03 August, 2017

Ask The Question, Part 4


We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on May 14th. Here is the fourth installment on responses to those questions. 

Why is the Number 40 found so often in the Bible?

The number “forty” is used over 100 times in the Old and New Testaments.  It is the traditional Hebrew number used to represent or stylize the completion of a time of difficulty and trial, during which faith is tested. 

  • There were 40 days and nights of rain that led to the flood and Noah use of the Ark (Genesis 6 – 8)
  • Joseph spent 40 days in mourning over the death of Jacob, his father (Genesis 50:1-2)
  • The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. (Exodus 16)
  • Moses was on the mountain at Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights after the golden calf incident and before returning with the “Law 2.0”. (Exodus 24)
  • Later in the narrative, Elijah spends 40 days and nights on the same mountain.
  • Jonah announces that Nineveh will be destroyed in 40 days unless they clean up their act  (Jonah 3). 
  • Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness before being tempted (the Synoptic Gospels)
  • There were 40 days between the Easter event and the Ascension (Acts 1:3).

  • In each of these examples, the period of 40 days or years was a time portrayed in the narrative as difficult and filled with challenge, pain, or trial.

    19 July, 2017

    Ask The Question, Part 3

    We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on May 14th. Here is the third installment on responses to those questions. 

    halalWhat is the purpose of the complicated dietary restrictions of Orthodox Jews and Muslims?   

    Kosher
    The dietary code of Judaism, Kashrut, is one of the pillars of Jewish religious life and virtually every aspect of eating and preparing food implicates some Jewish dietary law.  The dietary code of Islam distinguishes between  halāl, lawful, and harām, unlawful, foods; these laws have both similarities and differences from Kashrut, but is equally important to the followers of Islam.

    Why?  By following a specific dietary code, one is forced to remember to act out one’s faith every day. By following a specific dietary code – especially when interacting with others who are not of the same faith tradition – the believer makes a public statement about their faith and its importance to the believer. The dietary codes of a religion turn a mundane act of everyday existence into a holy and reverent act of worship.

    How these laws and codes came into existence is up for debate.  It may be that  these codes came into existence for health reasons; certainly the bottom feeders of the waters (shellfish, lobsters, scale-less fish), or the flesh of animals that eat carrion (pigs, vultures) – all forbidden by Kashrut – might pose a danger for the consumer, the allowed beef or goat can just as easily carry tapeworm or other parasites.  It may be that some of these codes were developed to promote ritual purity; the food eaten by the believer might bring the source-animal’s impure spirit into the consumer. 

    For those who follow these dietary restrictions, the reason the holy writings mandate these are less important.  The Quran and the Torah state that they are the ways of their respective faiths; law is law and is to be followed as faithfully as possible. And so they do.

    What constant reminder of your faith do you need to keep you seeing all of life through the eyes of God?  What discipline do you use to keep you ever mindful of the commandment to love God with all your heart, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself?  Do you have a daily discipline to prompt your faithfulness?

    22 June, 2017

    Ask the Question, Part 2

    We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on May 14th. Here is the second installment on responses to those questions.
     
    Why do some people quote the Bible when it suits them but don't follow all the "rules" in the 
    Bible?
       I cannot answer for all people, but I can respond for myself.  Everyone who reads the Bible with regularity has their favorite scriptures; most of us interpret the whole of the Bible through the lenses of our preferred readings. This is called one's "Canon within the Canon."  It is the filter through which we understand the faith.

       In the constitution of FCCLG quotes Matthew 22:37-39 when it states our purpose and covenant to be:
    We acknowledge our belief in Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior, and we take for our rule of life his great commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." We believe it is our privilege and duty to forward this teaching by union with those of like mind. We covenant to unite in this great mission of faith and service. We agree to maintain the institutions of the gospel, to promote the orderly administration of the life of the church, and to walk together in Christian love. We shall endeavor to fulfill these sacred obligations, God being our helper.
    It is likely that many who were raised within this congregation use the quote from Matthew 22:37-39 as their "Canon within the Canon."

      My Canon within the Canon is Micah 6:8:
    God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
    I read the rest of scripture and form my beliefs and practices around this verse.  That does not mean that I ignore other verses; I read them in light of this tenant: that we first do justice, love kindness, and be humble in all walks of life.

       The Old Testament books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus contain extrapolations and interpretations of the 10 Commandments; these number 637 laws.  

       Jesus knew these laws and realized they had become the focus of determining who was "in" and who was "out."  What was a simple code of 10 rules had become a millstone around the neck of people who sought to live within God's community and a source of exclusion.  He told people he had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.  His teachings emphasize God's extravagant love and inclusion.

       When asked which law is the greatest (of the 637 laws!), his reply in Matthew 22:37-39 encompasses the heart of the 10 commandments. 

       It is human nature to seek simple terms to understand complex ideas.  It is also a good debate technique to quote respected sources.  The problem with the Bible is that in it one can find justification for a lot of behavior - especially is one takes single sentences and short passages out of their context! 

       The best way that I know of to deal with individuals who choose to quote certain passages while ignoring the basic guidelines of faith is for each of us to know the Bible, to read it with regularity, to study it with others, and to learn as much about the social, literary, political and contextual contexts as possible.  Only then can we know for sure what is being appropriately quoted and what has been appropriated for reasons of ill.  And the added benefit is that we are more certain of what we believe and why we believe it.

    (Did you catch that subtle hint that everyone needs to be in Bible Study?) 

    08 June, 2017

    Ask the Question, Part 1

    We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on May 14th. Here is the first installment on responses to those questions.

    • How will our current budget deficit affect our future?
    • Where do we go from here? We have worked very hard to keep FCCLG vibrant and useful; where do we go from here? (There is so much good here now!)
    Budgets are a guide and a plan. The old saying goes that when we make plans, God laughs! I've never taken a journey where I did not have to readjust my plans for one reason or another; likewise, we will readjust our plans and move forward with our ministries.

    Where we've been:

    In planning the income side of the church's budget, we use statistical data from a five year trend that includes member giving through pledges, unpledged income, and loose offering; the current property sharing covenants, and the previous year's investment income. This year, we overestimated what friends and members would pledge. Our estimate was based upon the growth of pledges in the previous years. While the average individual pledge did increase as anticipated, the total number of households pledging dropped. There are many possible reasons for this from a less aggressive pledge drive to members' lack of confidence in their economic future. Reasons aside, we misestimated what our members would pledge. Statistical data on giving and pledges is below.


    Where we are: 

    At the end of the first quarter, our income exceeded our expenses - primarily because we used our reserves and our allowed income from investments. 

    • A number of members have responded to the Stewardship's April letter by either increasing their pledges or giving one-time gifts to close the budget gap. To date, this totals just over $10,000.
    • As most are aware, our building costs are a very large portion of our expenses. Our building is really three buildings ranging in age from 57 years to 135 years old; it cannot help but to show wear and tear and requires ongoing maintenance as well as some expensive repairs. One of the goals of the Alban Plan is to strive to have the building pay for itself through property sharing - exclusive use office space and special events. While we have moved in this direction, we are not yet there.
    • Our ministries have pared down their spending to the lowest we can go without losing effectiveness and shortchanging our mission and values. There is little left to cut.
    • The office staff have made changes to how we operate within contracted services, are researching creative means to fund paper publications, and practice cost-cutting measures in the office operations. There is little left to cut without affecting the effectiveness of the administration of the church.
    • The church staff has been transformed into a lean, mean, ministry machine. Many of you are feeling the differences made by these cuts with less pastoral care, dependence upon volunteers for every ministry, fewer programs, and changing traditions.

    So, building, staff, expenses, and ministries have all been cut. It's a tough situation!


    Council has called together a team to examine the budget for 2017 and offer suggested cuts. They will report to the Council at 7 p.m. on June 14th at a meeting in the Drawing Room when we will discern a direction. Council meetings are always open to whoever has ideas to share or curiosity to feed.


    Where we are going: 

    We are journeying together in dangerous times. The world needs the message of a God who Accept All (no matter what), who Reaches Out (to everyone), and who Touches Lives (all lives). God is not done with us; we have much work to do. But, we must listen to where God is calling us and adapt our way of being the church to be effective in ministry in this new age.

    Finances are not the end-all of our ministry. While we have a fiscal responsibility to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us, if we focus solely upon the bottom line, we will miss opportunities to be witnesses to God's extravagant welcome, God's proclivity toward the poor, the outcast, and the downtrodden, and to make a meaningful difference in the world around us.

    Our building is not the end-all of our ministry. Communities of faith who live solely for their buildings die of extinction. While the blessing of our building affords us comfort and familiarity, it is not the reason we exist. We are called as witnesses, as stewards, as prophets, as change-agents, as teachers, and as caregivers. Buildings don't do ministry; people do.

    Our staff is not the end-all of our ministry. Paying people to do ministry is a creation of modern times. Every person who follows Jesus is called to serve - to put on the aprons of service and participate in the life-changing ministries to which each of us and all of us together are called.

    The purpose of the community of faith is witness. Our witness is Accepting All, Reaching Out, Touching Lives. This requires neither staff, building, nor money; witness requires each member of the community to be active in their faith. Where we are going from here is into the future to which God calls us - and that is still unfolding. But we do know that it will be different than our present.

    I tell people that I rarely get lost. I may not know where I am, but I most certainly can learn something from where I am and in finding my way to where I'm going. The road to our future is not clearly mapped out; but we will learn and grow from the turns and avenues that we take to get to where God would have us be.

    Let's take this adventure together.

    Carly  

    24 May, 2017

    A Batty Post


    I have a thing about bats.  The symbol of darkness and death, they fly about in dimly lit skies and lurk in the dark corners of attics and barns. They have beady eyes and fangs that threaten to bite.  They look like flying mice.  They eat dirty bugs and leave behind fungus- and bacteria- laden waste that makes humans sick. They reek of evil and Halloween.  And I heard once that they might get caught in my hair, bite me, or give me rabies. Bats are to be avoided and kept away from my space at all times!  I was taught this as a child and it surely hasn’t changed.  Please don’t tell me otherwise.

    I have a thing about bats. I don’t see them unless I look for them, but every night they make my life better by eating thousands of insects.  If I sit quietly at dusk, I can see them flitting about in the darkening sky, quietly calling into the night and gliding as they locate their prey by echo location.  If I listen closely, I can hear their chirpy calls.  If I watch carefully, I can follow them back to their nesting place where their young wait to nurse or to be fed some of the evenings catch.  But I have to look, listen, watch, and wait; and by looking, listening, watching, and waiting – seeking to understand – I find the good these creatures provide for me. By seeking out information and getting to know these creatures, I’ve learned that they rarely carry rabies and even more rarely would bite a person because they are so very afraid of us.  By seeking to understand, I come to a completely different image of bats -- and even an appreciation for them.  I don’t want to find one in my living room, but I will still watch them from a distance with awe and wonder.

    We live in a culture that does not seek understanding, struggles to listen to differing ideas, and jumps to conclusions based upon hearsay and “fake news.” In our culture, people get their information from social media rather than personal investigation and seeking to understand.  

    We are a culture of fast food and easy answers that allow us to make fast, black-and-white decisions.  We are lucky enough to have the resources to provide ourselves with walls between us and those who are different, have different ideas or traditions, or live without means.  

    We can and do so isolate ourselves in echo chambers where we only see and hear the ideas and persuasions that match our own. We feel threatened by what we don’t understand, and there is so much we don’t understand. 

    When we isolate ourselves in echo chambers, we silence ourselves from the sources of understanding. Rather than dig for truth, we hear only those things that confirm and justify our fears, and bring us the comfort of feeling right. 

    Understanding – and the looking, listening, watching, and waiting required to understand – becomes something we avoid in so that we can remain safely walled within our comfort zones.

    Jesus had a habit of breaking down barricaded comfort zones:

    •  “You have heard it said…..but I say to you….”  (repeated 5 times in Matthew 5:21-43)
    • “turn the other cheek, give them your cloak also, love your enemies….”
    • "When it is evening, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.' "And in the morning, 'There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.' Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times? (Matthew 16)
    • “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42)
    • “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! …. Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things….” (Luke 24:25, 27)


    H. Richard Niebuhr (Christ and Culture, 1951) wrote that faith is a way of seeing the whole of existence in which we live and move and have our being. He pointed out that we can see things through any of three lenses.  Seen through the lens that the world is against us and hostile to us, we fear we’re all going to die and respond by seeking security to protect ourselves from the all-devouring powers.  Seen through the lens that the world is indifferent to us, we seek out systems that give us meaning and purpose, and we focus on our own well being.  But seen through the lens of world that is gracious, nourishing, and supportive of life, we recognize that this world has brought us into existence and continues to nourish us and we respond with a posture of faith and trust. 

    And so, I encourage you to reread those first two paragraphs about bats.  Through which approach do you see life as supportive, gracious, and nourishing?  Read again the scriptures above.  Through which lens was Jesus seeing the world? 

    We are called by Christ to live our lives with our eyes wide open, our ears fully engaged, and our minds wondering and expanding in knowledge, faith, and love because God is a the founder of grace, maker of life, and the one who nourishes us on this journey through life.

    26 April, 2017

    Base Pace. Push. All Out.

     Base Pace. Push. All Out. 

    These are the words I hear in the mornings as a coach at the gym tells us the routine for the workouts. The terms refer to heart rate zones and how fast my heart is beating while I'm on the treadmill or rower. Up on the screen, the background color under my name tells me where I am: Gray - resting, Blue - Moderate Activity, Green - Base Pace, Orange - Push, Red - All Out. Since the gym is all about working out, we focus on the last three. The goal is to spend at least 12 minutes of the hour in the orange and red zones. I'm a bit of an over doer (really?) and my personal goal is to spend at least 24 minutes in that zone each time I work out.

    That's fine for the gym and for an hour a day. It is not healthy to stay at that "Push" or "All Out" rate all day. It would be crazy to even try. Everyone and each body needs a time of rest and renewal, to re-tool and recharge.

     The same is true for the Body of Christ. Most of the time, we often operate at blue zone of moderate activity: the weekly schedule of Sunday School, worship, and fellowship. We get into the green zone when we throw in choir and bell rehearsals, meetings, fellowship groups, book club, or Messy Church. We take it up a notch into the Push range when we join a ministry team or committee, or in the weeks when we have special activities - fund raisers, holiday additions of activity, work trips, fellowship events. And, in the last 3 years we've had a couple of All Outs: a flooded church basement twice in 3 weeks, last minute preparations for renters, a huge clean - out of space, a long term remodeling project. This is a healthy balance for a congregation.

    When we factor in all the changes that have been made in the last 5 years at FCCLG, all the changes that continually happen in the community and world around us, and the adjustments we've made to adapt to these changes, we have spent a lot of time in the Push zone lately.

    We need our "workouts" with the base pace, pushes and all outs. But we also need our gray and blue zones. We need to take intentional time to just let it rest. If we don't take time to "walk it out," we will burn out - or worse, we will get hurt. Rest while still moving is important to the Body of Christ.

    Jesus did some intentional base pace time too. He took time to go off by himself and pray, to be alone with God, or just to get away from the crowds. In the blue and green zones, he regenerated himself, and retooled his mind for the coming challenges. Jesus' ultimate grey zone was between Good Friday and Easter morning. He did not just sit and do nothing in this time; he prepared for what was to come on Easter and following.

    Traditionally at FCCLG, the summers are our when the church schedule operates in the gray and blue zones and members recharge and retool. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, our Sunday attendance drops in half as many in our congregation spend weekends at summer homes, or doing activities that take them away from church activities. This is healthy and normal so long as we continue to feed our spirits, keep our souls in shape, and be ready for the Push that comes in late August.

    So what will you do to stay in good Spiritual shape this summer? Will you worship in churches near your weekend destinations? Make a goal of reading the Bible every day? Pray for each of the people on our Touch list each day? Will you look for the face of God in the faces and hearts of the strangers you meet in your travels? Will you do random acts of kindness for people who least deserve them? Or maybe you will make peace with a long time enemy.

    Where ever the travels of your base pace take you, I wish you Godspeed.

    06 March, 2017

    For Such a Time as This

    We are living in a difficult time in our world where historically stable nations are choosing leaders who are surround themselves with inexperienced and unstable advisors and administrators who appear to lack a genuine interest in the people they serve. This is a time in the life of our own country where we seem to have more interest in serving the two percent than the ninety-eight percent of our own population. When this happens, it's easy for us to forget our covenantal obligations that our own Christian gospel requires of us. As Paul has written,"...When one person suffers, we all suffer. When one person rejoices, we all rejoice..."1 Corinthians 12:26.

    In such a time as this, it is all the more important for the church to be present and engaged in the world. We must be a voice in the wilderness, a balm healing, and we must take to heart the words of the prophets and the apostle to be present with the marginal, the rejected, the stranger, and the alien. This is sacred duty that is guided, not by profits or bottom lines, but by compassion, empathy, and acceptance of all. This is the vision of First Congregational Church. 

    On Sunday, March 26th, we'll have another opportunity to live into our vision by sharing our gifts for One Great Hour of Sharing. When someone you care about suffers, all your truest words and most loving actions must declare: "I am here!"

    The Bible tells us that God is like us in this respect. When one of God's beloved children suffer, God declares, 'I am here.' God hears the cries of the poor and oppressed. The scriptures remind us that we must live our lives in such a way that people know that 'God is here!' God is here in our actions, in our words, in our ministry, and in our worship. The promise, 'I am here!' is a constant refrain from Genesis to Revelation.

    When we see the latest tragedy on the news, we might ask, 'where is God?' But we already know the answer before we ask the question - the answer - God is here, in the midst of those who are hurting. When Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, God reveals to us a mystery. God is most tangibly present in this world where people hunger, thirst, lack adequate clothing and shelter, or is sick and/or imprisoned. Christ cares for the suffering. God is present when we feed the hungry, care for the sick, or welcome the stranger. When we care for the least of these, we care for Christ.  

    We are living in a difficult time and we need to be present, anywhere in the world, including our own cities and neighborhoods. For those who are suffering, those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, or those who are imprisoned are not people over there or in another place, they are people right here in Chicago, in the suburbs or along the highways and byways of the state that is our home. 

    We need to be the tangible gifts that declare the same message as God declares: 'I am here.' By reaching out in this way, we let God's people know that they have not been forgotten. Even when the need seems far from here, by acting together as the body of Christ, we are able to declare, 'I am here! God is here!' Through our special gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing we proclaim a countercultural message that while some may have forgotten you, we, as caring, loving, disciples of Jesus Christ have not. Let us be present with all God's people so that one day we can rejoice together!

    Reaching out with joy and compassion!

    01 March, 2017

    Fair and Living Wages: A Justice Issue

    Scripture teaches us that each person is created in the image of God; we have a responsibility to care for our brothers and sisters - especially those who are working hard to keep their heads above water.
     
    Common sense tells us that all human beings get sick. But if a person is forced to work when they are sick due to fear they will lose their job or they will not be able to pay their rent, it diminishes their humanity and puts the public health at risk.
     
    Our faith teaches us to share in the abundance of creation, and that all workers are to receive an honest wage for an honest day's work.  In La Grange, the average family income is seven times greater than a minimum wage earner in La Grange. Should we not share our abundance with hard working people?
     
    I am concerned about a local movement that would exclude the businesses in La Grange from the Cook County Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Days ordinances -- and any future regional ordinances dealing with the same issues.  There has been very little publicity about this ordinance which will be voted on by the Village Trustees on March 13. Why would La Grange want to be known as a village that takes away rights from workers, the very people who help to make our village so enjoyable?  
     
    Will we choose profits or justice for hard working neighbors?  Will some have to choose between putting food on the table or a roof over their heads and their jobs? Will a local employee be forced to choose between staying home with a sick child or with the flu and paying their bills?  To ask our brothers and sisters to make such a choice is unfair to those who serve us food, who decorate and clean village streets, and who take care of our children.  I don't want La Grange to be known for our lack of caring for everyone. Will you help to keep this from happening?
     
    I'm putting on my Prophetic Cap and calling upon my sisters and brothers in faith to do the same. Will you join me in this struggle for justice? Will you make a stand for the Realm of God?
     
    You can help in three ways:
    1. I invite you to join a postcard campaign. There will be postcards available in the Founder's Room and in the back of the Sanctuary to write to the Trustees and voice your opinion of this ordinance. These will be presented to the Trustees at the meeting on March 13.
    2. Contact each of the village Trustees and voice your opinions about this ordinance, and ask each where he stands on the issue. (Maybe remind him that there is an election on April 4).  A list of the Trustees and their contact information available here.
    3. Join us as we gather to organize before the Village Trustees meeting.  We will gather at 6:30 at First Congregational Church of La Grange. We will walk together to the Village Hall for the meeting. 
    Lenten Blessings,
    Carly

    05 February, 2017

    Discerning

    I don't choose the weekly readings from scripture. They are assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary and were chosen on a three year cycle in 1994. Yet the texts for this Sunday contain biting and pointed commentary on our current world situation. 

    "Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.... Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?"    
    Isaiah 58:1-2, 6-7 NRSV 

    "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." 
    Matthew 5:17-18 NRSV

    Friends, I do not know what is happening in our country that people who call themselves Christians are ignoring the very heart of that for which Jesus lived and died. I do not understand how we can express love for the fetus but fear the refugee child. I do not know what leads people to live in fear of the outsider and suspicion of those who differ from them. I cannot account for the masses of people who believe that their lives are more important that the lives of others. But I see, hear, and feel it every day.

    I hear it in the voices that say they care about the homeless but they just don't want to see them in their neighborhoods lest their property values fall. I see it in the call to close our nation's borders and stop refugees from finding safety within our land. I hear it in the fear and suspicion raised and amplified by leaders. I hear it in people whispering behind the back of the woman wearing a hijab or the man in a turban. And I feel it in the timbre of the nation as we cut off the means of birth control and view health care as a privilege not a right. I feel it in the pulse of a government that puts a leader of a hate group in the position to guide and council our president. These are faith issues, friends. These reflect a people who depend not upon their faith but their own self sufficiency.

    Friends, we cannot claim to be followers of Jesus and then choose to ignore Christ's mandate: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Nor his prayer that things shall be "on earth as it is in heaven." Our role as followers of this teacher is to live out the teachings and profess the ways that he taught. Our job as members of the Body of Christ is to actively work to bring God's realm into being. We cannot look out for our own interests before the interests of others.

    For Jesus, there are no countries to be conquered, no ideologies to be imposed, no people to be dominated. There are only children, women and men to be loved.
    Henri Nouwen 

    We are living still in a time when the ideals of our society and the ways of our faith are in conflict with one another. What do you choose? How will you live? These are not rhetorical questions.

    "If you decide that it's a bad thing to worship God, then choose a god you'd rather serve-and do it today. Choose one of the gods your ancestors worshiped from the country beyond The River, or one of the gods of the Amorites, on whose land you're now living. As for me and my family, we'll worship God."                                                                           
    Joshua 24:15 The Message.

    May you be blessed in your discernment.

    23 January, 2017

    It is Time to Speak Truth to Power

    We each had an ethical decision to make in November. Do you vote for someone who you disagree with on a political or personal level? Well, we had no choice there because no candidate was perfect; so let's move on to which was the bigger threat for justice, equality, and the realm of God. Which candidate put your neighbors and brothers and sisters in the most danger? One who admitted sexually assaulting women, made outright racist comments, did not denounce the endorsement of the KKK? Or the one who did not take good care of emails.

    You see, your vote was a choice that put people's safety as women, people of color, those descended from immigrants, people who sought refuge in this county, people with medical challenges, disabled people on the line.  Your vote is a reflection of how much you value truth, transparency, mercy, sexual morality, generosity, and humility.  You chose someone -- said you could live with a leader-- and it reflects who you will follow and what you value.

    What does it say about you if you choose someone who acts in ways, says things, and has a history of behavior which is fundamentally against everything Christ taught us about how we treat other people, if your vote negated your regard for every black person, every disabled person, every woman, and every person who voiced disagreement with a politician as less important than your dislike for the other candidates?  To vote for a slanderous, deceptive, merciless, racist, sexually immoral, greedy person is a reflection of who you are and what you value.  To vote for someone for the highest office in the land who you would not want your daughter or grand daughter to have as a mentor is a reflection of your values -- and who you value.

    To me it says that my rights, my safety, my well being, and my person are less important, less valuable than what you value. And that, friends, is why I marched on Saturday. To say to you and everyone else that I will not be dismissed as less than human by any politician, any other citizen, any brother or sister in Christ. And I will not allow any other brother or sister human to be treated this way.

    I will continue to love and respect my brothers and sisters who love the new political leadership in this country. But I am no longer sure how to relate to you in a personal way. My trust in you has been torn apart by your decision in November.  How can I trust you with my being if you would trust someone who has said and done the things DJT has said and done?

    On the other hand, I also thank you. By lifting up a ego-maniacal, unethical man to the highest office in the land, this nation has unleashed the greatest rebellious force since the Civil War. And we just getting started. Along side of my sisters and brothers, I will fight tooth and nail against any policy, decision, law, or action that demeans, belittles, takes away the rights, or denies equality and justice, and equity to ALL people.

    We've only just begun to march, to protest, to speak truth to power.

    Someone greater than any of us said a long time ago, 
    "'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to bring good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
    to let the oppressed go free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.'...... 
    Then he began to say to them, 
    “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.'”


    This is the year of God's favor. It's time to march.

    07 January, 2017

    Torn and Mixed Emotions

    I am torn.  If you scroll back through my posts here to 13 years ago, you will find a series of posts from a very painful time in my life and ministry.  So painful, in fact, that I had a heart attack and much illness from the stress of it.  That was a
    dark night of the soul for me.

    For all these years, I have worked very hard to forgive the person who instigated that pain -- with mixed results.  I have been able to let go of the anger and the pain, to stop letting these control me.  I have been able to move on and learn from the experience.  I have become a different person than I was.

    But without resolution, with out justice being served, without this person being held responsible for the wrongs committed, there has not been closure.  It has remained a wound that breaks open and bleeds every time I've encountered this person, every time I've seen this person's name being exalted as a respected leader, every time I've run into a member of the circle of people who protect this person's standing in the community.

    From time to time over these years I've encountered others who have experienced similar pain at the hand of this person.   There are between 15 and 20 of us, mostly-- but not all -- women, all professionals.  We were all told we imagined the abuse, that it is not possible that this person could be capable of such abuse, that we have exaggerated the situations.  All of us suffered professional consequences to voicing the abuse aloud.  Amongst us we have shared stories, tears, and anger that this person has remained all these years in positions of authority where they have been able to continue their abusive behavior.  We have comforted one another.  And we have strategized about how to remain outside of the circle of this person. We've remained a loosely organized group of people who know and acknowledge one another, stick together for safety when in gatherings where this person has been present. Largely, we have all moved on with a note of caution and an eye for spotting potential re-occurrences of the this type of abuse.

    Progression by David Ho
    "Moved on" is a key term.  We all struggle with a lack of closure of these experiences.  We all struggle with a need for justice to have been done.  We all struggle with the pain of this past.  But we step forward in faith refusing to let this pain, this person, define us or our calls and vocations.  Yet we all long for the justice that will bring closure.

    We will never know that justice.  The person has died a very unexpected death, alone, and found only after death had fully taken them.  The accolades flowed like mountain streams in social media and in the press.  Expressions of grief and loss pour in from every corner of the church.  This person has become revered saint.

    Of course no one will speak ill of the dead.  Of course I have deepest sympathy for the grieving family.  Of course I will not voice my own loss of possible justice.

    Yet I am torn.  I have mixed emotions about this shock, this death, this lack of justice, this lack of closure.

    And when from the service that celebrated this one's life I heard those words of benediction, "Well done, good and faithful servant," I stifled my guffaws, suppressed my gagging.  And continued on without closure with an old wound reopened.



    30 August, 2016

    Offensive Faith, Alternative Visions.

    I preached some version of this text on August 28, 2016.  It's the first time in this particular congregation I've received multiple "I'm Offended" responses.  Jesus received these responses regularly, so I'm in good company.  I stand by what I've preached as being faithful to the text and the ministry of Jesus.  


    Luke 14: 1, 7-14
    On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
    When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”.



    The invitations come at least once a month, more often in the late fall and early winter.  They really ramp up in December.  It’s the Gala.  Or the Big Wig Dinner. Or the Lobster Boil… The seats at these dinners start at around $200 – or buy a whole table and bring your friends for just $3000. 
    As you enter the venue, you immediately notice the décor:  shiny marble floors, live plants, original art, an extravagant water fountain.  Wait staff take your outer coat in exchange for a ticket.  You are directed to the event.
    When you walk into the room, you notice immediately that the host has decked out everything in their very best.  The tables are nicely arranged. Nice china and a striking array of silverware (remember to start at the outside and work your way in). Several glasses of different sizes and shapes are a part of the setting.  Ornate centerpieces decorate each table.
    Off to the side there is a table where Champaign is being poured. Anxious but dutiful wait staff carry trays of butlered hors d'oeuvres  (not canapés before dinner).  The social inequality between guests and the wait staff is palpable.
    Before dinner, people mill around the room noticing the place cards on each table, -- beautiful people, lovely food. 
    Up in front, the raised platform – the Dias where the important and prominent people will be seated on just one side of the rectangular table – this is the mark of influence and status.  The closer you are seated to these important people, the more important you are. 
    The program begins and dinner is served.  As the anxious wait staff clear the dishes and pour the coffee, there is some celebratory talk accompanied by polite applause.  There are stories or a video that’s intentionally designed to cause the tension between the heart strings and the wallet to tighten.  And there are pledge cards.
    We have the scene of many fundraising situations – the stewardship drive! – Last Sunday's Tea at Plymouth Place, and, today’s gospel story.
    Jesus has been invited to the gala hosted by the most prominent of the Pharisees.  Why on earth would Jesus would eat at a Pharisee’s house? They criticized Jesus for blasphemy when he forgave sins, for uncleanness when he ate with sinners!   As dinner begins, the Pharisees watch Jesus carefully. The crowd is anxious to see if he can measure up to this level of social class. 
    The table talk is at first polite… who will be the next leader at the village gate? How about that foreigner that took over Eli’s father’s vineyard.  And then it gets awkward.  Jesus speaks. 
    “Is it legal to heal on the Sabbath?”
    This is not friendly chatter.  This is confrontational.  Jesus is challenging the accepted and cultural interpretation of the Torah.  Then without anyone asking his opinion, Jesus starts to give advice to the other guests about where they should be sitting. And to the host about who should be invited to these parties.  His opinions are contrary to the social conventions of this crowd and show disregard for the tradition. 
    Surely you know someone who has thrown this type of fire bomb into a conversation.  And it’s never comfortable.  People who ask questions that shake the status quo are rarely welcome in any setting.  As one person said, “they are arsonists in the hospitality forest[i].  They delight in watching social situations become conflagrations.”    They don’t get invited back. 
    Can you hear the disciples trying to hush Jesus?  “Com’on Jesus, this dinner is hosted by an influential person. He could be tapped to finance this ministry and give it some status in Israel.  Just be friendly, keep your elbows off the table, and politely eat these appetizers – Just fit in!  Be like them so we can benefit from what they have!”
    But everyday of living in faith calls us to ask – or be asked – confrontational questions. 
    ?      Why do Christians attack people who don’t believe as you do?
    ?      Why is that Christian leader kowtowing to the whims of that political party? 
    ?      If you follow a person who claims that God is love, why are you not speaking out against hate crimes?
    ?      Why is the church silent about gun violence, injustices against people of color, degradation of women?
    ?      Why won’t you deal with your fear of discussing sex and sexuality and stop dehumanizing LGBTQ people?
    ?      If you worship the God of creation, why are you not doing more to defend the earth from destruction in the name of corporate greed?
    Jesus was politely invited to this gala, watches how things are being done, and promptly offers unasked-for advice all the while he knows full well that he is offending every social grace of the day.  He saw how everyone there jockeyed for the best seats near the dais where they can see and be seen by the important people of the day.  He butts into the conversation and offers an alternative reality for those who are driven by status:  Humility. 
    “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host;”
    Don’t assume you are the best. Don’t assume you have the only correct vision of reality.  Don’t seek out the recognition of others for your correctness. 
    That’s an alternative reality butting against the face of a culture that does not want to hear it.  It’s impolite to raise a different perspective of reality to someone who benefits from the current culture; surely the Pharisees and those present in that dinner party expected to measure Jesus by their culture, their understanding of the world, and their standards of expected behavior.  And that did not include humility.  And it certainly did not include inviting those of lesser social status to a meal!
    We too face this dilemma.  Our cultural system is at its core in favor of the dominance of EuroAmerican, white, English speaking, “Christian” power structures.  We live in a culture that is as resistant to changes in this structure as the Pharisees were in their day – after all, it favors us, it shapes us, it therefore reflects us.
    In Waking Up White, Debby Irving relates a story. 
    My family believed that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you don’t say anything at all.  The resulting behavior showed up as silence or swift change of topic in mid-conversation.  People who “pushed” the conversation were thought of as poorly raised and ignorant.  By being socialized not to seek out or listen to perspectives that might conflict with mine set me up to shut out or shut down the experiences of people of color as told by people of color.  Meanwhile, throughout my life the image of happy, thriving white people set against struggling people of color repeated itself in books and media.  The imbalance fed and fed again my misinterpretation of what as normal and superior.”[ii]
    Indeed, Jesus is now seen by the host and the religious leaders as poorly raised and ignorant.  They too were socialized to NOT listen to perspectives that conflict with their own – to shut down the experiences and perspectives of people different from their own.  And, having been raised in that culture, they had grown to see it as normal and superior.
    And we are in the same boat when it comes to our innate White Privilege.
    In August 9th’s Christian Century, William Lamar puts it this way:
    {Humility} is a profoundly un-American impulse. 
    I'm going to interrupt this quote.  In using the term "American," Lamar is showing ethocentricity. America goes from Canada to Argentina. We are Americans, but so are Mexicans and Brazilians and Canadians. It is less ethnocentric to say USAmerican. To say we're American and Mexicans are not is an over extension of our nationalism. So I'm going to edit this quote as I read it.  
    This nation is not humble. USAmericans assume that USAmerican political, economic, and foreign policy prescriptions will fix a world much older and often much wiser. Many USAmerican churches—which often seem more USAmerican than Christian—lack humility as well. Chauvinism animated their theological forebears to take the faith of the wrongfully convicted Executed One and use it as a tool for plunder. A similar chauvinism is evident in their own dog-whistling around Muslims, immigrants, sexual minorities, and black and brown people. God knows USAmerica and many of her churches need Jesus’s unsolicited advice.[iii]
    Why does Jesus have to stir up trouble? Why does he criticize people who invite him into their homes? Why can’t Jesus leave a pleasant enough dinner party well enough alone? It is because Jesus understands what is at stake. For him, the reality is that the rectangular table around which the culture of the Pharisees have created their culture excludes the very children of God that they were called to center their life and ministry upon.  The reality of a cultural system that by its very nature elevates some and excludes others is unjust and does not reflect the realm of God. In the culture of God’s realm, there is no need to jockey for position, because all are equally welcome. There are no throwaways when it comes to human beings. Christians are to honor the least among us—the poor and marginalized. The very culture that the Pharisees created -- and that then defined reality for them and their identities -- seeks to exclude those who don’t fit into the created culture. 
    Jesus spoke a different reality, gave unsolicited advice on how to turn the dominate culture into God’s preferred reality.  Of course it wasn’t heard with open ears – too much was at stake!  Of course it was not practical – because rationality is based upon the culture from which it is derived.  Jesus turns the reality of the Pharisees on its head.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
    Rev. LaMar writes,
    We need the imagination to see beyond what exists. We are not called to be practical. We are called to be the vanguard of a new world, a world where humility is the means of exaltation and quid pro quo is replaced by sola gratis.[iv]
    As disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, we are commanded to examine carefully the culture we call “normal.”  We are commanded to seek out, listen to, and seek to understand the narratives of those who have a different perspective, a different experience of reality, a different identity – and to reconcile our “normal” with the vision of God’s round table.  
    Ask the questions:
    ?      Why do we attack people who don’t believe as you do?
    ?      Why do we kowtow to the whims of this or that political party? 
    ?      If we follow a person who claims that God is love, why are we not speaking out against hate crimes?
    ?      Why are we silent about gun violence, injustices against people of color, degradation of women?
    ?      Why don’t we deal with our fear of discussing sex and sexuality and stop dehumanizing LGBTQ people?
    ?      Why are we not doing more to defend the earth from destruction in the name of corporate greed?
    ?      Why are we acting as legs to hold up a rectangular table instead of welcoming all to God’s Round Table?
    Our General Minister John Dorhauer put this more explicitly.  Look at the back of your bulletin.  Read. Imagine.  Be the Church.
    (Posted as Graphic below the endnotes)



    [i] Source unknown, possibly David Lose.
    [ii] Debby Irving, Walking Up White: Finding Myself In the Story of Race,  Cambridge MA:  Elephant Room Press, 2014;  p65.
    [iii] William H. LaMar IV, LIVING BY THE WORD  August 28, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Christian Century, Aug 09, 2016, accessed online: http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-07/august-28-22nd-sunday-ordinary-time
    [iv] Ibid