02 August, 2018

Sinful or just Incomplete?

The following article is a salute to John Shelby Spong's work, The Sins of Scripture.

Peace to you and grace, from Carly, called to be a bearer of the Good News to the saints and sinners of La Grange and beyond.

“Sin” was a word that was thrown around and thrown at people regularly in the fundamentalist church in which I dabbled in college.  Everyone was considered a sinner in need of being saved from the clutches of evil – or “Satan.”  The leaders were fast to call anyone who did not agree with their theology or ideology a “Sinner.”  The sweet joy of being saved was the drawing card of that congregation.  

Jonathan Edwards
Congregational Preacher
At one time in history of Congregationalism, “Sin” had prominent role.  In 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon published under the name, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” where he used over 20 metaphors to illustrate God’s wrath toward sinners and the torment of hell.  The sermon, while preached to the Congregationalists in Enfield Mass (now Enfield CT), was in the style of that preached to a person about to be executed.  Edwards used fear as persuasion to “be saved.”

The thesaurus lists a long list of ugly words as synonyms for sin:  Wickedness, iniquity, immorality, debauchery, evil, turpitude, peccadillo, offense, indulgence, crime, transgression, wrong, felony, fault, misdemeanor.  While these fit the English language definition of sin, the Biblical definition of the word is more nuanced.

American Civil Religion, the English language, and the church I mentioned above have each taken the Deuteronomic cycle, the model of humanity’s inadequacy in the book of Judges, as the definition of human life and it’s basically “sinful.”  In this cycle, Israel turns away from God (sin), an enemy oppresses Israel (punishment), Israel cries out for help (repentance), God sends a redeemer (deliverance), and there is peace under the redeemer’s leadership (new relationship).  This approach assigns an innate inadequacy to humanity: we can never get it and keep it right. 

We have taken these texts from the bible and we have used them to denigrate our humanity and to cause human beings to be plastered with guilt and a sense of inadequacy. Maybe, if we can make people feel bad enough about themselves, that will immediately translate into their thinking how great God is, that God can love/save a wretch like you and me.

Perhaps it’s time to take a look at human life from another perspective: one that does not view people as corrupted, but rather as emerging and becoming. 
Perhaps the role of the church is not to rescue fallen sinners, where, in order to make them understand the great gift of God, we’ve got to constantly beat them up by telling them how awful and wretched they are.  Rather, perhaps the role of the church is to recognize that all people are incomplete and need something in order to be empowered to become so fully human that we no longer have to build ourselves up by tearing somebody else down.  Perhaps that something is the extravagant and unconditional love of God and not the wrath of an angry god.

Sin isn’t a word we like to use because it is loaded with denigration and inadequacy.  This isn’t to say that we are always perfect, that we never hurt others, or that we are always in the right.  Rather, I’m suggesting that we begin to think of each person as incomplete and seeking wholeness.  From this perspective, we approach one another with compassion and empathy. 

03 July, 2018

From the Cutting Room Floor

Grace and peace to the hands and feet of Christ in LaGrange and beyond, from Carly, called to be a servant leader amongst and beside you.

The lectionary texts offer more than can be shared in a 12 minute, 1000 word “moment” on Sunday morning. Each week, I read and study, sift and distill what the scriptures offer and assemble a large amount of verbiage and mental images that are relevant to the text.  Then, when I construct the sermon, most of what I have assembled in preparation lands on the cutting room floor.  

The narrative from Mark this past Sunday was a healing story wrapped inside another healing story.  The sermon focused on having the heart, the faith, the courage to persist in the midst of hopelessness.  But I’d like to share with you snippets of what landed on the cutting room floor.  These are snippets with no context or order.  They are the random thoughts and findings about the passage from Mark 5:21-43.
  • The Synagogue Leader’s name, Jarius, translates “Enlightened One.”  Is this really about the “healing of Jarius’ daughter” or is it about the Enlightening of the Synagogue Leader?  The leader of the synagogue is a man of privilege, but he has to learn to wait for the healing of a nobody, poor woman who has been bleeding for twelve years.  Jarius sees Jesus heal a woman in front of him – a miraculous thing – but that very healing means that his own daughter may well die before Jesus gets to her.  If you want your little daughter (or your spiritual community) to be healed, … then all the daughters have to be healed. Jesus does not give healing on the basis of status and income. Jesus heals the outsiders, too.  Trusting Jesus means living as though all people are equal— because they are.  A good deal of our "wellness" as a faith community comes from our attempts to include all of us— even though we struggle to do that as well as we'd like.
  • Who enlightens. It is the poor, ill woman, the least of the community, who enlightens the leader. It is the woman who has no hope at all, but who still trusts Jesus, who teaches and enlightens the rich man in his time of need.
  • Bearing Life is Polluted. The treatment of a woman’s bleeding – unclean and untouchable while bleeding.  The Talmud says she is “polluted” and everything she touches is polluted.  The bearing of new life causes a woman to be impure.  Angry people use parts of a woman’s reproductive system as swear words…  Why?  It blames the woman for her condition.  Yet all of us bleed.  More than that, we CAUSE people to bleed and then blame them for bleeding.
  • The number 12. The child is 12 years old.  The woman has been bleeding for 12 years.  For as long as this poor nobody has had her life draining from her, the daughter of a privileged one has been growing into life.  Twelve years old is the age of adulthood – BatMizvah. A “sale-able” daughter.
  • Crowds.  Everywhere in this section of Mark, there are crowds with which Jesus and the disciples are having to deal. Crowds are dangerous places. We never quite know when they will turn into a mob. In this story the crowds press in upon him. We are getting close to dangerous ground— to the truth of us— when we are in crowds.  Crowds are lost places; we lose ourselves in a crowd; we are made less of a person. Mark 6:34 says that "As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…"  And crowds are a good place to be invisible. You don't want to stand out in a crowd, or it may pick on you, and vent all its fear on you.
  • Stepping Out of the Crowd. This un-named woman had to step out of the crowd to confess to Jesus her hopelessness, her unjust journey, her faith in his better way.  Jarius learns he, too, has to step out of the crowd to model for his faith community that all are equal in the eyes of God.  He is to model stepping away from the violence of exclusion, and the violence of labeling people, step away from depending upon his status, and to step into trusting and living the way of Jesus.
  • Feeding. “Give her something to eat.”  The daughter is healed – made well (the difference?); now nourish her, feed her, strengthen her so she will remain well. Connections to communion, community, strength, courage. 

The texts for Sunday, July 8, include a bit about the kid named Jesus who’s not allowed to grow up. Drop into worship this week and see what doesn’t land on the cutting room floor.



21 June, 2018

Ask the Question

We ran out of time for a number of questions asked in worship on April 15. Here is the next installment on responses to those questions.

You have been here almost 5 years. How much have we changed? What still surprises you about us?

As of today, June 21, I have been the pastor and teacher of FCCLG for 4 years, 2 months, and 2 weeks!  I jumped in with both feet running during the busiest week of the Christian year:  my first Sunday was Palm Sunday, April 7, 2014.  

I came with a specific call to lead the congregation into being a 21st Century church by following through with the Alban Plan the congregation had adopted in the previous pastorate before I arrived.  The plan involved a major change in the structure of the congregation’s leadership, increased lay leadership in each ministry area of the congregation, expanding the financial participation of the membership and financial transparency by the leadership, and expanding our non-member use of our building and space on both an occasional and exclusive use basis. This has been the planning basis for most of what I’ve been doing.

All of these changes are Cultural changes.  Cultural changes in any group generally take at least 10 years to actuate. So we have some way to go yet.

We have made significant progress. We have filled the building with organizations sharing space.  We have changed software and reporting systems so that information is available in understandable and comprehensive formats; we need to find methods to regularly get this information into the hands of members, however.  We have a significant number of new donors, but we need to increase the number of members who give -- as well as look for other sources of income.  We have many new volunteers in our ministries, but are challenged to “fill the slots” on our ministry teams and leadership committees.  And while we’ve learned that we can’t depend upon paid staff to do as much as it did 10 years ago (when there were many more paid staff!), volunteers are not always forthcoming to do the work formerly done by staff.

The culture of the congregation IS changing!  We are making progress in each of these areas. 

I believe the culture is also changing in how we view the role of our faith in our everyday lives.  I am hearing people talk about their struggles to live faith-based lives in a world that often seems to lean toward injustice and oppression.  I think we are more aware of our privilege and our prejudices and are trying to engage in ways to work for equality and compassion.  I hope that we are moving more toward being the church than “going to church.”

After over 30 years in ministry, I have found ministry with and beside each of you to be more engaging, challenging, joyful, and rewarding than any of the congregations I’ve served.  I believe that I have found a home in your our church home.

Have a question about faith, the Bible, the Church, our congregation?  Submit it here and look for a response in a future Tidings.

24 May, 2018

Ask the Question

Why are the ages of some people in the Old Testament much older than “normal” life spans?

I don’t know about you, but I would NOT want to live to be 900 years old!  Come to think of it, if every human lived that long, we would have had a major overpopulation problem!

In the Old Testament, particularly in the Pentateuch and historical books, genealogies list men’s ages 600-900 years.  Of course, it’s best not to reveal a woman’s age – and so the only woman whose age is listed is Sarah who was a mere supercentenarian at 127 years.  There are many possible explanations of this extended age thing.

We need to remember that these are faith narratives; they are not historical or scientific accounts.  I find it difficult to take these narratives literally; I believe they were never intended to be read as such. They are narratives intended to express truths about God and God’s people.  From a literary perspective, these narratives do that.  They tell us that these men lived long and fruitful lives walking with God.

The ages may be a literary tool to exemplify God’s power in the Children of God. These long ages mirror the long reigns of Sumerian and Babylonian kings.  These kings were considered God-like.  Those who put these narratives down on paper and ink were living in exile in those regions. By using hyperbole about the ages of the Hebrew men, the narrators were emphasizing that the Hebrews were God’s children and not less-than the rulers of the land in which they lived.

Finally, this may be seen as a translation issue.  The Hebrew word that translates as “year” is ambiguous. It may also mean “month,” “season,” or “era”. Or there may be a different method of measuring time, say as lunar months instead of solar years.  However, this still relies upon the narratives as historical or scientific accounts and not faith narratives. 

Have a question about faith, the Bible, the Church, our congregation?  Submit it here and look for a response in a future Tidings.  

18 January, 2018

An Ordinary Agent of God

Grace and peace to each and all the saints from Carly, called to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable in La Grange and beyond.

When I was a junior in high school, an elderly woman in the congregation changed my life.  What Ruth Brown did was simple, ordinary, and even mundane: she asked me to sit beside her in worship.  Then she did the same thing the following week.  This became a regular event in the following months.  

During the quiet time before the prelude, she inquired about me and how my week had been.  She affirmed me and encouraged me to be helpful.  She, who could not carry a tune in a bucket, asked me  to sing in the choir, and to share my musical talents.  She also shared with me things about herself: she told me about her gardens and her writing projects.   She wrote me notes and cards when I went off to college.  But that first request to join her in "her pew" meant to me that I belonged and what I had to offer was needed. 

Many people join hate groups, gangs or just disappear into the obscurity of society primarily because they don't feel connected with something or someone that made them feel valued or simply affirmed to them that they belonged.  Relationships are vital to who we become, how we see the world around us, and whether or not we feel we belong.  It is through relationships that each of us has the means to change the world one person at a time.

Ruth Brown saw her role as an agent of God who got the privilege to tell me that I was loved and needed by God. She made sure I was involved in worship and in the music of the church.  She encouraged me to serve on committees, work in the kitchen, and provide music for the rest of the congregation.  

The church matters more than ever in today's world. Be an agent of God and ask a youth to sit with you in worship, show an interest in their lives, and help them to know that sense of belonging that makes us the church that is Accepting All, Reaching Out, and Touching Lives.

Be the Church!