Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Ignorance on Display

The bumper sticker says, “Everything I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.”

There is a picture of the enflamed World Trade Center towers to the right of the text.

Think of the layers of horrible decision-making that bumper sticker had to go through to appear on the back of that white SUV in Springfield, Missouri.

Someone had to think of the idea. A graphic designer had to put it together. A printer had to produce it. A marketer had to stock it in a store or on a website. A citizen had to see it, like it, purchase it, stick it to his or her car, and drive around town with it in full view of anyone who happens to look.

The bumper sticker says essentially, “I am ignorant. I am choosing to remain ignorant. I am, in fact, proud to be ignorant. I want everyone who drives behind me to know that I am ignorant and choosing to remain so.”

Ignorant – adjective
1. lacking in knowledge or training; unlearned.
2. lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact.
3. uninformed; unaware.

I really cannot process how I am reacting emotionally to seeing this bumper sticker this morning. I am angry. I am stunned. I am terrified. I am hoping it’s a joke. I am afraid it isn’t.

I am praying to God that this attitude represents a tiny, tiny minority opinion. Please God tell me that it’s the smallest possible fraction of people who think this way. Maybe even just this one guy. That would make it easier, if it was just this one guy.

I know, each person in this nation is entitled to their own opinion. We are free to think what we want to think about Islam as a religion and about Muslims as individual people practicing that religion. No one should attack another person for an opinion they hold.

Unless … Yes, there is an “unless” here. It may not be a legal “unless,” but it is most definitely a moral one. You can think what you want, unless it does harm to someone. If your attitude toward another person does them harm, or creates the potential to do them harm, then it needs to be challenged. And let’s not even entertain the “how can a thought do someone harm” question; it is na├»ve, deceptive, and misses the point entirely.

“Everything I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.”

My heart breaks, my stomach turns, my jaw clenches. I cannot fathom why anyone ever thought such an idea should see the light of day. I don’t know if I’m more upset about the idea itself or about its public display. I even found myself wondering about this person’s friends and family, and why nobody said anything to the driver, like, "Um, hey man. That bumper sticker is horrible and it makes you look like a moron, so you know, you should probably not put it on your car."

Someone please tell me this kind of thinking does not represent more than a handful of America’s most ignorant citizens. Please tell me that. I can’t imagine living in a community in which this sentiment represents more than .05% of the population. No wait, that’s too high. I’m still holding out hope that it’s just the one guy.

Because surely nobody else thinks like that … right?

I mean … right?

Monday, February 01, 2016

Should Christians "Be Political?"

As a part of my sermon yesterday, I posed the question - Should Christians “be political?”

My response - It depends on how you define “be political.”

If you mean get involved with the endless campaigning, the negativity, the bitterness, the fear and anger, the nonsense of what passes for the political process in our nation today, then my answer is, “That’s up to you.” As for me, I’m not going to. It’s a joke. It’s a farce. It’s a side show.

And it’s not what I mean by “be political.”

What I mean by “political” is more aligned with what the word may have originally meant. Something like “the way people interact in the world,” including organizing power and authority in a community, making community decisions, and deciding what kinds of behavioral boundaries define a community. Now, this may not be what “politics” means these days, but I think still at the heart of it, that’s really what it’s about.

And so it seems to me, if this is how we define “political,” then how in the world can a follower of Jesus NOT “be political?” It seems to me that followers of Jesus ought to be very, very concerned with the way people interact in the world. Of course we should be political.

Of course, it is completely inappropriate (on several levels) for a church to give any kind of official endorsement to any one candidate or any one political party. And I as a pastor would never think of telling anyone how they should vote when it comes time to do so. That’s out of bounds, as far as I’m concerned.

A follower of Jesus has decided to give his or her life to something that transcends the self, seeking first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness. That means re-ordering one’s priorities so that they align with God’s.

God’s priorities are revealed in Scripture, which people are able to access through the interpretive lenses of tradition, reason, and experience. God’s priorities are things like … love. And hope. Peace, justice, salvation, grace. All of which Jesus himself embodied in his life, teaching, death, and resurrection.

Why should we “be political?” Because if we truly have adopted God’s priorities as our own, we cannot help but notice that much in this world, including much in our own lives, is not aligned with God’s priorities. There is a great deal that is not as God intends it to be. For the follower of Jesus, the gap between “things as they are” and “things as God wants them to be” demands to be closed.

Why should Christians care about violence in the world? Because one of God’s priorities is peace.

Why should we care about prejudice, discrimination, and oppression? Because one of God’s priorities is justice.

Why should we care about racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, hatred, fear of the “other?” Because one of God’s priorities is love.

Some will say, “Well, all I can do is take care of myself, make sure my own decisions are right, be as good a person as I can. All I am in control of is myself, and there’s just too much in this world that is out of my control to worry about.” That’s fine. All well and good. Nothing wrong with that. It just isn’t Christian discipleship. To borrow a phrase from Jesus, “Even the Gentiles” think this way.

When you decide to follow Jesus, you are deciding to give your life away to a cause bigger than yourself, the cause of Christ. The Kingdom of God is the goal; Christ is the cause; and the Holy Spirit empowers every step of the journey from here to there.

Take for example, a “political” issue like regulation of predatory lenders. Payday loan companies, title loans, and so forth charge unjust interest rates, engage in deceptive and unethical sales practices, and make their profits by deepening the cycle of poverty, often at the expense of people’s health, families, and even lives.

Christians all around the nation are organizing politically to thwart the predatory lending industry. And why? Because one of God’s priorities is justice. I do not support the political actions to combat predatory lending because predatory lending is my “cause.” I support political action to combat it because my cause is Christ - I follow Jesus, and because I do I have tried to make God’s priorities my own.

This is one example of one "political" issue I could cite. There are many, many more.

The teachings of Jesus are jarring sometimes. Give to everyone who asks. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Do not judge other people. Each of these ideas of Jesus is very political in that they deal with how people are to interact, and honestly they are very challenging. There’s nothing comfortable about any of them.

It’s one thing to do these things on a personal level. It’s another to work with the systems and processes that make them happen more broadly. One is no better or worse than the other. Both the personal actions and the systemic work can be a part of faithful Christian discipleship. It really isn’t an either-or proposition.

So, should Christians be political? I guess I’m saying, if you're a Christian, you pretty much can’t help it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine

Questions of life and death are at the heart of the Gospel. What happens to us when we die? Is there “life” after death? What does that postmortem life look like? In light of one’s belief about the “afterlife,” what is the meaning of this present life?

These are deep, penetrating, and important questions to ask. Christianity answers them with the doctrine of resurrection. It isn’t so much a life “after” death as a life without beginning or end. Resurrection points us to “eternal life,” which by definition couldn’t start at a particular point, or else it wouldn’t be eternal. Resurrection life is much more an entering into what already is, rather than starting something new.

That gives meaning to life in the present time, since Jesus invites people into eternal life right here and now. In John 17, Jesus says a prayer that helps to define what “eternal life” is. He says, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

The Gospel of John, then, defines eternal life as something Jesus gives. And what Jesus gives is knowledge of God.

Can it really be that simple? Is “eternal life” really just a relationship with God, given by Jesus?

In the first “Star Wars” movie, just before Obi-Wan Kenobi is defeated by Darth Vader, Kenobi says, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” It is a line that is loaded with meaning. And I think it is a fitting description of the resurrection, as well. Resurrection life is undoubtedly “more powerful than we can possibly imagine.”

“Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars 7 - My Theory (SPOILERS)

I have to write this out of my head. Don’t read on if you do not want to read “Star Wars 7, The Force Awakens” spoilers.  

Also, don’t read on if you really don’t care all that much. Like I said, I’m writing to get this out of my brain and onto a page somewhere. I’ve been theorizing with my brother Brad and my son Wesley, and I now just have to write it down, for no other reason than I’m a nerd.

Read it, or don’t. There is no try.

So … (last chance to stop, definite spoilers ahead) …

Luke was calling Rey. This is the core of my theory. And Luke’s call awakened the force within Rey, and ultimately brought them together. This is what the movie is about, as the first line of the crawl indicates: "Luke Skywalker has vanished." (Almost as good an opening line as "The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed." Almost.)

Luke disappeared when Ben Solo turned to the dark side, right? I think, before he disappeared, Luke actually programmed R2-D2 to go into “sleep mode” until a certain time, the time at which Luke was ready to be found. That time was the arrival of Rey, whose presence was sensed by R2, who subsequently woke up and shared the rest of the map.

In my theory, Rey is most likely Han and Leia’s daughter, or maybe Obi-Wan’s. I haven’t 100% decided yet. But there is definitely a connection. The larger point is - Luke knows her, and has for her whole life. Luke is to Rey as Obi-Wan was to Luke, watching over her on Jakku.

And so when he is ready, he calls for her, and that call is “overheard” by Kylo Ren, who has seen Luke’s island also, as he says in the interrogation scene. Kylo Ren misunderstands this call, though, and thinks that killing Han will quiet it.

Rey hears the call and it allows her to access the force with unprecedented ease. She is closely bonded with Luke’s lightsaber (which she pulls out of the snow just like Luke did in Empire Strikes Back), and through that connection experiences her vision. I think this vision reveals a lot to Rey, even more than it does to the audience.

In fact it is Obi-Wan’s voice in that vision that gives evidence that he might be her father. I have to confess that I did not notice his voice until after watching the movie and reading an article that said he was in there. But that really isn’t a strong enough tie, I don’t think. That’s why I lean toward Han and Leia as Rey’s parents.

To that point, I noticed that when Rey arrives at the resistance base after Han’s death, she is embraced by Leia. Leia passes right by Chewbacca, with whom she has obviously shared a lot and has a strong emotional tie, and goes directly to Rey to embrace her. This makes me think that Rey is Han and Leia’s kid. Maybe even a twin sister to Ben.

In addition, there is a real connection between Han and Rey. They have great chemistry flying the Falcon, and Han Solo offers her a job. Is there anyone else he would trust enough to work with? What if the Millennium Falcon wasn’t actually stolen, but rather placed on Jakku with a purpose?

So if Rey is Han and Leia’s kid, that would make Luke her uncle, and a pretty strong connection. And I would love for Rey and Kylo Ren to be sister and brother – paralleling the father and son relationship of the first trilogy – and for the plot of the final movie to turn around Rey’s attempt to redeem Kylo Ren.

That’s my theory for today, anyway. Like I said I’m mainly writing this just as a way to think about it, see the words on a page. Star Wars people who have read this far – what do you think?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sing in the Face of Fear - Advent 3

This is what I wrote for the lighting of the Advent candles yesterday morning. I wrote it weeks ago, so I had kind of forgotten it. When I heard it read aloud at the first service, I thought, "Hey that's pretty good" before remembering that I had, in fact, written it. Awkward.

So anyway, I'd like to share it with you, because I love the idea of singing aloud as a way to overcome fear. I hope you like it.


Lighting of the Advent Candles - Campbell UMC, 2015

WEEK 3 - December 13

READER 1: Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst.

Zephaniah 1, 14 through 16.


READER 2: We are one week nearer to the arrival of Jesus! This week, Zephaniah encourages us to look fear in the face … and sing!

It is a liberating idea, isn’t it, to overcome fear with singing? So often we are told to be afraid, to be cautious, to withdraw and hide from the dangers of the world. In stark contrast, Zephaniah tells us to sing for joy!

Joy does not come from wealth or an abundance of possessions. Our neighbors in the La Laguna community in rural Nicaragua have next to nothing in terms of material possessions, and yet there is great joy among them. No, the source of true joy is not of this world; the source of true joy is God.

Today we light a candle called “Joy,” a song sung in defiance of fear, God’s strong presence in our midst.

(READER 1 lights “Hope,” “Peace,” and “Joy” candles.)

READER 1 (or 3): Joy’s light is added to “hope” and “peace,” illuminating the darkness of fear, and injustice, and poverty, and war. And no darkness will ever overcome it.

Let us pray. (Reprise intro begins)
O come, o come, Emmanuel. You open heaven wide, you liberate the captives, you conquer death itself. You scatter the gloomy clouds of night with the light of your justice.
O God, bind all people together in the gentle cords of grace. May we sing songs of joy in the face of all that we are told to fear.
Show us how to be your gift during this holy season. In the name of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


My prayer for you is that you have the confidence to sing in defiance of fear. Joy is the assurance of God's strong presence, equipping, energizing, and empowering us to overcome whatever struggles life throws our way.

"I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free!"

Christ the Lord is coming, that the world might joyful be.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Thoughts and Prayers

My thoughts and prayers are with the people affected by the San Bernardino shooting.

They truly are, even though I have no earthly idea what that even means. How can my prayers be “with” a group of people?

A prayer goes from me to God, and from God to me. What? Does it kind of make a detour over to California and hang out for a minute before drifting off to its intended target?

And what exactly am I praying? What possible prayer could I offer that would make any kind of difference in the life of a person whose sister or brother or mom or dad or son or daughter was just randomly shot and killed while attending a party with their coworkers? What?

My thoughts and prayers are feeling less and less thoughtful and prayerful these days.

“Pray that they will be comforted.”

But no, I do not want to pray for comfort; in fact I actually want to pray that we be deeply uncomfortable, shaken to our core at the callous violence that defines our nation. I do not want anyone to be “comfortable” with this.

“Pray that there will be peace.”

But no, I do not want to pray for peace; I want to pray for a level of righteous indignation to energize a movement of grace and love that sweeps across the world. I want our anger to empower a radical, revolutionary, incarnate love that stands up and shouts out, “NO!” to every evil in the world.

“Pray for an end to violence.”

But no, I have done that far too many times, and it really isn’t working. It pulls me toward theodicy when I start down that road. And I’m sometimes scared about how easy it would be for me to embrace a full on theodicy at any given moment. Like, really comfortably easy.

My thoughts and prayers are with the people affected by the San Bernardino shooting.

And I really do mean that. Sincerely. But my thoughts and prayers have been with so many different communities from so many different places around the world so many times, it has become rote. Meaning has begun to atrophy.

All the world’s a stage. Signifying nothing. And so it goes.

I hope you’re not mad at me for being so honest. I’m a preacher, after all. I’m supposed to be a source of answers, not more questions. But I just can’t. I’m being truthful, authentic, and hoping for grace. So please don’t be mad.

A politician tweets out “thoughts and prayers” and then gets cruelly attacked for it. This is what we’re upset about these days. Tweets. We live in a nation that literally made it illegal to research gun violence, let alone do anything about it. And we are mad about politician’s tweets.

It happened so slowly, that’s the thing. It happened so slowly that most of us didn’t even notice it. In the last 100 years our society has become gradually less and less appalled by violence. Every war moved us further away, and made the next one a little bit easier. Now we just don’t care at all. Sandy Hook Elementary proved that once and for all.

Oh, there were a few who noticed it was happening. They tried to tell us. They were duly labelled and ostracized. Some were even killed for noticing. The prophets of the 20th century it seems had no more luck than the ones in the Bible.

Some say that things are no more violent today than ever, it’s just that we know about it today. Communication technology, they say, has spread knowledge into everyone’s smartphone, so we instantly hear about things that 20 years ago we wouldn’t have necessarily known.

I do not agree. I understand the premise of this reasoning, but I do not agree. We are fundamentally different today than we were 100 years ago. We’ve developed societal callouses and now we are simply numb. And you do not develop callouses suddenly, it happens over time.

My thoughts and prayers are with the people affected by the shooting in San Bernardino. Colorado Springs. Roseburg. Charleston. Fort Hood. Newtown. Aurora. Virginia Tech. Columbine.

Do you even remember Columbine?

The BBC now reports on mass shootings in the United States like CNN reports on car bombings in Iraq.

My thoughts and prayers …

No actually I do have a prayer for today. We sang it at church this past week. It’s a verse of a hymn.

“O come, Desire of nations bind all peoples in one heart and mind.
From dust thou brought us forth to life; deliver us from earthly strife.”

Do you recognize the words? It’s a verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

There’s a refrain to that song, a call to “rejoice.” Significantly it is the only time the song is in a major key. The verses are all minor, gloomy, sad, dark. And after that one major key “rejoice,” the song quickly returns to the minor, with a somber thought that Emmanuel isn’t here yet, but “shall come to thee, O Israel.”

Emmanuel isn’t here yet. No kidding. Because I’d really like for someone to “deliver us from earthly strife” right about now.

And as jumbled and rambling as they are, bordering on heresy and a product of great spiritual struggle, those are my thoughts and prayers.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Inklings

I just got done reading “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. Not really noteworthy, except for the way in which I read it. Instead of reading on my own, I read with a small group of people.

Every week since early September, on Sunday evenings at 5:30, seven or eight of us gathered in a room here at the church and read aloud, stopping every page or so to ask questions, offer insights, and process what we were reading. We had a wonderful experience; we called ourselves “The Inklings” in honor of the discussion group Lewis was a part of at Oxford in the 1930s and 40s.

I would definitely recommend this process to anyone who has ever wanted to read a weighty theological book, but couldn’t find the motivation, or was a bit intimidated, or just didn’t know exactly where to begin.

Here are a few of the things I learned in the process:

- There was no curriculum other than what came out of our own minds in the moment. That made for some fantastic conversation and some energetic back-and-forth of ideas. It also led to some very interesting, albeit tangential, conversations about all kinds of things from cabbage to terrorism to amusing English idioms. Since we were not restricted by a curriculum, we were free to take the conversation where it wanted to go naturally, although always returning to the book itself to move things along.

- We took turns reading aloud, which gave us the opportunity to hear several different voices. It is fascinating to learn about who somebody is by listening to them read aloud. Tone of voice, inflection, syllabic emphasis choices – each reader brings their own personality to the task of reading, and in so doing offers a bit of themselves to the group. And to hear words read aloud as you are reading them yourself deepens the impact of their meaning.

- It is so fun to hear how others react when an idea strikes their fancy. There were many times that another person’s reaction to a particular thought was more significant than my own, which always made me pause to ask them what had been so meaningful to them. Comments were made as the reader went along – “Oh I like that!” “That’s a good one!” or even just “Wow!” And there were definitely moments when the entire group all reacted at the same time, and it was really exciting to be a part of the synergy of thought.

- One of the most interesting parts of the process was the way in which members of the group made connections to “real life” experiences. The Syrian refugee crisis was an ongoing story this fall, and often came up in our conversations. We talked about Pope Francis, presidential candidates, racial issues on campus, war in the middle east, and gun violence, among other things. Often the connections that others made were not necessarily ones I would have made myself, which was sometimes puzzling but always illuminating.

So now we are going to take a break, but decided last night to pick up another book in the new year. We chose “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Yep. We’re going for it! As one said last night, “I’ve always wanted to read it, but never would have on my own. The only way I would read it is with a group, so I’m in!

I truly think that people long to “go deep” spiritually, to spend time wrestling with heavy thoughts, thoughts that are worth thinking, and we’re much more likely to do that together than alone. So pick a book, get some people together, and start reading. It’s easy. You can start your own “Inklings” right where you are!