of God first. Finance and Material Goods are brought into proper perspective through tithing, for they will be used to serve God and not as a replacement for God. Tithing reminds us that we value differently than the world around us. Well, we should value differently than the world around us. But the lack of tithing in American Churches and the conspicuous consumption that American Christians engage in makes us look just like everybody else.
Lent is a time to reset our patterns, to release practices that take us aware from centering on God and picking up practices that focus us on God as our center. Lent is a great time to reassess tithing.

Consumerism and Economics: Witherington, Luke Timothy Johnson and Esther

Shouldn't Christians dress for success, strive for excellence, show the world how God has blessed them with bling??? In a word--- no, when it comes to the first and third of these things. Christians should have a conscience about how their choices affect other people in this world, particularly those who live in poverty. They need to de-enculturate themselves from the lifestyles of conspicuous consumption that are so prevalent in American culture.

I ran across this Ben Witherington quote this morning, as I meandered about the web unable to sleep at about 4 am. I don't usually follow bogs on so I missed this. Witherington posts a series of blogs based on a new book entitle 'Jesus and Money:A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis'
I haven't read it, but I will say I like the post based on the quote alone.

Witherington's post reminds me of book I'm already reading 'Sharing Possessions: Mandate and Symbol of Faith,' by Luke Timothy Johnson. In it he says; ' The way we use, own, acquire and disperse material things symbolizes and expresses our attitudes and responses to ourselves, the world around us, other people, and, most of all, God. And since there is reciprocity here, as we.., the disposition of material possessions not only expresses but effects our response to the world,other people, and God... The real mystery concerning possessions is how they relate to our sense of identity and worth as human beings. the real sin related to possessions has to do with the willful confusion of being and having. (pg. 40)

I am doing a study on the book of Esther. The opening chapter of this gem of a book narrates what both Witherington and Johnson describe. King Xerxes (or Ahasueras)sponsors an extravagant party for his political and military supporters and puts his wealth on display. When he attempts to put his wife the queen on display, and she refuses, Xerxes begins the search for a new queen. A system that gathers women from all throughout the kingdom, and filters them through the kings chambers for one night begins to grind people into objects. I wish I'd thought of this story months ago.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The National Anthem Controversy

I ran across this interesting post at Jesus Radical It is centered around the recent decision at Goshen College an historically mennonite school at which the national anthem was not played, to now include the National Anthem before school sporting events.

Leads me think about these things. I have found recently that I do not say the pledge of allegiance at my boys school events. I will stand as a sign of respect, but don't say the pledge. The same said for the national anthem. I stand, but don't sing or place my hand over my heart or anything. Not that such symbolic actions matter much to others... but I've recently found them to violate the idea that upon my baptism I was pledging my allegiance to the Kingdom of God.

The American Flag still flies in the sanctuary at my church. I remove it for Advent and Lent, but have never encouraged a dialogue as to its appropriateness or inappropriateness in the worship space, cuz I don't want to start a fight. So I couldn't sign the on-line petition challenging Goshen to go back to no National Anthem, because I'm not sure I'd want that fight either.

By the way, are we violating the third commandment against taking the Lord's name in vain when we say the pledge? sing the anthem?

Saturday, February 06, 2010

In Defense of Irrelevant Preaching

I've been thinking about preaching some since returning from NOLA. I delivered a sermon there and then also heard Kirk Jones Preach again. To see Kirk preach is to be reminded of the joy in the gospel and the joy in preaching it. He preaches with his whole body and thoroughly savors being immersed in the Word. that is something I'd like to get back to that I think I've forgotten about lately... the joy of preaching.

But I'm also thinking about relevance. Most churches that I know of place 'relevant preaching at the top of their priority list. Every once in a while I get some feedback that a recent sermon or sermon series 'isn't speaking to me.' I take that to mean that the sermon/series hasn't addressed an issue that the person deems relevant, or has not contained information that the listener finds useful. This post isn't meant to be a response to criticism by the way. I'm not offended where I hear that criticism and I don't take it personally. Kirk Jones once told me that one of the secrets to good preaching is careful listening... so I am listening carefully and thinking about what I'm hearing.

I have some concerns about what people expect of the sermonic event and I wonder if there aren't some assumptions at play.

First, the bible text cannot be comprehended in its original context and then applied to a completely different context in the normal New England 15-20 minute time limit. I don't care what anybody says, the Bible was not created to be quickly and easily digested. It takes time to understand and apply it. I fear that when we apply time limits to the sermon we are leaving preachers in the position of speaking in bumper-sticker phrases and empty platitudes. Politicians speak in sound-bites and we are very accustomed to receiving slickly packaged information in brief commercials on tv and radio. But the Bible isn't a Swanson Hungry Man Dinner. It isn't meant to be quick easy.

Second I'm concerned about our priorities here. I wonder if those who sometimes say 'its not speaking to me' are without thinking it through placing priority in the wrong direction. The Bible wasn't created to serve us, offer us tidbits of advice. IT is a record of amazing encounters with a living God that transformed people. When God called Abraham to leave behind his homeland and follow him, that wasn't to offer Abraham support or encouragement, but a challenge. THe same could be said of the call of Moses and the Call of Jeremiah. The word of God was delivered to them to change them, inspire them and challenge them. The word of God does not serve our needs, but instead should challenge and instruct us in serving God.

So I think that sometimes the sermon must be irrelevant. We might not consider the modern phenomena of slavery or abuse of the environment relevant to our lives, but I am convinced that the Bible tells us these things are relevant to God and we had best pay attention. OR, we might find a sermon on forgiveness or generosity to be more challenging than we are ready for. It isn't that it doesn't speak to us, but it just isn't the message we wanted to hear. (a preacher should hear a message that is challenging and offensive and experience it that way, before preaching it, by the way.) OR, we may not find a sermon on the Trinity terribly relevant, but theology of the trinity stand behind much of our church practice, such as forgiveness, unity in our diversity, the cooperative efforts of a group with different gifts of the Spirit. This may not be easily applied to every-day life, but nonetheless it is vital to a life of faith.

That is the main concern I have I guess. Who is serving whom here? Is the sermon meant to serve the listener, or, is the listener meant to serve God through hearing the sermon?

This isn't to say that the preacher should go out of his way to be irrelevant, preaching in highly technical language that is difficult for the average lay person to understand, speaking about strange and arcane topics. And of course a preacher should always strive to connect even the most challenging topic, like Trinity for instance, with illustrations that help the listener understand the relevance of the concept. But I think perhaps there needs to be some dialogue in churches about sermons in general. or perhaps a return to the baptist tradition which engages the entire gathered community in the construction of the sermon.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Lord We Are Able: or Thank You SCABC

My wife and I spent this past weekend in New Orleans LA. The occasion was the installation (or coronation) of my best friend as the 18th pastor of St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church. I was invited to preach at the morning worship. SCABC is a church with a progressive history and a pulpit that has welcomed the likes of Gardner Taylor and Barbara Brown Taylor and for the installation service itself Kirk Byron Jones. So I was a little intimidated.
I have been overwhelmed by the positive and affirming response. People had interesting and insightful questions after worship. the Dialogue with them was truly something to savor. I've gotten e-mails and facebook messages of appreciation. So i want to say thank you to all the folk at SCABC. It was an honor.

The point of my sermon was to inspire the church to both continue and strive to reach greater potential as the body of Christ. The refrain for the sermon was 'Lord We Are Able.' But I think I was more blessed than they in the end, for their response reminded me that I, too, am able. Not that I didn't think I was exactly. But the energy of their response has re-energized me. It takes a church to follow Christ, I'm convinced of that. The cross is too much for me to bear alone, I need a community. And I have a wonderful community at the church I serve Berean Baptist, kind, compassionate, fun and funny, and supportive, generous, tireless, I could go on with kind words for my little church. But I am truly blessed because my sense of church community has expanded and I will never forget the chance to preach at SCABC and the powerful affirmation they have offered me.

so thank you Berean Baptist for calling me... and St. Charles Ave for affirming me... together, We Are Able.

oh yeah, and .... Who Dat!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Who Dat sayin dey American Baptists?

Why, oh Why did they have to be Baptists? I am of course referring to the group of Baptists from the United States who are now incarcerated in Haiti on charges of kidnapping and child-smuggling. Why did they have to be Baptists? And of course they are referred to on the television as American Baptists as a way of explaining their country of origin and not their denominational affiliation. If you do a web search of the word Baptists... you get this story. If you web search American Baptists... you get this story. One headline read, 'American Baptists defend Actions in Haiti.' (cbs4 in miami.) they aren't American Baptist as in the denomination, they are simply Baptist from the United States. I think the whole thing signals that we should change the name of our denomination. My friend Travis likes Crazy-Ass Baptist. That is my vote. instead of being a part of ABCORI (American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island) we would be CABORI (Crazy-Ass Baptists of Rhode Island). Or instead of being a part of ABC-USA (American Baptist Churches USA) we would be a part of CABUSA (Crazy-Ass Baptist's USA.) and we would have a pronunciation guide since no one know how to say ABCUSA (is that AB-KYEW-SA or AB-KOO-SA. NOPE. CABUSA. pronounced like Caboose, as in the last car on a train OR a slang term for somebodies hind end!)

We're not THAT kind of Baptist. I get tired of saying that. I feel like I say it all the time. But if we were officially Crazy-Ass Baptists, it would be fun. Are you the baptist's who hate on gays and lesbians? NO Sir... we're crazy-ass baptist and we love our gay and lesbian friends. Are you the baptist's who just got arrested in haiti? Not me! I'm a crazy-ass baptist and we don't kidnap children!

Anyway. My church is currently working on a plan which would involve creating a relationship with a city or town, in a nation that we have not yet decided, but like Haiti or El Salvador, so that we could establish a mission relationship. the purpose is for our mission involvement to go beyond sending the occasional check and also beyond the feel-good one time visit. But part of the plan, the major part of the plan is the research. Researching a town that has an association with an American Baptist missionary. (American Baptist the denomination) Creating a relationship with that missionary and learning about not only the needs of the people in that area, but what a safe and effective aid effort on our part would include. Rushing to haiti now to provide aid is like deciding to practice medicine immediately after witnessing a car accident. You do not have the skill or the knowledge to be of aid at this time, so stay out of the way!

I am currently doing some reading on Human Trafficking. From what little I know about that issue, it is no wonder Haiti's government has responded in such a manner to this debacle. Who is to say that this wasn't an effort to traffic in children and teens? I'd hate to think so... but with 1.8 million women and children trafficked yearly around the world 600,000 for the prostitution, Haiti can't take any chances and I don't blame them for the abundance of caution.

How is that for a light-hearted post after such a long absence