Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Guy in the Park, or, The Random Diatribe

I was at the park this morning; the two bigs were off playing and I was standing watch over the two littles, who were just piddling around in the picnic shelter (in spite of the very appealing playground a few yards away, I might add).

A man strolled over, walking his black poodle around the park perimeter. He told me the dog's name. "He likes kids," he declared as the two littles came over and started petting him. "I like the logo on your shirt," he added.

I was wearing an old Saint Paul School of Theology Shirt which has a logo on it that uses the shape of the cross perched atop Kresge Chapel on the campus in Kansas City. So I explained to him that I am a pastor and this is a t-shirt from my seminary.

"What church do you pastor?" he asked. And I told him, "Campbell United Methodist, right up the road."

It was then that I noticed his cap, which identified him as an Ozark Minuteman, which served as a precursor to what he started into next.

What followed was probably a 5 -10 minute diatribe about how pastors of the past would never have stood by and watched while "all of this stuff" is happening to our country, but how fear of losing the tax-exempt status for our congregation prevents us from doing so. "All of this stuff" happening to our country consisted, for him, of pretty much every talking point of the political far right, including the one about Obama forming a kind of private army of some sort which he said that he saw a video of on the internet.

I tried to deflect to more superficial topics, like kids and the dog and the weather - to no avail. My new friend pit bulled the conversation, latching on to his tirade and refusing to let go, following me around the picnic shelter as I chased toddlers in two directions.

And so, what strikes me about the incident is not so much what the guy was saying. Nothing new there. What made an impression on me was how quickly and in what tone of voice he began sharing it with me. It was as if seeing the cross on my shirt indicated to him that I would be in sympathy with his rather grumpy viewpoint automatically. I'm not, but that's not really the point. The point is that he assumed I was.

The things the guy in the park was saying would have been better left to a time when a relationship is established and the conversation partners know each other well. And it would have been more appropriate in a calm, reasonable tone of voice. Rapport like that is what allows for respectful, grace-filled dialogue to happen. The guy in the park took a huge risk, and assumed I was going to agree with everything he had to say - and he thought it was okay to take that risk because I had a cross on my shirt and had told him I am a pastor.

And ironically, it WAS safe for him to take that risk, but not because of the reason he thought. He assumed it was safe for him because I was just as mad as him about "all this stuff" the President is doing. Rather, it was safe because I'm not going to pass judgement on him in any way for what he believes one way or the other. I allowed him to express himself as I would any random stranger. Having no relationship with him, my role was simply to smile and nod. Which I did. A lot.

Of course, I am fully equipped with the knowledge needed to go point-by-point with everything this guy was saying. I've done my reading and I could have responded to him if I had chosen to. And of course, if I knew the guy well and felt comfortable offering my contrasting opinion and could do so in a respectful and calm way, I would absolutely have pushed back a bit. But a random stranger, in the park, me trying to keep track of four kids? I don't think that was the time or place, to say the least.

So I smiled, nodded, and chased the kids around until he felt like he had said what he needed to. Then he walked on and we went over to the slide. And that was that.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Promotion Sunday for Grown-Ups?

One of the most important aspects of our faith is growth – ours is not a stagnant condition but a process of continual learning. There is always more to know about God. There is always just a bit closer we can step toward Jesus. Our lives can always be a little more Christlike.

This Sunday at Campbell we will celebrate some of the youngest members of the church family and the teachers who lead them along the first steps of their faith journey. At the 8:20 worship service, we will honor the children’s Sunday School teachers and promote children up to the next grade level of our Sunday School program.

The kids and their teachers will all gather up front of the sanctuary and we’ll pray for them all. Then we’ll all sing together as they head down to the gym for the big promotion! What an exciting day!

No matter how old we are, the development of our faith is key to living the life Christ calls us all to live. Don’t you wish there was a promotion Sunday for grown-ups, too? It seems like there should be some tangible sign or ritual that says, “You have officially completed this level of your spiritual education and are ready to move on to the next. Congratulations!”

Alas, it is a little vaguer than that. After we complete the numbered grades, the ceremonies marking our development are few and far between. It’s not so much that we have less to learn than we start keeping track of it differently.

No, there is no promotion Sunday for grown-ups, but wouldn't it be cool? We'd get called up to the front by our first and last name and the teacher would give us a little certificate or maybe one of those wooden crosses to put in our pocket. The off we would go to that room down the hall that we had always wondered what it was like in there and now we were going to get our chance to see it for ourselves!

Maybe? Anyone with me on this?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Life Metaphors

Any and all language about God is metaphorical. And that does not lessen the power of the words we use, merely tempers them a bit. And so whether God is Father or Creator or Mother or Papa or יהוה any of the other numerous possibilities, the best any word can do is describe a tiny bit of the one who is utterly indescribable.

Likewise, we use metaphorical images to describe life. The words we choose to describe the life God gives are powerful, but similarly tempered by their symbolic roles. So if we describe life as a battle against cosmic forces, we don’t mean literally a battle with literal armies lined up on opposite sides of a literal battlefield literally attacking each other. We mean battle as in a struggle, or opposition to a force at work.

There are other metaphors for a life of faith, of course. I have heard it described variously as a race or a dance or a journey, for example. None of these are literal, but supply symbolic meaning to our approach to living.

I happen to believe that any of these other three metaphors are superior to the metaphor of the battle. My last post explained some of the reasons why I think the battle image doesn’t work as well any more, focusing on the “Armor of God” passage in Ephesians 6. I think, essentially, that what the image conveyed in that letter 2,000 years ago doesn’t get conveyed today.

At different times of life, different metaphors work better than others. There are times when my life has felt like a battle, to be sure. But it was always a temporary deal. Like when the thing I was battling was out of the way, I moved on. So I guess I think of it more as an obstacle in the way of my journey than a battle. The devil doesn’t so much fight me as put things in my way.

What does that say about my theology? I’m still thinking on that, but part of what it says is that I really do think about salvation as a way or a journey. I thought about it that way even before I learned enough Wesleyan theology to realize that’s what I thought! Of course the Wesleys used multiple images to describe salvation, but the metaphor of a multi-stage journey toward “perfection” is the dominant one.

So I think of the driving force of faith as an impulse to get somewhere, much more so than an impulse to defeat something. There will likely be metaphorical obstacles to overcome and metaphorical adversaries to fight against as we go, but ultimately we’re doing it because we’re going. The point is not to conquer the enemy; the point is to get to the place where the enemy doesn’t want us to go.

In Ephesians 6, the term “full armor” is used - πανοπλίαν – and it is only used one other place in the entire New Testament. This fact highlights its significant, particular meaning. The soldier must put on the “full armor” specifically contrasted with only partial armor, in order to be fully prepared for battle. The point being that one must be fully prepared for the work to be done.

And so I can convey the same meaning by saying that we need to be fully packed for the journey, not just a water bottle and granola bar for an afternoon hike in the woods, but the back of the mini-van stuffed with every thing we might conceivably need for the two week vacation. And if I can convey the same meaning using a different metaphor, I think that’s okay.

Finally, I just think life these days is too violent to add to it with violent faith images. Recent pictures of people wielding assault weapons at a public rally only serve to solidify that point. Violence has become normal, expected, no big deal. Why add to that with equally violent responses? Shouldn’t people of God offer an alternative? Something different?

We’re not supposed to meet evil with more evil. We’re supposed to meet evil with good. (Romans 12) In The Screwtape Letters (still my favorite C.S. Lewis book), this quote of Luther appears just after the preface: “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to the texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” The devil hates joy, and I find that to be much more useful in overcoming those obstacles than anything else.

What’s your favorite metaphor for life? What words do you use most often to talk about living the way God intends that we live? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Full Armor" Image - Still Meaningful?

This week I'm going to preach about being “dressed for success” using a passage from Ephesians 6. Using a word that occurs only one other time in the New Testament, the author exhorts us readers to put on the “full armor” of God. But what kind of armor is this?

Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the Spirit? These are the articles of clothing with which we are to gird ourselves in preparation for battle with “the cosmic powers of this present darkness.” Um… don’t you have anything more … substantial? Like a thermo-nuclear device, maybe? Shoot, I’d settle for a shirt of chain mail!

The answer, of course, is no. This isn’t real “armor” we’re getting ourselves dressed in; armor is being used here symbolically. This passage is a metaphor for preparing ourselves to live the life God wants us to live, which may prove to be difficult from time to time. The author has taken overtly militaristic imagery and transformed it into what would seem like nonsense to a soldier. Surely a soldier with any sense would rather go into battle with a shield made out of metal or even wood, rather than one out of faith.

But I think that is precisely the point. God gives us what we need to prepare us to live a good life, and much of the time it’s not really what we might expect. Nevertheless, God assures us that what has been given is indeed sufficient, despite our frantic scrabbling for something we think might be more appropriate.


The above thoughts are a part of my newsletter article this week. I always write an article intended to prime the pump for the upcoming worship services, get people thinking, kind of preview coming attractions. Of course, it also reflects what I am thinking about during the week as well.

I have been thinking a bit about militaristic images in scripture, kind of as a tangent to the central theme of the week. War is something I have changed my mind about many times throughout my life. And using militaristic images to talk about faith has been something I have usually avoided, or at least not emphasized, because of this waffling.

Listening to people talk about their experiences Guatemala, ravaged by war over the past several decades, really impacted my ideas about war. Serving as a pastor in Warrensburg, with several Air Force personnel and their families in the congregation helped to shape my thoughts as well. And good friendships with a few people who have served in the Middle East and their families have also informed my opinions.

One thing that is certain: war in 2009 is so different from war in the ancient near east as to be almost unrecognizable. A soldier described in the Bible and a soldier serving today in Afghanistan have many things in common, to be sure, but also huge differences. For one thing, the level of destruction that is possible today would have been unthinkable then. Also the amount of automation along the front lines is obviously an enormous difference. And changes in communication and transportation have flattened the world so that every local conflict is instantly global.

Because of these differences, I am hesitant to incorporate militaristic imagery when talking about faith. It's just not the same world now as it was then. And out of my deep respect for people who serve in the military, and my sincere desire to support them and their families, I choose not to use military metaphors to make a theological point. I even sort of regret my off-handed attempt at humor in my newsletter article above, mentioning a thermo-nuclear device to illustrate my point. That was pretty insensitive of me, and I am sorry.

Like I said, this is a topic that I have changed my mind about before, and I'm sure I will again. I'd be interested to know what y'all think. If you feel so inclined, leave a comment and let's discuss it. Does the militaristic imagery in scripture still convey the meaning it was intended to convey?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Eternal Life

I’ve been thinking about life eternal, in preparation for Sunday’s sermon. What does it mean? What does “everlasting” feel like?

I don’t think eternal life begins when we die, because if it had a beginning, then it wouldn’t be eternal. Eternal not only means “always will be” but also “always has been.” Shane Claiborne wrote about this in “The Irresistible Revolution,” saying that he is convinced “Jesus came not just to prepare us to die but to teach us how to live.” Eternal life is an ongoing something that we enter into when we decide to follow Jesus.

I’ve been contemplating how this idea weaves in to the social issues around the beginning and ending of life. For example, one of the loudest groups in the milieu believes that life begins at conception. While biologically this may be true, theologically I do not believe it. God tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” (Jeremiah 1:4) not “At the moment of your conception I knew you…” Life everlasting has no beginning; it is like entering a flowing stream somewhere in the middle.

Similarly, Paul writes that “we will not all die, but we will all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51). I do not believe that ceasing to function biologically is the same as ceasing to be. I do not know how I personally will feel about it when a loved one is close to death, or when I am. I’d like to think that I will be able to face it unafraid. But I have numerous experiences in ministry with people who are dying and with their families, and it is a holy time in which you get a little glimpse in the direction of infinity.

And while I don’t know exactly how to express the idea, because all language is metaphor, all of this means that saying “yes” to the life everlasting that Christ offers should therefore impact us in the present. Followers of Christ should live differently, better. In other words, I’m no expert on the “everlasting” part, but I’ll do my best to live the here and now like God wants me to.

Doesn’t it seem like sometimes we spend a lot of energy waiting around for heaven? As Shane Claiborne puts it, “Christians pretty much live like everybody else; they just sprinkle a little Jesus in along the way.” I don’t believe that we are supposed to live however we want and then let God sort it all out in the end. I believe we are supposed to live here and now as if the there and then has already come. Why else would be pray for God’s will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven?

The life God wants us to live will be easy then, because God’s reign on earth will be fulfilled and God’s law will be written on all hearts. And what a wonderful party that will be! But while we wait for it, we are supposed to bring that life to life right now, and that’s not easy. In fact, it’s amazingly difficult.

Kind of like it was for Jesus. Jesus came to tell us that God’s reign on earth was among us, not in the far-off future, and certainly not in any earthly authority. And not only that, he came to embody that heavenly reign on earth in his very self. And it was hard work. You might say he worked himself to death.

Have you ever thought about how much in this world would change if Christians really lived the way Jesus says we should? What would it look life if we truly believed that we have been given life everlasting? How would you respond? How would you change?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Stuff Swirling

The only things I have written in the past ten days have been emails and newsletter articles. Even my sermon last Sunday was unwritten; I had the outline in my mind, a few key transition phrases, and that was about it. It has been a very active couple of weeks. Here's the things, in no particular order:

A major staff transition is underway. I had to call the child abuse/neglect hotline after speaking with a friend about a very upsetting situation. I was in charge of setting up and facilitating an online meeting held Thursday morning for a group of ministers across the state. An inspiration struck me and I started writing a Christmas musical for children. Our niece and nephews were in town for a few days’ visit and we went to Silver Dollar City during the day Friday. I had my 20th High School Reunion on Friday evening and Saturday. And then I went to a wedding Saturday late afternoon.

It was an unbelievable week.

So I didn't write anything. But if I had, it was going to be about the responses I got to two questions I posed on my Facebook status last week. Tuesday I asked, "Does the fact that different Gospels tell the story of Jesus differently bug you?" Wednesday I asked, "Does the fact that today, different Christians interpret the story of Jesus differently bug you?"

(Thursday, Clayton asked, "Does the fact that today, Andy Bryan did not pose a new "bug you" question, bug you?" Which I thought was very helpful, thank you Clayton.)

The responses were fascinating. It definitely elicited some thoughts, and some people wrote at length. My initial impetus for asking the questions was preparing for a sermon about Holy Communion using the Gospel According to John as the text, which is a bit odd because John doesn't mention the "Last Supper" in the way that the synoptics do.

But that moment passed and I don't really have anything interesting to say about that.

Now I have a lot of other stuff swirling in my brain and way too much to say about any of it.

I could write about what happens when you tell people with whom you graduated 20 years ago that you are a pastor. I could write about re-envisioning children's ministry in a time of transition. I could write about the relief of hearing that a child I thought may be in danger is in a safe place. I could write about the impulse to create something, how it hits you and what you have to do to scratch the itch when it comes because it simply will not be ignored.

Or I could just write about all the things I might possible write about and actually say nothing. Which is what I have done. And that's all there is to that.