Thursday, July 26, 2012

…If I Were Brave

I looked into the mirror Proud as I could be And I saw my pointing finger Pointing back at me Saying "Who named you accuser? Who gave you the scales?" I hung my head in sorrow; I could almost feel the nails. I said "This is how it is To be crucified and judged Without love." -"What About the Love", Amy Grant
When I first moved to Minneapolis, I lived in an upstairs apartment in a big house in Northeast Minneapolis. Downstairs lived two women who were good friends. At some point, the daughter of one of the women came to live at the house a short time. I remember when I first met this young lady, she brought up some conversation about slavery. She proclaimed that if she lived back in the time when slavery was still a part of American life, she would be against it. While I would hope this young white girl would choose the anti-slavery side, I knew that there was a good chance that if she were dumped in say, 1856 , she well might see the problem, shrug her shoulders and look the other way.

 It's been interesting to see all the ink or wattage spilled on the Penn State sex abuse scandal and the late Joe Paterno. Like most people, I think the statue of Paterno needed to be taken down and I think the football team needed to face some sanctions. Paterno's reputation has been forever wrecked by his own actions.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

One More Post On Ross Douthat and Liberal Christianity

In the week or so since New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote his column on Liberal Christianity, there has been a ton of responses from Progressive Christians on the issue- most of it taking umbrage at Douthat's article.  Because Douthat is a political and social conservative, many progressives easily wrote him off and saw his critique as another in a long run of conservative rants against the mainline. As I've said before, we in the mainline should take Douthat's words to heart and not simply brush them off, but many of us still remain in denial, thinking that we are on the cusp of a new progressive renaissance.

Instead of regurgitating what Douthat has already said, I want to share my own observations concerning progressive Christianity from spending 20 years on the inside.  There is a lot that is good about the mainline church, which is why I remain here and why I chose at to enter into ministry.  There is a certain amount of theological roominess that I didn't find in the churches of my youth.  I like the emphasis on social justice.

But I also think there are issues with progressive Christianity that have caused it to crash that we refuse to address.  Because we aren't owning up to our shortcomings, the downward spiral continues.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sunday Sermon: McJesus

This was a sermon I wrote and intended to preach at United Lutheran Church in Grand Forks, ND in 2006.  I never preached this sermon, but wrote another one for that Sunday.  Since I'm preaching on this text again on July 29, I thought I'd share this with you all.

John 6:1-21
United Lutheran Church
Grand Forks, ND
July 30, 2006

It's been about seven years since I went to China through Luther Seminary.  As part of a small group of seminarians, I spent two weeks in Hong Kong and then got on a plane to travel to the city of Kunming in Western China.  The bulk of our time in this part of China was spent visiting villages up in the mountains outside of Kunming.  A typical day would entail driving up the mountain to the village.  Now, since these villages were small, this was a big event.  In many cases,we were the first Westerners they had seen in a long time and they wanted to welcome their fellow Christians who traveled halfway around the world to visit them.  The entire town would come out to greet us and then we were welcomed to dinner.  In our eyes, the dinner seemed rather humble, consisting of rice, pork and vegatables.  However, for these villagers, it was a BIG deal.  We ate graciously and then went to the church service. 

After a wonderful send off, we would go the next village and get another big welcome and yes, another big meal.  And if you went to another'd get another meal.

The thing is, you couldn't refuse the meal.  I mean, the townsfolk wanted to cook a special meal to welcome their guests.  They wanted to fellowship with their fellow Christians and they had to have the best for us.

I can tell you after eating all that rice, it was about a month before I could even touch the stuff again.

As I look back on that experience, I know that it didn't matter that we had eaten at the village down the road.  The food was just a way of saying thanks and welcoming us.  For these people who lived in a society where the government ranged at times from indifferent to hostile, this meeting was important.  These poor, mountainfolk gave their all to make sure we had a good time. 

Today's gospel text reminds me a lot of those Christians in China.  It's a pretty familiar text, in fact it shows up in all four gospels.  Jesus and his disciples are attending to the needs of the multitude and for some reason, it becomes clear that the multitude needs to be fed.  Jesus takes a boy's lunch, blesses it, and then has his disciples distribute the meal among th e crowd.  There is enough to feed the crowd of 5,000 and then some.  What makes John's story interesting is that the crowd is a little bit more active.  They see this sign from this person and decide to make Jesus king.  He decides to give them the slip, but even though Jesus could feed a crowd with some bread and sardines, he wasn't that good at evading a crowd of people.  What happens next is not found in the appointed texts for today, which is a shame, because this portion of John 6 is probably the heart of this text, not the miracle itself. What takes place is a discourse between Jesus and crowd.  The crowd sees Jesus as a someone who will fill their bellies, an eternal meal ticket.  Jesus is talking about being the Bread of Life and that those who eat this bread will never die. The discussion goes back and forth until the crowd leaves dejected and puzzled.  How can this man be bread, they ask.  He expects us to eat his flesh and blood?

The crowd missed an opportunity.  They had an encounter with the holy.  It was God in Christ that fed this crowd as God had done thousands of years before with their ancestors in the desert.  Jesus took what seemed to be not enough to feed a crowd and fed everyone, with more than enough left over.  God in Jesus had shown generosity.  Instead of being thankful, the crowd was greedy.  They saw Jesus not as the Son of God, but as some first century version of McDonald's, someone who could provide for them the food they needed on demand.

So, as you Lutherans are fond of saying, what does this mean for us?

I've been aware that the theme here at United during the summer is “Breathe Deep” a chance to rest and take in God's goodness and breath out the Spirit.  The crowd had a chance to take in the goodness of God.  They had a chance to just sit, rest and breathe in God.  The problem was they were too busy looking for their next meal to sit down and rest. 

I can tell this text has some importance in my life.  As some of you might know, I'm the pastor of a new church start in the Twin Cities.  It takes a lot of work to get a church off the ground.  In the past year or so, our church was busy trying to grow and grow big.  We moved to a certain part of town we thought would grow and developed services that we thought would pack them in. 

And you know what?  It didn't.  Very few people showed up to these services and those of us on staff felt a bit dejected.  I can't speak for the other staff, but I tend to think that I got my eye off the mark.  I was busy trying to make the church attractive to people.  Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it became the central focus.  Our church is named Community of Grace and I wasn't allowing myself to experience that grace and share with it others.  I fear that I was making Jesus into a commodity, just like the crowd in John. 

The thing is, Jesus invites us all to a banquet where we can fill out empty souls.  We don't have to do anything to receive it, but just receive it.  And when we do, something happens.  We want to go out and share that generosity with others.  That's what we do when we come to the table.  We are invited to Christ's table and we are reminded of God's graciousness on the cross.  And when we have finished, we go out into the world to bring God's message of salvation or healing to a hungry and hurting world.

There is one person at Community of Grace that reminds me that being church is about coming to the table.  Jim has been a member of the church since the beginning.  He didn't come to Community of Grace because of any special thing we did, but simply because someone asked.  This was someone who felt estranged from church for a long time and now felt welcomed.  And you can see it on his face during Sunday worship.  It doesn't matter if the musicians hit a wrong note or if the pastor has a hard time trying to break the communion bread, he just takes it all in-like a man at a banquet table who hasn't had anything to eat in a long time.

This is who Jesus is to us: setting a table for us and welcoming us.  All we have to do is take a rest from our busy lives and eat it up.

I have to leave you with one more story.  Since it's summer and Community of Grace meets in the evenings, I've taken it to visit other churches.  I recently visited a Lutheran church in Minneapolis and during communion, a mother and her daughter who was recently adopted from China come forward.  She held her hands open expectantly waiting for the bread.  The pastor gave her the bread and she gobbled it up with passion.

THAT, my friends is how we should come before God; expectant, waiting and taking it all in.

The meal is ready.  Just remember to say grace beforehand.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Saving Liberal Christianity

On the heels of what I wrote late last week on the pitfalls of Progressive Christianity, there has been a flurry of articles on the future of liberal Christianity.  I want to start off with a piece by Allan Bevere who wrote the following last Friday:
In recent years evangelical Protestantism has been going through a soul searching, questioning some of its cherished political and hermeneutical positions that have become so intertwined with evangelicalism. An increasing number of evangelicals are re-evaluating some of their "sacred" views on Scripture and science and politics. I think that has been a good thing. But I must say, I have not seen that same kind of soul searching among mainline Protestants. It cannot hurt to wonder if we always have it right. It cannot be a bad thing to remember that perhaps our views are not always biblical, but rather the opposite side of the same modern coin we share with those who are evangelical. Perhaps Dennis and John are beginning an important self-critical conversation that we mainliners need to have. If this is the start, I welcome it.
After all, the unexamined life, politic, and theology is not worth embracing... and it's not good for the soul... or the church either. An adjective is meant to describe a noun, not get in the way.

I bring up Allan's piece because one of the things Progressive Christians have not been good at is thoughtful self-examination.  We are good at telling others what is wrong with them,, but when it comes with doing our own soul-searching, I think we come up incredibly short.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

I Am Joe Paterno...Revisited

I was going to write something about the report from former FBI head Louis Freeh on the scandal at Penn State and the resulting comments from folks. But there isn't really much more to add to this, so I will just share what I wrote eight months ago when the scandal broke called "I Am Joe Paterno (And So Are You)." I think it still holds up in light of the report. It reminds me that no matter how good we think we are, we are all capable of committing grave evils as Joe Paterno did.  

Update: I based my November article on a post by blogger Megan McArdle. Read it. I don't know if she is religious, but it is one of the best theological reflection on what happened at Penn State.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Me and Progressive Christianity Just Don’t Get Each Other

Can one be a Progressive Christian and be a Republican?

How about a libertarian?

When I was growing up, it wasn’t odd for me to be evangelical and have liberal politics.  It still isn’t that odd, there are many liberal evangelicals running around.  I’ve tended to see evangelicalism as far more diverse than what popular culture portrays it.

For some reason, that tends to not always be the case with Progressive Christianity.  It almost always seems to me that to be a progressive Christian, one must have progressive politics.  There is no room for disagreement here.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

On Funerals and Christian Cliches

This past weekend, I was in Orlando, Florida for the funeral of an uncle.  My Uncle David was the youngest of my mother’s siblings dying at the age of sixty.  Diabetes took it’s toll on David’s body and finally that body gave out.  David leaves behind a grieving widow and five children, three of which are too young to have to have to deal with losing a parent.

David was an active of an Apostolic church in nearby Sanford.  As we went to the viewing at the funeral home and the next day at the church, I came to face to face with all those cliches you hear when someone dies.  “God is in control.”  “He’s not in pain anymore.”  “This all happens for a reason.”

My seminary trained brain tells me I’m not supposed to accept such trivial sayings.  I’ve learned that such words just cover up the pain that people are really going through.   I’m supposed to see such sayings as a twisting of theology and incredibly insensitive to those suffering.

I know that’s what I’m supposed to think.

But now I don’t mind hearing them.

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Monday, July 09, 2012

Repost: In Search of a Disciples Identity

The following post was published in 2009.

I am not what they would call a "cradle Disciple," someone who was born and raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I found the Disciples about a decade ago. At this point, having been ordained and now serving in a Disciples church, I can say that I am fully Disciple, for what that's worth. But back in my seminary days, I really struggled with what it meant to be a Disciple, if it meant anything at all.

I went to a Lutheran seminary, here in Minnesota- the heart of Lutheranism in America. So, being at the Lutheran version of Mecca, where there were few non-Lutherans, you were challenged on what you believed. I remember learning about how Lutherans approached theology and studied up on Reformed Theology, but when it came to my own tradition, I was a bit lost. What did we believe? How did that shape our way of being? What did it matter that we were Disciples?

More than once, I thought about leaving the Disciples, simply because I didn't know what my tradition believed and I wanted some sense of identity.

I do remember reading two books, Disciples and the Bible and Disciples and Theology, which did help me immensely in understanding the Disciples. I can also credit having Jan Linn in my midst. Jan is the pastor of Spirit of Joy Christian Church in the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities and an emminent Disciples scholar.

But I still lacked solid grounding in Disciples heritage.

Recently, I was in a meeting where people brought up the fact that the congregation did not do a good job of describing who Disciples were. The common refrain people hear from Disciples is the errorneous viewpoint that we are free to believe in whatever we want. Even I have been guilty of saying that we are tolerant and open to a wide range of views, which said very little about who we are.

I am beginning to believe that one reason Disciples are in such a bad lot in regards to our size these days is because we do a bad job in telling people who we are. When someone comes to one of our congregations, they want to know a bit about us. They want to understand where we are coming from.

But the thing is, in many cases we don't have much to say. And I suspect with such a shallow ground, people go elsewhere.

I know that these days, "brand loyalty" doesn't mean as much to people as it once did. There are few and fewer cradle Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists and the like. But even though people move from tradition to tradition, that doesn't mean that Disciples can be lax. In these postmodern days, identity means a lot and people want to know what is it that they are getting into. If it can't be defined in some way, they will go elsewhere.

I am thankful for the new book by Linn and Michael Kinnamon that tackles Disciples Identity. If this wonderful movement is going to continue, we have to start knowing who we are.