Monday, December 17, 2012

The Slaughter of Innocents

So I've given myself some time to process- as a minister, as a father, as a human- although the more I process the events the more befuddled I become.  I'm assuming it's the same for you. 

26 people. 
20 children.  (6 years old, 6 years old, 7 years old, 6 years old...)
6 adults, including teachers/administrators- some of our greatest public servants. 
Assault weapon. 
Elementary school. 

In what world do those phrases have any sort of convergence?  How can this happen?  How can we live in the face of such inexplicable violence and irrational darkness?  Yesterday, I mumbled a few words to the congregation, although I felt like I was whistling into a whirlwind.  All I knew to do was "believe out loud," so here goes.

Truth be told, I was getting ready to hunker down with the shepherds and Joseph and Mary one more time.  I was ready to gather at the manger- Norman Rockwell style.  I've seen the portraits of the Nativity- the ones that portray the manger as a fairly nice crib and the stall as a sanitized delivery room.  The ones that give baby Jesus an incandescent glow rather than that strange purply color of most newborns.  The ones that portray Mary as saintly beautiful rather than in need of more pain meds.  I was settling into the sentimentality of the season, when suddenly the events of Friday knocked the sentimentality and romanticism right out of it.  Silent Night was about the farthest song from my mind on Friday.  All was neither calm nor bright.

At some point along the way- I remembered the way Matthew tells the story.  The birth of Jesus is told with such brevity you almost read over it without noticing it.  Matthew tells of the birth of Jesus in one verse- "She gave birth to a Son: and he called his name Jesus" (1.25). 

In the next verse, Matthew begins the story of King Herod, who upon hearing of one born "King of the Jews," set about to remove the threat.  In his paranoia and insecurity (to which history attests), Herod initiated a policy of death, systemically killing children 2 and under throughout the region.  This event has been popularly deemed "The Slaughter of Innocents."  I've never seen Norman Rockwell make an attempt at this one, nor have I seen this depicted on a Hallmark card.  And yet, this is the backdrop for the birth of Christ in Matthew's gospel.  Infantcide.  Irrational evil.  Immeasurable darkness.

Furthermore, the scandal of it all is that this story isn't about God's absence (as some have argued about our most recent tragedy)- but God's presence.  GOD IS WITH US- Immanuel.  God shares in every pain, every death, every tear, and every loss- because God exists in close proximity with us.  When the voices cried in Ramah (2.18), Mary's, Joseph's, and Jesus' voices were among them.  In his inexplicable love and irrational concern, God became one of us.  It was love that drove God to the manger.   The manger was a donkey's feed trough.  The stable was anything but sanitized.  The birth was anything but romanticized.  It was as real as life is- and as messy and painful.   

Honestly, I take some peace in the fact that Jesus' birth left little room for the sentimental and the romanticized because neither my life nor our world is sentimental and romanticized.  Jesus was not born into a Norman Rockwell world; he was born into our world.  Death, evil, and suffering are realities in our world and must be acknowledged as such.  In our frail humanity, we stare into the abyss day after day, sensing an expansive darkness that brings us to our knees.

What we most need is good news that comes to us in the midst of our realities, not that which ignores them.  What we most need is a presence that calms our souls in ways that answers never will. 
What we most need is a God who draws near suffering, not a God who runs away from it. 
What we need is a love that is as irrational as the hatred and fear.
What we need is an inexplicable light that shines amidst inexplicable darkness.
What we need is a peace that comes from open doors, not that which only exists behind triple locked ones.

And so, the last few days I've returned to the story and rediscovered the news.
Glory to God.
Peace on Earth.

In what world do those phrases have any sort of convergence?  How can this happen?  How can we stare into the face of such immeasurable love and irrational peace?  Truth is- I can't get my head or heart around what happened in Bethlehem that night any more than I can get my head or heart around what happened in Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday.  But the only way I know to move forward after last Friday's darkness is in the light of this other story.  The only way I know to move forward is by trusting that there is more truth and meaning in that one verse in Matthew than in the thousands of reports we've consumed in these days.  While Herod's violence lives on in this world, so does Christ's peace.

No matter the depths of the darkness.  No matter the breadth of the pain.  No matter the statistics of death.  No matter the power of fear.  No matter the layers of despair.  Jesus comes to us one more time.  It's in times like this that we cling to Immanuel like our lives depend on it.  Because...well... they do. 

She gave birth to a son and he called his name Jesus.

This news brings me to my knees as well.

Monday, December 10, 2012

It's What You Believe

The other day, I stumbled upon a meditation from Richard Rohr, one of my favorite writers.  While not specifically an Advent thought, it does center on the wonder and belief of this season.  Hope it blesses you.

We know everything today
And believe almost nothing

It is not reason that drives our lives,
But passion or the search for it.
It is not words and concepts,
But living images that grab our souls.
It is not what we know that haunts us in the end,
But what we did not know and don't know yet.

We must make friends with the unknowing,
What you know is just ten thousand different things.

But what you believe
Is what you pay attention to,
What you care about,
What finally lives and matters in you.

What you believe is not one of ten thousand things,
It is that which sees ten thousand things.

It is not what you know that matters,
Or changes anything:
It is what you believe

And believe all the way through.

May we all believe- all the way through!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On Earth, Peace

His name was Salem Boulos, and he was a Palestinian Christian living in Gaza.  On Nov. 19, Boulos- a father of five and a member of the Baptist church in Gaza- was killed when an Israeli bomb hit a nearby building.  According to an Ethics Daily article about Boulos released this morning, around 2000 Christians live in the Gaza Strip, and as you might imagine, the recent conflict has been brutal for them.  In short, people are dying.  People created in the image of God are dying.  People for whom Christ gave his life are dying.  People who share our communion table are dying.

A lot of the talk I hear surrounding this conflict revolves around Israel as "God's chosen people."  What I don't hear is any discussion of the purpose of Israel's chosenness.  The reason God chose Abraham was so that he might be "a blessing to the nations" (Gen. 12.2-3).  From the beginning, God's election of Israel grew out of his love for ALL the nations.  Lesslie Newbigin, a British theologian, has helped me wrestle with election more than anyone else.  Newbigin argues that God's election always serves a missional purpose.  When our view of election is divorced from our view of God's cosmic mission of redemption and wholeness, then God's choosing becomes little more than an arbitrary game of playing favorites.  In other words, God doesn't choose the particular because God only cares about the particular.  No, God chooses the particular to be his servant for the sake of all creation.  God cares about the world- ALL of it, and God uses particular people to reach the ends of the earth.  God is on the side of all creation, summoning all creation to draw near. 

One also wonders how we could miss so much of the New Testament which argues that in Jesus, Israel's calling and purpose found fulfillment.  Jesus did what Israel could not.  Jesus- who continually stepped over nationalistic boundaries, who called his followers to be peacemakers, who blessed all people through his life, death, and resurrection- epitomizes what it means to be chosen by God. 

Thus, the real issue at hand isn't what side of the conflict we are on, but which side of peace we are on.  The real issue is whether or not we have the courage to follow the One who always chooses peace.  To be clear, I'm not arguing for Israeli control over the Palestinians or Palestinian control of the Israelis (this cycle IS the problem), and I readily confess my shallow knowledge of what is an unimaginably complex conflict.  What I am calling for is a renewed commitment to peace from those who name Christ as Lord.  I am arguing for an allegiance to Christ and the ways of Christ that trumps all other allegiances.  I'm asking Jesus people to wrestle with the hard questions.  Will we continue to flippantly dream of "world peace," or will we begin the hard work of engaging the things which make for peace?  Will we allow national interests to take precedence over human lives?  Will we allow our views of Israel to shape our notions of peace or will we allow our views of peace to shape our notions of Israel?   

As the season of Advent slowly approaches, I'm beginning to hear echoes of the angels' song, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to ALL people."  One wonders if this old song could find a new choir in this season.  One wonders if that child of peace could be born anew in this season.  If he is, I'm betting that he nestles down amongst the peacemakers.     

Today, I pray that this peace might find its way around the whole world, and I hope it begins with the family of Salem Boulos.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Politics as Religion

This weekend, a friend (Brian Warfield) and I were discussing our political climate, namely its vitriolic tone, utter polarization, and totalitarian emphases.  Brian offered a provocative observation, one that has echoed in my mind these last few days.  He said, "It's almost like politics has become a sort of religion in and of itself."

Spring Creek serves as a polling place for our community.  Today, I've been astounded at the number of people who have walked through our facility.  A couple of times, our parking lot has mirrored an Easter crowd.  I began to wonder of today IS Easter for some people, those for whom the political process is of ultimate importance.  Tonight will be the grand conclusion to months of wandering in the campaign wilderness.

In some ways, politics does possess all the trappings of religion.  There are holy days to be sure, including primaries, debates, conventions, and elections.  Tonight, no matter who wins, some people will mourn the end of the world and some people will dance at the arrival of the Kingdom of God.  Each party has its fair share of evangelists, who zealously promote its good news.  These partisan mascots remind me of the old enthusiastic revivalist preachers who were more heat than light.  Party platforms all but confess certain creeds and confessions, deriving from the orthodoxy undergirding them.  Oftentimes, people attach messianic importance to the candidates, elevating them to superhuman status.  The conventions increasingly feel like worship services, with a liturgy comprised of music, testimonies, and speeches (which almost smell like sermons).  Each party has its share of canonized saints (cf. Bill Clinton/ Ronald Reagan).  Furthermore, in a time where religious lines are merging and blurring, political boundaries are hardening and ossifying, producing a society in which political affilitations are more defining than religious commitments.  In some places, one's seat at the communion table is determined more by their candidate of choice than the Lord of their lives.  Maybe Brian is right, politics has become something of a sacred enterprise, filling a void of meaning in a day when religion in its various manifestations is on the decline.  Has politics become a religion unto itself? 
Today, I cast my vote as a grateful citizen of a wonderful country, cognizant of the importance of presidential elections.  At the same time, I was reminded that American politics is at best penultimate when seen in the light of an eternal Kingdom which is already here and also yet to come. 

The world will not change tonight, no matter who is elected.  I'm reminded of this, not just on election day, but every Easter when I show up at an empty tomb to discover something more powerful than a popular vote or even the democratic process.  Every Easter, I behold an act of God, a new world, and a true Messiah who can do more than we can ask or imagine... or elect.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Simplicity and Mystery

I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.  Oliver Wendell Holmes

I dont' know about you, but I long for simplicity.  One gander at my calendar, one cursory glance at the complex issues that we face today; just trying to survive life- and I find myself longing for simplicity.

I'm not talking about simplistic living on this side of complexity.  I'm not talking about a way of life that avoids the issues of the day by burying one's head in the sand.  I'm not talking about an approach to faith that is pre-rational.  I'm not talking about religion that mocks science without fully engaging it.  I'm not talking about a church where people leave their brains at the door lest the discussion grow complicated.  I'm not talking about claiming mystery as a substitute for critical thought.  I'm not talking about simplistic answers that haven't taken the time to bother with the questions.

The simplicity I long for is on the OTHER side of complexity.  It's the simplicity of realizing that every age has its issues, and yet the faithful persist.  It's the simplicity that reorients one's busyness without trivializing life's realities.  It's the simplicity of a post-rational faith, a faith that has become more content amidst the forests of questions than the deserts of answers.  It's the simplicity of knowing that mystery isn't the replacement of thought, but the humble admission that after we've done our best thinking, there is still more mystery beyond us.  I'm talking about religion which befriends science, but also realizes that many ultimate realities simply do not fit in test tubes.  I'm talking about a faith where head and heart are joined, and the soul remains open to the miraculous and inexplicable.  I want a faith that relentlessly pursues truth but also realizes that a greater Mystery is relentlessly pursuing me.  I want to love God with every neuron in my brain without succombing to the illusion that God is somehow entrapped there.  I want to wrestle with the questions, but I also wonder if faith isn't shaped more in wrestling with the questions than answering them.         

I don't want an irrational faith; I want a superrational faith.  Today, I concur with Holmes:  I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.    

What do you think?  

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Bible and Women

I pastor a church where women are free to be and do all God calls them to be and to do.  In the last few years, we have ordained women to be deacons, elders, and ministers of the gospel.  Today, we no longer talk much about women in ministry at Spring Creek for the same reason we don't talk much about men in ministry.  It's just part of our DNA, part and parcel to who we are.  For us, Christian leadership has nothing to do with gender.

Some people, especially some of our other Baptist brothers and sisters, believe this practice to be unbiblical, referencing texts like 1 Tim. 2.9-15, 1 Tim. 3.2, and 1 Cor. 14.34-36 as clear biblical prohibitions against women in leadership roles in the church.  Given our last two posts, however, I would like to reconsider the "biblical" view of women in the church.

First of all, because Jesus is the interpretive lens through which we interpret Scripture, we must begin with him.   When compared with all the other common views of women in his day, the way Jesus treated women was somewhat revolutionary.  Jesus elevated women to a status they had never enjoyed before.  While most people saw women as something like possessions, Jesus treated them as something like people!  He included them amongst his disciples and commended them as examples.  He equalized their marriage status with the men of his day in his teachings on marriage and divorce.  Women were the first witnesses to the resurrection in all four gospels.  Furthermore, Jesus' announcement of a Kingdom where people live in mutual love and support becomes strained when one group of those people is a priori relegated to secondary status simply because of their gender.  Unfortunately, the place where women are most restricted in our day is the place where people gather in the name of the one who most liberated them in his day.  From the beginning, I must ask myself:  do our views of women pass the Jesus test?  Do our views of women pass the love test?

Secondly, most of the issues concerning women in the church stem from the Apostle Paul (as evidenced by the three texts mentioned above).  Today, many people view Paul as suppressive at best and a misogynist at worst.  However, several issues must be addressed here:
     1) Is Paul being descriptive or prescriptive?  If prescriptive, is he prescribing decrees for all places at all times or for that particular time and place?  Would our views of women in the church be congruent with our views of the length of women's hair, which he also addresses?
     2) These aren't the only texts in which Paul addresses women.  Paul speaks of Phoebe who is a deacon in Rome (16.1-2), and he addresses how women should dress when they prophecy, which means PREACH (1 Cor. 11.5)!  In several letters, Paul says something like, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3.28).  In other words, the boundaries and categories which typically define us have been destroyed in the light of the one who gives us a new identity.  Most of us would be appalled at the idea of racism in the church or classism- and yet many of us institutionalize sexism.  Why would the church want to tear down these other walls and perpetuate the other at all costs?  Would the "equal in status but different in roles" argument work for race and class as well?  I sure hope not!
     3) Furthermore, we must address how literal we intend to take the "prohibitions" mentioned above.  For example, 1 Tim. 3.2 states, "An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife...."  It's the "husband of one wife clause" that forbids women from serving in that capacity, some argue.  However, many of those same people would have no problem with a single minister.  At the most literal level, you can't be the husband of one wife if you are single.  Yet, many of the churches who argue so vehemently about gender never mention marital status.  Why is this?

Finally, the overall biblical witness testifies to the irreplaceable importance of women in the history of God's people.  Women saturate the Bible in ways unique to most other ancient literature.  Joel dreams of a day when "sons and daughters will prophecy (again preach)," and this text is remembered by Peter at Pentecost as a sign of the presence of the Spirit.  Miriam aided Moses, and subversive midwives overcame Pharaoh.  Deborah was one of the greatest judges, and Hannah gave birth to more than just Samuel.  Mary is the paradigmatic disciple in Luke, and the Philippian church would have been drastically different if not for Lydia.  Stories like this frequent the Bible from cover to cover. They also frequent every church I've ever been a part of.

Again, when we ponder all this, are we sure we ascribe to THE biblical view of women in the church? 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Problem With "Biblical" (Part II)

Like any book, the Bible is something of a mirror:  if an ass peers in, you can't expect an apostle to peer out! William Sloane Coffin

"When everything biblical is not Christ-like, we Christians need to develop an interpretive theory of Scripture.  I think the love of Jesus is indeed the plumb line by which everything is to be measured.  And while laws may be more rigid, love is more demanding, for love insists on motivation and goes between, around, and way beyond all laws."  William Sloane Coffin

Let me begin with an analogy.  A while back, I had a bad pair of sunglasses.  Actually the problem was less with the sunglasses than how I had abused them.  They were bent, scratched, and cracked (and my wife said I looked more than a little foolish when I wore them).  Whenever I put those glasses on, they were the lens through which I perceived the whole world.  Because my lenses were broken and scratched, I saw a broken and scratched world composed of broken and scratched people and things.  Of course, the problem wasn't with the world, but my visionary perception of it.  Lenses, whether good or bad, impact the way we see the world.  I am trying to argue that ALL of us read the Bible through certain lenses.  The two quotes above, from one of America's greatest preachers, hint at the necessity of a faithful interpretive lens when we are reading the Bible.  The question for all of us isn't whether we read through certain lenses.  Rather, the question is what a faithful set of lenses would look like.

Some people believe that the Bible interprets itself, serving as its own lens.  Some texts interpret others. Namely, the New Testament sheds light on the Old.  While this view does have certain merit, the problem is deciding which texts interpret others- which texts are heavy and which texts are light.  Some people would cry that you can't pick and choose.  While I agree with the sentiment that you can't pick and choose arbitrarily, I do believe we all pick and choose.  The question is how to do so faithfully.  When asked what he believed the greatest commandment to be, Jesus didn't reply, "All of them are equally important.  You can't pick and choose..."  No, Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  On this commandment hangs all the law and the prophets."  I believe what Jesus is saying is that this command is the lens through which he read the Bible (it's the hinge on which all Scripture hangs).  Loving God and loving neighbor must color all of our interpretations.  Any other lens is cracked and broken.

Furthermore, I believe that interpretive lenses were at the heart of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.  The Pharisees cared a great deal about the Bible.  They took great care with the letter of the law, and they spent many hours debating the "biblical" views of ____________.  The sharp disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees seems to be a debate over the most faithful lens through which to read Scripture.  For example, it's not that one cared more about Sabbath than the other, but that their differing lenses created different interpretations and practices.  The Pharisees had Bible verses addressing the Sabbath in their pockets as well, but they were reading through a different lens than Jesus.  Lenses make all the difference.  

In short, our understanding of the Bible doesn't begin with the Bible, but with Jesus.  He must be our interpretive key, or we are misreading the text.  Sometimes, I grow concerned that we are focusing so much attention on the Bible that we are ignoring the one the Bible is pointing to.  To borrow one more phrase from Coffin, "We believe in the Word made flesh before we believe in the Word made words."  We must maintain the primacy of Jesus over Scripture or else we are reading the Bible through the wrong lens.  Thus, the concern to be Christian must take precedence over the concern to be biblical, lest the signpost that points to Christ be confused with Christ himself.  When the Bible is granted as much authority as Jesus, then it becomes a happy hunting ground for just about any "biblical" interpretation.  When the lens is broken, even 20/20 vision is impaired.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Problem With "Biblical"

I know this is going to sound funny since I am a pastor and all, but I'm growing increasingly concerned about how people understand the Bible.  More specifically, I've grown uncomfortable with the phrase, "the biblical view of ___________."  Let me explain.

There are many expressions of Christianity today, including many expressions of Baptist life.  Each denomination claims to be "biblical."  Each one reads Scripture, studies Scripture, and seeks to practice Scripture.  It's just that each tradition interprets the Scriptures differently.  It took me a while to come to the realization that Presbyterians, Episcopals, Methodists, and Catholics all care about the Bible as much as Baptists do.  For one expression to say that it has "the biblical view of ___________" takes more than a little hubris and intellectual pride.  Furthermore, I heard biblical references in both political conventions over the last several weeks.  How can you read the same Scripture and come to so very different conclusions? Both conservatives and liberals read the Bible.  People on both sides of "the issues" read Scripture.  Maybe it's a matter of emphases; maybe it's a matter of perspective; or maybe it's a matter of agenda- but varying perspectives can claim to have a "biblical view."

I'm convinced that several unchallenged assumptions underlie much of the popular understanding of Scripture.  Here are a few:

1) Many people believe that the Bible speaks univocally.  Thus, Scripture has one perspective on just about everything.  However, I'm convinced that the Bible should not be read as one book, but as 66 books, written over the span of many years from many different contexts. Furthermore, many of the books argue with each other.  If you ask the question, "Why do people suffer," while reading the book of Deuteronomy, you are going to get a vastly different answer than when asking the same question of the book of Job.   It's not that one is true and the other isn't, but that suffering is mysterious and one perspective is insufficient in exploring the depths of it.  In this way, the Bible mirrors the polyvalence of real life.

2) I believe that many people underestimate the meaning that the reader brings to the text.  To assume that one meaning lies within a text and can be purely extracted apart from the attitude, faith, and perspective of the reader is just nonsense.  Does a faithful reading of Scripture not demand illumination from the reader as much as inspiration from the writers?  The character of the reader is as important as the text itself.

3) Finally, I believe this perspective ignores the lessons of the past.  Many of the slave owners in our nation's history justified their depraved practices by quoting Scripture.  They believed they were doing the "biblical" thing.  Even within the Bible itself is a story of Satan who tempted Jesus by quoting Scripture!  Surely "biblical" must mean something more than placing biblical texts in parentheses after stating our convictions or quoting a hodgepodge of verses.    

I'm growing increasingly convinced that how we read the Bible is as important as that we read the Bible.  I am convinced that many times, the phrase "the biblical view of __________" is veiled speech for "my interpretation is __________."  However, when my view is couched as the view, then I place it above reproach and correction, and I'm in a position of authority over any who would disagree with me.

Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to blog on our perspective of Scripture, and I welcome your comments.  I want us to think together about what we mean by "biblical," and how we can become more faithful readers of the text.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Kindergarten Dad

In the morning, around 8:25, I'll drop my five year old son off at his elementary school.  As we slowly creep forward in the drop off line, I'll begin to tell him how proud of him I am and how important I believe learning to be.  As he unbuckles his seat belt, I'll tell him how much I love him and wish him a good day.  He'll smile and say, "I love you too, Dad," and then he'll jump out.  I'll watch him walk away with his backpack over his shoulders, hanging over half the length of his body.  His tennis shoes will show underneath, looking too big for his spindly legs.  If the last 10 days are any indication, my eyes will well up (you know how these Oklahoma allergies can be).

For the last five years, my wife and I have kept him in something of a bubble of love.  I guess the moment a child exits the safety of the womb, insulated from the world, we try to rebuild a womb of a different sort.  This second womb we usually call "home."  Over the last five years, we have loved him best we know how.  We have tried to instill the values we hold most dear.  We have attempted to create an atmosphere of peace and joy, where he could flourish as a human being.  For the last five years, we have tried to protect him from all that would harm him and nourish him with all he needs to grow and mature.  And yet, just a couple of weeks ago, we experienced the birth pangs of Kindergarten.  Suddenly, he was forced into this strange new world while we were needing epidurals.

Now, I trust my five year old son to a teacher I have barely met and a school I haven't spent more than one hour in.  I find myself praying for public school teachers and administrators in a way I never have before.  I'm trusting one of God's greatest gifts to them, for 7 hours every day, as are all the other young families in my zip code.

Every day, when I watch him walk into the building, I'm reminded of how dependent we all are upon each other.  If he turns out to be a person of character and a responsible citizen, it will be because MANY people have shaped him:  extended family, school teachers, coaches, friends, Sunday School teachers...  The truth is that NONE of us have gotten where we are in life on our own; NONE of us raise our children on our own; NONE of us make it in life on our own.  Much of the rampant individualism and over-privatization we hear about today is just the great myth that each of us is the captain of our own destiny and an island unto ourself.  For the life of me I can't understand why so many people draw such impermeable boundaries between "family values" and "social justice."  The moment I drop my kid off at school, what's good for family and what's good for society seems to collapse into one.

Every day, when I watch him walk into the building, I begin to wonder if anyone he will bump into that day will recognize how important and invaluable he is to me.  He's my son.  Then again, he goes to school with other people's sons and daughters who feel the same way.  Come to think of it, everyone I bump into at the grocery store, Starbucks, or Jiffy Lube is someone's son or daughter.

So I guess what I'm saying is- be nice to one another.  Whether you are at an elementary school or somewhere else- just be nice to one another.  All of us need each other, and everyone you run into today is someone's child.  As of two weeks ago, the person you bump into might just be mine.  Now if I could just get my allergies under control!      

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Peacemaking Amidst Culture Wars

Well, it has begun again.  You've heard it I'm sure.  The trumpets are blasting.  The infantry and calvary have taken their strategic positions.  The trenches have been dug, and the canons are loaded.  "Culture wars," is the cry.  In the wake of the Chick-Fil-A saga and in the throws of vitriolic political campaigns, I've overheard numerous people on both sides of the issues express their fury at those who would undermine our society and values.  I've read articles from religious leaders about the pungent dangers of Christians disarming and retreating.  Underneath the conversations and the articles, however, is a worldview that contributes to and exhaserbates the problem rather than solves it. 

Think about the term- "culture wars."  We are now using militaristic language to describe the struggle we find ourselves in.  This particular lens is precisely what is fueling the conflicts before us.  The problem isn't in what we see as much as it is in how we see.  Let me explain:

If we believe we are in an idealogical warfare, then we begin in a defensive posture, cultivating fear and spreading paranoia.  We are more apt to shoot the other (whoever the other happens to be) than we are to share a meal with them because we began with the assumption that they are a threat.  Furthermore, since the enemy is "attacking," it becomes so very easy to dehumanize them (to treat them as something other than a beloved creature created in the image of God).  How can we love what we are deathly afraid of?  Perfect love casts out fear; it doesn't perpetuate it.     

Warfare implies trenches.  The enemy is dug in, and we are no less.  The enemy is faceless and abstract, and they are the source of the problem (which is how we justify ALL wars of all types).  This is no time for introspection, personal confession, or humility.  No, the enemy has a monopoly on the evil in our midst and must be removed.  Meeting in the middle is nothing short of appeasement, and the time for dialogue has come and gone.  The guns are already loaded.  This is why there has been so much talk (from both sides) about claiming their "freedom of speech," but no one is talking about a Christian obligation to listen and respect (even if we disagree).  Trenches make it impossible to move toward the other, and so everyone stands entrenched and paralyzed with no progress in sight.  For many people, their entrenchment is less a conscious choice than a simple result of blind partisanship, static views of truth, and uncritical absorption of whatever the media labels as news.  It is so easy for all of us to fall into a trench without even realizing it, which should give all of us pause for reflection and deliberation.

Trenches, in their very essence, are exlusive.  Trenches are meant to keep "us" in and "them" out.  We would rather protect ourselves from each other than give ourselves to each other.  Those who would dare step out of their trenches and defy the conflict are viewed as suicidal headcases, fit for nothing but crucifixion.  Yet, how can we proclaim a kingdom in which all are welcome when we are crouching in our trenches?  Who could even hear us from such a stooped posture and remote distance?

In warfare (even ideological warfare), victory is achieved through power.  We must kill in order to live and conquer in order to win.  Thus, the goal is success (be it elections, record days of sales- whether high or low records, policies, voter turnout...).  The hope is in the power of control.  Even if we have to sacrifice some of our integrity, some of our truthtelling, or some of our graciousness to win, then so be it.  On the other hand, Jesus seemed to believe in the power of love, rather than the power of control.  He was willing to face personal suffering and asked his followers to do the same.  In this way, the cross is our standard of truth; not public opinion or sales receipts.      

In short, the Jesus I believe in would summon us to put down our idealogical guns and pick up our crosses and towels.  The Jesus I believe in would have us claim our responsibility to listen before we claim our freedoms to speak, so that when we do speak we might speak truthfully and lovingly to people who might respect us enough to actually care what we are saying.  The Jesus I believe in would call us to follow him- which means coming out of our safe trenches and risking the vulnerability of love.  The Jesus I believe in would call us to be peacemakers rather than rigid idealogues.  The Jesus I believe in is reconciling ALL things to himself, which makes our trenches seem rather arbitrary.  The Jesus I believe in didn't just bring into question the piety of the trenches, but the necessity of the war altogether.  The Jesus I believe in made the news for eating WITH sinners rather than making the news for eating AGAINST them.  The Jesus I believe in cared a lot more about people than issues of piety (e.g. the Sabbath controversies in Mark).

So my plea for Christians is to put this talk of "culture wars" behind us.  It is not faithful language, and it lends itself to alientation.  My plea is not to pick the right trench, but to question the war.  My plea is to be known by our love- not just to love- but to be KNOWN by our love.  My plea is to see the world through another lens- maybe the lens of reconciliation and peacemaking.  Wouldn't it be something if peacemaking was the news we were actually making? 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Roosters and Repentance

One surprise on our recent visit to Hawaii was the roosters, walking around in public with no boundaries or limitations.  One morning, a stubborn rooster woke us up early and evoked the fledgling poet within me.


But why does the rooster crow
still- on this infant morning.
Does Peter still need his reminder
or does the siren sound for
some other's benefit- pledging
a commitment beyond their keeping.

Or is it the fresh light of
a new day that stirs the
rooster so- head high,
chest out, royal herald
of good news from the One
whose dawn always engulfs the night.

July, 2012

Friday, August 3, 2012

Transcendence (or "Standing at the Foot of a Waterfall")

So I haven't blogged in a while because I've been busy on vacation.  This year Rebecca and I celebrated our 10th anniversary by going to Hawaii for 10 days.  (Of course, Rebecca says the 10 years have felt like 10 days, but that goes without saying.)  Like the rest of humanity, I knew Hawaii was a beautiful place.  I expected glorious views and breathtaking vistas.  What surprised me was the kind of beauty I beheld.  It wasn't the kind of beauty that makes you step closer into it, like an art gallery where the image is fixed on canvas.  It was the kind of beauty that somewhat frightened you because of the sheer glory of untamed wilderness.  It was the kind of beauty that took your breath away and made you want to take a step back lest it pull you in.

Most of the beaches I've been to are large beaches full of pure white sand, and the ocean is fairly calm and predictable.  Because Hawaii is largely volcanic rock, the beaches aren't as large.  You are right there, feet away from an ocean with unpredictable currents and rip tides.  Waves frequently collide with rocks sending the surf feet into the air.  On the islands, you are surrounded by water (which is usually the case with islands I guess), miles and miles of water.  Just thinking about the breadth of Pacific was enough to make me shudder.  Sunsets there made the sky above the clouds come alive as much as the ground below them.  Again, it's beautiful, in a wild and powerful kind of way.

On our second day on the island of Kauai, we took a hike- a long, strenuous, taxing hike.  We climbed two miles up the Napali coast, where the ocean meets unbelievable cliffs.  The views were amazing, and the height of the steep cliffs was terrifying.  

After descending to a beach, Rebecca and I hiked another two miles inland, along a beautiful river.  The trail was dangerously muddy and almost impassable.  About the time I began wondering why in the world anyone would call this fun and do this sort of thing on vacation, the tree line gave way to a deep valley and a huge waterfall.  The height of the fall literally took my breath away.  There we stood, with mud on our legs and sweat on our shirts staring up at something much larger than us.  I arched my back and craned my neck to see the top of it, but I couldn't.  I tried to swim out under the fall, but the pool was too cold.  Truly, it was one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen.

It's hard for me to convey with a few pictures and words, but the beauty of Hawaii was different from what I expected.  I guess I was reminded that some of the most beautiful things in this world are also the most dangerous.  I felt awfully human staring out at the vast Pacific.  I felt peripheral watching the sun light up the dusk sky.  I felt powerless watching the waves smash the shore and currents overwhelm their contents.  I felt frail staring down high cliffs.  I felt incapable of taking in the fullness of the waterfall.  Around every turn and over every cliff, I saw scenes that reminded me that I am but one creature in the vast expanse of creation and most of the things that occur in this world are outside of my control and beyond my competence.  Hawaii made me experience my frail humanity, in a beautiful kind of way.

I'm a preacher, and I often talk about God's power as if I somewhat understand it.  But last week, I went to Hawaii and stood at the base of a waterfall.  Not only could I not see the top; I couldn't even tolerate the pool at the bottom.  But I jumped in anyway.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Going to Church With Old People

I'll begin with a confession:  I go to church with old people.  Now our church doesn't smell like moth balls; we don't have afghans hanging over any pews; and we don't have those old wooden attendance boards at the front of our sanctuary.  We do have more than a few walkers.  We have a hearing aid blow like the final trumpet about every other worship service.  We do open hymnals every Sunday.  While we have our fair share of children, youth, young adults, and median adults, I must confess that I go to church with old people.

To be honest, I've never thought I needed to confess this.  I mean, I've always gone to church with old people, and until recently, I've never thought about doing otherwise.

I was checking out at a book store when the clerk looked down at my books on theology and preaching and said, "You must be a pastor." 
     "Yes," I replied. 
     "You're awfully young to be a pastor.  You must pastor a church full of young people." 
     "No, we have people of all ages- even senior adults."  (See, I don't call them "old people," I call them "senior adults."  Job security I guess!) 
     Shocked, the young man said, "You pastor a church full of old people?"  Those are the words that came out of his mouth, but his expression made me wonder if I had said, "I pastor a church full of the Taliban."  This young man was flabbergasted that a 31 year old guy would not only pastor a church with old people in it but also find joy in doing so.  He proceeded to tell me about his church that didn't have any old people so they didn't have to worry about tradition, it wasn't a big deal to change anything, and the music made you want to dance rather than go to sleep.  Turns out, there are numerous churches like this in the OKC metro- and most metros.

Now I'm not judging other kinds of churches.  I believe the Kingdom of God has many expressions, and I've learned to find beauty in the diversity.  It's not that I despise churches with no room for senior adults; it's just that I don't understand them.  I don't understand why we would question churches without racial, class, or ideological diversity, but we are fully comfortable with churches that contain only one generation.  Heck, church growth models even seek to create churches like this.  I don't understand why we throw out the baby of good tradition with the bathwater of paralyzing traditionalism.  (I believe it was Jeroslav Pelikan who said, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.")  I don't understand why we succumb to the cultural myth that newer is always better and anything old (or anything that looks old) is to be avoided.  I don't understand why we place so much more emphasis on styles of worship that appeal to age demographics than the content and focus of worship which appeals to God.  I don't understand why younger people are so resistant to stereotypes, but so quick to generalize about senior adults.  I don't understand why we would intentionally create a church where our children would never rub shoulders with those of other generations, where we rarely sang the hymns that have sustained the faithful for ages, and where we never do a funeral.  (How do we celebrate resurrection when no one in our church has ever tasted death?)  I just don't understand.  

Is it possible that many churches have bought into the rampant marketing strategies of our culture which says anything old is to be remodeled or discarded for something new?  Is it possible that in our efforts to reach out to the marginalized in our culture, we have been blinded to how we often ostracize the elderly?  Is it possible that some of our cool churches are as ghettoized as some of the more traditional ones?  Is it possible that we have placed more emphasis on who we are attempting to attract than who we are attempting to reflect?  Is it possible that, in an effort to be fresh and new, we have turned our backs on thousands of years of Christian wisdom before us?

One of the great joys I've had as a pastor is sharing life with the senior adults in various churches.  They have taught me, corrected me, encouraged me, and inspired me.  They have made the church better in a myriad of ways.  Here are a few:

1) Senior adults bring the wisdom of the ages rather than the fad of the moment.  Their multitudinous experiences deepen the life of the church and enrich the practices of the church.  They serve as an indictment on the "cult of the new," those in our society who believe novelty always trumps truth.  Seniors can speak wisdom (not advice, but wisdom) into the lives of those further downstream.  For example, this last Sunday, one of our senior adult women spoke in worship about a 3-4 month period in which she lost her son to brain cancer, a grandson in a car wreck, and a sister in law to a heart attack which took place at the grandson's funeral.  It is enough to make Job cry.  At the end of her story, she pointed to our congregation and said, "God never left us, and God will never leave you.  It's going to be OK."  Everyone was moved, regardless of whether you were 91 or 19.

2) Senior adults bring perspective to the church.  Their mere presence offers a sense of transcendence.  They are subtle reminders that the church was here long before I was born and will be here long after I'm gone.  At every one of their funerals, I'm reminded of our task of carrying the torch they leave behind.  As their bodies become more feeble, I'm reminded of the frailty of humanity and our desperate need for God's healing.  They help us think beyond today. 

3) Senior adults bring life to the church.  I know this seems backwards, but I've seen it too many times. Senior adults do not resist change; they resist empty and vaporous change.  They care very deeply about their children and grandchildren (and the nature of the church at which they will feel at home).  They love God passionately, and they model care for their neighbor.  For example, we have a group called "Pray and Sew," which is a group of older women who gather once a month to pray and sew (we are very creative with our names).  At first, this group seemed harmless enough- just a bunch of cute senior adult women sewing and knitting.  However, over the last 4 years, they have made thousands of first class garments for hospitals, nursing homes, grieving families, and the military.  Their ministry reaches all around our city, our state, and our world.

I have no utopian views of old age, nor the senior adults which compose our identity.  It's not really the age of a congregation I'm concerned about, but the vision of it.  Surely, churches should reflect their communities demographically.  But even more than reflecting our community, the church is called to reflect our God.  When churches begin to "target" a certain demographic, I can't help but feel far removed from Jesus whose target audience was....well... whosoever would come. 

And so, I will continue to treasure the old people of Spring Creek.  We will follow Jesus together, laugh together, and cry together.  I'll continue to push a few wheelchairs.  I'll continue to hear stories from days gone by.  I'll continue to wonder if the distinct odor of Ben Gay smells anything like the ancient offering of incense.  I will continue to be awed by the life in their wrinkles and the love in their eyes.  

As for me, I hope I die as an old man full of years.  I hope the old man I become is somewhat wise, tolerably cantankerous, and fully faithful.  I also hope some people I go to church with will come to my funeral, especially those who are much younger than I am.  I hope they come because we knew each other, had broken bread from the same loaf, answered the same call, shared life together, and called each other brother and sister. 

For now, I'll keep going to church with old people.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Thunder, Bedlam, Politics, and the Gospel

So I've given myself some time to calm down.  I'm no longer yelling at the refs or the Thunder or LeBron or the other people who bear the burden of watching a game with me.  I must concede that the Heat simply bested the Thunder.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  Now I've had time for some reflection.

I have been astounded by the energy in OKC during the Thunder's run this year.  Flags were hung on car windows and draped over buildings.  Everywhere I went, people wore Thunder hats and shirts.  Everyone has been talking about the Thunder.  The team captured the city, and they were a breath of fresh air.  For a long time, I have wondered about the source of the Thunder's appeal.  For a while, I thought it was the exciting brand of baskeball; then I thought it was the joy of watching young players grow up before our eyes; and then I thought it was just winning.  Last week, my friend Stacy Pyle offered an observation and light bulbs finally fired in my mind (which doesn't happen very often).  Stacy said, "It has been so refreshing to have a sports team that unites us rather than divides us."

You see, before the Thunder, Oklahoma never had a professional sports team (the Hornets' brief stint in OKC is the lone, brief exception).  For the last three quarters of a century, Oklahoma has been a state that revolves around college sports, namely the two major universities.  When it comes to college sports, the lines are clearly drawn.  Sooners or Cowboys.  Red or Orange.  Billy Sims or Barry Sanders.  People who were born into loyalty to one university never dared convert to the other.  Conversion meant shame and denial.  Now there is a pronounced energy surrounding the sporting events of these two universities, especially when they play each other, but it is a negative energy.  Fear of losing to the other school often trumps the joys of winning.  Neither team can find it in themselves to root for the other.  In Oklahoma, college sports renders the state divided. 

Then, the Thunder came to town.  Everyone wears blue.  Everyone cheers for the same team.  When the Thunder play, Sooners and Cowboys actually watch the game together.  The energy equalled that of the Bedlam, but it was positive energy- the kind that unites us.  This season, we all cheered together, cried together, and griped together (dang free throws...).  Together is the operative word.

In the last couple of weeks, I've seen some parallels between OKC's sports loyalties and the differences between politics and the gospel.  I know this goes without saying, but our land is paralyzed by partisan lines.  The palpable energy is that of divisiveness and resistance, like trying to force the positive ends of two magnets together.  Oftentimes, what energizes one party is their opposition to the other.  Seriously, does anyone steeped in partisan politics ever change their mind?  Is there any openness to creativity and "third ways?"  Is there anyone who cares more about the common good than political expediency?  Is there anyone left who cares more about people than ideology?  When the focus is on partisan politics and hot button political issues, my church (and I'm guessing yours) is split right down the middle.

The gospel, on the other hand, brings an inherent energy to a community, but it is a positive energy- like the strong attraction between the different poles of a magnet.  The gospel brings the community of faith together.  To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr., "We only find common ground in the higher ground."  For Christians, the gospel is higher ground.  The way of Jesus is not the least common denominator for us; it is the GREATEST common denominator.  I'm not advocating for an evasion of the pressing issues of our day.  We must not hide our head in the sand.  But I am questioning what determines the pressing issues of our day:  partisan agendas or the Divine mission?  If we forget the wisdom of  our center, we will never have the wisdom to speak to our circumference.    

So my plea to the church is to step into the higher ground of the gospel.  Let us center our lives on the things Jesus centered his life on, rather than the incendiary issues which claim prominence in our day.  Let's remember that the cross is our symbol, not an elephant or donkey.  Let's find our energy in the things which unite us around the communion table rather than the cynical rhetoric which fills our air waves.  Let's listen to each other sincerely and authentically, but let's listen to Jesus first and foremost.

I guess what I'm saying is let's put down the red and orange and pick up some Thunder blue.  After all, they did have enough wisdom to draft a Baylor Bear this last week!      

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Imagination and Faith

We were all born with imaginations.  Most of us had imaginary friends.  We had no problem accepting strange tales of other worlds or alternative realities.  In children's stories, it isn't uncommon for animals to talk in plain English or people to possess some superhuman capability.  But somewhere along the way, we usually begin to discourage imagination in our children.  We tell them to stop using the imaginative aspects of their brains and begin using other forms of cognition- namely reason.  Education in Western culture is heavy on reason and empirical evidence and light on imagination.  Thus, we regularly exercise our reason while our imaginations atrophy.

Of late, I have begun to long for a return of imagination to the practices of the church.  I can see several ways in which a healthy imagination might enrich the faith community.

1) The majority of Jesus' teachings appeal to the imagination rather than reason.  Parables and paradox (Jesus' favorite ways of teaching) were never meant to be understood- but experienced.  Who among us hasn't wanted to attend the party the Father threw for his prodigal son (or become infuriated by it!).  If Jesus wanted to convey static, rationalistic truth he could have given us a few formulae or a couple of lists (aka, 7 ways to...).  Rather, he told stories that demanded participation and imagination in order to fully transform the person.  Mathematical formulae teach us, but good stories change us.

2) Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that prayer was "dreaming in league with God."  Thus prayer is dreaming God's dreams after him.  This notion of prayer has often saved me from self-absorbed drudgery.  Oftentimes, I find myself dreaming with God about a situation, the church, or the world in a way that words could never convey.  Perhaps the simplest definition of prayer is dreaming with God.  (By the way, have you ever noticed how prominent dreams are in the Bible as sources of revelation but how skeptical we are of them today).

3) The Bible is chock full of metaphor, which convey meaning at a level deeper than reason.  Metaphors demand imagination, because as their most literal level, metaphors are lies.  When we say, "God is a rock," or "God is our Father," we must- even subconsciously- play with what that means in our lives.

4) Our younger generations are open to imagination in a way that older generations are not.  Many youth I know are more comfortable in the world of Harry Potter than 5th period biology.  They are comfortable thinking about alternative realities as opposed to the "real world" we see before our eyes.  It's not that biology isn't true; it's just that biological truth doesn't matter as much as other truth.

5) That which controls our imaginations controls our lives.  We live in a world that appeals to image in every way, and what we see behind our eyes shapes what we see in front of them.  Those who see the universe as a closed system of cause and effect will find evidence to support the same.  Those who see the universe as a creation full of mystery and wonder will find evidence to support the same.  The world we imagine is usually the world we seek to create.  If we believe that, in God's reality, lions lie down with lambs, then fear and self-preservation are no longer the primal motivations behind everything we do, and peace becomes a viable way of life in the world.

I'm not saying that faith is irrational, and I fully believe that we should use our best reason in being God's people.  However, I do believe that faith is super-rational, and oftentimes our imaginations are better guides in the land of mystery and wonder than our reason.

For all these reasons (and more) I believe the church should be a place where imagination is welcomed and cultivated.  What do you think?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ten Things I Would Tell Myself

So it's graduation season, the time when we talk about beginnings being disguised as endings and when kids get their first taste of "the real world" (whatever that means).  This week, I began thinking about what I would tell my 18 year-old, about-to-graduate self if I could go back in time and share some things I've learned along the way.  Here is what I came up with:

1) Make friends with mystery.  The more you learn, the more you will learn how much you have to learn.  This world is full of wonder and mystery, and the One who made it loves surprises.  Don't feel like mystery is willful ignorance; rather it is the humble admission that Ultimate Reality doesn't fit easily into your brain.  To force it in explodes the brain and shrinks the reality at the same time.

2) Life is pure gift.  You have never earned one breath.  The sun comes up at the hand of a power not your own.  On the day you were born, someone else did the labor.  Life is pure gift.  So live it, because sleepwalking through it is an offense to the One who gave it to you.

3) Don't be ashamed to say you are on a journey.  There will be issues that you need to wrestle with and illumination will not come instantaneously.  Some people in your journey will claim that faith is certainty (arrival).  But faith isn't certainty- faith is trusting enough to keep going in the face of all the questions (journey).  Following Jesus demands one who is willing to journey- so don't be ashamed to admit that you are on one.

4) Don't focus as much on a prayer life as a life of prayer.  There are people who gauge their faith quantitatively, counting the number of hours they spend in formal prayer.  However, everything you offer up to God is prayer, so live in such a way that ALL of life is prayer.  It should be easier to identify when you are not praying than when you are.  Let prayer permeate your entire life- not just 1 hour (or 23) of your day.

5) Listen!  Pay attention.  God reveals himself through words.  Listen, really listen, to others when they talk.  Notice what is said and unsaid.  Don't just read books, listen to them.  The shortest way to your heart is through your ears.  As a minister, you will have your fair share of time to be the one talking.  If you never listen, you'll rarely have anything worth saying.

6) Have a soft heart and tough skin.  Have compassion for others.  So much of our society depends on numbness, but never lose the capacity to feel for others.  Let others in, warts and all.  At the same time, don't let every little criticism depress you.  Don't let others define your ministry or determine your character.  Sure, let others have an impact on you but never control you.  Be a servant to all and a slave to none.

7) Keep up with friends and family.  Don't assume they know your love and care.  Communicate it regularly.  There are a million forces in this world that prevent you from staying in touch with them, but let love outweigh them all.

8) Don't be afraid of the truth.  Jesus is the truth, so every time you seek the truth you are seeking Jesus.  Wherever you discover truth (whether in science projects, studying other faiths, learning from friends, reading the Bible, confessing your own sins) you can see a little more of God's heart.  Therefore, don't be afraid to peer behind partisan slants and sectarian creeds to seek the Truth that trumps all truths.  There will be days when all you have are doubts, but those are the growing pains of your faith growing up and branching out.  Also, speak the truth, as best you know how, with all the sensitivity love requires.

9) Never confuse your truth with the truth.  Most of the evils perpetrated in this world are laid on the altar of truth.  To assume that you have a sure view of God's reality is either to maximize your vision or minimize your God.  Humility is a virtue of the mind, as well as the heart.  Just because someone disagrees with you doesn't mean they are evil or that they speak no truth at all.  It might mean that both of you are right (or wrong).  Since God is an awfully big God, you need all the perspectives you can gather.  Read people you KNOW you will disagree with.  Listen to varying traditions.  Learn.  Grow.  Seek.

10) Love.  Love deep and wide.  Risk the pain and agony that love often costs.  Love God and neighbor as if it is the most important thing in all the world, because, well.... it is.  

So what would you tell your 18 year-old, about-to-graduate self?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

In Praise of the Mothers

The first chapter of Luke records a song/prayer from the mouth of a young girl, a virgin from Nazareth which was a small, insignificant town in Galilee that didn't even merit one mention in the Old Testament. Most scholars believe the girl to be in her early teens.  No doubt, she was from the lower rungs of the social ladder, and she had virtually no say in the affairs of her life.  Yet, God chooses this insignificant girl in the middle of nowhere to be the mother of the Messiah.  Before the chapter is over, she breaks out into song, praising the God who lifts up the humble (including her) and brings down the proud.  This is a song of social subversion, a God who makes justice in an unjust world.

Just three chapters later, in Luke 4, Jesus is preaching his first public sermon.  No surprise that Nazareth is the setting.  Jesus reads a passage from Isaiah 61, a text which speaks of God's renewal movement in Jerusalem and beyond.  The poor will be lifted up, prisoners will be released, the blind will see, and the oppressed will be liberated.  Jesus states, "Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing," and he goes on to state that the scripture is not just fulfilled for Israel, but also Israel's enemies.  Again, this kind of message turned the prevailing social structures and popular theologies on their heads.  In his first address, Jesus announces a Kingdom which turns the world as we know it on its head.

While Jesus could have gotten this idea from his study of the Hebrew Bible, I believe it might have originated from somewhere else.  Perhaps Jesus' first inclinations of God were transmuted before he was even conscious of it.  I imagine Mary, nursing Jesus in her rocking chair in Nazareth, and singing a simple song  about an amazing God who turns the world upside down.  I imagine that song getting in Jesus' blood as much as Mary's milk did.  And by the time Jesus is an adult, Mary's song continues to sound through him.  When I read Jesus' sermon in Nazareth, I hear echoes of Mary's song from the same place.

I've come to believe that most of our views of God are more caught than taught.  They have more to do with intuition than formal training.  They arise more from observing attitudes and behaviors than reading books or taking classes.  If this is the case, then I am hard pressed to think of a more important role in the world than that of mothers, who shape children in their most malleable stages.

And so, on this mother's day eve, I would like to thank my mother, who in her words and actions, taught me to love the Scriptures.  She didn't just read for information, but transformation.  She didn't try to make them relevant to her life- she made her life relevant to them.  From my earliest days, I remember her praying from places deep within her soul to places deep with God's being.  Truly, deep called to deep.  Always, ALWAYS, she sought to serve rather than be served.  In times of conflict, she was the peacemaker, oftentimes absorbing pain and hurt that wasn't hers to begin with.  In all this, she loved my brother and me unconditionally.  While I have spent the last 12 years of my life studying religious matters, I can see that no class has shaped me more than observing my own mother.

I would also like to thank my wife, who is a wonderful mother to two incredible boys.  In many ways, she is their safe place.  When they are afraid, they want their mother.  When they are hurt, they want their mother.  When they are happy and want to share it, they want their mother.  She knows them better than any other.  She teaches them to see God in the little things, and she teaches them that loving God and others is the big thing.  She teaches them to consider others before themselves.  In her life, she exhibits joy and treasures relationships.  Even in their worst moments, Paxton and Truett never question the love of their mother.

And so, I would like to praise all the mothers out there, the normal women in the middle of nowhere performing the most mundane chores.  I would like to thank those whose songs of faith will echo in the lives of their children for years to come.  More specifically, I would like to honor my mother, Gina, and my wife, Rebecca, whose songs I can't help but sing.

Happy Mother's Day!!!    

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Farming With the Faithful

I grew up in a farming family, in an area where farming dictates the way of life.  There are days when my soul longs for a return to the farm.  Sometimes I yearn for a time that is categorized more by the seasons than the seconds.  Sometimes my heart cries out for a pace that is more reverent than suicidal.  Sometimes I hunger for work that depends on more than my two hands.  Thoroughly situated in an urban setting, I frequently miss the farm.  Yet, the longer I minister the more I see the parallels between agriculture and ministy.  (By the way- have you ever noticed how Jesus' metaphors for the presence of the Kingdom and faith formation arise from agricultural settings.  While this no doubt stems from his agricultural context, I also believe it insinuates latent compatibilities between agricultural work and Kingdom service.)

Here are some of the similaritites I see between the two:
1) Farming is work that depends on external elements.  A farmer can do everything right- plant the right seed at the right time, water appropriately, fertilize as necessary, and monitor appropriately- and he is still one drought, flood, pest, fungus, hail storm, or lightning strike away from losing an entire crop.  In short, farming is bigger than the farmer.  A bountiful harvest is nothing short of a gift from God.  Likewise, ministry transcends the minister (thanks be to God).  A meaningful sermon demands ears to hear, human transformation requires something like death and resurrection (which lie outside the minister's jurisdiction), and a healthy church depends on the presence of the Spirit.  Like farming, much of ministry is trusting the process to more potent hands.  A vibrant ministry is nothing short of a gift from God.

2) Farming walks the line between the mundane and the miraculous.  Farmwork is oftentimes monotonous- doing the same things every season, every week, every day.  It is predictable.  On the other hand, watching a seed grow from the soil, observing water freshen a parched field, and remembering how one seed in April produced 25 more in September grants a farmer a front-row seat to miracles.  Likewise, a preacher's schedule is full of the same, regular activities:  visiting, studying, praying, preaching...  Yet, in the midst of the mundane one can witness miracles- common, ordinary, natural miracles.

3) Farming takes time.  The work is done in seasons and can't be done otherwise.  One week will not a crop make.  Farmers cannot rush and hurry.  (By the way, have you EVER seen a farmer in a hurry?)  A crop demands numerous rains, multiple sunrises and sunsets, and patience.  Seeds do not sprout in microwaves over seconds but in the soil over seasons.  Likewise, ministry cannot be rushed.  It takes time for faith to mature and for the Kingdom to make its home amongst us.  In fact, it happens so slowly and quietly we tend not to see it at all.  Oftentimes, I find myself trying to make the church grow in one week- make disciples in one sermon- make a sermon in 30 minutes.  However, microwave ministry tends to create 30-second disciples, with no root to sustain them in the long run.  Hurrying ahead of God usually ruins the harvest.  Sometimes, trust seems like more work than work!

I guess I'm beginning to see how lessons from the field can inform one's ministry and hoping we all can be humble, patient, and faithful in whatever season of life we are in.  Thoughts?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Easter Monday

What do you do on Easter Monday, the day after you peer into the tomb only to find that the world doesn't work the way you always thought?  What do you do the day after everything changes- when old plausibility structures give way to new possibilities and God's surprise unsettles your life?

Today, I walked into the sanctuary at Spring Creek to sit and pray.  It was dark and silent.  Most of the Easter Lillies had been taken home, and those that remained looked far removed from yesterday's grandeur.  No children were running around the sanctuary in suits and dresses they hardly wanted to wear.  The hallelujahs were no longer echoing off the walls, and the trumpets no longer blasted through the air.  No preacher was diving in over his head, trying to explore an event that continues to astound and stupify.  The stillness of the sanctuary felt a world away from yesterday's celebration.  There was only silence.

And yet, the silence was a strange silence.  It wasn't an empty kind of silence, as if there is nothing to say. It was a full silence, saturated with meaning, as if no one had to say anything.  It wasn't the dreaded silence of God-forsakenness but the sacred silence of God's presence.  Somehow, there was peace in the silence.  There are times in life when you stand in the shadows of some transcendent mystery and the only proper response is silence.  For a preacher, who is expected to say the right thing at the right time, the necessity of silence can feel more like a curse than a gift.  Nevertheless, today I sat in silence because resurrection is something God, and God alone, has done.  It does not depend on my imagination or articulation.  It defies my expectation and theological categories.  It resists my attempts to tame it and explain it.

So today, I crossed a few things off the calendar, caught up on some work I postponed during holy week, and helped coach a T-ball team.  But right in the middle of the day, I sat in the sanctuary in silence.  It just felt like the right thing to do on Easter Monday.

What do you do on Easter Monday?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Holy Week

So it's Good Friday, and we're nearing the end of holy week.  This week introduces many internal conflicts to me.  The supreme meaning that each new day brings is only paralleled by my inability to understand, much less communicate most of that meaning.  The sacredness of each moment is confronted by the busyness of my schedule as a pastor.  The somberness of Good Friday quickly gives way to children's Easter egg hunts on Saturday morning.  This week is full of conflictions for me.

Perhaps the greatest conflict I feel is embedded in the story itself.  On the one hand, the evils of the world and the most vile habits of humanity are crystal clear in these days.  The fickle nature of public opinion and majority stances is illustrated by the praises on Palm Sunday and the derision on Good Friday.  The blatant betrayal in the name of money as Judas bowed to the root of all evil.  The shallowness of a friendship that forsook the other when Peter denied Jesus.  The corruption of Jewish and Roman powers who sentenced an innocent man to death because his truth brought their claims into question, his righteousness brought light into their shadows, and his power threatened their sovereignty.  Most of today's despairing news seems propelled from the vortex of these disturbing stories.

Yet, in the midst of this darkness, stands Jesus- the light of the world.  His life was compelled by the heart of God rather than public opinion.  He was not deterred by warranted praise or unjust blame.  He was true to his purpose even though it cost him his life.  He stuck by his friends when they were hardly worth sticking by.  He confronted the corruption of his day without mirroring the evils he opposed.  He broke bread with those who would betray and deny him.  He forgave those who crucified him.  He befuddled those who attempted to interpret his actions through normal canons of logic.  Intertwined with the depravity of this week is a love, peace, and justice that overcomes all.

This is the source of my greatest conflict this week.  I don't know whether to break out in holy laughter at the joy of it all or break down because of the terror.  I don't know whether to praise or confess.  I don't know whether to celebrate or mourn.  Maybe doing all of these things would be appropriate.  Perhaps my angst stems from the fact that I wonder where I fit in the story.  To be honest, I could have been anyone in this story.  Perhaps even more than wondering where I fit in the story, I wrestle with the entirety of the story in me.  The whole story lives in me- ALL of it.  My betrayals and mockery- my righteousness and depravity- my struggles for power and forgiveness.  The entire story is in there.  Sometimes, I wonder if it's possible to have holes in your hands while holding the hammer at the same time.  I don't know, but I wonder.          

Sunday, March 18, 2012

On the Church

When people ask me about Spring Creek Baptist Church, I have a difficult time communicating what kind of church we are.  As soon as you label yourself a "Baptist" church (or just "church" for that matter), all kinds of assumptions arise.  And yet, few of those assumptions are true to our identity.  No label accurately describes us.  We do not fit easily into any category.  We have people from all walks of life.  Some Spring Creekers are conservative (theologically and politically), and they contribute to the life of our congregation.  Others are liberal (theologically and politically), and they do likewise.  Many others fit somewhere in the middle- once again defying the labels.  We span the age spectrum, are throughly ecumenical in backgrounds, and would hardly fit into one social class.

Truly, there are times I wonder how we will ever stick together, much less truly love one another, given the variations of people who fit in our pews.  Sometimes I wonder if we would be better off sharing some affinity like cowboy churches or biker churches.  Sometimes I wonder if church would be easier if we declared one political platform or social ideology as the gospel norm and ostracized any who disagreed.  I would assume more homogenous churches have less occasions for arguing.  Sometimes I am tempted to cater to one generation or another, either appealing to younger generations through novelty and crass marketing or targeting the older generations through traditionalism and precious memories.  What gets lost  in much of our ecclesiology, however, is Jesus- the very one who makes the church the church.

Spring Creek's motto has long been "A Place of Grace," and that slogan really does describe who we are. Everyone has a place at the table.  Everyone is included in the family.  No one is left out.  Our common purpose carries more weight than our variegated backgrounds.  Our shared practices overwhelm our differing theologies.  Our commitment to love and community overcomes differences of perspective.  I don't mean to sound utopian.  This manner of church is difficult.  It means you have to go to Sunday School with people who cancel out your vote in the local election.  It means you actually have to listen to differing opinions and respect them even if you don't agree with them.  It means you cling to the Christ in one another because that's about the only glue holding the thing together.  Sometimes I feel as though we are hanging together by a thread- the thread of Jesus in our midst.  Yet, what other thread can be more sure?  What other thread is there for the church?  If the thread holding us together is something other than Jesus, are we really the church?

I have come to value the diversity of people who fill our pews on Sundays.  Their perspectives have broadened my own.  Their love and lives have inspired my own.  Their stories have enriched my own.  Their views correct, deepen, and add nuance to each other.  The diversity of voices in our church keep the gospel deep and wide, lest it become narrowed to fit nice, neat partisan platforms.  The various opinions protect the mysteriousness of the Kingdom from being imprisoned by agendas of other sorts.  In short, the diversity within our church enriches the life of everyone involved.  No matter what difficulties arise from doing church this way, the benefits outweigh the challenges.

When people ask me about Spring Creek- sometimes I say we are a Baptist church.  Other times I say we are progressive Baptists, moderate Baptists, or historic Baptists.  To some people who think in terms of labels, we are liberals.  To others we seem like fundamentalists.  To others we are an anomoly in every way.  But to us, we are just trying to be the church, a place of grace- where all are welcomed because Jesus is about the only glue we have.  Thanks be to God, he's about the only glue we need.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

First Steps

And so, it begins- my journey into the blogosphere.  I am taking the first step with a bit of fear and trepidation.  As a pastor, I have resisted blogging for several reasons.  First of all, I've thought the pastor's time was better spent doing tasks other than blogging (like sermon prep., praying, visiting...), and by the time you finish those chores you don't have much time or energy left for blogging.  And yet, I have also come to believe that the gospel belongs in the marketplace of ideas, even if it rests on the shelf of subversion.  Also, the longer I pastor, the more I treasure communal wisdom and dialogue with others.  Thus, blogs have begun to appeal to me in those ways.  Secondly, I have been slow to blog because of the nature of the medium.  To blog, all one needs is a computer.  Wisdom, training, experience, factuality, and truth telling are all optional.  Many blogs are the child of a fool and a hard drive.  For quite some time, I've wondered if blogs- along with other forms of social media- are truly conducive for meaningful dialogue.  Can the keyboard convey our passion?  Can Facebook articulate the nuances of our beliefs in one wall conversation?  Is a cyber-community more cyber than community?  While I have no answers to these questions, I have been moved by other blogs which opened like oases in the desert.  Dr. Roger Olsen, Rachel Held Evans, Dr. Tom Ogburn, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship all maintain blogs that have challenged my thinking, nurtured my faith, and guided my journey.  They have revived my hope that social media can be a tool in the hand of God.

And so, even though I step with fear and trepidation- I step.  My sincere hope is that you find this blog to be sacred cyberspace.  I hope this blog cultivates imagination while sharpening the rationale; illumines the culture around us while exploring the Mystery above us; and wrestles with deep questions while not settling for trite answers.  My requirement is that we all communicate in love, listening to alternative opinions and valuing the other (whomever the other might be).  As the old saying goes, "None of us are smarter than all of us," so let us value each perspective, recognizing that God's truth always transcends our grasp of it.

I have titled my blog, "The Bright Field," after my favorite poem of R.S. Thomas.  Reading Thomas loosens my soul from its grave clothes and calls me out into newness of life.  This particular poem is no different.  It reminds me to see the sacred in the ordinary and the holy in each moment.  To that end, I hope you find this blog as something of a bright field yourself.