Monday, January 25, 2016

Saturday, January 23, 2016

After All These Years

I have been putting off retirement these past three years.  Wayne Dyer once wrote, "When you are what you do when you don't you aren't."  I must admit I have become what I do, but then what I do is so wonderful I have not minded that...until now.

So after 44 years of ministry I will take the next step and see what is out there.  At a seminar I went to a few years ago when I thought I was going to retire sooner entitled ,"Finishing Strong, Ending Well," the leader said, "Do not ask what you are going to do when you retire.  Ask rather who you will be."  Quite frankly I am not sure I know the answer to that question.

I have loved sharing the gifts that God has given me in the work of ministry.  I used to tell first year pastors in a program I helped lead called, "The Art of the Start," that if you chose ministry as a job then you are in the wrong "work" because ministry is not a job it is a life.  Having said that I would then say to these idealistic-save the world for Jesus-newbies, "But you are responsible for carving out a life within that life for you and your family.  If you do not do that you will get lost doing the "work" of ministry and you will not take care of yourself or your family."

I could say those words because in my younger years I did some of that.  I gave myself to the work too much.  O, I did a good job and was rewarded for it in many ways.  But there were times I walked out on my family when I did not have to because of the "job."  I learned the hard way not to do that.

Ministry is a scared journey.  People allow you into parts of their lives where no one else can go.  You are there at  beginnings and at sometimes tragic endings.  The raw materials of life are part of the ongoing work of being a pastor.  You literally hold people's hearts and lives in your hands.  It can be scary for sure and as a young pastor I was frightened that I would not measure up.

I thought I had to have answers for questions that seemed to have no answers.  I figured I had to be some kind of strong to overcome the vulnerability and pain that I often had to walk into.  Then good old God whispered in my ear, "Just be there and help them know I am there with them and you.  No need to answer questions.  Hold on to them and I will hold on to you."

And that is why I believe in God.  It is not all the education and the experience.  I believe because I have felt the unseen, powerful presence of a God who is beneath our questions and who holds us up when life lets us down.

I wish I had kept a count of how many babies I have baptized, how many youth I have confirmed, how many funerals I have conducted, how many sermons I have preached; but alas I am not a record keeper.  But I know of one who has kept a kind of record.  The one who called out to a seventeen year old boy one night and literally held his hands out to me and asked me to be a minister has known of all those experiences because he was there...and that is what matters.

So now it is time to take one last trip toward a land that seems to be a strange land but I shall step toward that place trusting the one who has lead me for all these years.  "All will be well," I hear him whisper.  For sure Jesus knows I sometimes have trouble trusting.  I thought years ago I would have to get out of the ministry because of my struggle with trust, but then the one who called my name simply said, "Give it up.  I knew who you were when I called you and I know who you are now.  I know you have doubts and struggles but I know what I am doing...I am not yourself and you will be able to especially help others who are struggling."

And that has been my gift; to stand with those who ask questions and let them know it is OK . To assure them that the doubts and questions are in fact a part of the journey.  My latest book just published has always been "in" me.  I was reluctant to write it before I retired but decided to risk it.  It has been a joy to hear people tell me how reassuring it was for them. (The Christian Skeptic: Caught Between Belief and Doubt)

I am so thankful to have been a part of so many people's lives.  I am so grateful to have had the high 
privilege of standing in  front of people to offer words about and "old, old story" that is alive and far reaching.  Not many ministers get to serve the kinds of churches I have been fortunate enough to serve.  What a journey it has been.  Thank you Jesus for calling that seventeen year old boy and not giving up on him when he doubted.  You knew what you were doing when I did not.

Now it is time for the next step...and yes I have some trust issues...what's new, huh.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

I was not in my church this past Sunday to share my broken heart over what happened in Charleston so I want to offer something now.  I thought of something I wrote years ago in my first book.  I opened the book and read my own words.  I want offer them to you as a way of expressing what really can’t be expressed:
Colored Water
“Colored” read the sign above the fountain whose
water I had drunk.
Would I be sick from drinking “colored” water?
For I was a “white only”
though but a child.

I asked a big person,
but my mistaken drink was washed away with
So I waited to see if I would turn ill,
or perhaps “colored”
for no one would say.

There was only laughter at my childish question
and the strange word “nigger” tossed about
like a toy-
some strange enjoyment I did not understand.

Now I am a “big person” with no signs to read above
And my children wonder when I tell them the
colored water story,
For they do not understand how water could
make people sick

            The signs may be gone that read “colored…and white only” but it seems the sickness lingers.  O God, shower us with healing water.  May your son touch our eyes and make us truly color blind. 
            All I know is that I want us all to work harder to make sure that the water we all drink does not make our souls sick.  Let us recommit ourselves to work for justice for all people.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Sermon I preached on human sexuality in our Crucial Conversation Series

Sermon 012515
The Law of Love Can Save Us
Romans 13: 8-10

            Well this is going to be the easiest or hardest sermon I have ever preached.  Let’s try the easy version first:
                        Treat everyone with the kindness you would like to receive. Love everybody
                                    Follow Jesus and welcome those whom he would welcome.
                                                (then I sit down)

            (Then I get back up)
            Ok now comes the hard version.  According to the criteria Steve laid out last week as he introduced our Crucial Conversations sermon series a crucial conversation has three elements:  opposing opinions, strong emotions, and high stakes.
            To say that those elements are present in the conversation about human sexuality including the issue of homosexuality is an understatement.  I have already heard from a number of you and I haven’t even got to the subject yet.
            Let me tell you something about a sermon first.  A sermon is not supposed to be just my opinion nor is it to share my strong emotions that I may have on this subject.  And you can bet that I am not stupid when it comes to the reality that for a least some of you the stakes are high.
            I could, because I can, share with you simply my opinion on this issue.  If you have listened to me for these past 12 years you probably already surmise what it is.  But what kind of sermon can I preach that will not just be my view?
            I have struggled with this sermon and read more material than for any sermon I have ever preached.  I want to be everyone’s pastor and I want to offer Christ to all.  I learned long ago to preach the real gospel requires relinquishing the need I have for everyone to like me or agree with me.
            So here goes:  Let me first start with a poem that means a lot to me:
The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
            Whether it should be or not this issue for some is a kind of watershed.  I will tell you that I learned this week from all my reading that I did from all sides of this debate that there are good, well meaning Christians on both sides of this discussion.
            Some think that this issue will cause the United Methodist Church to divide.  I am reminded that often when I type the words “United Methodist Church,” I instead type “untied” instead of “united.”  Up until recently I thought that was just a typo.  Are we going to come untied because of this?
            If so it will break my heart.  As I came up with the sermon title for today I started to put it in the form of a question; “Can the Law of Love Save Us?”  I hope that what I instead came up with can be true; The Law of Love Can Save Us.
            The same man who wrote some of those verses that are often use to support the view that homosexuality is not God’s will for people is the same man who wrote the verses I am using today.  Paul says clearly that all the commandments are summed up in one word:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself…Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
            The law of love can save us.  Can we disagree and still love enough to stay in the same church while realizing that we may never agree fully on this issue?  Real love is not a feeling.  In the old version of the bible that was written in Latin love was translated as “charity.”  Charity has come to mean something different in our culture but its real meaning is “to relate to other people with genuine heartfelt care and compassion.”
            Karl Barth, an imminent biblical scholar once wrote that, “Love of one another ought to be undertaken as a protest against the course of this world.”  Can we allow the law of real love to save us from dividing the church of Jesus Christ?  If we go the way of the world we just might divide over this.
            If we do we will announce to a generation under 40, many of whom think we should be over this issue and see the church as a judgmental club that excludes gay and lesbian people, that we can’t handle dissonance within our ranks.  They will see us as a group of people who want to be right even though the place where we take our stand is the earlier poem sates is “hard and trampled like a yard.”     
            We will I fear end up being like that ruined house the poem refers to.  I believe the law of love can save us.
            As I was reading and praying over this sermon I went to see the movie “The Imitation Game.”  The movie is about Alan Turing who was responsible for breaking the Enigma Code that Germany used in WWII.  It is estimated that by doing this he may have shorted the war by two years and saved as many as 14 million lives.
            Yet later he was convicted in Britain of homosexual crimes and given the choice to go to prison or take hormonal treatments to change his sexual status.  After a year of the treatments he took his own life.
            Knowing that I would be preaching this sermon as sat there at the end of the movie when those words came across the screen my eyes filled with tears.  How could we as a people do this to one of God’s children? 
            I work with people all the time who deal with shame.  I tell them that guilt is about what you do.  Guilt can be good if it motivates us to improve.  But shame is not about what we do it is about who we are.
            Shame has driven many persons who have same sex attractions to places of deep darkness.  I have never met a person who is gay or lesbian who told me that they chose to be who they are.
            Does anyone in this room know why you are the kind of sexual being you are?  I do not.  It is a mystery.  Many studies have been done about how we came to be the kind of sexual person we are.  It seems after my reading this week that both sides of this conversation find the studies that will support their point of view about the origins of our human sexuality.
            So I want this to be a sermon and not a lecture but I need to lay out what I see as the reason for the divide we have not only in the church but in the larger culture.  The two big doors through which people walk through when it comes to understanding human sexuality are the bible and what it means to be made in the image of God.
            Let’s do the bible first although they both relate.  There are five references to what we call homosexuality in the scriptures.  Many biblical scholars think that the practices referred to cannot be equated with today’s understanding of homosexuality.  Some of them refer to perversions related to sexual power issues.
            I am not going to go into the details because this is not the forum to do so nor do I have the time.  The bible is clearly negative in its stance about these practices but scholars disagree as to the nature of those acts as compared to the reality today of two people with same sex attraction who are in a committed long term relationship.  Those kinds of long term committed relationship are simply not mentioned in our scriptures.
            One person I read this week took exception to the elevation of the need for hospitality in the church that welcomes all.  He stated that hospitality does not trump the need for holiness.  The issue is what Christians say are the criteria for holiness.
            Those few verses are used to bolster what it means to be unholy.  Part of this crucial conversation comes back to what is the bible.
            I have told you before that the bible should not be viewed as a brick.  A brick is created by mixing a substance together and pouring it into a mold to make a brick.  The bible is not made of the same substance.  It contains poetry, allegory, history, law, even short stories.
            The bible is more like a quilt put together over years by a grandmother who has saved various patches from years past that represent her family.  The quilt is hand sown so is not even like a machine might make it.  Some of the patches require interpretation of the story behind the reason the patch is incorporated into the quilt.
            No one liked Uncle Frank but his patch was put into it because he was part of the family and his story is part of the family narrative.  The quilt was created to tell the family story.
            Adam Hamilton, the pastor or the largest Methodist Church in America, and a prolific writer, has wrestled with this issue when it comes to the bible and offers a view similar to my image.
            Hamilton states that when we read and interpret scripture there are three broad categories that could be thought of as buckets into which we can place those scriptures.  The biggest bucket is one that could be labeled those that reflect the timeless will of God for human beings; like Love your neighbor as yourself.”
            The second bucket could for those passages that reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time including much of the ritual law of the Old Testament.  The third bucket are passages that reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will like those related to slavery.
            So where would the question of loving and committed relationships between same sex people be put.  Hamilton states from his experience in the church that conservatives on this issue believe they fit into the first bucket which reflects God’s timeless will.  Those who are sometimes called moderates or progressive believe they fit into the second of more likely the third bucket.
            I wonder can we in the United Methodist church stay together while disagreeing about our buckets.  Can the law of love save us?

            Another door to walk through is what does it mean to be created in the image of God.  My friends, and they are friends, in the clergy who consider themselves true conservatives say that to be created in the image of God means that we are created male and female for each other.  To differ in the attraction that ends up being called homosexual is to diverge from God’s intended natural order.
            Others point to a reality that human sexuality is gift from God and if that is true if a person ends up being a person who feels that he or she should be with a person like them rather than different from them then this is part of God’s natural order.
            In terms of both the bible and what it means to be made in the image of God noted biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann was asked about this issue.  Here is how he responded:
The discussion needs to start with what it means to be made in the image of God. The confession of Christian faith is that all of God’s human creatures are made in the image of God. That means that they are to be treated with dignity, offered maintenance and security, as is necessary. There’s almost no use arguing over biblical text.
The only thing that will change people’s minds about this is getting to know people who happen to be gay or lesbian or bisexual, and what you discover is that they’re people just like us. To overcome our fears, I think it is basically fear, means getting to know people and to see that they are not a threat. There may be people with those sexual differences whom we like or whom we don’t like, but they’re all made in the image of God. To stereotype them negatively, it seems to me, is a complete misunderstanding of Christian faith.
I know those texts are in the Bible, but the Bible is a dynamic tradition that’s always on the move to new truth. If you track that out, probably the ultimate statement about that is made by Paul in Galatians 3, that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Greek nor Barbarian, slave or free. We are all one in Christ. And what we know in the gospel is that God’s love reaches toward all of God’s creatures. To sort them out in terms of who are the deserving and the qualified and who are not is imposing a judgment on human reality that simply cannot be done.
But some Christians fear disobeying God when it comes to LGBTQ issues. Because of what the Bible says, they fear that they are compromising the gospel.
Well, what we do is to pick and choose things out of the Bible that conform to our fears. It’s not a matter of obeying the Bible — it’s about obeying the gospel. The gospel is about God’s saving love that wants to restore all of humanity to full communion. To reach back to an ancient text that has now been corrected by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is simply a bad maneuver and poor methodology and theologically irresponsible. Those texts are not the determinative texts.
The texts that are determinative are those that talk about the love of God that has been shown to us in Jesus. We can’t compromise that.

            It is true that in the bible marriage is defined as between a man and a woman.  The bible though does not deal with the reality of two committed people who are of the same sex.
            People who walk through those two doors of scripture and image of God walk through the doors but end up with differing views.  Can the law of love save us?
            The United Methodist Church did a study in 1994.  After much biblical study and talking with human sexuality professionals and many people both gay and straight they published their findings.  I want to share some of what they offered to the people called Methodist.
            Things the Church Can Responsibly Teach

In order to bring the results of our study into sharper focus, it may help to summarize our conclusions about some of the specific points we believe the church can responsibly teach on the subject of homosexuality.

Homosexuality is best considered in the context of a more general Christian understanding of human sexuality.

Human sexuality is God's good gift. Our fundamental attitude toward this gift should be more one of gratitude than of apprehension.

In the expression of our sexuality-as in the expression of all aspects of our existence, we are invited by God's grace to a life of love and self-discipline.

Sexual expression is most profoundly human when it takes place in the context of a caring and committed relationship where each partner can be an expression of God's grace for the other.

There are substantial numbers of persons of homosexual orientation within the church whose gifts and graces manifest the work of the Spirit among us.

The specific causes of homosexual orientation remain unclear, although various scientific theories about this contribute to our overall understanding.

It is a responsible expression of Christian ethics to advocate for those things that minimize the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and to support work toward adequate health care and research in these areas.

The basic human rights of gay and lesbian persons should be protected by the church, and the general stigmatizing of such persons is inappropriate in a church that understands all its members to be sinners who live by the power of God's grace. - In the church's own dialogue on this as well as other controversial issues, persons of conflicting viewpoint should respect one another, recognizing that before the mystery of God, our knowledge and insight remain partial and imperfect.
Things the Church Cannot Responsibly Teach

In the course of its study, the Committee has noted that advocates of various sides of the debate sometimes use arguments that ultimately cannot be supported. It may be helpful to review some of these:

The church cannot teach that the Bible is indifferent to homosexual acts. Although there are only a few passages where such are in view, in every one of those passages a negative judgment about homosexual practice is either stated or presumed.

The church cannot teach that all biblical references and allusions to sexual practices are binding today just because they are in the Bible. Specific references and allusions must be examined in light of the basic biblical witness and their respective sociocultural contexts.

The church cannot teach that certain sexual behaviors are morally acceptable just because they are practiced by substantial numbers of people, nor just because it corresponds to their subjective inclinations. Not all expressions of sexuality can be affirmed by the church as moral or life-enhancing. The basis of moral judgments among Christians is deeper than statistical headcounts or subjective feelings-even though statistical studies and subjective reports can be an important part of the process of forming moral judgments. This applies to both heterosexual and homosexual practices.

The church cannot teach that gay and lesbian persons are generally dysfunctional or characteristically preoccupied with sex-some are and some are not, just like their heterosexual counterparts.

The church cannot teach that gay and lesbian persons are prone to seduce or corrupt others-some are and some are not, again, just like their heterosexual counterparts.

The church cannot teach that the same percentage of every society is gay or lesbian. That is not borne out in the limited reputable cross-cultural studies. It does appear that homosexual relations exist in some form in all cultures studied.

The church cannot teach that sexual orientation is fixed before birth, nor can it teach that it is fixed only after birth. The scientific evidence is insufficient to allow a judgment either way, particularly considering the diverse types of both heterosexuality and homosexuality.

The church cannot teach that sexual orientation, either heterosexual or homosexual, is deliberately chosen. It is clear that substantial numbers of persons have experienced their sexual orientation from early childhood.

The church cannot teach that there is a single theory of homosexual orientation or behavior or, for that matter, of heterosexual orientation or behavior. No one theory is sufficiently supported by empirical evidence to be taught as generally accepted truth.

The church cannot affirm any sexual practice, heterosexual or homosexual, that is exploitative, casual, or physically threatening.

            So here we are.  Our United Methodist by line is as follows:  Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors:  The People of the United Methodist Church.  Will that be true?  Or we will be become the “untied” Methodist Church? 
            The law of love can save us.  We do not have to agree but we do have to love.  I want to serve a church where people do not have to hide in shame.  I want to serve a church that knows that we are all sinners in need of grace.  I want to serve a church where everyone is welcome and loved as children of God.  I want to serve a church where people of faith can disagree without being disagreeable.
            People are still getting over Pope Francis’ response when he was asked about his issue.  He smiled and said, “Who am I to judge.”  I heard one person respond, “Well you’re the Pope for Christ’s sake.”  Ah yes…ah yes…for Christ’s sake. 
            So we’ve heard from the Pope about the law of love. 
            What would Jesus do?
            I have tried to lift up in this sermon that people of faith see this issue from different perspectives.  Can we respect each others perspectives and stay united in love?  God is a God of infinite variety.  So let me close this most difficult sermon with the one I preached first:
            Treat everyone with the kindness you would like to receive. Love everybody
                                    Follow Jesus and welcome those whom he would welcome.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

God as Tiny Tim

God as Tiny Tim

            In the recent Exodus movie Moses ends up dialoguing with the Great I Am, otherwise known as God.  I will admit that for Hollywood it is a challenge to depict the Almighty but in this particular cinematic venture God is portrayed as a young boy whose face is often a bit grimy and who speaks with a British accent.
            That is a bit of a reach since in the Hebrew Bible God’s name could not even be written because it was so holy and removed from human reach.  The writers of the sacred text would substitute “adonai” or “Lord” instead of using the word “God.” 
            The filmmakers did not let such holy otherness get in the way so God comes off as a mixture of a young Jedi Master and Tiny Tim.  Actually believe it or not that is not the part that bothers me.  Portraying the divine has always been a bit of challenge and should be.
            It is what “the kid” does that concerns me.  After Tiny Tim convinces a reluctant Moses that he should return to Egypt to pronounce the famous “let my people go” speech, Moses goes back and decides the way to free the long pent up slaves is to teach them guerrilla warfare and how to shot bows and arrows from ever position possible.
            Tiny Tim is not pleased with this strategy.  It may be because according to my Bible such beat’em by armed might technique simply is not there.  So God gets mad and like an angry child tells Moses to bug off and get out of the way.  Of course that part is not in the original story either but remember the creators of this version never let the bible get in the way of a good story.
            When Moses shouts at Tiny Tim and asks how he is supposed to free the slaves without force “God” simply says, “I don’t want you to do anything.”  “What am I supposed to do then,” responds an astounded Moses.  With his best Jedi Master look God simply says, “Watch.”
            Then comes the part that is really troubling.  The plagues start happening like some wild video game.  The Nile turns red with blood because huge alligators that resemble something out of a bad Disney movie start chomping on unsuspecting Egyptian fishermen.  Then come a series of calamities all getting worse than the one before including frogs, flies, boils that no cortisone cream can soothe, hail like the size of softballs, and finally a shadow that comes over all of Egypt that looks very much like that scene in the War of the Worlds when the aliens overshadowed all the good people on earth.
            As the shadow passes over all the first born of Egypt have sudden cardiac arrests including Pharaoh’s prize possession, his only son.  It is truly awful.
            God comes off as a very spoiled kid who is used to having his way or else.  As a working theologian this kind of stuff is not good for business.  I have enough trouble trying to deal with “why bad things happen to good people” without movies like this making God out even more capricious and calculating than the original story implies.
            All this is to say that when I try to interpret the Old Testament to people who say something like, “How this angry and vengeful God can be the same God that Jesus calls “Abba, Father,” I tell them that the Old Testament is a bit like the Grand Canyon.  You cannot take one of the many layers and dig it out and then say, “Now this is the Old Testament.”   Quite frankly some of those layers need to be mined and explored.
            The realization that there are some newer layers on top is good to know also. Some of those early layers in the Old Testament are what you might call “heavily theologized” renditions of what happened.  It is often the theological view of the writers and editors that we witness when we hear the story. 
            This Christmas again we will hear the story of a God becoming a child.  This time it is not a Tiny Tim look alike but the real thing.  What this child ends up doing helps us take another look at those layers. It seems that one reason Jesus comes is to help us get a better picture of the real God.
            This child of Christmas does not say “watch” but asks us to participate in the healing of the nations rather than the destroying of them.  An historical examination of those plagues that were done with all those special effects by Hollywood can reveal some rather natural explanations of how those “natural disasters” may have happened rather than being the result of a vengeful, angry God who acts like a spoiled child.
            If you want to wrestle with what the Bible means and not just what it says for God’s sake, and I’m not using that phrase lightly, do not pay much attention to what you see on the big screen.  The recent Exodus movie makes for good special effects but the Bible needs to be viewed absent the popcorn version.
            I know God will appreciate that and Tiny Tim probably would too.  God bless us everyone.