Monday, September 23, 2013
No, I'm not dying. When I arrived at Bucknell University, I inherited a tradition of sending out a weekly meditation through email. It has been a challenge to write both that, and another for the blog. Sometimes, I just copied and pasted the meditation to the blog. But I am going to let the blog lie fallow for a while. If you would like to receive the weekly meditations, send me an email at email@example.com and I will add you to the list!
Thursday, September 5, 2013
In this week's Gospel lesson from the fourteenth chapter of Luke, Jesus throws a wrench into the honor-shame culture in which he lived and preached. In that culture, those who were the have's made sure others knew it, and those who were the have-not's did their best to stay out of the limelight. Jesus instructs dinner hosts to invite to their feasts not the well-heeled of the community, nor others who could pay the host back. Instead, he suggests that they invite people to their banquets that they know beyond a doubt cannot ever pay back the debt of hospitality offered. Wow, what's the wisdom in that advice? If we cannot strut our positions and achievements in public, what's the use of striving for excellence? I have watched, with a mixture of amusement and dismay, the proliferation of sashes and cords and medals with which graduates are festooned at commencement ceremonies. Whereas commencement should be a celebration of all graduates having made the grade, so to speak, we have managed to make it another competitive exhibition. Is it not enough we honor academic achievement by listing, and sometimes announcing, Latin honors as the graduates pass? What if everyone wore a plain, black academic gown with no adornments? I write this as one who did not receive his undergraduate degree with honors. But I did receive several graduate degrees with an academic average high enough for top honors, except that the schools involved felt that we ought not acknowledge grade point averages at the graduate level, because it fostered an unhealthy level of competitiveness. "Curses, foiled again!" as Snoopy would say. I remember my first on-going experience of honor-shame. When I was in the third grade, we moved into a new elementary school that housed a cafeteria, something the old school did not have. Up until that time, all of us brought our lunches from home. But my folks insisted that I continue to carry my lunch. That does not sound unreasonable, but for the fact that my school segregated all of the "brown-baggers" from those who bought the hot lunch. We were exiled to a table by the wall, away from the kids who bought their lunches. The worst was Thanksgiving, when even the die-hard brown-bag crowd gave in and bought the feast. But not me. I sat with just a couple of other folks, feeling sheepish and hoping the other kids did not look down on us, while feeling certain that they were doing just that. Our junior high school did not have a cafeteria, and so we all brought our lunches from home for the next three years. When I entered high school, I bought lunch in the cafeteria every day and never carried a brown-bag to school again. Writing this has caused me to remember that little honor-shame saga so clearly, and it is not a pleasant memory, even though it seems so insignificant now. How large a burden, then, must be carried by those whose income level or social status causes them to be marginalized or made to feel different every day, with no end in sight? Jesus sought to end class distinctions forever, and yet they remain, in abundance. Why do we resist his command so vigorously?
Early September always puts me in the mind of my early memories of going to school. When I was in kindergarten, I had to ride the bus for about two miles to get to the school, and that is the longest distance I ever had to ride the bus to arrive at school. I remember the smell of the diesel fumes on a crisp fall morning as the bus driver stopped to pick up students along the way. To this day, the smell of diesel fuel burning transports me back to those bus trips so long ago. September also reminds me of the first parish that I served after graduating from divinity school. For the first time in my life, I was not attending school in the fall, and everything seemed a bit strange and new to me as I went about my daily tasks while others attended classes somewhere. For some, September reminds them of "Rally Day," when the Sunday school classes were promoted to the next grade and the program year began in the church. A family picnic at a location that resembles a grove where picnics were taken when the youth group went on an outing can make our senses come alive. The sound of a beloved hymn, or the smell of candles burning or sunlight illuminating stained glass can all have dramatic effects on our memories. Religious memory can be a very good thing, as it can take us back to times in our lives when we may have made important decisions about our faith, or times that God just seemed a bit closer. Memory can also convict us, sometimes, because we may believe that we were more active, spiritually, when we were younger than now. However, such memories can serve to idealize a time that may not have been as much a time of spiritual growth and certainty as we remember. When recently I stood in the chapel at my Alma Mater and celebrated Holy Communion, for the first time ever in that space, I was overtaken by a sense of awe, of then, and now. I was moved by the memories of the time that I spent there as a student, and as I looked around the room, I was touched by the faces of former classmates and former professors who had gathered that day. But I would not return to those student days for anything, because I had so much to learn, and so much growing to accomplish. Though I was a very devout young man back then, I was so clueless as to the fullness of faith's meaning. Though I must still work to "go on to perfection" in Wesley's words, I know that I have a greater sense of God's love and compassion now that I have lived these years as an adult. I hope that you also have memories that warm your heart, coupled with the perception to help you to know how far you have come on your spiritual journeys since those days. Who we are and what we believe is built always on the soil of where we have been.
Monday, July 29, 2013
I would like to offer my thoughts as to why atheists like Bill Maher get it wrong every time. I like some of Maher's political commentary, but his dismissive attitude towards anyone with religious beliefs gets really old after a while. Finally, the other night he had, as a guest, Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community in Washington, DC. I thought, "Finally, someone to stand up to Maher's questioning." Turns out, Wallis was not up to the task. He quoted great things that Jesus said, but could not respond to Maher's question, "How can you believe in a God who killed people and sent natural disasters and was a tyrant?" They skirted the issue of literal interpretation of scripture, because if one says that one should not take the scripture literally, Maher jumps in with a sweeping generalization that none of it is worthy of belief, in that case. Wallis blew a perfect opportunity to say that scripture is a "witness to revelation," that is, people of faith were inspired to write about their perceptions of God's dealings with humanity through history. Cultural norms and customs frame how we perceive God's activity. It happened then and it happens now. People in the Ancient Near East believed that natural disasters and other events that caused loss of life were God's activity and retribution for faithless living. Wallis could have mentioned Jesus' admonition that he "came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it." He expanded the understanding of God's actions and also talked about the human element in the formulation of the Law as recorded in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. What Jesus brought to the discussion was compassion, understanding and a sense of God's history, which in biblical terms, means past, present and future. One can never understand scripture without knowing about what was going on in the faith community, and in the larger world, at the time that it was written. Maher did say that he took a "course" on the Bible. Well Bill, I majored in it and have taken literally dozens of courses related to scripture, and I still have so much to learn. Sadly, many Bible studies on college and university campuses look at individual verses, and seek to interpret what was being said, without giving any attention to the context in which it was stated. My Bible studies challenge folks a bit more, because we look at the whole picture, and that causes more and more questions to arise, which makes us look at our understanding of our faith in new and sometimes challenging ways. My Bible studies are never as popular as the available "popcorn" approach of throwing out verses and asking what folks think they mean, but they can equip one to enter into serious dialogue when the Bill Maher's of the world come calling. Truth be told, I don't think Maher will ever find answers to his questions about the Bible that will satisfy him, because he has not spent his life in a faith community, wrestling with the scriptures, along with others, seeking to get every ounce of meaning out of them. I would be happy to have him attend one of my studies, I think we both would grow from the experience!
Monday, July 15, 2013
Folks are still buzzing about George Zimmerman having been found not-guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The verdict does not indicate that Zimmerman did not shoot Martin, only that he was not charged in the death. I cannot help but observe that most folks support our justice system, unless someone that we think is guilty is found not guilty by a jury. It's an imperfect system, except for all of the others, as the saying goes. What has not garnered as much attention in this mess is the whole idea of carrying a loaded gun in the same manner in which one carries one's car keys or wallet. Carrying a loaded firearm makes a statement about how the carrier views the rest of the world: all others are potential enemies. While crime statistics show that violent crime in the US has been decreasing steadily over the past several years, each day's headlines can make one doubt the veracity of those statistics. However, I think we need to remind ourselves of the worldview that our Christian heritage imparts to us: We should perceive others as potential friends first, unless they give us reason to think differently. If I were to walk the streets of downtown Lewisburg "packing heat," in my mind's eye, I would see everyone as a potential adversary. Thus I would feel secure in carrying a weapon for my own safety. That is the thinking in states such as Florida, where concealed weapons are not only legal, but encouraged. Recently, a church in Texas made headlines when a sign was posted in the church declaring the church a "gun-free zone." Folks were furious. What then, do they say when they read Jesus' admonition that "those who live by the sword will die by the sword?" I don't own a gun, and never will. It's a personal decision of a man who has never hunted and who always threw back whatever fish he caught. Because it is not in my DNA to carry or use a firearm, or to willingly harm anyone, I may be at increased risk if ever I am accosted by someone who means to do me personal harm. On the other hand, the Lord's command that we see one another as friends, and not as enemies, may give me the advantage of figuratively disarming a potential adversary by extending a hand instead of reaching for a gun. Hospitality can be a life-changing force, if only we allow it time to work.
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
I was quite distraught at the Supreme Court ruling concerning the Voting Rights Act. I don't disagree, necessarily, with the court striking down the part of the law that they did, but rather, with the prospect of having to count on Congress to rectify it. They were warned by the Court several years ago that the act was in jeopardy and needed updating. Congress did what it has done most of late, nothing.But today, I found great comfort in the Supreme Court's striking down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act.The court ruled that the United States cannot have one standard of recognition for some folks who are legally married, but not for others. The court did not go so far as to rule that all states must recognize same-gender marriage, but that, in states where it is legal, partners in same-gender marriages are entitled to the same federal benefits as are different gender partners. Now for the hard part: the communities of faith must take a leadership role in keeping the momentum going. I am hopeful, even, that the church in which I was ordained will have to deal with the unceasing demands of some of its members that justice be served by lifting the ban on same-gender marriages, among other things. United Methodists used to be church folks known for bold actions on human rights. In the last thirty years, we have become shadows of our former selves. We have become acculturated and, in many ways, are being held captive to the religious right. I have spoken out in my church for years on full acceptance of all people, and I am not hopeful that such welcome will occur in my lifetime. So, I will speak out even more loudly, not just for full inclusion of all people, but for bold action on social and environmental justice issues. The prophetic imperative has never been lifted from the church, and we are to act as Christ's agents, to bring peace and equality to any places that we are able. If enough of us strive for change, it cannot help but come. So let's put on our walking shoes and lift high our voices. The Prince of Peace will come, and we can help pave the way!
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
I have been wrestling with my ecclesiastical, but not my Christian, identity for some time now. I was ordained in the United Methodist Church, because that is the church in which I was raised. We tend to remain with the familiar things, people and places in our lives, don't we? There was a time when my denomination and I fit well together. The UMC's historic emphasis upon social justice, inclusiveness and open-mindedness has always had immense appeal for me. We used to highlight John Wesley's so-called "quadrilateral" of scripture, tradition, experience and reason as the building blocks of faith. Then, some in the denomination lobbied to have that changed to scripture, first, with the other elements subservient, and the General Conference made it law. At first glance it makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Why would we not use scripture as our foundation for faith? Wesley knew that scripture alone meant little unless one framed it within the historic creeds of the church, the experience of both the worshiping community and the individual, and serious and studied reflection. My denomination has always made provisions for clergy who are unable to attend seminary to take course of study classes, originally by correspondence, and now through on-line access. But those were the exception, and candidates for ordained ministry were expected to attend theological school after college and receive a grounding in scriptural study, among other courses. My denomination sponsors thirteen graduate schools of theology in which to train clergy, including at places like Duke, Emory, Drew and Boston Universities. However, with more and more people choosing ordained ministry as a second career, folks receive training at whatever schools of theology are close to their homes. As a result, many clergy today were trained at schools reflecting divergent theological traditions that employ a literalistic understanding of scripture, something that historic Methodism never advocated. We have always taken scripture very seriously, as a guide for our religious and spiritual lives, but not as a prescription for a list of do's and don’ts. Thus, I find myself in a denomination in which I feel more and more like a stranger, seeing our historic emphasis upon social justice increasingly superseded by calls for "traditional family values" and "getting tough on crime" and "restoring God to government." Each of those phrases encapsulates a whole set of beliefs worthy of serious discussion, but instead of discussion, scripture passages are thrown around to justify a particular theological bent. At times, there seems to be little tolerance for discussion these days. So, I am looking around, trying to find an ecclesiastical home where I fit. I share this struggle with you because I know there are many folks who find that their religious beliefs sometimes don't line up with those of the majority. One can feel very much alone at times, and perhaps it helps to know that many of us are seeking to find a community that exemplifies the welcoming embrace that the gospels proclaim so forcefully. Serious Bible study yields not a list of forbidden activities, but instead, illuminates a way of life that has as its hallmarks justice, truth and welcome. One would think those elements would be most evident in our churches, but one might be disappointed. Blessings on us all as we make these journeys towards our theological homes.