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!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Refugees Among Us

Okay, let’s talk about refugees.

A refugee is one who is seeking refuge. Their home is not safe anymore, and in desperation, they are running for their lives. Most have been forced out, they are powerless, all control over their lives resides in the hands of others.

There are literally millions of them around the world.

From a security perspective, there is an ongoing public debate about whether or not to accept them into any given country. It is a question of resources, of public safety, of basic sanitation. These are legitimate questions.

From a Christian perspective, there is really no debate. There ought to be no question. Followers of Jesus will say “Yes” to every refugee, everywhere, at any time. The only questions would be the logistical ones pertaining to how, not the philosophical ones pertaining to if.

But with that said, how might an individual follower of Jesus say “Yes” to a refugee in the world? Tweet about it? Share a pithy meme on the Facebook? Write a nice articulate “statement” and put it on a website somewhere?

I’ll tell you how. I guarantee you there are dozens of refugees in YOUR town right now. If not hundreds. People who are seeking refuge. Forced out of a home that is no longer safe, if it ever was. All control over their lives taken violently away. They are desperate, powerless, scared.

They are children in the foster care system, and they need you. No, their pictures are not spread all over your newsfeed. They do not make headlines. But are they not refugees, as much as the ones fleeing the violence in Syria?

Foster kids only become foster kids if they’ve been hurt - abused or neglected. The home that they know and love is not safe for them. They are removed by strangers, taken to a place they’ve never seen before, every decision made by people they don’t know, people that they do not trust. They have no home, no foundation, all is chaos.

Do you really want to help a refugee? Do you actually want to do something that will make a real and noticeable dent in the world’s suffering? Do you really? In “Fiddler on the Roof,” a revolutionary young man named Perchik asks, “Why do you curse them? What good will your cursing do? You curse and chatter but you do nothing. You’ll all chatter your way into the grave.”

The point is - DO something. Enough chatter. There is no try. Do.

Now I confess, honestly and openly, that foster care is our particular calling. My family has opened our home to sixteen refugees over the years, and we’ve given one of those sixteen a forever home. I’m passionate about foster care, and very, very biased on this issue. I’ll own that.

And furthermore, of course the refugees from the middle east should be welcomed, sheltered, fed, given refuge. The same goes for any refugee anywhere in the world. It clearly is not an either / or proposition. I have very little patience for the “no refugees until all American homeless people are cared for” position. That’s a false dichotomy, hardly worth refuting.

My point is just this. If you actually want to help a refugee, you can. Become a licensed foster parent. Open up your home to a child who needs refuge. Do it now. Use the anger you feel about “this refugee situation” as motivation to do something courageous and noble and (dare I say it) … Christlike.

Do you want to talk about refugees? Do you really? Do you want to help one? Do you want to meet one? Because there’s a list. In every town in every county in every state in this great nation - hundreds of kids. They are no less refugees than the thousands of people whose images are currently scrolling on the news. 

And they're not going anywhere.


(Foster families, thank you for everything you do. Respite providers, thank you. Case workers, therapists, lawyers, judges, and all the rest who devote your lives to foster kids, thank you. Agencies whose mission is helping foster kids, people who give support to those agencies, thank you. It doesn’t take a village; it takes a world. You are the world for some of the most vulnerable refugees among us. God bless you all.)

"Be the Gift"

This Advent season, our congregational theme is “Be the Gift.” We’ll be thinking about how can we “be the gift” that God is giving to the world.

(I realize of course the possible negative connotations here. It is often said of someone, “Well he thinks is just God’s gift to humanity!” And when that is said, it is NOT meant as a compliment! But that’s not how we are using the idea; there is another way to think of it.)

I saw a TV commercial last week that featured a guy shopping for Christmas gifts. He bought a bunch of electronic gadgets and walked out of the advertised store full of confidence. The tagline of the commercial was, “They’ll not only love it - they’ll love you.”

My jaw dropped. My stomach rolled. I may even have uttered an incoherent grunt of disgust.

The implication is not even subtle. “You have to buy love.” No! No! No! A million times NO! Christmas gifts are not given in order to earn someone’s love. Christmas gifts are given to honor the greatest gift ever in the history of gifts - the gift of Jesus himself.

Jesus embodied God’s love; that’s what the incarnation was all about. He was and is the gift that God was giving to the world. The church is the body of Christ in the world today; the church ought to be a continual embodiment of God’s love, the ongoing incarnation of God’s gift.

Simply put, we should be the gift. You - me - us together. What if we thought less about buying someone a gift and more about being a gift in their life? Be a gift of presence, a gift of hope, a gift of joy, a gift of love. Be a gift of encouragement, a gift of friendship. Be a gift of grace to someone.

That’s what we’re about this Advent season, being gifts for one another and for the world. May God bless our holy season, a season not of greed but of giving, a season not of presents but of presence, a season not of crass consumerism but of sacred celebration.

Happy Advent, everyone!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thessalonian Top Ten - Are you in?

The apostle Paul is really good at lists. His first written list was likely the one that ends his first letter to the Thessalonian church (5:12-22).

But since Paul is sometimes kind of "Bibley" in his writing style, I have re-written this list, to make it a bit easier to read. Here it is:

1) Respect people.
2) Try to get along with each other.
3) Help people who need help, in they way they need it.
4) Always try to do good to all people, even the jerks.
5) Find the joy in every situation.
6) Consider every moment to be a prayer.
7) Say “thank you” a lot.
8) Let God's light shine through you.
9) Listen closely and don’t take anything for granted.
10) Do good stuff.

Not bad advice, huh? Imagine what it would be like if every follower of Jesus actually did all these things.

Well, how about it? It has to start somewhere, right? I'll give it my best shot - how about you?

Are you in?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"To Resist Evil, Injustice, and Oppression"

“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” (The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 34)

I asked a young couple this question among others as they brought their infant forward for baptism last Sunday. As I asked it, images of “evil, injustice, and oppression” flashed across my mind: images of death and destruction in the streets of Paris, a lifeless toddler lying on a beach in Turkey, infants held by exhausted and desperate mothers in refugee camps, grimy children walking the demolished streets of Damascus, and on and on and on.

Do you accept … no, do I accept the freedom and power God gives … to resist evil … in whatever forms … ?

To resist evil. What does that even mean? And how is it a “freedom” exactly?

Every member of every United Methodist Church has answered that question in the affirmative. We had to, in order to become members. And having answered thusly, now what?

In the simple questions of our church membership, people who are United Methodist have made a solemn vow, witnessed by God and spoken in the midst of the people, to resist evil, however it appears in the world.

If the agenda and actions of the Daesh group are not evil, then I do not know what is. So in the face of such atrocious acts, what does it mean to “resist” evil?

The word “resist” is from the Latin word resistere, which meant “to remain standing.” It means to withstand or strive against or oppose. It means to take a stand against something, to make an effort in opposition.

We use the word frivolously, as in “I just couldn’t resist eating that delicious cupcake.” But I’m pretty sure the baptismal vows do not mean it in such a shallow way. The word is also used to described armed opposition to an occupying force, as in the French resistance to Nazi forces during the 1930s and 40s. Is that more aligned with what is meant in our United Methodist question?

The scripture I’m preaching on this week includes the following advice: “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all” (1 Thessalonians 5:15). So whatever “resist” means, it seems it cannot mean “repay,” and certainly our response to evil should not involve even more evil. That will get us nowhere fast.

Sometimes, to be honest, I really wish Jesus had included a few escape clauses in the Gospel. Don’t you? Like wouldn’t it have been great if he had said, “Hey guys you should welcome strangers and eat with them, unless of course you think there’s a chance they may hurt you, then you’re totally fine to just keep them as far away from you as possible.” But he didn’t say that. And you know why? Because that’s not just. That’s oppressive. That’s actually kind of evil, in my honest opinion.

We are “to remain standing” in the face of evil, injustice, and oppression. We are to remain standing in the values of the Gospel, the doctrines of love and peace and justice and grace and incarnation and resurrection and everything else that the church is supposed to be about.

Only by “standing” in these places will our response to Daesh and Boko Haram and al-Qaeda and Al Shabaab be grounded in a faithful Christian response. But true resistance must be more than metaphor. To truly resist, we must act.

Only a very few of us who live in the United States can actually go to the places most impacted by the current violence. But by the virtue of our amazing democratic system, we have access to the people who can. We can contact our political leaders and encourage them to stand against evil, to act for justice, to speak with love and compassion for others.

And by the virtue of our amazing connectional church, we are a part of an incarnate Christian presence that is already at work all around the world. We can contribute the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which has a fund designated specifically for refugee response. The full list of projects UMCOR does is impressive.

Resisting evil is global, and also very local. We resist evil every time we take in a foster kid. We resist evil every time we back a food box for a hungry family. We resist evil every time we confront discrimination in our community. We resist evil every time we challenge homophobia and racism and sexism in any of the mealy, insidious forms they show up around us.

And here’s the thing - this resistance is liberating! God has offered us both freedom and power to resist. That means, quite counter-intuitively, that not resisting is actually captivity. Going along to get along is a prison. Allowing evil to continue is a chain, a burden, a weight on our lives that prevents us from becoming who God wants us to be.

In the act of resistance, we are set free.

And so I return to the question. “Do you accept the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” If so, please respond, “I do.”

And if you do, then for God’s sake … do.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Why Do We Do What We Do?

What matters more - what you do or why you do it?

C.S. Lewis writes about this question in his book “Mere Christianity.” He thinks that motivation matters. For example, if a person takes your seat on the train to be rude, that’s different than if a person takes your seat on the train because they didn’t know it was your seat. We would be inclined to be angry at person number one, and more understanding of person number two, even though they did exactly the same thing. Why would respond differently? Because of the difference in their motivations.

And if we expand that idea to apply to congregations, we might ask a similar question. Congregations do things; we do ministry - hospitality, worship, service, generosity, faith formation - and if we are honest with ourselves, sometimes the things we do become more important than the reasons to do them.

When we forget our reasons for doing what we do, our actions become empty and shallow. The things we do may have the very same result, but purpose begins to deteriorate. And when we do increasingly meaningless things, even if the results are very similar, our energy level decreases and we begin to burn out. Ultimately, we either stop doing them altogether, or do them begrudgingly and with a chip on our shoulder.

But it is possible to renew purpose, to reclaim the meaning behind our actions. We need to remember the “why” of our Christian discipleship. And having remembered and reaffirmed this “why,” suddenly we find our actions infused with meaning, purpose, and energy again. We may even be doing the very same things we’ve always done, but now they are a joy.

And so yes, what we do matters. But I think knowing why we do it may matter even more.