Tuesday, December 31, 2013

we are here as we have never been before

I hope you have had a blessed Christmas season these last few days.
I stumbled onto this poem last winter while reading Wendell Berry's volume, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, and I've had to sit on it all the while, until the right time. Merry Christmas.

"Remembering that it happened once"

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night's end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countess times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning's light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own white frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

Monday, December 16, 2013

You better watch out, You better not cry...

Yesterday morning in worship, the choir at Grace Church presented its Christmas Cantata. Every year it's a fun, pretty, jubilant sort of service, an hour of celebration of the coming of Jesus at Christmas.

This year, right before the music began, I stood up and read our gospel lesson, Matthew 3:1-12, about John the Baptist. John was yelling at the Pharisees and Sadducees - "brood of vipers!" - and warning folks about judgment: "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
The passage ends with the words "unquenchable fire."

This is not really the best way to lead into a Christmas Cantata.

The Cantata is full-blown Christmas. The last thing the narrator says is "Christ has come, Hallelujah!"
The gospel reading is full-blown Advent. We're still waiting on Jesus to come - waiting for his birth at Bethlehem and waiting for his coming again in glory.

John the Baptist doesn't seem very Christmas-y, yet every December he rears his shaggy head in our worship services, bellowing his words of judgment. (Think Charlton Heston in The Greatest Story Ever Told.)
We hear about John each year because the weeks leading up to Christmas are the weeks of Advent, and part of the hope of Advent, one of the things we're all waiting for, is Christ's coming again to judge the world. Jesus is the one appointed by God to judge the living and the dead (Acts 10:42).

And that's a good thing!

Throughout scripture, judgment is actually something God's people eagerly anticipate. Why on earth would that be?
There's an Old Testament way of answering that and a New Testament way. The OT answer would be: because the Lord will judge the world with righteousness and truth and equity, that's why! (Ps 96:13; 98:9) The NT answer might say: Well, who is in a position to condemn? "Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us!" (Rom 8:34)

Judgement is good because the Judge is good.

That's why we hear about judgment during Advent, while we wait for Jesus, no matter how un-Christmas-like it might sound. Judgment is something we hope for, not something we fear.
This time last year, two days before I was supposed to preach on John the Baptist and judgment, a young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, and killed 26 people. That atrocity helped me understand: judgment, God putting an end to all the mess in our world, that's a good thing. God's going to judge the world and set things right.

Or maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best. When faced with the very un-Christmas-y words of John the Baptist in the gospels, Bonhoeffer wrote:
God comes in the midst of evil, in the midst of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And in judging it, he loves us; he purifies us; he sanctifies us; he comes to us with his grace and love.

We've still got a week of waiting until Jesus comes in Bethlehem. May God fill you with anticipation and hope for the arrival of our Lord, for his birth at Christmas and his coming again.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

God is actually quite Great: Antonia Brenner

I remember hearing, back in October, that Sister Antonia Brenner had passed away.
If you are like me, that news makes you wonder: who's Sister Antonia Brenner? 

As if turns out, she was a faithful sister in Christ with a beautiful story. After several marriages and raising children, Sister Antonia felt called to move into La Mesa penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico. So, in 1977, she moved into a cell at La Mesa, and she ministered to the prisoners and staff there until her death this year.

When Sister Antonia died, the Los Angeles Times published a powerful obituary telling her story, which you can read here. I started to share this at the time, but I fell behind in blogging and didn't get to it.
But today I was reminded when I read Richard Beck's recent post about her life, "The Little Way of Mother Antonia." It's a quick read, but it paints a vivid picture of the kind of life this woman led. I hope everyone will check it out; it's absolutely worth your time.

Here's a snippet from Dr. Beck's post, to give you an idea and hopefully whet your appetite:
From her cell in La Mesa Mother Antonia cared for sick and dying prisoners. She brought food, medicine and dental care for the poorest of the inmates. She fought in courts for those wrongfully imprisoned. She buried the prisoners who died without family. She tirelessly spoke out against the torture and harsh treatment of inmates. And she loved and cared for the guards as much as she loved the prisoners, spending untold hours holding their hands, listening to their problems, offering advice and spiritual counsel.

No one was beyond the love and embrace of La Madre.

She had such respect that she could walk into the middle of violent prison riots and shut them down. When the men saw La Madre in their midst they threw their guns out the window.

And every night she went back to her cell to sleep in the exact same conditions of those she cared for.

Reading about this woman, in her 70s and 80s, living in a prison cell like everyone else... it sounds a bit extreme. A little nuts.

Until I remember how God came to dwell here with us, a baby sleeping in a feeding trough - whatever it took to bring healing and salvation to the world.

You can read the rest here. Take some time today and learn about this woman of faith.

More posts from the "God is actually quite Great" series:

the Rwandan martyrs
Father Damien
Annalena Tonelli
Churches that raided slave ships
Maria Skobtsova

Monday, December 02, 2013

the beauty of the Church

Again and again and again, ever since he ascended to the papacy, Pope Francis has dazzled the world.

It literally started on day 1. I remember reading about the election of this new, South American Pope, and how after his election the man turned down the papal limousine to ride back to his hotel on a bus with the rest of the cardinals. A few days later he decided not to move into the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace - instead he'd just stay on in a Vatican guesthouse.
And his humble, likable, and surprising style has been pretty consistent ever since. It seems like every week or so you'll see another report in the news from some journalist stunned by something Francis has done or said.

The most recent story focused on the Pope's compassion for a man suffering from severe boils all over his body. You may remember this moment: Francis spotted the man in the crowds, hugged him, kissed him, and prayed for him. And the world was in awe.

Now a new story about Francis is starting to circulate. The official Vatican alms-giver - whom Francis encouraged to "sell your desk. You don't need it. You need to get out of the Vatican. You need to go out and look for the poor." - hinted in an interview this week that Pope Francis may have actually sneaked out of the Vatican at night to give alms to the poor on the streets of Rome, something he had done before when living in Buenos Aires. There hasn't been any kind of confirmation of this that I know of, but it would certainly fit Francis's MO.


I don't know when (if ever) the Roman Catholic Church has received so much good publicity. Certainly no time in recent years. Francis is living up to his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most beloved and respected figures in Christian history, a man known for his humility and love. And all of these stories leave me wishing... not so much that I were Roman Catholic, but that Francis was a 'United Methodist Pope', so to speak. I'd be proud to be more directly affiliated with the man, and it would be thrilling to be a part of a church whose leadership has that kind of reputation.

Of course, the crazy part is that this man is dazzling the world simply by following Jesus. Following Jesus in the public eye, obviously, but that's really all there is to it.

And that makes me wonder. Why doesn't the UMC have this kind of reputation? What are our leaders doing that makes the news, and what should they be doing? And what could happen if I committed myself to those simple, powerful acts of love and humility that can dazzle? What if you did?

I don't think that what we're seeing with Francis is some kind of anomaly. I believe that the Christian life, a life spent following Jesus, really is a beautiful thing. Some folks would scoff at this, but I believe the Church really is a beautiful thing. All Pope Francis is doing is faithfully embodying the Church's mission. He's showing us what the Church looks like when it's true to itself.
And the world's in awe. I can't tell you how many times I've looked at the comments following these news stories - and remember, comments in stories about the Church online are usually pretty ugly - and seen things like 'he almost makes we want to go back to the church' or 'I'm an atheist, but...'
The faithful Christian life is a beautiful, moving thing to see.

And it makes me wonder.
What can I do, what can you do, what changes could I make in my life that might show the world around me just how beautiful this faith really is? Because there is untapped beauty in God's Church, and the only way it can shine through and dazzle the world is if Christians, with our attitudes and our words and our actions, set it loose.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Black Friday kills

I just read my first report of a Black Friday murder for 2013, here.

It seems to happen just about every year. This time it was a young man from Queens working at a Walmart in Long Island, NY. He was 34 years old and a temporary employee--maybe he needed a little extra income, or maybe he had been looking for any work he could get, I don't know. But now he's dead, trampled to death by a stampede of shoppers forcing their way through the store's doors. Even with the anonymity of the news article, the facts are heart-breaking.

I don't understand why we haven't done whatever it's going to take to protect people from this greed-fueled madness. "Greed" sounds like a harsh word, but what else can we say about an impulse to save money and acquire toys or gadgets that is so strong that it makes other people invisible to us, invisible to the point that we could fight with someone but forget her the moment we've wrestled the merchandise from her hands--already focused on the next objective--or even trample someone to death?
Greed, covetousness, avarice, sin, evil--no word is too strong for this.

But why haven't we done what it takes to prevent this? Why aren't there special, Black Friday entrances  at Walmarts which only allow one body through at a time, and if anyone tries to push or run through, they're removed from line/arrested/tasered--something? What about rules that no children are allowed for a certain period after the doors first open, to protect them and keep them from seeing some of the dark realities festering inside of humanity? What about spreading out the sales over a week or more, to diffuse the one night of hysteria?  How many people have to die to justify rethinking and totally revamping "Black Friday"? Surely, surely, it's not more than one. Surely one life is already too many, more than any holiday savings or making budget are worth?

If our society can't remedy this, then we're faced with one or two terrible possibilities. First, we're unable to conceive of an alternative. Our imaginations are paralyzed in the face of this situation, and there doesn't seem to be another good option. If that's what it is, then the obvious solution is to do away with a brick-and-mortar Black Friday altogether.
Or second, we're unwilling to seek an alternative. The current system seems to maximize profits, and you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. If that's what it is, then the Christian response is to name sin and demand change. We're not interested in saving blood money or elevating anything above the well-being of our neighbors, because we love them.

But something has to happen. We can't just forget about this in the upcoming weeks of escalating 'Christmas' festivities (can it really have anything to do with celebrating Jesus if we're willing to sacrifice other people's lives?) and then await the heart-breaking refrain next year, when someone else is killed. The Church has to demand a change that will safeguard people's lives, and we have to show the world a different way of life that includes a different way of shopping and a different way of celebrating Christmas.

Because holiday shopping is not worth this.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

this lady pastor is making waves

It seems like everywhere I turn in the last month I've been hearing about Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, and her new memoir, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint.

Bolz-Weber is not your average mainline clergywoman. She wears a collar, but often sans sleeves, to show off the tattoos covering both arms. She tends to cuss, and she's very open about her history of what you might call 'dissolute living'. In a nutshell, she's transparent--and more colorful on the inside than a lot of other transparent clergy-folk.

And blog after blog has been covering her lately, as well as a nice piece yesterday in The Washington Post.

Colorful clergy are nothing new. Plenty of Non-Denoms and other evangelical Christians have seen their share of ministers with tattoos or earrings, or the abrasive, in-your-face style. Sometimes this seems like sick pretense, sometimes it seems like refreshing honesty. The reason I felt like sharing about this particular lady is simply that I was struck by two lines from the WP article.

One is also found on the HFASS webpage: this church, they say, is "anti-excellence/pro-participation." At HFASS they try to take the focus off of the minister, off of any worthy or 'excellent' individuals, and  emphasize instead the whole Body. Bolz-Weber will preach and lead the prayer during the Communion liturgy, but otherwise the congregation leads every part of the service, even the music (it's a cappella)! Whether or not you like that way of doing things, I love seeing a place where you don't have to be anybody special to be deeply involved in worship--you don't need to be excellent, just to come and be a part of the Body.

The second bit that reverberated with me was a personal remark of hers. Nadia Bolz-Weber is afraid that a lot of mainline congregations have turned church into just another non-profit organization or community club, 'the Elks with Holy Communion'. She hopes HFASS can paint a different picture of the Church. Religion, she says, should be “something that’s so devastatingly beautiful it can break your heart. Instead it’s been: ‘Recycle.’ And ‘Don’t sleep with your girlfriend.’ ”

And I'll just leave you with that one.

Have you ever felt like you weren't good enough--or others thought you weren't good enough--to participate in some part of the life of the church?
When have you seen something truly beautiful in the Church or an individual's faith? What do you think could make your congregation and ministries more beautiful?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

pacifism and pansies

It seems that Mark Driscoll has said something outragous. Gasp.

This time, Driscoll, an author and the pastor of a large church in Seattle, has said something outrageous and, apparently, confused about Christian pacifists--those Christians who take Jesus very seriously when he talks about 'turning the other cheek', and refuse to participate in any kind of violence. Christian pacifism instead advocates non-violent resistance to the powers of evil.

But Driscoll pretty much dismisses pacifism as something for pansies, and Jesus, he points out, was no pansy.

On his blog, Jonathan Merritt has asked a few prominent Christian pacifists to respond. Shane Claiborne and Scot McKnight, among others, offer brief responses that, I think, make a nice (and quick) case for Christian pacifism.

My favorite reaction came from Preston Sprinkle, the author of Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence:
In spite of the fact that Romans 13 doesn’t mean what Driscoll thinks it means, in spite of the fact that Driscoll’s Hal Lindsay-like literal reading of Revelation finds little support among respectable commentators, and in spite of the fact that Jesus’s nonviolent life and nonviolent commands as well as the nonviolent exhortations of Paul (Rom 12), Peter (1 Pet 2-3), and John in Revelation (throughout) are completely ignored, what I find most entertaining about Driscoll’s sermon is his description of pacifists as pansies. Martin Luther King, who courageously led the charge against segregation, was a pansy. Charles Spurgeon, who boldly denounced warfare and violence, was a pansy. André and Magda Trocmé, who refused to use violence when they helped rescue 5,000 Jews from deaths camps during WWII, are both pansies. The leaders of the Christian church for the first 300 years of its existence—all of whom were pacifists—were also pansies.

You can read it all on Jonathan's blog over at RNS.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

religion as a moral compass?

At this very second, if I go to CNN's website the top piece of "world news" is essentially an opinion piece, a brief interview with Richard Dawkins, the British atheist evolutionary biologist. The piece is dubbed "Dawkins: Religion no moral compass," a title that draws particular attention to the first question Dr. Dawkins is asked: "A number of readers noting your skepticism over religion’s role in society ask whether an absence of religion would leave us without a moral compass?"

His response sent me into an air rage. [An air rage is when one waves his fist around in the air in sheer, silent fury.]

Dawkins responds by calling this idea "horrible," that religion might be a 'moral compass'. No surprise here. He goes on to declare that we should not "get our moral compass from religion." Again, totally expected. And he's entitled to an opinion on the topic. That's fine.
Then he goes one to say that, not only should we not allow religion to determine our morals, but we actually don't allow religion to determine our morals. We are faced with horrific things in scripture, he explains, such as stoning people to death and stoning people for breaking the Sabbath (his two examples), but
... of course we don’t do that anymore, but the reason we don’t do it is that we pick out those verses of the bible that we like, and reject those verses we don’t like. What criteria do we use to pick out the good ones and reject the bad ones? Non-biblical criteria, non-religious criteria. The same criteria as guide any modern person in their moral compass that has nothing to do with religion.

Air rage.

Richard Dawkins is a brilliant man. I loved his book The Greatest Show on Earth--after that, he's probably the best biology teacher I've ever had.
But when he opens his mouth and talks about religion, too often he speaks from such ignorance that it is simply astonishing. (And this is a sad irony, given the fury he's no doubt felt over the years listening to religious people speaking ignorantly about evolutionary biology.)

The only examples he gives of horrible things in the Bible that Christians (he may have Jews in mind as well, but certainly Christians) no longer do are "stoning people to death, stoning people for breaking the Sabbath." Such horrible things, he asserts, we no longer do because we pick and choose which biblical injunctions to follow, without any biblical criteria for our choices. One more time: Richard Dawkins, in the top CNN world news story of the day, claims that 21st century Christians arbitrarily choose not to stone people to death, having no biblical warrant for such a choice.
1 ...Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

That's John 8:1-11, a rather well-known passage.

Dr. Dawkins also seems to ignore all of Jesus' teachings concerning the Sabbath law.
He also seems to equate religion with 'following regulations written in a book'.
Additionally, he seems to be totally unaware of the disagreements and debates within the Bible itself and of the resulting complexities of erecting a moral framework out of such a diverse collection of texts.
He seems to be unaware of the brilliant, complex, nuanced ethical treatments people have to construct when taking the Bible seriously.
He does not seem to know about the scriptures' habit of pointing beyond themselves for moral guidance, pointing to the Spirit of God.
He seems to be unaware of the number of 21st century Christians who don't get to do the things they'd like to do, or who do things they'd rather not do, precisely because they're trying to take faithfulness as their moral compass.

People listen to this man as if he were an authority.
And yet this one, extremely well-publicized, piece is so full of absurdities and cluelessness that I don't know what to do with myself. I can't believe any news source would put something so ridiculous, so full of obvious falsehoods, in such a prominent place on their website.  That is infuriating.

This is also why, on occasion at Grace United Methodist Church, we will say a prayer for "those who influence public opinion" (adapted from the Book of Common Prayer). It goes like this:
Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: and so we pray that you direct in our time those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making people’s hearts wise and their wills righteous. Guide your people to recognize the voices that speak for you and distinguish them from the voices that would lead people astray, and guide us to speak the truth with grace and power in the face of falsehood; to the honor of Jesus Christ, we pray...

I always have Richard Dawkins in mind when I pray this. Not because I hope that he will convert to Christianity and begin using his influence for the gospel--that would be a beautiful thing, but that's not what I'm praying for. I'm praying that right now, as the world-renowned, atheist evolutionary biologist, he will say things that make people's hearts wise. He doesn't have to be a Christian to do that. He can speak about biology, nature, and this world, he can speak about atheism and the real differences between believers and non-believers, about challenges to our faith, in a way that will make people's hearts wise.
But instead, in this case, he's doing just the opposite. He's reinforcing simplistic misconceptions that many people harbor, and that's benefiting no one.

But I'll continue to pray this prayer, and I'll continue to hope that one day such rubbish will stop coming from each side, and in its place we'll see real understanding and informed dialogue.
Just not today, I'm afraid.

Monday, August 19, 2013

what's on the horizon?

For the last month it seems like the internet (or at least the websites I frequent) has been achatter with discussions about young people leaving and/or coming back to the church.

First there was a little article floating around facebook and elsewhere by a young Christian woman who warned churches that changing their rhythms and practices to try and draw a younger crowd might not be the brilliant idea many people think. In her own life, she explained, the hip, 'contemporary' worship was attractive for a time, but now that she's a little older she's drawn to the more traditional services she grew up in--and she's not the only one who feels this way. So, she advised everyone to "change wisely."

A few days later, the ever fun and insightful Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece for CNN about why young people—millennials—leave the church and what it would take to draw them back. Her answer: they leave because of a host of reasons (for example, they find their evangelical churches too political, unconcerned with social justice issues, and hostile to gay folks); bringing them back would require, not changes in style (contemporary worship services, etc.), but changes in substance. “We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against… We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”

After this, the dam burst and the articles and reflections started pouring through.
One former pastor argues that what Rachel calls for is really just another form of “tweaking”—and besides, he says, the church is already dead to millennials anyways.
Another fellow, a long-time Methodist turned Presbyterian, suggests that the church Rachel describes, the church the millennials are supposedly looking for, is the United Methodist Church (but, he adds, since millennials clearly aren't rushing into our churches, Rachel must be missing something).
Then a young woman, writing for Christianity Today, warned that the church's preoccupation with youth leaves middle-aged and older women feeling unimportant and unwanted--we can't just focus on millennials.
At the same time as all of this, one United Methodist complained that young Americans see the denomination as "completely irrelevant" because its primary concern is "how to perpetuate our own institution." In other words, we are more interested in attracting more and younger people than in being a church that is a light of the world.
All of that is just a small sampling of the chatter.

I'm not sure why this topic became such a firestorm here lately, but of course it is something on a lot of people's minds--especially in a church with an older average membership like the UMC. Now, I don't believe most people are worried simply because they want to ensure their church's survival. That does happen, no doubt, but a lot of people are probably worried because all of the statistics and everything they're seeing with their own children and grandchildren makes it seem like the faith might disappear altogether in the US in the decades ahead. And that's a terrifying prospect, for all kinds of reasons.

And so our minds naturally return to the question: how do we get the 'young people' in church? What do we have to do to draw them in?

Do we change 'wisely'? Do we need to make substantial changes rather than stylistic changes? Do we just need to advertise better, work on our image, so that millennials will realize that the UMC is actually their dream denomination? What do we need to do?

After the first piece started making waves online, a former classmate of mine made an observation that I think a lot of us need to hear. The church's constant struggle to "attract" people will only ever get us off on the wrong foot, he said, because "the idea of people streaming into Jerusalem is something the Bible only imagines eschatologically"--that is, something we only see in eternity (for instance, Isa 2:2).
Folks don't just come to worship the Lord and be a part of his people. We call people who begin searching for God in the church "seekers," yet in scripture God is the seeker. God's the one who goes looking for that one missing sheep (Luke 15:3-6), who turns the house upside down in search of that lost coin (15:8-9). Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). And Jesus' people are called to "go" and carry on his mission in the world. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20:21).

I don't know what we should expect the religious landscape to look like in the United States in 30 years--I don't even know what the United Methodist Church will look like then. It will probably look very different. But I do know that we aren't called to draw people to the church house, to attract the young folks (or anyone else) to our worship services, as if we could just sit back and watch them stream in. We are called to go and make disciples, go and let our lights shine before others out in the world, so that they might see those works and give glory to God. Ministering to the next generation, to any generation, is a call to go and proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom of God to them with our words and our lives--with our love. Instead of asking how to attract younger people to the church, maybe we should ask God where he would have us go and what he would have us do.

And, frankly, whatever trends we see in church attendance, whatever dire prognostications we hear concerning the future of church, I'm not worried. Why? I'm not worried because Jesus Christ is the head of the church (Col 1:18) and its cornerstone (Eph 2:20). Not us, not the strategies we come up with or the numbers we obsess over. Jesus Christ. That's all the assurance I need. The church is not going anywhere.

Monday, July 15, 2013

the Bible and recycling

a United Methodist 'rethink church' ad

Instead of putting together a new post for this week, I thought I would point everyone to an op-ed piece I wrote for our local newspaper, the Natchez Democrat, about a few biblical reasons why Christians should care about the planet and, by extension, about recycling. A lot of Bible-believing Christians have probably never heard this before, and since we're kicking off a new, city-wide, curbside recycling program here in Natchez in the next couple of weeks, I'm trying to spread the word and maybe get those Christians excited about this chance to care for creation.

Check it out on the Democrat website:  "Christians should embrace recycling."

What have you heard the Bible saying about the planet and how we should treat it? What have you heard churches teaching on this question? 
Does the idea that Christians should care for the environment surprise you? Why or why not?

Monday, July 08, 2013

God is actually quite Great: the Rwandan martyrs

Most people my age probably don't know much more about the Rwandan genocide of 1994 than what you can learn by watching Hotel Rwanda. I was 7 years old at the time, and I don't remember even a hint from the news about what was going on. I now know that, for over three months, ethnic killings swept through the land as more than 500,000 Tutsi people (maybe as many as 1 million) were killed by their Hutu countrymen.

Startling (and horrifying) moments in history like this always leave a trail of stories behind: stories of unbelievable evil or of astonishing heroism; stories of hope and of gut-wrenching loss. This is one of those stories from Rwanda.

During those bloody months of mass murder, a large group of Christians--over 13,000, so the story goes--gathered for refuge in the town of Ruhanga. The group was a patchwork of denominations: Pentecostals and Roman Catholics, Baptists, and more. The group was also ethnically mixed: Tutsi and Hutu.
A witness has described what happened next:
When the militias came, they ordered the Hutus and the Tutsis to separate themselves by tribe. The people refused and declared that they were all one in Christ, and for that they were all killed.

The entire group, Hutus and Tutsis, was gunned down and dumped in mass graves.

That, as one writer put it simply, is a testimony of "the power of the gospel to break down the wall separation" we erect between ourselves and others of different races or different cultures. These believers refused to let anything other than Jesus Christ define them, even when it was the prudent thing to do--even when this could cost them their lives.

Some people argue furiously and very publicly that religion--Christianity or any other--is only ever a poisonous, destructive force in the world. This haunting story, however, suggests something else. Even if this were the only example we could look to (and it's not), here in this shocking moment we see the power of faith in Jesus to unite and support and affirm, even when the consequences are dire. As horrifying as the violence inflicted on these, and so many other Rwandans at the time, is, I can't help but come away from this tale with a sense of the beauty of the gospel and the light it can shine in some of history's darkest hours.

(To see all of the posts in this series, you can click here.)

This story, and the eye-witness testimony, is recounted by Richard B. Hays in The Letter to the Galatians, p. 248, in The New Interpreter's Bible, volume XI.
Thus far, I have been unable to track down the original source of the tale (a 1996 newsletter from SOMA) to read for myself. Ordinarily that would be enough to keep me from re-posting such an account, but, because I trust Dr. Hays's academic integrity implicitly, I decided to share the story anyways.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

get some sleep

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day...
(Genesis 1:1-8)

And so it begins. This rhythm of creation goes on: dry land, seas, vegetation, the sun and the moon, all the way to human beings. The chapter wraps up with verse 31: "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day."

Have you ever paid attention to that strange phrase running throughout the story: "there was evening and there was morning, the -- day"? I've heard or read those words hundreds of times, but it wasn't until recently that I really noticed them. Why does it say 'evening and morning, the whatever day'? Why not 'morning and evening'? That's how we'd describe it in the US today. A day goes from morning to evening.
Of course it's pretty well-known that ancient Hebrews didn't think of days the same way we do. A day, for them, began when the sun went down--so a day ran from evening to morning. And in case you'd never learned that about Israel, it's plastered all over the creation account in Genesis 1. Evening and morning, a day.

Still, unless you were hoping to keep a traditional Sabbath, from Friday evening through Saturday 'morning', this little nugget never seemed particularly important to me. Evening to morning, morning to evening, we still sleep and wake at the same times, the meals fall on the same hours, the time clock reads the same--no big deal, right?

Last week it was pointed out to me that this is actually a really big deal.

In his book Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson points out this difference between the Hebrew notion of a 'day' and the way we usually use the word. When we talk about our day or yesterday, we generally aren't including the night hours in that. Night's just a time for sleep; it doesn't really count. Yet, in Genesis, a day

is the unit of God's creative work; evening is the beginning of that day. It is the onset of God speaking light, stars, earth, vegetation, animals, man, woman into being. But is is also the time when we quit our activity and go to sleep. When it is evening "I lay me down to sleep and pray the Lord my soul to keep" and drift into unconsciousness for the next six or eight or ten hours, a state in which I am absolutely nonproductive and have no cash value.
Then I wake up... and rush out the door to get things started. The first thing I discover (a great blow to the ego) is that everything was started hours ago.*

For me, night time is pretty unproductive--not much happens, not much is accomplished. But for the God who made the universe, sundown is the beginning of another day, the explosive launch from the start line, when his creating and sustaining works begin their daily race through all creation. When morning comes, and I drag myself back into the land of the living, God's already been at work for hours. God's work always goes ahead of us.
When we in the Church feel like we "get things started"--we 'start' reaching out to people, 'start' a new ministry, 'start' spreading the good news--we forget that God was at work long before we woke up, reaching out, ministering, spreading the gospel. The most sensible thing for us to do, Peterson points out, is to ask, "Where do I fit in? Where do you need an extra hand? What still needs to be done?" God has begun his work, and the Church is invited to join in, "to enjoy and share and develop the work he initiated."

And for Peterson, reflecting on this leads to another discovery:

[W]hen I quit my day's work, nothing essential stops. I prepare for sleep not with a feeling of exhausted frustration because there is so much yet undone and unfinished, but with expectancy. The day is about to begin! God's genesis words are about to be spoken again. During the hours of my sleep, how will he prepare to use my obedience, service, and speech when morning breaks? I go to sleep to get out of the way for awhile.**

There always seems to be more to do, more needs, more service, more opportunities--you can't possibly seize on them all. But that's okay. We're not meant to do it all. God is at work, before us, after us, in spite of us.

So don't worry. Get some sleep; rest from your work. Get out of God's way for a few hours. He doesn't sleep, neither does he slumber (Ps 121:4). Who knows what he'll get done by morning?

* Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Intergrity, p. 68, italics and bold print added.
** p. 69

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review: Man of Steel

This weekend, Superman returned to the big screen in Man of Steel. Directed by Zach Snyder (300, Watchmen), with a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), this is DC Comics's latest effort to capture the popularity of Nolan's Batman trilogy (something other recent DC films, like Jonah Hex and Green Lantern, utterly failed to do) while opening the door to a larger film universe, something to rival Marvel's success with the Iron Man films, The Avengers, etc.

And you know what? I think DC has finally done it.

There are a lot of things that need to happen for someone to tell a good Superman story: you need to have villains that are not lame (Toyman anyone? Hellgrammite?) and are actually threatening to Superman. You also need to make the man himself interesting, which can be pretty tough--'truth, justice, and the American way' isn't exactly a recipe for a complex, dynamic character. Besides, that, you'll need to know how to integrate the supporting characters, Lois Lane in particular, into the story well.

And Man of Steel does it all.
Taking a cue from Batman Begins, Man of Steel features a generally lesser-known villain, though one who is formidable and naturally ties into the origin tale. No, more than formidable... more than dangerous... General Zod is seemingly unbeatable. There were several moments during the movie when I wondered how our hero could possibly save the day, and, honestly, I'm still not positive how Superman bested him at all. But this is exactly what you need with a hero as powerful as Superman.
The film also does its best to give Superman himself some complexity, to make him something more than a one-dimensional embodiment of good. They approach this task from several directions. Throughout the film Clark is clearly struggling under the burdens and expectations his Kryptonian and human fathers have placed on him, both of them hoping, in their own ways, that he'll single-handedly save an entire civilization. The movie also tells a deeply personal story: full of family, childhood memories, dogs, and old photo albums. This isn't simply a story about Superman; it's a story about Clark Kent.
And it's a story that takes place in the real world, with IHOPs and 7-Elevens, where governments see a superhero as a potential threat, the villains cause real destruction, and Superman can't always protect Metropolis. In some ways, this movie is a thought experiment: what would happen if a being who was invulnerable, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, who could fly--what would happen if such a being arrived on earth? How would he react? How would we?

The stars of the film won't let you down. Amy Adams, not surprisingly, gives a fine performance--I've yet to see her give anything less. Her Lois Lane is exactly what you need: curious, intrepid, and determined. And cute. The age difference between her and Cavill seemed a bit strange at times to me (Adams is 8 years his senior), but it didn't detract much.
Casting a relatively-unknown Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel himself was a risk, but it has paid off: not only is he physically spot-on (something we all knew coming in to the movie), but he manages to capture the tensions the character's struggling with: the tension between small town, all-American Clark Kent and extraterrestrial orphan Kal-El; the tension between limitless power and reluctant restraint, lest the world's fear of him be justified. Cavill skillfully communicated the emotions and the conflict.

Of course, the movie's not without weaknesses. One thinks immediately of the scene where Superman and Lois kiss in the middle of the ruins of Metropolis, while thousands of people Superman could be helping are trapped behind rubble, desperately in need of medical attention.
Still, on the whole, this is a really solid superhero movie. It's probably not as good a film as any of Nolan's Batman movies, and it's not as fun as the recent Marvel slate, but it's solid: a classic story re-told well, with a great cast, spectacular effects, and a really nice score from Hans Zimmer

One surprising thing about Man of Steel has been the focus on the 'messianic themes' in the movie. For instance, one piece on CNN's Belief Blog this weekend described Warner Bros.'s efforts to advertise the movie to churches. Director Zach Snyder also discussed some of this on CNN recently. Frankly, I'm not sure why this should garner so much attention. For starters, the parallels all seem pretty superficial to me: a child is born, and this brings people hope; a man (he's 33!!!) has to save the world. Nothing there for me to get too excited about. And, unfortunately, in the film itself, the Jesus-connections are pretty heavy handed--they were not going to let the audience miss this, apparently. But one glimpse of the stained glass window would have done, you know?
Maybe I'm missing something, but I think that, instead of using the movie to say some rather generic things about Jesus, Christians would be better served exploring some of the moral and theological questions the story raised: Is it right to kill to save life? What makes Zod killing humans to save Krypton different from Superman killing Kryptonians to save Earth? What's the difference, if any, between faith and trust? There are plenty of questions Man of Steel raises that Christians could benefit from pondering and wrestling with--I just don't think 'how does Superman remind you of Jesus?' would be the most fruitful one.

I've got to admit, Superman has never been my favorite character, and a lot of my hopes for this movie were tied up with the possibilities it represents, namely, more DC characters on the big screen, a Justice League movie, etc. And given the box office success so far, I'd say a lot of those possibilities will become reality in the years ahead. But, while I walked into the theater thinking about sequels and spin-offs, I walked out thinking about the movie I'd just seen. Like any good superhero movie, Man of Steel is entertaining and action-packed, but it has also situated Superman in the real world, with all of it's troubles and fears and ambiguities. In the end, that's what will make the sequels and spin-offs--and what makes Man of Steel--worth watching.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

this is not business as usual


The bishop of the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church, James Swanson--our bishop is a preacher.

Bishop Swanson's supposed to make 'a few opening remarks', and he preaches. Bishop Swanson's supposed to deliver a report, and he preaches. Bishop Swanson's supposed to preach, and oh does he preach. He's just a preacher.

So, when we had our Annual Conference this weekend, and all the Methodist ministers and members of churches across the state gathered for prayer and teaching and business, we heard the bishop preach. Many times.

And it was exciting! Not just because he's an energetic preacher--a fiery preacher!--or because of how he gushes with enthusiasm and conviction. All of that can make for exciting preaching, but I was really excited about something else. The highlight of Bishop Swanson's preaching didn't come when he told a moving story from post-Apartheid South Africa, or when he was screaming and spinning in circles. The highlight came when he was calling the Church in Mississippi mission--to love, to generosity, to justice, and to sanctification--and he said "this is not business as usual."

So much about Annual Conference is business as usual. We're voting on resolutions and constitutional amendments, making recommendations, referring things to committees, administrating--we're following Robert's Rules! But what if the life of the church, the church at mission in our state and our world, weren't just 'business as usual'?

What would that look like for your congregation, in your community? Imagine with me here: if the church could make one change, start doing one thing--anything at all--what would you hope to see?

Going into Annual Conference, I was pretty underwhelmed (to say the least) by this year's theme: "The POWER of We." Every time the theme came up, it sounded like a celebration of what we can do if we just put our minds/hands to it: 'prepare to be energized by the POWER of We!' 'This world can be transformed by the POWER of We!' 'Think big: we can do it by the POWER of We!' And on and on and on, with lots of exclamations points, lots of 'we's, and zero Jesus, zero Holy Spirit. Pretty disheartening stuff.
And then Bishop Swanson preached: he preached on Acts 2, where the apostles achieved these astonishing and downright heroic acts of faith and love (see 2:42-47), and how all of this was only possible because they had received the power of the Holy Spirit (1:8; 2:1-4). The power, the bishop reminded us, did not belong to the church, but came through there relationship to the Spirit: "There is no 'we' without this power... We cannot do anything without the power of the Holy Spirit." But when we're open to the Spirit, renewal comes in the Church.

What is the Spirit doing in your church now? How else might the Spirit empower your church for mission in the world? What could happen if we were open to the power of the Holy Spirit?

In a series of messages, the Bishop clearly laid out the Church's call to love, to generosity, to justice, and to apprenticeship--helping each other grow. These are four of the fundamental ways in which the Church, United Methodist or otherwise, can make God's love and grace manifest in our world. The Mississippi Conference leadership, we were assured over and over this weekend, aren't going to tell us 'how to do church', how to undertake this mission in our setting; the churches know best about the people and the needs where we are. We need to feel free to listen to our Lord's leadings, to receive the Spirit's power and direction, and to obey, and serve those around us.

So... how are we going to do it? How are you going to do it? How is God calling you and your church to love people, to give generously where there are needs, to insist on justice when you're faced with injustices, and to grow in grace together? The church, in the power of the Spirit, doesn't have to be business as usual. What should it be?

What is your church doing that needs to be celebrated? What does the church need to start doing? Where does the church need to be a presence, be at work, in your community? What would it take to make that happen?

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

reading the Bible

The pollsters at the Barna group just announced the results of a survey about what Americans are reading.

Most of the questions seemed to revolve around a few popular books or books recently adapted into movies, like The Hunger Games, The Hobbit, or Life of Pi, but Barna also asked about the Bible: how many people claim to have read the entire Bible? What generations are these readers from? What faith do they claim?

Honestly, I found the results surprising all around.
20% of American adults claim to have read the Bible all the way through. That would be pretty impressive to me. I've known a lot of folks, evangelicals, who will use a One-Year Bible or a similar reading plan, and so, with a little discipline, they'll get through the book in a matter of time. And I'm sure a lot of other people, like myself, have gotten all the way through the Bible by a more... roundabout... and drawn out process. It was probably eight years of reading here and there--oh! I've never heard of this book, better read it too--and rereading this or that, before I got through the entire Bible. If it took me that long, someone who really enjoys reading and studying scripture and who thinks it's of vital importance to his life, I can't imagine how people who don't enjoy reading the Bible or who don't have a religious impetus for reading it could get through.

A lot of these people are non-Christians. 18% of Americans who claim a faith other than Christianity, and 9% of Americans who claim no faith at all, say they've read the Bible. (Now, I'm assuming Mormons would be 'non-Christian' by Barna's standards--though I could be wrong on that--and so the number of individuals of other faiths who've read the Bible might be less surprising than it looks at first blush.)
My first reaction to this was: 'Huh. And how many Christians have read the Quran?' Or any other non-Christian holy books, for that matter? (And you can't count the Hebrew Bible. That's cheating.) I had to read some things majoring in religion at a public university, but otherwise I'm not so sure I'd have ever read texts like the Bhagavad-Gita or the Yoga Sutra. I'd love to see some more numbers comparing the inter-faith reading of different groups, because this sure leaves me feeling like Christians are going to be the least interested in learning about other beliefs.

You can check out the rest of the results here.

Like I said, these results surprised me. Frankly, the '1 in 5 have read the Bible' actually sounds a little questionable. 1 in 5 Americans have read Leviticus? They've read 1 Chronicles 1-9? 1 in 5 have read every word of the Psalms, of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel? I find this more than a little hard to believe. Surely, surely, there's a degree of  'oh, sure, I've read the Bible!' affecting those results. Sometimes, when a book or author is so influential and so talked-about, I think it's easy to assume you've read them, feel like you must have read them, even if you haven't. But I'm just speculating here--maybe these numbers are right on.

I hope people do read the Bible, though.
One of my aims in preaching and teaching is to get people interested in it and excited about it--because I think it's an interesting and exciting book (which is helpful when it's also very long and absolutely essential!).
I told a group once that I think the Bible is a bit like Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. We assume we know the character--we've seen the Disney cartoon, or we've read an abridged, children's version of the tale. Quasimodo is the kindly, lonely, misunderstood bell-ringer of Notre Dame. And he has quite a singing voice. Yet when you read Victor Hugo's classic, you find that the hunchback is much less Disney, much less kid-friendly, than you thought. He's grittier, more real. For instance: not only does he not sing, but he barely speaks, because years of ringing the cathedral bells has left him deaf--he uses sign language.

The Bible's grittier and more real than you'd expect. It's not the collection of brightly-colored kids' stories you learned about in Sunday school. And like Hunchback, the Bible's more stirring and more beautiful than the popular conceptions floating around could ever convey. I hope people read it.

How about you? What do you think of these numbers? Have you read the Bible all the way through? How did you do it? What made it difficult? What could help?
Have you read any sacred books from other faiths?

Monday, May 20, 2013

thanks for the reminder, God

Last week I was on vacation. I spent a great deal of time reading books, playing cards, visiting an aquarium, and watching The Office.
It was a good trip. I thought I might have some deep reflections to share upon my return home: deep reflections about the importance of rest; deep reflections about taking time to enjoy the world around you; deep reflections about resisting the urge to let work and accomplishments define you.

I have no deep reflections from the trip.

But this morning--well let me tell you what happened this morning.

I got to the the office like I do every Monday, and I started catching up on mail and messages from last week. Among other things, I looked at the attendance sheets people fill out in our Sunday services, and the visitor cards.
And the Sunday I was out, we may have had the most visitors of all the weeks I've been serving here. Visitors, people I hadn't seen in a few weeks and missed, people who can only make it around occasionally, or who visit every now and then--and folks who may have just given the church its one chance... and I missed every single one of them.

First reaction:
You've got to be kidding me. What the heck?
... Really. What the heck?

I'm out one freaking week, and all of these people I would love to see and love to connect with are here. Way to not realize that May 12th (Mother's Day!) is the big visitor Sunday of the year. Apparently. Way to schedule your vacation like an idiot.

Second reaction (after taking a break to walk around the church and pray for a few minutes):
I'm really glad all of these people were here that Sunday. I hope they experienced God's grace in worship. I'm glad there are dependable people I can ask to lead the service while I'm gone, and that those people were leading it that week. I'm glad the visitors were able to encounter this congregation and not just the guy who's assigned here for a few years and then leaves--oh, and apparently believes that his presence here on Sunday morning is super important.

Because it is... and it isn't.
I play a big role at Grace, a prominent role, and the Lord can use me in powerful ways. But it's the Lord doing that work, not me. In ministry, "neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth." (1 Cor 3:7) Different servants come--some of whom also have very prominent roles--and we all work towards the same goal, but our Lord accomplishes the work. And I don't think God was on vacation that week.
Last Sunday, some of God's other servants had a chance to work in ways they might not get to every week. Yesterday, I was back: making announcements, leading prayers, preaching. Either way, both weeks, only God gives the growth.

I'm thankful that the folks I missed weren't missed. It doesn't much matter that they couldn't hear a Nance Hixon sermon (some of my preaching, people probably would be better off without!) or shake Nance Hixon's hand on the way out of the church. The Holy Spirit, whom I pray works through my efforts, was present and at work through the efforts of others, and I've got to learn to trust that.

Thanks for the reminder, God.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Bangladesh and "Babylonian" economics

Somehow - God's grace - with everything else happening in the world, news concerning the grisly garment factory collapse in Bangladesh on April 24th is still making headlines. Yesterday, Time released a photograph from the scene of the collapse, where two workers died embracing each other as the building came down around them (you can see the image by following the link; given the content, I decided not to post it here). The photographer, who was present all day following the catastrophe, writes: "Every time I look back to this photo, I feel uncomfortable - it haunts me. It's as if they are saying to me, we are not a number - not only cheap labor and cheap lives. We are human beings like you. Our life is precious like yours, and our dreams are precious too."

According to the last report I saw, 794 men and women are believed to have died in the collapse--and I expect that total will continue to rise.


We've just finished studying the book of Revelation at Grace UMC, and one thing I was only able to address briefly is Revelation's judgment on the economics of ancient Rome. You see this most clearly in Revelation 18, where we hear of the fall of "Babylon," John's name for Rome (a city famously built on seven hills - see Rev 17:9), and we get a glimpse of "the power of her luxury" (18:3). For instance, listen to Revelation 18:11-14, one response to Babylon's destruction:

And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves--and human lives.
"The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and all your dainties and your splendor are lost to you, never to be found again!"

The longer John's catalog of cargo goes on, the clearer it is that John's not impressed by these 'goods'. Luxury turns into monotony. These are but "dainties and splendor," which God's judgment has wiped away.
But not only is this evidence that Babylon has "glorified herself and lived luxuriously" (18:7), this is also evidence of Babylon's "exploitation of the wealth of her empire at her subjects' expense."* The problem is not just the luxurious living, but also the oppressive economics that supported Rome's comfort. That's most obvious with the references to "slaves--and human lives," but people living in the Roman Empire in the 1st century, the people John was writing Revelation for, would know, often firsthand, about the extent of Rome's exploitation of the lands she conquered. This went beyond slavery. In a famous speech before battle with Roman forces, a Celtic chieftain from this time, named Calgacus, denounced the Romans as the "robbers of the world." They plunder, butcher, and steal, he said, and they misname all of this "empire." This was the source of her luxury: the oppression and plundering of the lands and peoples under her influence. And the first readers of Revelation, those living in the Roman empire, to whom John was writing, would have known this as they read through the catalogs of stolen goods.


Last week, in response to the factory collapse in Bangladesh, a piece by Wendy McMahan appeared on Christianity Today asking the Church to face the hard truths of how the cheap goods we enjoy in the US today often come at a frightening price to the workers producing them. "We need to stop and consider," she writes, "how most of us have supported an industry that lets people work in these dangerous conditions."

Read it here: Ignoring Worker Injustice Won't Make It Go Away.

Our spending, she suggests, ultimately shows that "we tend to care more about the price of our clothing than the conditions under which they are made." This is partly because we are so far removed from these people: "I will never meet my seamstress."
Yet, she insists, there's another factor we cannot ignore: that we have failed to love. "My sin against her is that I have loved myself too much, and her too little."

Our failure to love these neighbors, I believe, makes us no different than Babylon, exploiting the nations of the world so we can revel in our luxury and splendor. We have supported an economic system that routinely sends people into unsafe conditions to work long hours for stunningly low wages. Our demands for cheap products leave countless, faceless workers in a vicious cycle of low wages, non-existent benefits, and even, occasionally, factory fires or building collapses. (I've written about some of these issues before, focusing on Chinese manufacturing: the China price and me.) And if we can ignore these occasional news stories long enough, they'll go away, and we can move on.

Well, Revelation calls believers to stop ignoring it, to come out of Babylon and take no part in her sins (18:4). Christians cannot remain comfortable consumers in a system that abuses our neighbors across the globe, just so long as we can get our goods. That's Babylon's way; that's not the way of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. And we're called to follow the Lamb, to love our neighbors, to look out for their needs and their good.

So we have to find an alternative.

For a start, we can listen to the suggestions Wendy McMahan makes in her CT article. These may seem pretty obvious, but if we took them seriously they would radically alter the way we do our shopping:

1) "Support clothing companies that treat their workers well."
One resource she recommends is The Better World Shopper. This organization offers information to guide your purchases on their website, with a smart phone app, and through a book. Another resource on fair trade is Trade as One, a Christian organization that "has been advocating consumer justice for years."

2) "Buy less new clothing."
Her advise here is great, and simple:

The overstuffed drawers and closets in my house just might be a sign that my family doesn't need every piece of clothing that we own. We certainly don't need more. Buying less also allows us to invest more on fewer items produced under just and ethical conditions, rather than paying for piece after piece of cheap clothing. Plus, there are always thrift shops. Buying secondhand is resourceful and doesn't demand new supplies or labor be used for our clothing.

3) "Give to programs that offer workers another option."
She leaves it to us to find out the best resources here, but the fact is, in Bangladesh and in other countries across the world there are organizations working to provide better opportunities for those otherwise consigned to a life of factory work--and we can help support their efforts.

If we took these suggestions seriously, they would make a strong start to a new way of life as consumers--and Christians who are entwined in economics that abuse our neighbors, "Babylonian" economics, we have to find a new way. We have to try and love our distant, nameless neighbors, even though it takes more effort, costs more money. That's just what it involves, following the Lamb out of Babylon.

* This description comes from the New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham, in The Theology of the Book of Revelation, p. 135.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

preparing to encounter God

At Grace UMC we receive communion once a month, on the first Sunday of each month (plus the occasional special service, like Holy Thursday). Compared to some churches, this is pretty infrequent, but compared to my experience growing up, where we might celebrate the Lord's Supper three or four times a year, once a month is treasure for which I'm so thankful.

I'm thankful because I find communion to be a powerful, life-giving experience. I'm thankful because I believe something truly miraculous happens at the Lord's table: we encounter Jesus Christ--"this is my body" means that is his body, and "this is my blood" means that is his blood. There's nothing magic about the service or the words I say there, but when I pray for the Holy Spirit to touch the bread and the cup to "make them be for us the body and blood of Christ," the Spirit uses that time and those elements to connect us to Jesus.

I could spill a lot of digital ink here over why I believe these things and what exactly they mean, but that's not my aim right now. Instead, I have a question for those of us who will be kneeling this Sunday morning with our hands out to receive a piece of bread. If this moment and this sacrament uniquely and powerfully connect us to Jesus through the Holy Spirit, how are we going to prepare for this?

Thomas a' Kempis, in his classic devotional book, The Imitation of Christ, forces his readers to face this question. Jesus invites us, sinners, weary and burdened, to come to him (Matt 11:28). Jesus instituted the practice of communion at the Last Supper so that we could have an established means of drawing near to him and encountering him--he didn't leave us without a way to find him. At this table, we find grace, our souls are restored, and "the beauty destroyed by sin returns again"! And yet, how do we prepare ourselves to receive this gift?

Moses, he points out, made the Ark of the Covenant "out of imperishable wood, overlaying it with the purest gold," to place the two tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments, inside. "Then how shall I, a corrupt and perishable creature, dare so lightly to receive the Maker of the Law and the Giver of life" at communion?
King Solomon spent seven years building "a resplendent temple, for the worship of Your Name, the dedication of which was celebrated for eight days; a thousand peace offerings were sacrificed - and with great solemnity and rejoicing - and accompanied by the sound of trumpets." And yet I, he goes on, who can barely devote myself to you for half an hour, shall I invite your very presence at the altar?
"O my God, how much did those great persons of the Old Testament do to please You! How little I do and how short is the time I give to prepare myself for the reception of Holy Communion!"

How are you going to prepare yourself for Holy Communion this Sunday?
Maybe you should take some time to pray that God would "cleanse the thoughts of our hearts" for an encounter with Jesus.
Maybe you could read over the story of Christ's execution in one of the gospels, to remember the cost he paid with his body and blood so that we could be saved.
Or maybe you could just use some time of quiet, to let the voices in your mind fall silent and let the distractions fade away, so that you can focus and appreciate what's happening at that table and that kneeling rail.

Whatever you need to do, just do it. This week, let's try to honor God with some fore-thought and some preparation. You just might find that all of your hurried experiences of grace at communion were only the tip of the iceberg.


As important as preparation is, and as seriously as we ought to take it, we can't forget that the Lord's table is first and foremost place of grace--and that means you don't have to earn a spot at it.
a' Kempis makes the point powerfully in an imaginative dialogue between Jesus and a follower of Christ. "You must realize," Jesus says, "that you cannot make adequate preparation for Me through your own merits, even if you prepared yourself for an entire year with your mind on nothing else. It is through My generosity and grace that you are allowed to approach my table."
Because we only come to the table by Christ's generosity and grace, he can say: "Do the best you can and as well as you can... I am He Who has invited you, and I have commanded this Sacrament to be; therefore, I will make up for whatever is lacking in you. Come, then, and receive Me."

Prepare yourself to come to the table. But remember, we approach by grace, so however unprepared or unworthy you feel, Jesus welcomes you still. He'll make up for whatever we lack.

So let's come, then, and receive him.

Monday, April 22, 2013

rethink Creation

I recently had a chance to read a really good little book, Making Peace with the Land: God's Call to Reconcile with Creation, co-authored by Norman Wirzba and Fred Bahnson. Wirzba is a professor at my alma mater, Duke Divinity, where he teaches courses like "Caring for Creation" and "Food, Eating and the Life of Faith." Fred Bahnson is a writer, gardner, and cofounder of Anathoth Community Garden in Cedar Grove, NC.

Occasionally the books seems to drift from its biblical moorings, but for the most part Making Peace with the Land is a really fascinating and compelling attempt to take seriously Paul's claim in Colossians 1:20, that "through him [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven." God's work in Jesus wasn't just meant to reconcile humanity to God, but all created things. All things were made through him and for him (1:16), and so all things are reconciled by him too. Wirzba and Bahnson make this point early and spend the rest of the book trying to help us think about what that might mean for our relationship to the planet and to show us what that might look like in practice - how the ways we live might "proclaim the good news to the whole creation" (Mark 16:15).
The ways these two draw out Paul's claim and the recommendations they make for Christian living in light of Paul's claim might surprise you, but it's a powerful message. If you really want to dig into, you'll have to check out the book for yourself. Today I just wanted to draw our attention to one part of the book that struck a chord with me.

In chapter 5, Wirzba (the duo trade off writing chapters) suggests that we need to recognize that God's different creatures on this earth all depend on each other for life - "creation forms a vast and indescribably complex and organic whole." And there's an implication here that we can't afford to miss:
Humanity is only one member within this creation. It does not all exist for our exclusive benefit. As God reminded Job, the earth is full of creatures that are of no use to us but are of intimate concern to God: "Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?" (Job 38:41) It contains creatures like the mighty Leviathan, which can kill us but is a particular delight to God: "I will not keep silence concerning its limbs, or its mighty strength, or its splendid frame" (Job 41:12). [p. 127]

"Creation," he concludes, "exists for our health and nurture, but it is not made for our exclusive enjoyment" [128] - or, I would add, for our exclusive use. God created this world and everything in it, and he takes joy in what he made, cares for what he made. Unfortunately, our standard practices with modern, industrial agriculture (a topic the book focuses on) don't consider the world as God's creation. Instead, the world is viewed merely as a resource: it exists solely to fulfill whatever purposes we deem fit. From this perspective, it's much easier to lose sight of (or ignore) the harm our agricultural practices do to the soil, water, plants, animals, and ecosystems of a place. There are similar effects when we simply don't spend time in nature - holed up in our cities, busy with work, distracted with gadgets - and don't have to recognize or face the consequences of our constant pollution, littering, our landfills, or development. But we don't live in a world created to hold our trash or provide nice locations for our homes and roads. We live in a world created by God for his pleasure, a world he called good (Gen 1), a planet that both manifests his blessings and love (Ps 104:10-18, 27-30) and offers back praise to him (Ps 96:11-13). Given the ways we often think about the world, and given the ways the Bible often describes the world, it seems that Christians need to start thinking about creation differently. Maybe Bahnson and Wirzba are right, and when God "took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it" (Gen 2:15), that was "an invitation to know and share in God's love for the whole creation" [p. 18] - an invitation that Christians in the 21st century need to take very seriously.

Today, April 22nd, is Earth Day. Christians haven't always seen this as a holiday for them, but we can, and we should. "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it" (Ps 24:1). We need to stretch our imaginations so that we do think of the earth as the Lord's and Earth Day, when people emphasize our responsibility to care for the earth, as a properly Christian holiday.

As we try to rethink Creation and rethink our relationship to this world, as we consider our task of caring for Creation on this Earth Day, I want to leave us with two questions Dr. Wirzba asks early on in the book - questions that I think are provocative in all the right ways. Take these with you and consider them well; or chime in below, and we'll talk about them: "What would it look like, practically speaking, to proclaim the gospel to rivers, redwoods, raccoons and roaches? Is our presence on earth good news for all the creature with which we live?" [p. 23]

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

bad news

There's a lot of bad news.

This morning our local paper reported that the police stopped a man from jumping off of the Mississippi River bridge yesterday afternoon. That news comes on the heels of a report from the weekend revealing that the suicide rate here in Adams County is 36% higher than the national average and 25% higher than the state average--15 in 100,000 deaths compared to 11 in 100,000 and 12 in 100,000, respectively. The newspaper named three factors in particular that fuel this situation: poverty, drugs, and lack of education.

Of course the well-educated, upper or middle class individual who's not dogged by substance abuse will take his life too. The tragic news about Matthew Warren last week is evidence enough of that.

And the other headlines today, obviously, are about the explosions in Boston yesterday. At this point, 3 people have died and scores have been injured and hospitalized. Someone poured out their malice and spite in one tremendous act of violence on people he probably didn't know, just lashing out at the world, at whomever he could reach.

What do you say in the face of these things?

What do you say to depression and despair, addiction and poverty, suicide and the survivors?
What do you say to rage and violence, terror and murder--and the survivors?

And not only in Natchez, in Boston, in the United States.
What do you say to earthquakes in Iran and Pakistan? Or the bombings in Iraq on Monday, or the on-going violence in Syria, where a million people (500,000 children) have been displaced by the carnage?

There's bad news, horrific, heart-breaking news, coming from all over the world. Every day. Constantly. What can you say to all of this?

You want to look for solutions--counseling and medication for depression, education and aid for those in need of them, negotiations and peace after years of conflict. And sometimes 'solutions' really can solve things, though often they cannot.
You want to offer comfort and sympathy to those left behind, those wracked with grief and questions, and those still in the middle of it all, still unsure, still hurting, still in danger. And sometimes a person can take comfort from our gestures and considerations, but often they cannot.

We should work towards 'solutions' and strive to offer consolation to people who are suffering, but that's not all we can do--not even the best thing we can do.

We should pray, "come, Lord Jesus!"

Because that's when the healing comes. In Christ, our work here and now is not in vain, but the lives that are broken and bruised and torn that we work to treat now, then these lives will be made new, made whole. The fires of conflict and unrest are going to be dowsed with the waters from the spring of life. The forces of evil that infect our world today will be crushed beneath the throne of God that comes down from heaven when God comes to dwell with his people and wipe away their tears, when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
There's a day coming (and I really believe this) when all things will be made new, when all the bad news will be no more--it'll be replaced with good news. We work against the bad, work towards the good now, but only God can complete that work.

So please, God. Come, Lord Jesus.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013


This morning, continuing my slow trek through the book of Proverbs, I came upon a verse that's a little different, a little unusual.
You expect sayings about the wise man and the fool or the clever and the simple, the fate of the righteous and the fate of the wicked--and much of the time, that's exactly what you get. But every now and then there's a welcome break in the pattern when Proverbs throws you a curveball.

"Where there are no oxen, there is no grain;
    abundant crops come by the strength of the ox."
- Proverbs 14:4

First reaction: 'Oh cool, animals! Oxen'.

Second reaction: '... Okay, then. Moving on. I think I saw something about telling the truth in verse 5...'

Some proverbs are just hard to relate to, right? I don't raise any grain; I don't own any oxen. Sure, I guess if you lived in an agricultural society where you used oxen to cultivate the land, you need a strong ox. That makes sense.

Oh! There's something about wisdom in verse 6.

But the more I thought about this peculiar, seemingly useless (to me, at least) proverb, the more it struck me that our society has essentially rewritten this proverb. There's a new wisdom today. It goes something like this:
"Where there is grain, there are no oxen;
    abundant crops come by the strength of the [tractor/pesticide/fertilizer/genetically modified seed]."

Over the last century, as we discovered that we could industrialize and develop enormous plots of land quickly, we ditched the beasts of burden. We can engineer seeds that grow into larger, hardier crops! We don't need a team of oxen. The Bible's just a little... well, behind the times.

And yet it seems like some folks are rediscovering the wisdom of Proverbs.
In 2011 the New York Times reported that many small farmers in the US have (re)discovered the benefits of animals in recent years. As one farmer in the story pointed out, “Ox don’t need spare parts, and they don’t run on fossil fuels.” They run on grass, instead of diesel--and they leave free fertilizer behind them! And as heavy as these animals may be, they're nothing compared to tractors, aerating the soil where machinery would leave deep ruts. And those are only a few of the advantages.
Of course there are disadvantages: they're slower than other methods--impractical for the huge fields we've grown accustomed to--and more temperamental than tractors. Yet with more and more voices insisting that our more conventional, industrial farming practices today are ecologically unsustainable and won't suffice to feeding the world's growing population, you have to wonder how important the drawbacks really are.

"Where there are no oxen, there is no grain;
    abundant crops come by the strength of the ox."

Maybe Proverbs isn't behind the times at all. Maybe this is actually one of the most timely verses in the whole Bible.
Maybe sometimes modern readers with all of our modern wisdom are a little too quick to re-write the scriptures.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Father's Love

This sermon was originally preached on Holy Thursday 2013, from the text Luke 22:39-54a. May it provide you with a Holy Week reflection as we all await Easter morn.

God the Father wanted to save his world from the clutches of sin and the power of death, and so He sent His Son, His only begotten Son, to earth on a rescue mission. This Son was born to Mary, and they named him Jesus. For thirty years, the Father in heaven watched Jesus grow in wisdom and years and in everyone’s esteem (Luke 2:52; 4:15). And then Jesus began his ministry (3:23) and began to tell the world that he was God’s agent, sent to set things right, sent to fulfill everything that had been promised before in the scriptures (4:16ff). He was healing people and casting out demons, feeding multitudes of hungry people.
I don’t know what parental pride is like when you’re God. I don’t even know what it’s like for a person—closest I have is a godson—but maybe those of you with children can imagine something of what the Father may have felt as Jesus grew up and began to accomplish all of these incredible things, and started to do what he had been born to do, to make a way for us to be delivered from evil, a way for us to be with God. You can hear a hint of that pride at Jesus’ baptism, when his Father tells him, “You’re my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (3:22). The Father took joy in His Son as He saw all of this unfolding, saw how faithful Jesus was to his mission; he knew how Jesus was being filled with the power of God by the Holy Spirit (4:14) so he could carry out his work, going around and doing all of this good (Acts 10:38). And then Jesus was constantly taking time to speak to his Father in prayer, so that the Father didn’t have to content himself with watching his Son’s life, but he was able to be a part of his life directly, as they spent all of that time alone together. This must have been a very special time for the Father, seeing His Son in such a different way and relating to him so differently than they had before in heaven.

And then things took a turn.

They both knew all along that this night was coming, but even when you know, you can’t quite prepare yourself for something like this. Jesus was going to die. Tomorrow—at the hands of cruel men, men who would beat him and mock him, who flogged him and would nail him to a tree and leave him to die there. That’s what the next few hours held in store for Jesus. They both knew, they always knew that, in a sense, this was a suicide mission. But now the time had actually come, and that first domino was about to tip over and launch that whole gory chain of events.
Jesus may have been God, the Son, but his head wasn’t in the clouds. He didn’t want to do this. He was a man, he had a body with blood, and nerves and pain receptors—and he’d probably seen some people hanging on crosses before. Jesus didn’t want to die. And so on this night, Holy Thursday, the night before the cross, God the Father had to listen to his beloved Son ask him “Father… if you’re willing, take this cup of suffering away from me. But not my will—your will be done” (22:42). Jesus left it all up to his Father. ‘Father, I don’t want this—if you’re willing to, just take it away, let’s do something else. But I’ll do whatever you decide’.
You know he wanted to grant that prayer. His only child is there, practically begging Him to find another way, to change His mind about all of this. ‘Son, of course I’m willing—I don’t want you to suffer! I don’t want you to die! But there’s no other way, there’s nothing else to do. If there were, we’d do it… but there’s not’. You know the Father wanted to answer his prayer. Why didn’t He? How could He listen to His Son’s pleas and still give him up to these men, these killers—how could this ‘loving Father’ do that to his boy?
He did that because He’s a Father. He’s a Father, and He and His Son both knew that if they carried out this mission, if they did what they set out to do and delivered us from sin and from death, then He could become the Father to billions of sons and daughters: us. That’s why God was willing to go through with this—so that we could be adopted into the family. The Father wanted to be a father to us and to have us as His daughters and sons forever. That’s why we were created in the first place: to be with God, so that we could enjoy our Father and he could enjoy his children. And he refused to let us go, refused to lose us.
And Jesus refused to let us go. He didn’t want to go to the cross, but he chose that rather than giving up on us. He was faithful to his Father’s plan all the way up that hill, carrying the cross he was going to die on, because God loves us and he wouldn’t let us go. Because of Jesus’ faithfulness and obedience to his mission, we are set free from sin, free to be adopted as his Father’s children (Gal 3:26). Jesus endured that torture, the Father endured the anguish of watching His Son’s pain and death so that we could be with God, so that we could call Him “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:6) How deep the Father’s love for us; how vast beyond all measure!

Holy Thursday—this whole weekend—is a dark time, a time when we come face to face with death and the grave, Jesus’ death, Jesus’ grave. Someone asked me just the other day why we even call it ‘Good’ Friday. Jesus’ battered body hanging there, the pain God suffered… it doesn’t seem so good. But the goodness isn’t Christ’s death itself: it’s what his death accomplished for us. The goodness is that now we can become the sons and daughters of such a Father, that God saw a world full of orphans and said ‘I want to take you home with Me, to love you and care for you forever’. Because of Jesus, that’s our Father. And that’s good.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.