Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Johnson/Finnegan Fallout and Blaming God

First a follow-up to yesterday's post about the Andre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan brawl.

Here's the scoop on what the NFL's "punishment" for these players is:


Both of these guys are millionaires.  Neither of them will feel that fine at all.  Essentially, it's a slap on the wrist for both the bully and the one who retaliated.  Finnegan, in typical bully fashion is blaming Johnson for the whole ordeal and refuses to even look in the mirror for the things he was doing to precipitate the brawl.

I think I understand the NFL's reasoning.  Some of it is kosher with me, some of it is not.  The Texans play the Philadelphia Eagles this Thursday, and I am sure, in a league driven by money and ratings, the NFL wanted both teams at their best to give viewers something worth watching.  A hypocritical move, for sure, and something that sends the wrong message in my opinion.

However, I am reasonably sure the NFL also was trying to take into consideration the history of these two players.  You have Andre Johnson who, aside from his run ins with Mr. Finnegan, is the model NFL player.  He is the consummate professional at all other times.  He plays hard, has an air of humility, and is charitable.  He apologized for his actions and took full responsibility for them.  He expected punishment, and is not appealing the NFL's decision.  He knows he was wrong.  The NFL believes Johnson.

The NFL also knows Finnegan.  Finnegan prides himself in being a dirty player.  Everyone in the league knows it.  The NFL knows that Johnson doesn't have any outbursts with anyone except Mr. Finnegan.  They know this guy got under Andre's skin and made him snap, and I am sure they sympathized in some small manner with Johnson.  They probably wanted to see someone stand up to Finnegan's actions and put him in his place.  But they probably also wanted it to be another "bad boy" of the NFL so that no one would think twice if they fined and suspended both players to the max.

But that's not what happened.  It was one of the "good guys" who ended up in the mix.  The "good guy" stood up to the bully, punched him in the mouth, and stood waiting to accept his punishment.  Now, the NFL was in between a rock and a hard place.  In a league governed by concrete rules, how does one punish a "good guy" for fighting a bully who was constantly and consistently picking on him?  How does the league follow the rules when one party was constantly and purposely pushing the limits and just barely exceeding them so that he didn't draw outrage and the other party toes the line consistently?  Do you risk doing nothing and letting things slide?  Do you give the strictest sentence for both?

I'm of the opinion that because the league is governed by the rules, both players should have been fined and suspended.  That's applying the rule consistently.  However, I personally would have mailed a secret, confidential letter to Andre Johnson telling him, "While we in the NFL don't condone fighting during games, good job of putting the bully in his place." 

From a faith perspective, I believe God operates in much the same way.  He knows our frailties and failings.  He knows we snap when people get under our skin.  He knows we can only take so much and turn the other cheek for so long before we react.  Then, His forgiveness is there.  He doesn't condone our actions, but I know He understands them.

I only wonder one thing now.  Finnegan probably doesn't realize Johnson came out the winner in that fight.  He comes across as a little too arrogant for that.  But, knowing that Johnson can and will fight back, will Finnegan try to bully him again?

My guess is, probably.  As long as he can get away with it, he will.  But I can hope each will learn a lesson from the ordeal.

Second story:


Gotta love this one.  Give thanks to God when things go good, and then blame Him when things go bad.  It is so human nature.  Things haven't changed much since the Garden of Eden.

When I am teaching both adults and kids the story of Adam and Eve and their eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, I purposely have them look closely at Adam's response to God when God asks, "What have you done?"  Here's the text itself from Genesis chapter 3:

11He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

Look very carefully at who the man blames for the eating of the fruit.  Did you say the woman?  Try again. 


Adam blames God.  The implication is, "If you wouldn't have given her to be with me, nothing would have happened.  Why did you do this to me God?"

Yeah.  Right.  Don't take responsibility for your actions.  Blame everyone else.  Blame the woman, and if that doesn't work, blame God.  It's everyone else's fault, not your own.

Now, I understand grief and becoming upset when things don't go your way.  I understand that life throws curve balls at you.  I understand that there is a time and a place to become frustrated and angry.  I understand that sometimes things happen that are way out of our control.  Contracting cancer is out of our control (unless you are a smoker).  Being diagnosed is one of those occasions I would actually recommend asking God why.  I would recommend getting a little angry.  God can handle it.  Let it out.

But if you mess up, don't go blaming someone else.  Take responsibility. 

Steve, you will probably never read this blog, but repeat after me:

I dropped the pass.  I'm not perfect, and I showed it beyond the shadow of a doubt today.  I've nobody to blame but myself, and I promise I will work even harder now to ensure that I catch every ball thrown my way.  I don't ever want to let down my teammates, our fans, or myself like that ever again.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Footbal Fight: Andre Johnson's Beat-down of Cortland Finnegan

I apologize for stealing the title from Yahoo Sports, but it was too good. 


I was watching this game when the fight occurred, and I appreciate the sentiments of Chris Chase who wrote the article in the link above.  There is part of me that readily agrees.  Part of me might have reacted in the exact same way Andre Johnson did.  When you keep getting pushed and picked on and pushed and picked on, there is a part of you that finally snaps, and you go berserk.  Eventually, a bully pushes you to the point where you snap, and then you let him have it.

I understand such things.  In fact, one of the stories my dad told me growing up continues to stay with me til this day.  He told of the time he was being bullied as a youngster.  One day, my dad had enough, turned around, and punched the bully right in the mouth.  End of bullying. 

I have been lucky enough in my life not to have had to put such a thing into practice--yet.  You never know how things will turn out.

And yet, I am confronted with the reality of my faith at this point and the person I am called to follow and imitate: Jesus Christ.

He says emphatically, "If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek."

Um...Jesus, what if they are bullying you?  What if they won't stop?  What if they refuse to leave you alone even if you don't strike back time after time after time?  Do we have to put up with bullying?  Do we have to put up with punks?

You know, Andre Johnson really didn't have to respond to Finnegan in the manner he did.  Johnson had been eating Finnegan's lunch all day long.  Finnegan couldn't stop him...at all.  Except by making him lose his cool.  Ultimately Finnegan won this battle because he was able to get the Texan's best player ejected.  Luckily, the Texans had the game in hand, and when all was said and done, it didn't damage the team for this go round.  But what happens if Johnson is suspended?  That will certainly hurt his team.

Johnson was apologetic.  He manned up for his actions which I appreciate.  He knows there was a better way to handle the situation in this instance.  He knows the officials are there to deal with players like Finnegan.  He knows he should have let them handle it, but it's awfully hard to put it into practice when someone gets under your skin.

In the brawl between Johnson and Finnegan, turning the other cheek was definitely the preferred response, but I also believe there is a time and a place to stand up to bullies.  You cannot always rely upon authorities to be there to stop the bullying.  Sometimes, you've got to take matters into your own hands.  Sometimes, I believe you have to punch them in the mouth. 

I know I'm at odds with Jesus here, but you have to remember, He's a much better man than I am.  He's much stronger than I am.  And if I ever have to punch a bully in the mouth, I hope He's much more forgiving than I am.

A Sermon on Living Honorably

Most of you know that I am an avid Dallas Cowboy’s fan. Most of you also know that this really hasn’t been a good year to be a Dallas Cowboy’s fan. I was fortunate enough to actually see one of their wins, which until two weeks ago was their only win of the season. But then Jerry Jones did something unprecedented in Cowboy’s history. He fired head coach Wade Philips in the middle of the season and replaced him with Jason Garrett.  
Something happened when this coaching transition took place. Suddenly, the team started playing differently. Suddenly, they had a different sense of urgency. They went from being the butt of jokes to actually pulling off a couple of wins. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing my ‘boys being competitive and actually winning. But I have a rather bitter-sweet taste in my mouth.
If you actually bothered to watch the Cowboys before Wade Philips was fired, you know as well as I, that they quit playing for their coach. It looked like they literally didn’t care whether they won or lost. The looked like they weren’t putting out much of an effort to win games. The offense was offensive. The defense, which was supposed to be one of the team’s strengths looked like a sieve. Much of that has changed since Jason Garrett was promoted to interim head coach, and I cannot help but ask: why? Why did these men, many who are paid millions of dollars to play a game quit giving their total effort? What allowed them to be comfortable with losing? Did they even have any self-respect left within them, any dignity?
Unfortunately, in this day and age, when such a thing happens, we tend to look at the leader and give him or her the axe. We tend to lay the blame on the coach, the teacher, the CEO, the pastor, the Bishop, or whoever we sense to be the one in charge. It’s their fault for failing to motivate the troops. But, what ever happened to personal responsibility? What ever happened to having the courage to be self-motivated and do your job to the best of your ability regardless of the circumstances? Such questions arise in my mind as I ponder the Cowboys this year, and as I think about living the life of faith.
This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. Believe it or not, that means we are starting a new year in the church, and of course, we begin preparing for Christmas. We begin preparing for the arrival of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and I mean that in two ways. We prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but we also prepare for His coming at the last when He will make all things new. This is why we have before us this morning Bible lessons which talk about the end of days. Isaiah’s lesson points us to what will happen when the Lord returns–nations will beat swords into plowshares, and war will be no more. Jesus talks of how some folks will be taken and others will be left, and he urges his followers to be prepared. And St. Paul urges the church in Rome to wake from sleep and live honorably for salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. Each lesson invites you and me to ponder what it means for us to live and move and breathe as we wait for Jesus to return and restore creation to what it should be.
Perhaps we need such reminders in our earthly journeys because it is awfully easy to become frustrated with how things are going. It is awfully easy to become bogged down in all the messiness of life. It is awfully easy to become disenchanted with the way things are, and it is easier to just quit than to keep pressing onward. When it comes down to it, it’s easier to say, “What’s the point of all of this anyway?” and just walk away from the challenge of living as we are called to live and be the people God has called us to be.
Why would I say such a thing? Well, let’s think about it for a minute, and I will do so trying to address a couple of concerns that many Christians have. First, let’s talk a little bit about morality. There are many Christians today who are very concerned that this world, this country, and even this church are slipping farther and farther into moral decay. They decry how at one time there was an expectation of how a person was expected to conduct his or her life. Marriage was supposed to be until death do us part. Sex was supposed to be reserved for marriage and marriage alone. Drinking to an excess was completely forbidden. Pornography was supposed to be banned or at the very least completely restricted so that minors couldn’t obtain it at all. And these are just a few of the issues. And yet, for those whom such things are important, they have seen the standards challenged and dropped year afer year after year. Half of all marriages end in divorce. Young folks do not wait for sex. Alcohol is prevalent and folks are encouraged to escape reality by drinking to an excess. Pornography is just a few clicks on a computer away, and it is free. For Christians who are concerned about such things, many feel as if they are fighting a losing battle. They feel as though they are facing a tidal wave, and some even give up hope. “If so many are doing such things without any consequences, why even bother?” they ask. It is awfully tempting to quit.
Now, let’s turn to another subject which raises passion for others in the church: the need to care for those who are poor, oppressed, and facing injustice. Many Christians have a heart and passion for following Christ’s command to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. They want to make a huge difference in the battle against poverty, and they throw themselves at all the injustice: raising money and starting programs to make a difference. They rejoice when they see some positive things happening; however, no matter how much they struggle, poverty doesn’t end. No matter what good is done, there always seems to be someone else who has a need. No matter how hard they work to ensure that everyone has something to eat, awareness is raised about someone else who goes hungry. At every turn, it seems as though someone else is asking for help, not only with eating but with paying electric bills, their rent, or hospital bills. Their generosity overflows, but so does the need. Realizing the massiveness of the need can lead to such folks becoming worn out and depressed. Realizing the massiveness of those who need assistance becomes overwhelming, and there is an awful temptation to quit. “What difference am I truly making?” they ask.
Sometimes, it does feel like we are trying to slam our heads through a brick wall. Sometimes it does feel like we run into adversity no matter which way we turn. Sometimes it does feel like we are overwhelmed and underappreciated. And sometimes, it feels like it would be easier to quit. I think that’s what happened to the Cowboys earlier this year. Too much adversity turned them into quitters.
But, is that our calling as Christians? Are we called to be quitters? Are we called just to sit down and give up because the reality of what we face is too overwhelming?
“Let us live honorably,” St. Paul says. Paul goes on to address many moral issues the church in Rome was facing and calling them to be true to their Christian callings. Yet, can Paul’s phrase help us even more? Can it also give us courage as we await the return of Jesus even in the face of things which cause us dismay?
I remember something my parents taught me about academic and athletic success. It’s something that has stuck with me for many, many years, and I still strive to practice it today. Essentially, my parents told me, “Kevin, no matter what you do, give it your best shot. If you give something your best shot, and you fail, you can still hold your head up because you know you did your best.” Understanding those words helped me know that if I worked my tail end off in class and failed, I still gave it my best. Understanding those words helped me understand that if I played sports and we ran into a team that was bigger, faster, and stronger than us, and yet, if we played our best and still lost, we had nothing to be ashamed of. Understanding those words taught me about living honorably.

As Christians, we will not be able to make everyone follow the morals upheld by Christianity. As Christians, we will not be able to eradicate poverty and injustice. To do each of these would require us to wipe out sin because sin is the root cause of each of these things. Yet, we should not become discouraged in what we do because we know we are not doing them for our own benefit. We are striving to do them for our Heavenly Father. We are striving to do them because we want to give Him our best. When he returns, we want Him to find that we are striving to live honorably, responding to the goodness of His love. And when we strive to do such things for our Heavenly Father, how could we ever quit? Amen.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Christianity Isn't for Wimps.

One day, a pastor sat down with a local high school football star. The pastor asked the young man, "David, your family has come to church for many years. They faithfully brought you to church year after year after year. I have noticed, however in the last two years, I have continued to see them, but I no longer see you. What is going on? How come you don’t come to church anymore?"

The young man sheepishly shrugged his shoulders. "I don’t know, pastor. I guess I just don’t want to."

Not satisfied with the answer, the pastor pushed harder, "I don’t believe you David. I think you know why you aren’t going to church, but you must be afraid to tell me."

"I am not afraid!" David almost shouted back.

"Then, tell me," the pastor said.

"Do you really want to know?" David asked.


"Well, pastor, I think Christianity is for wimps," David said.

The pastor stammered, "What? How can you say that?"

"Look at it from my perspective, pastor. I’m a football player, and a good one. I’ve got colleges banging down my door for me to come and play with them. They come because they know I’m tough. They know I don’t take anything off of anybody when I’m on the football field. If you try to knock me down, I’m going to beat you to the punch and hit you first. If you do manage to put me to the ground, I’m going to get back up and take you out on the next play. I’ve worked very hard throughout junior high and high school to get bigger, stronger, and faster. I don’t let anybody push me around, and I’m going to get a free college education because of it."

The pastor allowed David to finish, and then he asked, "So what does that have to do with you not coming to church?"

"The church tells me I have to be a wimp," David replied. "Y’all go on and on and on about loving Jesus and caring for other people. Y’all go on and on and on about sacrificing yourself. I even remember a sermon you preached about turning the other cheek. You try doing that on the football field and see how far it gets you. You wouldn’t have a recruiter looking at you if you tried that."

The pastor was silent. He didn’t know what to say. For years, he had wondered why it seemed like more women attended church faithfully and with gusto. He had wondered why women seemingly had to drag their men into the pews. David’s words hit him like a truck. Was Christianity for wimps? Did Christianity turn Jesus’ followers into doormats?

It’s a legitimate question I think the church should wrestle with. Does our teaching lead us to a place where we have to take it when people bully us, try to hurt us, and impose their will upon us? Do we have to keep turning the other cheek time after time after time and do nothing about it? Do we have to allow others to knock us down and then wait for God to take care of it? And what does that do to those of us who strive to be strong and protect our families and friends from harm? Do we have to be wimpy?

Interestingly enough, I came across an opinion piece the other day on the Fox News website. It was written by Steven Crowder a writer and comedian. As I read, I was floored by what this gentleman had to say. Mind you, this guy has no formal, theological training. He is not a pastor. He is a lay person, but his insight into this matter is absolutely astounding, and I would like to share it with you this morning. Steven writes, and this is lengthy, so I apologize for reading it:

See, some folks see the act of turning one’s cheek as a moment of weakness; some folks see it as a challenge. It’s neither. How so?
Think about that for a moment. Think about how that simply makes turning the other cheek a radical form of power–true power to be exact. Think about how powerful Jesus was and is. Think about how when he was hanging on the cross, how he could have called down legions of angels to rescue him from death, to destroy his enemies, but instead, he chose to die for those who crucified him. He chose to turn to the thief who asked to be remembered and utter the words, "Today, you will be with me in paradise." Jesus chose to exercise the power of heaven–the power in which he was granted.

Today, we take a moment in the church to recognize the power that Jesus has. It is Christ the King Sunday where we remember that Jesus is King of Heaven and that one day he will return to be King of Earth. We remember his conquering of death, not in a display of military power or might, but in humble obedience to his Father, dying for the sake of all. As Steven pointed out, it wasn’t that he couldn’t have used that kind of strength, but it was because he chose not to. He wanted to show us that there is another path, another way of doing things. A way that takes even more strength and more determination, and dare I say it, more power.

A few weeks later, the pastor caught up with David after a football game. "David, it’s good to see you again."

"Oh, hi pastor," David said, as he hurriedly tried to get away.

"Wait just a second, David," the pastor said. "I want to ask you a question."

"What’s that?" David asked.

"Late in the fourth quarter, you had the opportunity to really nail the ball carrier. You could have hit him so hard he would have been feeling it next week. Yet, I noticed you backed off. You only tackled him. Why did you hold back?"

"Aw, Rev., the game was over. We were winning by a huge margin. I didn’t want to add insult to injury. Taking that guy out wouldn’t have been right."

"So, you could have, but you chose not to?"


"David, I want you to think a moment about Jesus and what he did. He was the ultimate one who turned the other cheek. He could have destroyed his enemies. He is king of the universe, and he had the power to do so. Instead he chose to die for them. Do you think that’s really wimpy?"

David paused a moment. "I’ll have to think about that, pastor. I really will."

Maybe we all need to think about that. Amen.

Let me walk you through a couple of examples. The first would be the protagonist of a quaint little book: the New Testament. It’s easy reading, the kind of thing you can skim through with a cup of coffee on your daybed. The man is Jesus.

When Jesus told others to "turn the other cheek," he said so knowing full well that it would be his ultimate act of defiance. The man was beaten, tortured and crucified but did nothing about it. Could he have? Umm, he’s Jesus. That’s the whole point. As a matter of fact, without the resurrection, Jesus would have never been able to "turn the other cheek" because he would have been… well, dead. He could have swatted down those centurions at any given moment but consciously chose not to, and that’s why his story is so impressive.

It’s very different from the modernized interpretation from parents who have gone soft. How often do we hear self-righteous claims like "Oh, we don’t teach little Johnny to fight. He’s learned to turn the other cheek."

No, you’ve taught little Johnny to be a coward. He’s not turning the other cheek. Johnny’s a wimp and has no choice. He is completely powerless and so he ultimately has to give up his milk money. A true example of turning the other cheek would be: "Oh, actually little Johnny is a state-level wrestler and a black belt in Judo. He’s more than capable of handling himself but we teach him to avoid confrontation whenever he possibly can."

The point that I’m making here is this: The act of turning one’s cheek only exists as a legitimate option to the one who could just as easily choose not to.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

If You Touch My Junk...

It's amazing just how much we will put up with.

When we are sitting comfortable and secure within our jobs or our daily routines, we will almost let the world go by if it (seemingly) doesn't effect us.  We will even begin to tolerate things that previous generations would find abhorrent.

The new TSA body scanners and enhanced pat downs are just one example.  I mean, look at the blatant disregard for the fourth amendment of the constitution.

For those of you who don't remember your civics:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Tell me, where are the warrants issued for those who are simply traveling from one destination to another?  Where is the probable cause to have a "naked" picture taken of an individual or have that person groped in a manner befitting a sexual assault?  Can you say illegal and unconstitutional? 

But how many weeks passed before folks started waking up to this reality?  How many thousands of people have already submitted themselves to such humiliation without stopping to think about this intrusion into their rights?

I mean, really.  Did it finally take a courageous 31 year old Californian (of all places) to stand up for his personal rights?  A man who has given us a quote which may go down in history? 

I actually shudder to think of "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested." in a list of such quotations as "Remember the Alamo." or "I have a dream."  Yet, it might just happen, if the rest of us are courageous enough to stand by our constitutional rights and convictions.

I personally am awful tempted to purchase a plane ticket just so I can opt out and perform an act of civil disobedience.  I wouldn't mind getting arrested for this so I could take this stuff to court.  Others are already filing lawsuits, so I probably won't have to do it; yet, there is a part of me that is willing to stand up for not only my rights but the rights of my wife, children, and family.  I would not want their bodies exposed to anyone except for the people they choose to reveal them to.  I would not want them touched by anyone unless they chose to allow them.  Would it be worth getting arrested?  You bet.

"But we have to be safe!!" some might decry.

At what cost?

I remember a Garfield cartoon I read while growing up.  Garfield (the fat cat) walks by a pet store and sees all the caged animals.  He says, "This looks like a job for the freedom fighter!"  The next couple of frames show him opening all the cages inviting all the animals to freedom.  But, there is an interesting twist because none of them leave.  The now free animals have terrified looks on their faces.  At this point, Garfield says, "Hmmm.  It looks like folks aren't into freedom much these days."  So, he leaps back into the pet store and begins slamming the cage doors shut.  He cries out, "You're secure.  You're secure.  You're secure."  The animals are all smiles at this point. 

Get the picture?  The only way to be completely safe and secure is to be locked in a cage.  Nothing can get at you, that's for sure, but what are you going to miss? 

Life is inherently full of risk.  We can never, ever be fully safe and secure.  There is always that one in a million chance we will be hit by lightening, bitten by a shark, trip over our own feet and hit our head, have a tree limb fall on us, or whatever you choose.  If you spend all your time worrying about such things, you will never, ever have a fulfilling life.  You will be caught in a cage.  You might think you are safe and secure, but you will pay too high of a cost.

Jesus had a few words to say about such a thing:

25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.  --Matthew 5: 25-34

I believe it is time for us to stop worrying about all the things that could happen.  I believe it is time for us to stop worrying about being completely safe and secure.  I believe it is time to truly live, to enjoy the God given freedoms protected by our nation and by our Constitution.  It will require a change in our focus, but I believe it will be totally worth it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Had Me Rolling!

One of my church members who is notoriously hard of hearing shared the following story this afternoon at our Senior Service.  I couldn't stop laughing for a good minute or so.

Earlier that morning, this guy's girlfriend and a few other couples got together to play dominoes.  The ladies won handily.  My church member got up and went to his kitchen to get a drink.

His girlfriend came in and spoke a few words to him.

"Why did you say that to me?" he responded.  "Y'all won the game."

She retorted, "I said, 'Do you have a glass bowl?'."

Interestingly Enough...

My colleagues in the Roman Catholic Church have elected a new president of their bishop's group.


Breaking tradition, they elected someone basically based upon is more conservative credentials.  Perhaps conservative is not the best word although it was used in the article.  Perhaps the better word, also used, is orthodox.

For some reason, orthodoxy has gotten a bad rap, at least in some circles of the church.  I vividly remember former Episcopal Bishop Shelby Spong write that the church must not place emphasis on orthodoxy, or it will die.  Paraphrasing him--if the church doesn't get rid of its outdated beliefs in the Virgin Birth, miracles, or even the bodily resurrection of Jesus, it stands to be laughed out of existence in this age of science and reason.


I wonder what Spong's take is on the fact that the churches that actually are growing are those who tend to be much more orthodox in their beliefs.  There are a few exceptions to the rule, mind you, but those churches which tend to have a defined set of beliefs and understandings tend to do better than those who don't.  Those churches who know the core convictions of Christianity and put them into practice tend to reach out with God's Word and attract folks who are searching for some sort of meaning for their lives. 

I really do applaud the Catholic Bishops in who they elected.  While I do not agree with all of the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, they are not afraid to espouse them, defend them, and hold onto them despite the major criticisms of people all over the place.  You never have to wonder what the church believes when you ask about the Roman Catholic Church.  They know.  Take it or leave it.

And folks continue to "take it".  The church continues to see growth in the U.S. when most mainline churches are failing and failing miserably.  I'd argue that at least within my own denomination, our failure to adhere to Lutheran Orthodox principles are part and parcel of our problem--that, and an incredible inability to break out of the "God's frozen chosen" label. 

Is it so hard to remember your principles and where you came from?  Is it so hard to retain orthodox beliefs which lead to outreach and ministry?  Apparently so.  At least for my denomination.  Thank God for the rest of them who aren't afraid of standing fast.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Church for Everyone?

On my best days, I say with conviction I believe the church is a place for everyone.

On my best days, I actually have hope such a church is possible.

On my best days, I believe folks from differing points of view can gather together to worship Jesus as Lord and Savior no matter what part of the economic, theological, or political spectrum one resides on.

On my best days, I believe folks can actually sit down and argue their various points of view, vehemently if necessary, and still walk away loving and caring for each other.

Those are my best days, but there are other days.  Days when I am not so sure.

My mentor once relayed to me the definition of the church which had been passed down to him: A Collection of Like Minded Sinners.

The idea behind that definition is the church is actually a place where like minded folks congregate.  In reality, diversity is a myth.  In reality, people from opposing philosophical and theological points of view cannot get along with one another.  In reality, people get together, agree upon which sins are allowable and which sins are not, and invite others who share their convictions to worship and congregate with them.

I hate reality.

As someone who considers himself a thinker (a stretch to those who may know me), I oftentimes find truth being spoken by both sides in a given issue.  Conversely, I often find fallacy in both sides as well.  I am aware enough of my own perspective to know that I too have portions of the truth and yet I know there is fallacy there.  However, oftentimes I am unaware of that fallacy until it is pointed out.

I would like to think I am open enough to hear that criticism.  I would like to think I am open enough to know when I am indeed wrong and when I need to correct my line of thinking and understanding.  However, I am not sure I am.  I like being right.  I like hanging around those who think I am right.  I don't like being uncomfortable.  So can I even exist in a church such as the one I describe earlier, a church where diversity actually happens?

I'm not sure.

But, I am willing to give it a shot.

I'm willing to work toward a congregation and a church that is truly diverse in perspective and point of view.

Unfortunately, I know I'm going to have to take some heat to get there.

It's already happening.  Not in a necessarily bad way, mind you.  But, it is there.

I know within my congregation, I've got the folks on the far left a little disenchanted with me.  I also know I have the folks on the far right disenchanted with me.  I'm not trying to get them ticked, but I don't believe in letting either extreme dictate the role of the church--even though they both may have some truth on their side.

Now, I grew up watching the Karate Kid, and I know Mr. Miyagi's famous quotation, "Walk on left side road. Safe.  Walk on right side road. Safe.  Walk in middle.  Get squished, just like grape."  I realize the truth of that statement in certain situations, but I do not believe that all things are either black or white.  I do not believe I have to choose between the theological left and the theological right.  I believe there is another path--a path which resides in  a different arena altogether; a path which upholds the truth espoused by both extremes, yet which does not swing to either end.

What is that path? 

I'm still working on it.  Sometimes I feel like I'm blazing a new one.  But I know, in reality, I am not.  I know it's been done.  It may take me a lifetime before I figure it out.

But by then, it will be too late.

By the time I figure it out and understand what it means to be a church for everyone, we might have a church for no one.  And that's just totally unacceptable.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Sermon on Responsibility

In some ways, I am surprised those who pick the lessons for churches to read on Sunday actually included our second lesson this morning. Usually, they try to shy from controversial texts or texts that advocate something that is not within their particular point of view. In ten years of preaching and teaching off the Revised Common Lectionary, I have come to see this very clearly. Ask me about it sometime, and I’ll be happy to show you.

But today’s second lesson is a deviation from the path usually chosen. As I’ve read and preached off the Revised Common Lectionary, I believe very strongly that those who pick out the Bible texts for churches have a very strong heart and desire to see the church help those who are poor and in need. They do not hesitate to pick scripture that talks about the Christian responsibility to take care of one’s neighbor. When it comes to the Old Testament lessons, I have seen them pick the teachings of the prophets over and over again which talk about God’s judgment being pronounced upon those who fail to care for the orphan, the widow, and the poor. Curiously omitted are the prophets’ teachings on morality and a failure to follow the first commandment of loving God alone, but who’s keeping track?

So it is somewhat surprising that our second lesson this morning was actually picked to be read in our congregations this morning. Usually, it would be glossed over or ignored altogether. They would pick the chapter before it or the verses after it. They would put the text out there, but omit several verses that did not meet their world-view so that someone wouldn’t get the idea that a Christian should never feed the hungry.
But here we have it right before us this morning. St. Paul admonishes the church in Thessalonica, "10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. 14 Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. 15Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers."

Yes, you heard this text correctly. If anyone does not work, they should not eat. If anyone does not work and chooses to remain idle, they should be kept at arm’s length by the community of faith and shamed. Paul says they should not be treated as enemies, but the act of shaming them should be a warning, an exhortation to turn from their idleness and actually do something.

Can you see how quickly this text can be abused? Can you see how quickly we in the church could use this text to justify, say, cutting all of our support to the Sealy Christian Pantry? We could easily say to the pantry, "Folks, we know you believe you are doing the right thing, but we have read the Bible, and it says that if folks aren’t working, they shouldn’t eat. We know the vast majority of folks who come to the pantry are not working, so as commanded by scripture, we believe they shouldn’t eat. You should stop feeding them, and by-the-way, we are removing our financial support from you." How many of you think that argument is bunk, by the way? Good, I am glad to see so many hands go up in the air. Because the argument is bunk. There is a reason Paul is saying what he is saying, and if you will permit me, I will try to explain it.

First, let’s turn in our Bibles this morning to Galatians chapter 6. There is a wonderful little snippet from scripture that is awful confusing, but very pertinent to our discussion this morning. We come to verses two through five which read, "2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads."

Now, I know this text might sound confusing because in exactly three verses, St. Paul seems to be making two contradictory statements. First, he writes that Christians are called to bear one another’s burdens, and in doing so, we fulfill the law of Christ. Then, in verse five, Paul says that each person must carry his or her own load. How can Paul seem to reverse himself in just one verse? How can Paul go from "Bear one another’s burdens" to "carry your own load" in such a quick fashion?

Here’s where a little bit of understanding of the Greek helps tremendously. Translating word for word sometimes presents a problem, and if you understand the Greek nuances of a couple of words, you will understand this text much better. First, we need to know that the Greek word for burden carries the nuance of a boulder. Bear one another’s boulder’s, Paul indicates. This fulfills the law of Christ. Indeed when we see our neighbor struggling with something that is too big for him or her, we should help them out without question. I’m not sure anyone would argue with this.

Second word that needs a little clarification is the word load. In Greek, this word carries the connotation of a knapsack. It’s a burden that can be carried without much trouble, and Paul tells us that we are responsible for carrying our own knapsacks. Bear one another’s boulders, but carry your own knapsack. When something is too big for your neighbor or for yourself, we have a responsibility to help or seek help. However, there are some things that we must take responsibility for on our own. We should not seek help for them if they are our responsibility.

Therefore, a Christian is called to be responsible for one’s self and the things one is able to do, and at the same time has the responsibility to help others when a load becomes too much to bear. A corollary to Paul’s thinking here is that we are called to bear one another’s boulders, not each other’s knapsacks. Let me say that again. We are called to bear one another’s boulders, not each other’s knapsacks.
This brings us back to this morning’s lesson from 2 Thessalonians. If we read through the entirety of this book, we see that the church in Thessalonica is worried about when Jesus is returning. They are wondering what that day is going to be like. They are wondering if they need to be afraid or if they should be rejoicing. They are wondering what they should be doing as they wait for Jesus’ return.

St. Paul takes some time to address all of these issues with this letter to the church, and he also takes time to deal with a group of folks who are refusing to take responsibility for their knapsacks. There were a group of Christians in Thessalonica who were not working because they believed Jesus would return immediately. They refused to work or do anything because they wanted Jesus to find them praying or worshiping or what have you. Because they were so focused on this, they remained idle all day long. And, believe it or not, they expected the rest of the church to feed and care for them. They expected the church to provide for their daily existence as they waited for Jesus to come back.

Paul says, "I don’t think so. The church is not responsible for carrying another person’s knapsack. You who are idle need to get up off your tail ends, get to work, earn a living and feed yourselves. Don’t expect the church to take care of you while you do nothing. If you don’t even attempt to carry your knapsack, you don’t need to eat."

Do you see how this teaching does not mean the church isn’t supposed to feed the hungry? After all, there are people who lose their jobs, who cannot work, who for one circumstance or another have tremendous boulders to carry. It is our job to help them–to feed them–to care for them and bear their boulders until they reach their destination. However, if someone is not even attempting to carry their knapsack, then the church has a very different responsibility. We don’t need to feel guilty about supporting those who are not even trying. Please do not abuse this text from 2 Thessalonians 3. Bear one another’s burdens, but carry your own knapsack. Amen.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rearranging the Deck Chairs (Part 4)

In my last post, I suggested the ELCA, and I would argue, other denominations as well, have gotten away from core identity issues and have been plagued by people exiting out the doors never to return.  I have been working diligently on a statement of identity from a Lutheran perspective.  Many of the ideas are not necessarily new (I don't believe there is really anything new under the sun when it comes to our lives of faith), but I am seeking to articulate an identity deeply rooted in orthodox, Christian and Lutheran teaching which encapsulates how we are called to operate in this day and age.

Since I wrote much of it yesterday, on the anniversary of Martin Luther's birthday, I actually had the audacity to title it: The Cat Spring Confession.  Mind you, this is a rough draft at this point subject to change as I begin visiting with folks about it:

The Cat Spring Confession

Article 1: Christianity

We confess that we are a Christian church adhering to the three ecumenical creeds–the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed. We confess the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments–to be the written Word of God, our source and norm for faith and life.

Article 2: Lutheran

We confess that we are a part of the Lutheran Church. We adhere to the Augsburg Confession.

Article 3: The Authority of Scripture

As articulated in the Lutheran Confessions, scripture is the source and norm for our understanding of God, His interaction with humanity, and His call for how we are called to live as His children. As such, we believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God in the understanding that it does not lead a person into error in faith and doctrine. There are, however, errors in translation and interpretation and direct contradictions within the pages of Scripture. We do not believe this lessens the Bible’s authority in matters of faith and doctrine.

Article 4: Interpretation of Scripture

While we believe biblical scholars serve an important role in the life of the church, we believe the plain reading in the native language of the people carries the most authority when it comes to the interpretation of scripture. We do not believe a person needs a degree in theology or biblical interpretation to be able to interpret and understand God’s Word. Biblical scholars often contradict each other, and they cannot be relied upon to be the sole source of interpretation.

Article 5: Canon within the Canon

We believe that scripture is best interpreted by scripture, and as Lutherans, we believe all scripture should be judged through the law/gospel dynamic summed up in the following statement: we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus and not by works of the law.

Article 6: Law, Gospel, and Response

We believe we stand condemned by God’s law since all have fallen short of it’s glory. However, we also believe the Gospel proclamation that Christ died in our stead to save us. Therefore, we believe we are now called to respond to what Christ has done by living a life that seeks to serve God and follow His commands–not in an attempt to appease God, but in joyful obedience; not because we have to, but because we want to.

Article 7: God’s Will

We believe God’s will for humanity can best be found in the pages of Scripture as we read the law, prophets, teachings of Jesus and the epistles. We recognize that some laws have been made null and void, and we recognize that some laws are more important than others–Jesus makes this clear in His teachings. When conflicting laws and teachings come before us, we judge which is greater by our canon within the canon.

Article 8: Justice and Compassion

We believe part of our response to God’s grace is the drive to make a difference in the world around us–to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and imprisoned, care for the orphan, widow, and our neighbor in need. We believe we need to speak out against oppression and strive to make this world a better place for all people. We believe we have been blessed to be a blessing.

Article 9: Outreach

We believe we are called to respond to God’s grace by spreading the news that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. We believe we are called to make disciples of all nations that all might experience the joy of a relationship with Jesus Christ, and we intentionally seek to invite others to join us in mission.

Article 10: Morality

We believe we are called to respond to God’s grace by holding to a high standard of morality. We believe we should strive to be upright and blameless in our living; however, we also believe we are called to live in this manner with humility bestowing the same kind of grace to others that Our Heavenly Father bestows upon us. We do not believe high morals should lead to self-righteousness.

Article 11: The Church

We believe the church should be a place for all people to encounter the grace, love, and mercy of God. It should willingly and truly welcome the rich, poor, and all in-between. It should willingly and truly welcome conservatives, liberals, and all in-between. It should willingly and truly welcome saint, sinner, and all who realize they are both at the same time.

Article 12: The Role of the Church

We believe the church should preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments, but it should never impose its will upon any individual, community, or nation. It must confront sin, but it must give people freedom as God gives us freedom.

Article 13: The Freedom of a Christian

We believe a member of Christ’s church is free to respond to God’s grace as he or she is led by the Spirit of God. We believe no one should be forced to give time, talent, or treasure under any circumstances. The response to the Gospel is motivated only by love not by fear, guilt, or coercion.

Article 14: Engaging Culture

We believe the church, as individuals and as a whole, is called to be "salt and light" within its cultural context. The church is not called to rule the surrounding culture or to allow the surrounding culture to rule it. Rather, the church is called to be in that culture spicing it up with an alternate world-view and shining the light of good into the dark places. We believe the church should not seek any sort of political or earthly power, but must remain independent as it seeks to serve God and confront the principalities and powers leading people astray.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Happy Birthday Uncle Marty

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.  --Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms

Tonight, I will have to raise a bottle of beer and toast the namesake of the denomination to which I am proud to belong.  Happy Birthday to the Reverand, Doctor Martin Luther.

Thank you for standing on the principles God gave to you.

Thank you for your willingness to be an unapologetic apologist for the Reformation, for salvation by grace alone, and for insisting that all folks should have access to the Holy Scriptures.

Thank you for being so "earthy."

Thank you for "A Mighty Fortress."

Thank you for making my head spin in college and in seminary with words nearly 500 years old but just as relevant today as they were then.

Not many Lutheran churches that I know of today are taking a moment to pause and remember who you were and what you did.  We're not even doing so in Cat Spring.  But at the very least, this little, insignificant pastor is remembering and thanking you for what you started.

Rearranging the Deck Chairs (Part 3)

Interpreting Scripture is a fascinating experience, especially within a community of faith.  Even a "plain text" reading can be an exercise in futility.

For instance: everyone agrees that when Jesus held the Last Supper, he uttered these words concerning the bread and wine given to the disciples, "This is my body given for you, and this is my blood shed for you."

Now, this would seem to be a straightforward statement by Jesus; however, because of the metaphoric language used, the interpretations vary.

1. You have the literal approach taken by the Roman Catholics, some Episcopalians, and the Eastern Orthodox.  They believe the bread and wine literally became the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  It makes sense reading the text in a literal fashion.

2. You have the opposite extreme best embodied in the Reformed tradition: Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, etc.  Such folks read this statement as a metaphor.  The bread and wine represents Jesus' body and blood.  The language is totally symbolic.  When one eats and drinks, one tastes bread and wine, and Jesus is present in the body of believers.

3. You have those of us who are in the middle.  We believe in what is called con-substantiation.  The bread and wine are indeed bread and wine; however, Jesus' real presence is "in, with, and under" the bread and the wine.

Question: which one is right?  All three are based within Scripture.  All three deal with the same exact wording.  All three are different conclusions.  Can they all be right?  No.

Fortunately, I don't believe God is going to send anyone to hell for not believing how exactly Jesus is present in the Sacrament of Holy Communion; but there were those many years ago who believed He would!  But, what does one believe?

Our communities of faith have chosen to put together doctrine to define ourselves.  Such lists began appearing early in the Christian church to define what was Christan and what was not Christian.  Believe it or not, the three great creeds of the church (Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds) were statements defining the core Christian beliefs at the time of which they were written.  As time progressed, more and more statements of definition were added to help the church define itself.

This is what happened during the Reformation.  However, the church stopped calling them creeds and started calling them Confessions.  There are many including the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, etc.  Such statements are important once again because they help set the tone and identity for a church.

Confessions and Creeds help govern how we live out our Christian faith, and they help us interpret Scripture.  For instance, in the Lutheran Church, we have a high appreciation of the Gospel in a nutshell, "We are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.  Not by any works that we do, but solely by the grace of God."  As we read the rest of Scripture, we view it through this lens.  It helps us deal with texts which contradict each other.  It helps us understand certain passages within the context of the entire Biblical story. 

Such an understanding is vitally important when it comes to the mission and ministry of the church.  And, I would argue, it is invaluable in insuring the ship not only stops sinking but returns to sailing the seas with gusto.

What do I mean by that?

Well, if you have a ship that is built for one purpose, and you try to make it do something it's not intended to do, you might be in deep trouble.  If you have a cruise ship, and you try to load it down with tons of cargo, everything might be o.k. for a while, but if the ship hits rough seas, you might lose the cargo or the ship might sink because it's not made to carry cargo.

Perhaps, and this is my opinion, the Lutheran Church--particularly the ELCA--has tried to become something it is not.  It has forsaken many of the principles of the Lutheran faith and tried to become something else.  As such it has lost its Lutheran identity and defined itself in a different way.

There's not necessarily anything wrong with that.  Self-definition is important.  However, if by defining yourself, you find yourself sinking, you might want to re-think how you are defining yourself.  You might want to re-think what you are becoming.  You might want to readjust and change your focus--especially if you are getting away from what made you who you were in the first place.

Identity is important.  Folks are drawn to those who know where they stand and what they stand for.  They are also drawn to those who are self-assured and have well defined boundaries.  This goes far beneath the close that one wears (appearance) or how the deck chairs are arranged.  It goes deep down into the core.

That's where one starts.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Rearranging the Deck Chairs (Part 2)

It's easy to criticize (see earlier post about critics).  However, it's much less easy to offer constructive points about what one believes will result in plugging the holes that are making a ship sink.  In the church, it's a monumental task.  Church isn't like a business.  In the business world, if a person is mismanaging things, the person can be readily fired and someone else can be hired.  New blood can be infused within a matter of months if a company is willing to do what is necessary.  There might be a few emotional strings that get pulled, but in the business world, it's cut-throat.

The church is slightly (ahem) different.  For one, it's a volunteer organization.  No one has to belong to it, and you can't simply fire someone if you believe they are not doing the right things.  Furthermore, everyone has their own ideas about what the church should and should not be doing.  It doesn't matter if you hold a PhD in theology or if you have an eighth grade education and are reading the Bible on your own, everyone has a particular interpretation of what Christianity is all about.  This can make things very, very difficult.

For instance, let's look at a particular Biblical text.  Here's a familiar one from Jesus in Matthew chapter 5:

39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Now, taken as the plain reading of the text, Jesus calls his followers to be rather passive when it comes to dealing with violence.  If someone strikes us, rather than retaliate, we are called to offer the other cheek as well giving an invitation for someone to hit us back.  Kind of makes us look like pushovers when it comes to our lives of faith, but that is a straightforward interpretation.

But let's add a few layers given to us by those who have done some more study about the time and place where Jesus spoke these words.  According to many biblical scholars, this text is far from a passive act.  In the Mid-Eastern culture, when someone struck you with their left hand (striking someone on the right cheek), they were hitting you with the hand that was considered unclean.  The left hand was the hand used to clean yourself after taking a crap.  If someone slugged you with that hand, they were basically telling you, "You aren't worth crap."

Jesus says, "If someone slaps you with their left hand and calls you crap.  Offer them your other cheek instead.  Make them treat you as an equal."  Furthermore, inviting someone to strike you on the left cheek is inviting someone to deal you a death blow.  That puts the person who struck you in an awkward position.  Dare they strike you and kill you for a minor ordeal?  Dare they bring shame upon themselves in such a manner?  What does one do with a person who is not afraid of death and invites you to go ahead and take their life?  Would you want to be responsible for striking down a defenseless person?

Seen in this manner, Jesus call to turn the other cheek is not a simple, passive action that allows Christians to be walked over.  Instead, it's a call for dignity.  Pretty impressive. 

But, now is the tricky part.  Which interpretation is the right one?  If one does not have the scholarly background to know all the details of what was going on in Jesus' day, is that person wrong?  Tricky isn't it? 

This is one of the reasons we have doctrine in the church.  We have a set of beliefs and principles that guide us in how we interpret scripture, how we live a Christian life, and the beliefs which we believe are most important.  Each church has some sort of doctrine which helps it govern itself.

In my opinion, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has strayed far and wide from it's historical, Lutheran doctrine.  We have done so in many, many ways.

In the above instance in interpretation of scripture, the ELCA has chosen to go with scholarly interpretation.  Now, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that; however, such a choice actually flies in the face of the founders of the Lutheran church.

Martin Luther argued that the plain reading of the Biblical text in the language of those who were reading was the primary way scripture should be interpreted.  Luther dealt with a church that kept common, lay people ignorant of what was in scripture.  Scholars and priests held more authority, and the ultimate authority of scripture was the pope.  As Luther delved into church history, he saw how scholars repeatedly disagreed.  He saw how popes disagreed.  He saw the potential for abuse of scripture in this manner as well as only a few had actual knowledge of what the Bible said.  There was no checks and balances.  Therefore, Luther argued vehemently that the plain reading of the biblical text should be the most authoritative.  There was nothing wrong with biblical scholarship, per se, but when push came to shove, the plain reading should carry the day.

The leadership and many clergy in the ELCA do not adhere to such principles today.  Instead of inviting people to read the plain language of the text and become inspired to make their own interpretations, scholars are referred to and arguments are based upon appeals to such authority rather than the authority of the Holy Spirit.  This has led to some very confused lay folks within our congregations.  They see something written in plain language before them, hear a very different interpretation, and become very confused as to what is true and what isn't. 

When confusion reigns in this manner, no one knows what to do when the ship starts sinking.

As I look at the current state of the ELCA, my beloved church, I believe the first step in radically changing course is a return to the plain reading of the biblical text.  Such a move will allow lay and clergy to come together on a level playing field without scholarly pretenses. 

However, that playing field does have its set of rules as well.  More on that next post.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rearranging the Deck Chairs (Part 1)

Just over half way into the NFL season this year, and my Cowboys...in a word...suck.

It's been highly disappointing to watch this team, loaded with talent, underachieve with gusto.  Watching the Cowboys play this year (aside from the one game I attended) has been worse than watching a train wreck.  I and I only say worse because you can't take your eyes off a train wreck.  Believe me, you can definitely take your eyes off the Cowboys and not miss a dang thing.

I've listened all year for the calls from fellow fans to fire Wade Philips the Cowboys' head coach.  I've heard calls to fire Jason Garrett, the Cowboys' offensive (double entendre anyone) coordinator.  I've seen folks say that certain players should be cut, benched, etc.  Yep, there has pretty much been an outcry about doing anything and everything to this team because of its performance, or lack there of this season.

However, in my opinion, all such maneuvers are simply rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.  Let's move some of the furniture around to make things look better even though the darn ship is sinking.  Never mind the gigantic, gaping hole in the ship.  Let's make it at least look good.

Of course, yours truly believes the problem with the Cowboys goes straight to the top.  As aggressive a businessman and as good for the totality of the NFL as Jerry Jones has been, he has not done too well as a team general manager.  Don't know if he really and truly can look in the mirror and face that fact, but to many in the sports world, it's as obvious as the nose on your and my face.

If we really expect anything out of the Cowboys in the future, there's going to have to be more than a simple change in coaches or players.  There will have to be a radical shift in how business is done, beginning with the man at the top--Jerry Jones. 

Now, I am not suggesting that he fire himself or sell the team.  Far from it.  A good leader recognizes when it is time to shift gears and head in a different direction.  A good leader recognizes when a different kind of leadership style is appropriate.  A good leader knows when to pull back and push forward.  A good leader knows when to let others do their jobs and stick to his or her own.  Jerry Jones would do well to realize such a thing and begin looking in the mirror first and foremost when it comes to his team.  Anything else would simply be rearranging the deck chairs.

I know this isn't a sports blog, and thus far, I am writing about a sport's team and offering my "professional" opinion about such a thing.  Yet, there is a very real connection with what is going on in the church of which I am a part: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

At times, I feel like I am on the Titanic.  For those who are not familiar, the ELCA since its inception has seen a steady downward trend in worship attendance and growth.  It has bought into a particular mind set and followed the course stubbornly--to its detriment.

As if the church wasn't having enough issues in losing members and resources, folks at the national assembly a year ago in August voted to add another hole to the ship's hull.  Not surprisingly, the ship started sinking faster.

And what has been the response?  Have we tried to take a good hard look at ourselves and the things we are doing and not doing?  Nope. 

Instead, many keep trying to defend our actions and act like nothing is wrong.  We keep pushing the same things over and over again, and we keep expecting different results.  But we keep sinking.

So, we will move the deck chairs around.  We'll tinker with the church structure a little bit here and there.  We may have to downsize the national and synodical offices.  But we won't tinker with the core. 

Hello!  The ship's still going down!

Then, we'll try to make things look good.  I kid you not.  At one recent Synod Assembly, they were showing charts of the continuing decline in worship attendance and membership.  The speaker looked at the charts and said something to the effect of, "Many folks would panic by seeing such a thing, but I see an opportunity.  I don't think there's anything to panic about."

Hmmm.  I wonder if they say such things in IBM or Wal-Mart in the board room when they see downward trends in profits and sales?  Not that the church is a business, but I'm just asking.

The ship's still sinking.

Fortunately, as a whole, the church is doing pretty well.  It's growing rapidly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  Millions of people are coming to believe in Christ all over the world.  The vast majority are flocking to churches that have a strong sense of identity, a strong sense of purpose, and are orthodox in their teaching and practice.

Not so in my beloved Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Part of it is we have no shared, strong identity.  We have no strong sense of purpose despite what the website and those in positions of authority would say.  And we darn sure aren't orthodox in our belief and practice.  It's a recipe for disaster, one that we are already experiencing.

The ship is sinking.

I, for one, am tired of rearranging deck chairs.  I think it's time for my church to start examining the core principles and beliefs of what it means to be a Lutheran Christian.  I think it's time for my church to stop trying to be all things to all people and dig down into the roots of what made it special at its inception. 

What are those things? 

I'll delve into that next post.

All Saints Sermon: A Special Tribute to My Grandmother

This past December, my family buried my grandmother. She had lived a long life. She was 93 when she died, and she did not die unexpectedly. She had numerous health issues and complications which led to her death. It was how things were supposed to happen as far as death is concerned.

I know this might seem a little morbid with me starting this sermon talking about death, but just wait. I’ll get to the point a little later, and I hope you will not be disappointed.

I have been keeping a family blog for several years, and since I have been keeping it, I have started a tradition of writing an extended piece about any of my or my wife’s close family who die. I did it for Dawna’s Nanaw, her Granny, but when my grandmother died, for the first time, I wrote about one of my own kinfolks. It was rather difficult trying to condense almost 36 years of memories into several paragraphs, but I did. And as I wrote, something popped into mind from the days I was in junior high and high school.

Most of us grandkids were thrilled with growing taller. Grandma and Grandpa lived first in North Dakota and then in Arkansas. We got to see them perhaps once a year, and I remember every year I would go up to grandma to see how tall I had gotten since the last time I had seen her. My excitement grew as each year I was closer and closer to being taller than she was. It’s not like it was that great of an accomplishment because grandma wasn’t that tall, but we thought we were hot stuff the closer and closer we came to reaching that magical goal of being taller than grandma.

As I thought of this, I reflected on how grandma was a measuring stick for me at that time. I was measuring myself in relationship to her–in height. But as I continued to think about my grandmother and her life, I found myself measuring in a different manner–in a manner not governed by height, but in faith.

You see, my grandmother was a clergy spouse. Grandma faithfully stood by my grandfather’s side as he moved from town to town across the country to preach God’s Word to people. He preached here in Texas just up the road in Greenvine. He moved to Arizona and New Mexico. He finished up his ministry in North Dakota, and grandma stood by him and raised four children to boot. She worked diligently to instill faith in those children: to help them learn to love God and others just like she did. And not only did she teach her children the importance of faith, her faith led her in life.

Grandma was extremely conservative when it came to morals. She never allowed any of her children to cuss or even come close to it. In fact, my mom told me over and over again that she wasn’t even allowed to say the word "Gosh" as she was growing up. Grandma believed that was just a little too close to taking the Lord’s name in vain. Grandma wasn’t too fond of what happened in the 1960's either. She’d rail against the loose living that she saw then and continued to see as she aged. She wasn’t too fond of many of the changes she saw happening in the ELCA, and eventually she and my grandfather joined the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Her morals were that important to her.

But Grandma’s faith led her to be much more than a moral person. Grandma had copious amounts of compassion. When living in North Dakota, she was trained and then volunteered for the local EMS service. She’d don a very ugly orange hoodie, jump on her bike, and speed down to the station to help folks out. She very much enjoyed doing it. She was generous to a fault at times. My grandparents helped out numerous charities and organizations, and they were particularly fond of an Indian reservation just an hour and a half drive from their home. They spent many volunteer hours there as well as many dollars. They never bragged about what they were doing, but they were proud of the mission work done at that reservation and proud to be a part of it. Grandma also helped out at a local thrift store ministry called "Helping Hands." She donated a lot of stuff there, and she bought most of her clothing there as well. She didn’t need new stuff, and she knew what the store was trying to accomplish with not only providing low cost stuff for the area poor, but because that thrift shop also gave money to help folks make ends meet.

Thinking about all this stuff and much more really got me thinking about my grandmother as a different kind of measuring stick–a measuring stick of how I am living my life. For even though she wasn’t directly teaching me and telling me what it meant to be a Christian, she was showing it through and through in her actions. And I confess that I learned an awful lot from my grandmother.

Why am I sharing so much about my grandmother this morning? Why am I talking about how much she taught me in my life? Well, today we celebrate All Saints Sunday. It’s the day of the church year when we remember those who have lived and died in the faith who set us an example of what it means to live and to die in service to Jesus Christ. These saints are very important in our lives for I would argue that not a single one of us who is here this morning has learned about what it means to follow Christ on our own. I would argue that each and every one of us here this morning has had at least one family member or friend teach us invaluable lessons about what it means to live a life of faith. Most of us have had more than one such person in our lives and today is the day in the church year set aside to remember what they have taught us. For the lessons they teach are invaluable.

St. Paul indicates this in our second lesson this morning from the 2nd Chapter of 2nd Thessalonians when he writes, "13But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter."

Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions you were taught. Now, some of you might say, "But pastor, aren’t we always learning new things about our faith? I mean, I’ve heard you say a few things that were different from what I was taught growing up. Which one is right? Should I hold fast to what I was taught then or should I hold fast to what you are teaching now?"

To this I would say: I believe there are essential things that we must hold onto, and there are other things that we can debate and disagree on. We are learning all the time and sometimes the things we learn do change. For instance, I am sure that some of your grandparents and maybe some of your parents here cultivated their land with a plow drug by a mule. Some of you may have even been taught how it was done. And how many of you want to give up your tractors to go back to plowing with a mule? Didn’t think so. There are traditions and things that we have learned that become outdated; however there are other, core things that we should hold as fast and as tightly as we possibly can.

For instance, when it comes to belief in Jesus Christ, can anyone dispute that we shouldn’t hold onto that as tightly as we possibly can? When it comes to understanding that Jesus loves us and died for us, shouldn’t we hold onto that too? These are essential parts of our faith, after all. And shouldn’t we hold onto what we have been taught about having compassion to others? Shouldn’t we hold onto the teachings we have been taught that all are children of God and we should treat each other as we would like to be treated? Of course. There is no dispute about such things, and from the saints, both living and dead, we see examples of how these things are done. We learn how we can also do such things in our lives, and finally, we teach others to do them as well.

Perhaps each of you here this morning has your own measuring stick–a person who has shown you what it is to live a life of faith. Hold onto what you have been taught, and let us thank God this morning for sending such people into our lives. Amen.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lightening Strikes Twice

What are the bloody odds?

For the second time this year, our church office has gotten struck by lightening frying much of the computer equipment and our laser printer.

Is God sending us a message?  Are we not doing something right as a church?

It's easy to fall into such questioning.  When something goes wrong or we face a tragedy of some sort, it is natural to begin asking the "why" questions.  And it is also natural to begin looking at the things one does as the reason why such things happen.

Sometimes, there is a correlation.  For instance, if you smoke three packs a day for many years and you get lung cancer, don't be surprised.  If you drive while intoxicated and get into an accident, well...  If you try to discipline your children while driving and run into the ditch...  There are indeed many things that happen that are our responsibility caused by our behaviors.

However, there are many things that happen just because they happen.  There is no rhyme or reason for it.  It's tempting to blame ourselves or blame God.  It's tempting to think we have done something wrong...broken God's commandment or something.

Yet, the good news is God no longer strikes us with punishment when we are doing things wrong.  Yep.  You heard me right.  God doesn't do it.  We reap the consequences of our own actions, but God doesn't discipline us anymore.  Need proof?

It's about God's grace.  St. Paul makes it abundantly clear in the book of Galatians:

23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

Did you catch that part about the law not being our disciplinarian anymore?  Did you catch how God now relates to us? 

God treats us as adult children.  He knows we're going to do things that He doesn't want us to do, but He gives us that freedom.  He gives us the ability to screw our own lives up.  He's no longer going to try and correct us at every turn and treat us like a two year old.  He wants a more mature relationship.

That's hard to do.  Face it.  We like telling others what to do and what we believe should be right.  We like believing we have the answers.  We don't really want to give others freedom.  We like hanging around people who are just like us and agree with most of what we have to say.  We'll cut off very quickly from those who don't tell us what we want to hear.  It's human nature, but it's not God's nature.

God doesn't punish.  God doesn't cut off.  God loves.  He doesn't approve of everything we do, but He certainly isn't going to stop caring for us.

That's why I don't believe He caused the lightening to hit our church.  Even if it's struck twice.

Monday, November 1, 2010

As Promised: The Rest of the Sermon

Gospel: John 8: 31-3631Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." 33They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?" 34Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

Just about everyone knows what is happening this Tuesday. It’s election day, and if the experts are correct, voter anger will carry the Republican party to retake the House of Representatives and make substantial gains in the Senate. It’s a stark change from two years ago, when, once again, voter anger, carried the Democrats to win the White House and a super-majority in Congress. The prior election cycle, voter anger carried Democrats to win power in both the House and Senate, which they had not held since 1994. Are you seeing a pattern here?

In each of these elections, voter anger seems to be the key, and, with the exception of Texas (at least according to the Houston Chronicle), voters are angry. All you have to do is turn on the television to see it. Lines are drawn. Ideology reigns. Even though I believe most folks are actually quite moderate when it comes to how they would like to see this country run, it is the extremes which grab the headlines. You are either liberal or conservative. There is no middle ground. You are either for us or against us.

Can such anger be good for our nation? I mean, on the one hand, anger can be a tremendous motivating force. It can propel us to do the right things. It can give us the impetus to make a difference when we see things that aren’t right. For instance, the other day, Dawna and I took our kids to a park to let them run off some energy. While we were there, I witnessed something that made me angry. There was a little boy playing at the park who obviously had some mental issues. I won’t go into all the details, but he did several things that made it abundantly obvious that he suffered from mental illness. There was another kid at the park who was being absolutely merciless to him. I watched this other kid put the mentally challenged kid in a headlock and hurt him. Then, as the two of them were swinging next to each other, the kid went up to the mentally challenged one and without cause, hit him in the back.

Anger boiled up within me. I looked at him and said, "Do you really like being a bully?"

The kid was shocked. "I do it all the time at home," he said.

I looked at him and said, "That doesn’t make it right."

At least for the rest of the time I was there, the kid made no more moves to harm the mentally challenged kid. Anger can be a force for good.

But let me be quick to say, anger can be a force for good only if it is tempered and motivated by compassion. I think that’s what my anger was motivated by. I was angry because I had compassion on the kid getting picked on, and I think I was being compassionate on the bully as well. Bullies have to learn to curb their behavior or else they are looking at a lifetime of trouble. Perhaps I made this kid think for just a few moments–at least I hope so.

Unfortunately, I think much of the anger we are seeing in our society today is not driven by compassion. Much of the anger I see is driven by the desire to control and have power. I know most would probably argue with me about that comment. But I will stand by it. Why would I say such a thing?

Well, let’s take one hot button issue that Congress dealt with this past year: healthcare. Those who were in favor of it would argue vehemently that they were coming from the perspective of compassion. "It is a travesty," they would say, "that folks are being denied healthcare because they cannot afford it, and people are losing everything because of health related costs." Now, I can’t argue with such a statement. It indeed is seeped in compassion. However, if you ask many of these folks what the would say to someone who doesn’t agree with their stance, how do they respond? Do they respond with understanding and compassion toward those who have a different take? Or do they tend to name call and berate them as hard hearted and callous?

But, now, let’s swing to the other side of the issue. There are many who did not want any of the healthcare reforms, and on what basis did they argue? There was the call that government tends to be extremely inefficient, and that would dely care to those who need it. Pointing to other governments who have installed such healthcare, they point to waiting lines for treatment that most folks can get immediately easing suffering and pain. And there is an argument for cost since our national debt is climbing. They argue that having such healthcare is meaningless if our country goes broke trying to implement it. It could be said that each of these arguments is indeed based in compassion. Yet, how do such folks react when confronted by others who have a differing viewpoint? Do they act with compassion or call the others idiots who want to destroy the best healthcare system on the planet?

I would argue that those who are coming from a perspective of compassion seek not only the best for all who are suffering, they also seek to understand and have compassion for those whom they disagree with. Yes, you heard me correct: those who are angry with compassion not only seek to correct perceived wrongs, but they act compassionately towards those who disagree with their perspectives. As hard as it may be, they do not name call or shut down conversation. They willingly hold onto their own position but freely allow someone else to disagree. By enacting such a stance, their anger continues to motivate them to do the things they believe as right, but they do not become a slave to their anger. I personally believe many who are angry today are slaves to that anger.

Contrast this with what Jesus says in John chapter 8, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." 33They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?" 34Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."

Anger which is not seeped in compassion is sinful. It causes a person to demonize the other and leads to polarization. This is probably why Jesus taught us to love our enemies. He knew how anger can enslave us.
Unfortunately, even our churches are governed in anger. Many are polarized as people draw lines over issues within. People can no longer disagree or criticize each other. "If you don’t agree with my position, I’m not going to talk to you, work with you, give my offering to the church, involve myself in any activities, etc." Honestly, is this kind of anger condoned by Christ? Is this the kind of action we wish to put forth as the church?

What if, just what if the church operated differently? What if the church was a place where folks from different sides of the political aisle, where folks from both sides of the ideological spectrum could come together and interact together without animosity? What if the church were a place where folks could talk about issues, lay out their arguments, disagree vehemently, and still walk away knowing and loving those with whom they disagree? What kind of an example could we set for a nation that seems to be polarized over issue after issue after issue? Can the church be a place where anger is tempered with compassion and where liberals and conservatives can hold onto their respective ideology and yet worship together in one accord?

493 years ago, today, a German monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed several pieces of paper to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. He was concerned about a church that was not being faithful to Scripture. It was abusing its position of power by taking advantage of people–by scaring them into believing they were headed straight to hell. In order to avoid punishment, they could buy their way to heaven. Luther called for major reforms to get back to the basics of what the church was called to proclaim. Salvation did not come by buying one’s way into heaven. Instead, it came solely by the grace of God. The call for reform took root in the church, and the church continues to strive to be faithful to the one who calls us and claims us as his own.

I believe we need to continue to recognize this. I believe as a church we need to be a reforming church, and perhaps, just perhaps one of the ways we are called to be reforming in this time and place is by showing how folks from all ideological backgrounds can come together in one accord, united by something greater than personal ideology. We are united by the love and grace of God. We are united by our heavenly Father. We are brothers and sisters. Let us disagree. Let us be angry, but let us be governed by compassion as we seek to be God’s people in this time and place. Amen.