Monday, November 28, 2016

Advent - Week One

Advent begins, and it feels familiar.
Comfortable. Traditions renewed.
Familiar garland. Familiar lights.
Familiar songs. Familiar food.

Every year, a sacred season
begins as autumn fades
and winter peeks around into
shortening, darkening days.

Advent begins, and prophets call, “Swords
into shovels! Spears into billhooks!”
And the words flicker into our ears
like a single candle lit against
the oncoming darkness of our hopes and fears.

Every year, the expectations of our
deepest and truest selves
are met, exceeded, extended, transcended
beyond earthly standards and big box shelves
into the music of God,
made known in humility, fragility, infinite capability
and hope.

There is a song in the air, and that song is called hope.

We wait for you, long-expected Jesus. We prepare for your arrival with familiar sights and smells and flavors and sounds. Familiar ... and yet new every year. There is a song in the air, both familiar and new, a song that is and was and ever shall be, Amen.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

There's a Song in the Air

“Expect the unexpected.” Have you heard that phrase before? It is ironically common these days, such that we almost expect to hear it uttered in certain surprising circumstances. Which of course, defeats its purpose entirely.

This week we are entering a season rich with traditions. Advent, the four weeks of preparation before the twelve days of the Christmas season begin, is a time during which much is deeply familiar. Heirloom decorations are unpacked, plans for annual gatherings of family and friends are made, and greenery and lights are hung on nails that were driven in years ago.

And of course, the familiar music of the season begins.

No other season has music connected to it quite like this one does. Other holidays have musical associations, but the songs of the Christmas season are deeply imprinted on our hearts. Hearing a favorite Christmas song elicits nostalgia, stirs emotions, and elevates our demeanor.

I really enjoy hearing a familiar song in a new and creative arrangement. It’s “tradition with a twist,” a well-known song with a new harmonization or a well-done countermelody or done in a different style than is usually heard. A good new arrangement of a traditional Christmas song manages to connect to the memories of the past while at the same time being fresh and engaging in the present.

Songs play a significant role in Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus. Mary, Zechariah, John, and Simeon, not to mention the angels themselves, all sing songs of praise and worship as a part of Luke’s account. During Advent at Campbell UMC, we are going to use these songs as our Scriptural focus for our worship services, and maybe by doing so, hear the story in a brand new way. In other words, “expect the unexpected!”

“There’s a Song in the Air!” during Advent this year, and all are welcome to sing along!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ruth - A Parable for Our Time

How in the world did Ruth, a woman from Moab of all places, get into the genealogy of Jesus?

Being a Moabite was completely incompatible with Jewish teaching. For Israelites, Moabites were irreconcilably deplorable. The tenets of their faith (meaning the Bible) permitted discrimination against Moabites “even to the tenth generation.”

So what is Ruth the Moabite doing there, in the family tree of the Lord and Savior?

Rewind: Moab was the son of Lot, and the story of his conception is definitely rated NC-17. It’s all there in Genesis chapter 19 if you want to read it. It comes right after the Sodom and Gomorrah story, which gets all the attention of course. But the story of how Moab and his half-brother Ben-ammi were conceived is … well let’s just say it’s not going to be the content of next year’s Vacation Bible School curriculum.

Because of this shameful story, the Moabites and the Ammonites were thought to be inferior by the Israelites. Of course, it’s quite possible that it happened the other way around (just sayin’). It could have been that there was animosity between Israel and their neighboring ethnic groups first, and then the story of those groups’ origin was composed to “confirm” that pre-existing animosity. Nevertheless, Israelites and Moabites didn’t hang out together.

So when Naomi and her family journey to Moab to find relief from the famine in Israel, it was an act of desperation. And when her sons married Moabite women, it must have been quite the scandal. And then when her sons died and Naomi returned to Israel with one of those Moabite women with her, her former friends and neighbors must have really flipped out.

But then Ruth gives birth to Obed, who becomes the father of Jesse, who is the father of David, who becomes the King. And in Matthew Chapter 1, there’s Ruth’s name, one of only four women in the whole paternalistic list that traces the birth of Jesus himself all the way back to Abraham.

Ruth the Moabite. “Wrong” in almost every sense of the word. Wrong ethnicity. Wrong religion. Wrong gender. Wrong family background.

But apparently, things that people think count as “wrong” aren’t necessarily what God counts as “wrong.”

By every human consideration Ruth should have been excluded. If a Jewish person would not have been permitted to exclude her, they could have complained about having their religious freedom infringed upon. If someone had referred to Moabites as a “basket of deplorables,” no one would have thought twice about it.

And yet … Ruth the flippin' Moabite. Right there, in Jesus’s family tree.

God just keeps on surprising us, huh?

I wonder what would happen if we just stopped painting one another with such broad brushes, and we actually treated people like people, instead of categories? I wonder...

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Master We Seve

“No one can serve two masters.” - Jesus

The master we serve goes by the name “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”
The master we serve is called the “Prince of Peace” and “The Author of Life.”
The master we serve is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, the One, Holy, Sovereign God.

We who serve this master know that we are expected to be his ambassadors. Together we claim we are his very body in the world. He has shown us the difference between right and wrong, between justice and oppression, between good and evil. He has demonstrated to what extent we are supposed to love one another. He didn't just tell us that; he showed us.

And because he has taught us so much, when a person is in pain, or grieving, or frightened, or angry … we know what we are supposed to do.

We are to stand with them. We are to listen to them, and acknowledge their pain. We are to encourage, support, and love. To respond any other way is to serve some other master, a master whose realm is earthly rather than of God.

In the past several days, many of our brothers and sisters have expressed pain, grief, fear, and anger, intensely emotional reactions to the election of 2016. We must take care not to dismiss these emotions. And we must take care not to tell them what is "really" wrong.

A Christian knows what to do - We stand with them. We listen to them. We acknowledge their pain. We encourage, support and love them. And we do so because really there is no “them.” There is only “us.” We’re it.

And we are presented a choice: you either serve God or you don’t. There’s not a lot of wiggle room there. It isn't a multiple choice quiz. No one can serve two masters.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

A New President - Election Day 2016 Post #6

(Just a warning: I am a pastor, and I’m about to share an opinion that might be considered political. If you don’t think pastors should share political opinions, you might want to stop reading now.)

I did not think he would really run. And he ran.

I did not think he would really be nominated. And he was nominated.

I did not think he would really win the election. And he won.

I do not think he will really be able to implement his campaign promises.  And …

And for me it’s not only about the specific campaign promises he made, it’s about the tone he sets.

I did not think that a majority of voters would approve of that tone. And ... it actually turns out they didn’t.

It was close, but there were just over 200,000 more Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton than voted for Donald Trump (at the time of this writing). So there’s not a decisive victory, no clear mandate to advance his agenda. We are a starkly polarized country, and this election showed that very clearly.

Let me say this before I proceed. Although I did not support his campaign, I will respect his role as President of the United States.

And at the same time, I will hold on to what I know.

I know that bullying is wrong. I know that racism is wrong. I know that misogyny is wrong. I know that discrimination against people who are gay is wrong. I know that allowing fear to motivate your actions leads to terrible results.

I know that God is real. I know that every person is beloved. I know that we are different from one another, but no one is better than anyone. I know that evil, injustice, and oppression exist and need to be confronted. I know that love will always trump hatred.

I also know that not everyone who voted for Donald Trump this year shares his worldview. Far be it from me to use the same kind of prejudiced language about “the Trump voters” as he uses about “the Mexicans” or “the Blacks” or “the Muslims.” But here’s the deal - I’m going to need people in that category to join with me to speak with some pretty loud voices of condemnation if or when President Trump’s worldview impacts his actions as President.

Finally, I’m not lamenting today. I’m actually feeling, like my friend Greg says, “Bolstered.” I mean that sincerely. I can be rather conservative about certain things, but overall I am pretty progressive in my thought, my politics, and my theology. And while that puts me at odds with the prevailing governing authorities of the season, nevertheless I’m in fairly good company.

The way I see it, we are in the midst of an enormous cultural shift, and this year’s election was a sharp, sudden backlash to that shift. But the tide is still turning, this year’s results notwithstanding. This election has illuminated a lot of really dark places in our society, and that’s a really good thing. Now, with those dark places lit up, the fear, prejudice, racism, and other horrible stuff that usually hangs out there has no place to hide.

Every member of every United Methodist Church in America has promised to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” as a part of our membership vows. Well, let’s get to it! We’ve got some work to do.

In the midst of new dimensions, in the face of changing ways.
Who will lead the pilgrim peoples wandering in their separate ways?
God of rainbow, fiery pillar, leading where the eagles soar,
We your people, ours the journey now and ever, now and ever, now and ever more.

Should the threats of dire predictions cause us to withdraw in pain,
May your blazing phoenix spirit, resurrect the church again.
God of rainbow, fiery pillar, leading where the eagles soar,
We your people, ours the journey now and ever, now and ever, now and ever more.

- Rev. Julian Rush, 1985

(I apologize to those who have read this and think it is unseemly for a pastor to have an opinion about things. To be fair, I gave you advance warning!)

Monday, November 07, 2016

Your Vote, Your Voice - Election Day 2016 Post #5

We the people,
in order to
form a more perfect union,
establish justice,
insure domestic tranquility,
provide for the common defense,
promote the general welfare,
and secure the blessings of liberty
to ourselves and our posterity
do ordain and establish
this Constitution of the 
United States of America.

"The Constitution is a glorious liberty document. Read its preamble; consider its purposes."
- Frederick Douglass

It's right there, isn't it? The whole reason for doing this. To "establish justice." To "promote the general welfare." To "secure the blessings of liberty" not just for us, but for "our posterity" far into the future.

That's why this matters so much.

Please don't stay home for this one. Get out there and vote. Don't you dare think your vote doesn't matter. Don't take this amazing right for granted. Don't let anything stop you from casting your vote for the people and the issues that most closely represent your perspective. This is for "ourselves and our posterity." Our "common defense," the very way we live our lives. As Susan B. Anthony said, "Suffrage is the pivotal right."

And then, whatever the results, remember what's most important. On Wednesday morning, November 9th, 2016, here's what you are gonna do:

Hug your kids. Kiss your spouse. Smile at your friends and co-workers. Breathe deeply and celebrate being alive. Pray. Do your work. Help somebody who needs help. Offer someone a word of encouragement. Create something beautiful. Practice a little domestic tranquility. Pursue happiness. Sing a song. Live your life.

Your vote is your voice. Speak.

Election Day 2016 Post #1
Election Day 2016 Post #2
Election Day 2016 Post #3
Election Day 2016 Post #4

Friday, November 04, 2016

Luster Diminished - Election Day 2016 Post #4

Greene County Sheriff's Deputies will be stationed at certain polling places on Tuesday. This is the first time they’ve ever done that, according to an article in our local paper.

I first got this news from a volunteer poll worker, a member of my church, who confided in me that many of the election volunteers are really scared. Which is horrible. Please, let’s keep these dedicated people in our prayers.

In the article, County Clerk Shane Schoeller is quoted as saying, “In this setting, with everything that, in terms of just the emotions around the election, some of the things we've seen happen, we thought it would be good to have a presence. Not on the outside - we don't want anyone to have any intimidation in terms of entering the polling location - but certainly there at the back, as people are coming in, there to assist and be helpful.”

There’s a lot about this that is … let’s just say interesting.

The decision is based on “emotions” and “some of the things we’ve seen happen.” Which is interesting – not based on facts, any real evidence, or things that have actually happened here. (It is also interesting and worth noting that Mr. Schoeller sponsored a voter I.D. bill when he was a Missouri State Representative.)

Secondly, the idea that an officer inside a building is not intimidating, but one outside of a building is…is interesting. So someone who would be intimidated by an officer in the sunlight won’t be if they are illuminated by the fluorescents? What exactly is the difference that makes an indoor officer not intimidating?

Also interesting are some of the reactions online. People on each side are assuming that any trouble that arises would be instigated by the other side. Of course. It’s always someone else’s fault. (Note to self: Never read the comments!)

And most interesting, at least to me, are the unknown criteria being used to determine which polling places will be included. Clerk Schoeller is cited as saying that the Sheriff's department has made those decisions, based in part on the crime rate around the polling place.

Based on the crime rate?  Wait now, what? I’m assuming he meant that a neighborhood with a higher crime rate is more likely to have a deputy assigned to it. So it’s interesting, isn’t it? Is there actually a correlation between crime statistics in a neighborhood and problems at polling places? If so, what is it? If not, seems like a pretty big assumption for them to make, doesn’t it?

Look, I know that I don’t have anything to worry about from a Sheriff’s Deputy at my polling place. And I also know that nobody has anything to worry about if they just go in, stand in line, vote, and leave. It’s only the troublemakers that are going to have any trouble.

But … I have got to try to see things through someone else’s eyes. That's called empathy, and it's an important quality for a follower of Jesus to have. 

What about - someone who has a past history with law enforcement. Someone who gets nervous around cops, for whatever reason. Someone who might see that deputy there and turn around and leave. Someone who might assume that something has happened and doesn’t want to get involved and so they change their mind. Someone who might live in a “high crime area” and so have a relationship with law enforcement that is complicated at best, if not outright antagonistic.

If there are going to be deputies at some polling places, shouldn’t they be at all polling places?

President Ronald Reagan reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 1982. And as he did, he said, “The right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.” It seems to me that, if nothing else, law enforcement officers at polling places diminishes the luster of our right to vote.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Citizens, Not Subjects - Election Day 2016 Post #3

Should a Christian voter in the United States use the Bible to inform our election decisions? The first and obvious answer is “Yes,” but I think there is a pretty important distinction to be aware of first.

In the U.S., we are citizens of a Republic. The people of the Bible were subjects in a monarchy or an oligarchy. There is an enormous difference in worldview between these two realities.

We have an ongoing public conversation in our nation about the role of government in our daily lives. We have reduced the conversation to terms like “less” and “more” or “smaller” and “bigger.” Advocates for “less” or “smaller” government are those who believe that government is over-reaching, over-regulating, and needs to be refocused on a smaller set of priorities.

Here’s what is so amazing - We can actually have this conversation in our country!!! Normal people like you and me,because we are citizens and not subjects, can actually talk together about what our government should be doing, and cast our votes accordingly.

See that? Isn’t that remarkable? Let’s not take it for granted. We can tell our government what we think it should be doing. No one in the Bible or in the Bible’s initial audience would have ever dreamed of telling their governing authorities how “big” government should be! It was the governing authorities who let the people know exactly what the government would be doing at any given time.

At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln said that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” That’s a pretty cool deal if you ask me, and an idea that would have been quite foreign to people we read about in Scripture.

So back to the question: Should a Christian voter in the United States use the Bible to inform our election decisions? Well, yes and no.

It is possible for a Christian in the U.S. to want our society to be more aligned with Scripture (meaning more just, more peaceful, more loving, more like the Kingdom of God) and also think the government is just not the best way to make that happen. That person may vote very differently than a Christian with similar, or even identical desires about our society who does think government is a viable mechanism for making that happen.

In other words, two faithful Christians who each take the Bible seriously and each love Jesus and each think there are some serious injustices in the world that need to be addressed might end up voting for different candidates, or voting differently on various propositions or amendments.

And that’s okay! In fact, it’s really brilliant! Having a wide, diverse array of perspectives among our citizens is a part of what makes our nation go, gives us energy, and keeps us accountable. If we didn’t have it that way, we’d be subjects of a single authority, bound by our coerced allegiance.

What isn’t okay is when we attack as “unfaithful” a perspective that is different than our own or when we arrogantly claim that there’s only one way a follower of Jesus could possibly vote. This is America, and that’s not how we do! Yes, citizenship is messier that subjecthood, but freedom is inherently messy, and just because it’s messy doesn’t mean it has to be ugly.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Polarized, Not Divided - Election Day 2016 Post #2

As we draw closer to the 2016 election, tensions seem to escalate. I am told that here in Greene County, Missouri there will be armed security at every polling place this year, the first time this has happened. Police officers and Sheriff’s deputies will be present at the schools, churches, and other locations where we will vote, just in case.

Just in case … what, exactly? Just in case what? What country do we live in, again?

There surely have been some elections in our history that were this antagonistic, this bitter, this confrontational. Maybe 1968. But I sure don’t remember them in my lifetime. Good, honest disagreement - yes. Rigorous debate - yes. But this? This is scary.

But here’s the thing. I don’t believe our nation is divided; I think it is polarized.

To me, “divided” implies a split between two groups, in which every member of each group shares a common perspective.

To me, the term “polarized” implies a convergence of energy at two extremes, with a large diverse group in between.

I think we are polarized. The loudest voices are on the far edges, and they are getting all the attention. The poles of our society have been empowered in this season, and they are flexing. Hateful language, vilification of political opponents, physically violent confrontations, willful ignorance, an attitude of invincibility - all coming from the poles.

Meanwhile, most of us in the middle majority are able to see nuance and subtlety, to be “conservative” in some areas and “liberal” in others, to hold multiple ideas in our minds simultaneously. The middle majority sees shades of gray rather than a black or white dichotomy. But the middle majority doesn’t get a lot of press. We aren’t newsworthy.

In this election season there aren’t very many candidates at any level who come from this middle majority. Thanks in part to dramatic redistricting in the last few years, politicians often do not have to worry about representing an ideologically diverse group of people. They can shift to the poles without fear, and they have.

The question is then, How can the Church best embody the Gospel in this polarized environment? In many ways the polarization of our society has infiltrated the church itself. We are, after all, people. The church is just the people who are a part of the society, and prone to the same social forces that impact the greater whole.

A truly counter-cultural way of being would be to drain energy from the poles and into the center. That means each of us being okay with the idea that others may not see the world the same way you do.

This means rising above the rhetoric that vilifies a candidate, even a candidate with whom you do not see eye-to-eye on anything.

This means naming and resisting corruption, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, including the systemic injustices embedded in our systems and structures, without attacking people on a personal level.

This means speaking up for all those whose voices have been lost in the cacophony of the 2016 campaign.

This means disagreeing without hating, arguing without yelling, debating without belittling.

If we might model this way of being, Church, things might end up being okay after all. And I’m afraid that if the Church can’t do it, then no one can. The Church is uniquely structured to be just what our polarized world needs at such a time as this. Now if we can only figure out how to actually be what we’re supposed to be!