Monday, May 27, 2013


Last night at youth group (First United Methodist Church of Brighton) was "stump the pastor night". One central topic for the evening was the existence of hell. While I was not stumped when it comes to how we are informed by biblical and extra-biblcal sources about hell, I was a bit stumped by the question. I have an opinion on the existence and character of hell, which I shared. But more interesting to me than the question was why the youth asked.

Living in the reign of God is challenging and intentional discipleship takes daily work. Why, with all the complexity of being a Christian in our society, would youth wonder about the possibility of eternal punishment?

When I asked them about their vision of hell, it was clear that many had been informed by media, fantasy authors and video games. And the picture they described was not biblical, but based on Dante Alighieri's "Inferno", from the Divine Comedy (15th century)Their idea of satan reflected the influence of Christopher Marlowe's play "The Tragical History of the life and Death of Doctor Faustus" (16th century). None of the youth present had read either of these works, but it was clear that these works inform popular culture more than the biblical understanding.

We could guess that they wondered about what would become of them, but I do not think that is true. No one asked about the existence of heaven or what it might look like. I didn't get the impression they perceived themselves as hell-bound. Instead, they were concerned that it would be God's will that anyone face enteral punishment.

Could it be that our nation has become so polarized, politically and socially, that the possibility of a place of punishment must exist for the "other", those who are wrong? For these youth, thankfully, they cannot accept a God who arbitrarily offers mercy only until one takes one's last breath. They see God as creator and caretaker of all people, even those who are not like themselves.

I worry that our youth are coming of age in a time where it is tempting to be "hell-bound". I don't mean bound in the sense that one is headed for flames and the smell of sulfur. We are bound by a notion of hell, when we begin to separate us from them, winners from losers, the saved from the damned. We are bound to be diminished when we lose sight of God's powerful grace for all.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Feel It

By Jana Haemels (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Just across the parking lot trains pass two to three times a day. If the train goes by during a worship service, we can hear the warning whistle and the rumble of cars through the stained glass windows.

I like it best when I'm working in my office and the train passes. I hear it and I feel it. The desk top vibrates and the cement, carpeted floor trembles slightly underfoot. If I am talking to someone or walking in the hall, I don't notice the movement. It is only when I'm still.

We just celebrated Pentecost and we enter a season of recognizing the movement of God's Holy Spirit. Encouraged by the story from Acts 2, we look for a sound like the rush of a mighty wind and the appearance of flames above the heads of Jesus' followers. This is how the Holy Spirit will come. Those who followed Jesus were suddenly able to speak in languages that a diverse people understood. There was commotion and joy. At the end of the day, 3,000 came to believe in Jesus Christ.

The train passing by as I read quietly in my office is my reminder that God's Holy Spirit is not that predictable. Sometimes God moves with a roar, dancing flame and commotion. Communities in worship and in service experience the power together. Other times God's Spirit moves in more subtle ways. Things underfoot just tremble a little bit. A conversation blossoms into relationship or tender compassion reaches out in unexpected places. 

Anyway that the Holy Spirit comes is remarkable, but I like it best when in stillness, I can feel it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Our True Self-Interest

Joanna Macy, famous for her work in deeply reconnecting humanity and the environment, suggests that when we reconnect with the earth, we find our ethical selves. She says that moralizing will not keep us from acting in our own self-interest. What we need is to become more aware of our true self-interest.

I was introduced to Macy’s work through a lecture I recently attended by Michael Dowd, author of The Gospel According to Science. While Dowd has much to say about finding spiritual truth in the “authority of natural evidence”, I find myself coming back to Macy’s observation.

In my context this means that I can preach morality all day long, but people are going to continue to act in their own self-interest. This is absolutely true and it is a truth that continues to disappoint those who know the “right way” and those who are endeavoring to live the “right way”.

This truth reflects the personal struggle of the Apostle Paul, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)

Macy’s conclusion that we need to become more aware of our own true self-interest is the answer, but a challenging task. If we’re to change our behaviors, then our self-interest is bound up in the self-interest of others. What is good for another person or group of persons is good for each of us.

John Donne said it well way back in the 1600's: 
No man is an island, entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent, apart of the main. 
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were. 
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know for whome the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.

While connectedness may be understood on the micro level of a family or a small community, the larger group is, the more difficult it is to see self-interest served by caring for others. This is reflected in those who call for the end to food, housing, and medical assistance for “those people” who are in need of it. It is reflected in the ease with which residents in a community, the state of Michigan or the nation work to diminish our educational institutions by reducing funding.

I have been giving thought to how this idea influences my preaching. While I would not call myself a preacher of morality, I am in the habit of suggesting a way to live that reflects Christ’s presence. Macy’s observation has me thinking differently.

What if preaching or spiritual teaching emphasized becoming more aware of our true self-interest. Where would that take us as a community of faith?

There is competition to name self-interest. We live in a society where professional marketing and social pressure for achievement are more than ready to guide us in what is best for us. For many, the world is a place of scarcity and it is in our self-interest to “get ours”, before someone else does.

What are our true self-interests? How might they connect us with one another and with all creation? If we know them, how will it change our walk with God?

Monday, May 13, 2013

What Is Worship?

One of my favorite definitions of worship comes from Don Saliers' book Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine. According to Saliers worship is two things: it is prayer and an act of eschatological hope. To worship is to be in conversation with God, to be fully aware of God's presence. Worship is also an act of hope, trusting that God is breaking through now and forever. (Of course, Saliers takes an entire book to say this.)

If this is the case, then what do we need for worship? Through the tradition of the church, we have discovered that there are worship practices that can be acts of divine conversation and hope. They include music, both sung and heard, communal silence and prayer, baptism and communion, Bible reading and preaching. A worshipping community might also dance, shout, embrace, weep, laugh, wash each other's feet or share a meal.

Through the centuries, we've taken these practices that have opened us to prayer and hope and we've tamed them. We've chosen Sunday morning and fit several worship practices into an hour or perhaps an hour and twenty minutes if there are no big sporting events that day. It is our assumption that the brief time that we spend with each worship practice might give rise to prayer and hope. 

The attendance at the church I serve has been declining for the last five years. It declines much more quickly than the number of people who call this their church home. People are not attending worship on Sunday morning as often as they used to.

Interestingly, just because people are not in worship on Sunday morning does not mean that they are not an active part of the worshipping community. We have members who spend hours each week in outreach and service groups and study classes at the church. We send mission teams into the city of Detroit, across the U.S. and out of county. We have a team of trained persons who offer the ministry of listening and companionship for those who need company at a difficult time in their lives. Individuals tell stories of helping neighbors, caring for the sick, and visiting prisons.

This Saturday was "Change the World" Day for our church. Teams went out to perform community service. I was with a team that cleaned out flower beds at a local middle school. As I knelt digging in the dirt, listening to the conversation and laughter of fellow servants, I started thinking about worship. Could this activity on a cool, spring morning be worship? 

Wasn't Christ by the Holy Spirit present as we worked together in his name? And what better act of hope than reaching out into a community, not because we had to, but because we were called to by a God who moves us forward.

Could it be that worship is happening in surprising and profound ways everyday of the week? Individually and as community, people of great faith and commitment are active in prayer and in hope. 

Sherry worshiping on a Saturday morning.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Virus Has Me Down

A virus got hold of the church email server and started spewing harmful spam. I and my colleagues are in an uproar.

We can't trust that emails we send will be received and we are not sure if we're receiving emails that are sent to us. Our IP address has been "blacklisted". Despite the efforts of our IT crew, a few email exchanges still have us on the blacklist, including Google.

This means that anything that we send to a gmail account or an email that is routed through a gmail account is bouncing back. I have enjoyed the convenience of having my church server email address hooked to my Google account. That relationship is on hold. We may get back together after we take a break from each other.

Photo by Sherry Parker
I am coping by reading emails on the church server, but only sending emails through gmail. Sheesh.

This afternoon I am asking, how did it get this way? I remember where I was sitting, in front of my desktop Mac, when I created my first email address back in 1994. I had to find people to send emails to. Twenty years later and I'm halted in my daily work. Phones could be down and I would be less inconvenienced!

I have heard that people take intentional "unplugged" vacations. What a wonderful idea for retreat, disconnecting, not searching a small screen for emails or checking updated statuses with political tirades and cat hijinks. 

Like it or not, I have an "unplugged" afternoon ahead of me. It's not vacation; I'm on the clock. 

The clock has a face with numbers around the perimeter. The hands seem to be slowing. 

There is a book beside me, a book with paper pages. I have a pen, too.  

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Dedicating Our Children to God

Our church staff just finished studying a book on the evolution of Methodist Spirituality. In one chapter, the author discussed the role of faith in the home and in the lives of children in the 19th century. In inspirational stories of the time, faithful children were idealized, often speaking from their deathbed, with great spiritual wisdom and directions for the adults that surrounded them. It was as if the tender hearts of children were the ideal vessels for God’s spirit.

The author ended the chapter by asking, “What does it mean today to dedicate one’s child to God?”

In our discussion we decided that the author did not mean the type of dedication that Hannah offered, leaving her son Samuel to be raised in the temple. We talked, instead, about what it would look like to raise children intent on nurturing their spiritual lives. 

The first and most important step is that parents have to sort out and be clear about the overriding goals for child raising. We live in a solidly middle class suburb. The top goal for children here is achievement. From the earliest age, children’s lives are programmed with play groups and pre-school classes, sports practices and lessons. As they grow, priority is given to getting children to activities that enhance their skills in sports, the sciences and the arts. If a child will not be a stand out in their areas of extracurricular activity, the opportunity to be on a team is worthwhile to their future careers.

It is interesting to consider how the pursuit of achievement speaks to a child’s spiritual development. As a leader in the church, the primary thing I see is the absence of children on Sunday morning and at mid-week gatherings because other events and practices take priority.

Photo by Sherry Parker
I understand that worship and faith formation classes are not the only place to nurture spiritual growth, and I ask where are families fitting this in? Are families offering service together or finding ways to model generosity? With hectic after school schedules do families eat together and hear what is happening in each others lives? Are there times for prayer, questioning, telling stories with holy themes, silence?

What are we dedicating our children to? Perhaps the answer is different for each parent, dedicating children to finding happiness, being successful in the eyes of the world, enjoying life.

What would it look like to dedicate one’s child to God? On a daily basis, what practices and experiences would challenge a child to look for and see God moving in this world? What stories does a child hold that point toward God? What opportunities in conversation and worship and caring do children have?

I don’t think that dedicating one’s child to God means leaving behind the trappings of middle class life, including the celebration of achievement. However, if spiritual nurturing is secondary to training for physical and intellectual success, how equipped are our children?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Culture Shift Backlash

This morning a parishioner sent me a link to a CNN Belief Blog link,  "When Christians Become a 'Hated Minority'". The article discusses the comments of Peter Sprigg, a spokesperson for the Family Research Council. He states that when Christians stand up and say that homosexuality is condemned by the Bible, that they face discrimination. In fact, more people would stand up and speak if they did not face negative repercussions for their belief.

The notion that Christians are an oppressed minority in the United States is a stretch. Even if we only put evangelical or conservative Christians in that category, I'm not sure "hated minority" fits. 

I have read this argument before, not only in connection with protests against the rights of LGBT people, but in discussions of prayer in public schools, religious symbols displayed in public places, and human reproductive rights.

Those who express negative opinions about the LGBT community or equal marriage rights and find themselves in the minority must be quite surprised and disappointed, but this is far from being hated or oppressed. 

I like to think that in times of change it is good to look for the core values of Jesus' ministry on earth that span the centuries and last through the rise and fall of nations. We know those values do not include cultural and economic institutions like slavery, apartheid, and segregation. We know they do include care for the sick and outcast, generosity, mercy, forgiveness and grace. And the values of Jesus also include a call to follow him in faith.

Psalm 85, "Justice and Peace Shall Kiss".
Public Domain, USA, Wikimedia Commons
I believe what many conservative Christians are experiencing is a fundamental culture shift. Public opinion isn't what it used to be and the Bible has little authority for the majority of Americans. In the midst of the shift, we have heard calls to return to the Christian values of the founding fathers of this nation, although historians argue about the true nature of our founders Christian beliefs. We have heard calls to "take back America" by ballot and appointment of the right Supreme Court justices. And now, those who still struggle against the tide of a changing culture are calling "foul" as an oppressed minority. 

Change happens. Big change happens to nations and cultures, no matter how comfortable segments of a society become with the status quo. The good news is that Christ, if not our cultural interpretation of Christianity, endures.

Rather than pit one group of people against another, rather than complain about being oppressed, rather than protect one's stand by attacking and tearing down others, I want to be the Christian who embraces all, offers words of hope and follows Jesus.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Leaning into Risk

By Henry Tseng (Flickr: _MG_6892)
CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve been raking the yard. A winter’s worth the sticks have fallen from the trees and they need to be moved before the lawn service pulls in. Despite wearing work gloves, after the first half hour of pulling sticks, twigs and dead grass into a pile I had a blister on my right hand. It is right in the soft place between the thumb and index finger, the place where the rake handle pushes into the grip.

The next evening I continued to rake, taking precautions to protect and pad the area with the blister that had broken open and left tender, raw skin.

I raked for an hour and found that my right hand had not sustained anymore damage. However, I had two blisters on my left, one in the same place as the right and another on my palm.

I like to think that this is a result of my tender hands, but I know better. My hands are perennially rough and chapped. The problem is the unfamiliar challenge. I don’t normally grip a wooden handle and lean into that grip pushing and pulling, holding tight. The movement was bound to cause damage.

I’ve been thinking about life’s risks. Last night, in a weekly class, I asked participants to talk about the life-changing risks they’d taken. The group shared stories from their educational experiences, vocations, and relationships. The stories, while often triumphant, included risk that had them pushing and pulling against life. To get through their choices there was often struggle, doubt and pain. It was as if to accomplish a goal, “blisters” were inevitable.

As I look at my damaged hands, I understand that spring lawn clean-up is not really risky business. But to set a goal, to work toward it, will mean a bit of pushing and pulling, leaning into the challenges.

To avoid a few blisters is to leave life cluttered and dormant.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Teaching Religion is Like Teaching Grammar

May 5 is Confirmation Sunday. Today we were working out the last details of the liturgy for worship and what will be on the screens in the sanctuary (pictures and names of the youth as each is confirmed). Thirteen 8th graders have made their way through hours of class and offered service in the name of Christ. They have heard lessons about the Bible and the story of salvation through Christ. They have considered theological concepts and learned about United Methodist heritage. They have spent time with their mentors and have had the opportunity to ask leaders in the church and the clergy questions. One of the confirmation mentors who attended every class with his mentee has been telling people how much he’s learned. He told members of the administrative board, “Everyone should take Confirmation.”

On Sunday each youth will profess his or her faith publicly. The class will affirm the vows made for them at their baptisms and become members of the church.

This week I am remembering my years of teaching English grammar to high school sophomores. It is an abstract, difficult subject. After years of lesson plans and hundreds of students, I concluded that, ultimately, a person either gets the structure we impose on our language or she doesn’t. It was a joy when a student would come to understand the components of sentence structure and know how to employ them. Sadly, grammar continued to be a mystery for most.

I have great sympathy for those who were lost for good reason. The rules for English grammar come from Latin grammar. We sticklers for proper grammar take those rules and impose them on English. The problem is that unlike Latin, English is a living, dynamic language. It is changing and adapting to culture and context all the time. Imposing rules from a dead language knocks the life out of the living one and leaves us with stacks of diagramed sentences piled up like crushed cars in a scrap yard. What good are they?

I suspect that in many ways we do the same as we teach “the faith”. We offer the doctrines and traditions, theological suppositions and biblical interpretations. Our hope is that through all of the structure, created by human beings, that we will be able to see God, to define God, to perceive the presence of God. But God is living, dynamic, moving in this world. No lesson, rule, or list of beliefs will capture the grand mystery of the Creator of All Things.

Some of our 8th graders, preparing to profess their faith, “get it”. They can see beyond the cumbersome structure of religion to the mystery of faith in the Living Christ. Others have the lessons behind them and the mysterious, gracious presence of God that moves in their lives waiting to be revealed.

I never gave up teaching grammar. I trusted that for many, with experience and continued education, it would make sense. I trust the same for our confirmands. And I hope for something more. While the religious structure they have learned will help them in making choices, my hope and prayer is that God’s Spirit may grab hold of their hearts and their lives, leading them to be followers, not of rules, not of a religion, but of the living God.
Caring for one's neighbor diagrammed. A life of faith and grammar meet!