Friday, January 25, 2013

The Journey of Love

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. Excerpt from 1 Corinthians 13.

Translation is part art, part science. This is especially true for translation of ancient texts like the Bible. Idioms (common ways of speaking) used in another time and place are often unfamiliar to modern and foreign audiences, and some words do not have an exact equivalent in a different language. At the end of the previous chapter, Paul introduces the topic of the famous passage of scripture we now call 1 Corinthians 13 with the phrase generally translated, And I will show you a still more excellent way. According to James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at Luther Theological Seminary, 

The word used here -- “way,” road,” or “path;” Greek hodos -- has a rich history in the Scriptures and in early Christian reflection and practice. The invitation is to a journey, a venture of which the end is of course only known to God.

While this passage of scripture is associated in our time with weddings, Paul is talking here about Christian love. This type of love is not a destination, it is a journey--a journey that Christians make together, through their participation in a Christian community.

Some people are not easy to love. These people are often not bad people. It is a sad fact that some bad people are easier to love than some good people, because bad people are willing to pretend to be nice in order to get what they want. There is no excuse for bad behavior (particularly for habitual bad behavior such as rudeness, carelessness or thoughtlessness), but this vision of love as ever-patient and kind is an ideal, something for which we should strive, and in so striving we can experience growth both as individuals and as a community. 

One of my favorite childhood hymns was "We are One in the Spirit." My favorite part was the refrain, "And they'll know we are Christians by our love." 

Most people don't see Christians that way anymore. They see us as naive at best, or maybe even as narrow-minded, ignorant, backwards-looking, repressive, hateful and destructive. Is this because the church has gone astray, or is it that a few "bad apples" are bringing bad press to the lot of us? My view is that both things are true: the church has gone astray to a great extent, but even worse, the evil deeds of a few, such as child-abusing clergy and the infamous funeral-protesting Westboro Baptist Church, have tarnished the reputation of most Christians, who are, for the most part, decent, well-meaning people. 

It is a sad fact that basically decent, well-meaning people are at times ignorant or even hateful. I believe that the church is in decline because too many congregations are organized around what they hate and fear and reject rather than what they love and embrace. Those churches may grow and flourish for a season, but long-term health and survival requires a church to go broader and deeper in an embrace of faith. Faith organized around faddish ideas soon fades. Faith based on a deep desire to experience a sometimes-difficult but always-rewarding journey is the only faith worth having. I am going to close with a quote from a Christian who made a faith journey not so different from the kind of journey I have made--Augustine. Augustine, like me, did not interpret all of scripture literally, but he did take scripture seriously. I really like what he has to say about love.

What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like. 
Saint Augustine Read more at 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

What is the Church?

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. --Excerpt from the reading for a sermon for 1/27/13, from 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31.

What is the Church? This is a surprisingly complicated question, and has been since the early days of the Church. At first, it seems from what it says in the Bible, there was basically one group of adherents to the faith that came from the ministry of Jesus. Then the message of the church started to spread and at the same time the practices of Christianity began to cohere. From early times the church practiced Baptism and Communion, two sacraments still considered essential to members of Christian churches today. Even so, different groups of Christians disagree about how these sacraments should be observed. For example, must Baptism include total immersion of the one being Baptized, or will just a drop of water do? And must the sacrament of communion include wheat bread and the fruit of the vine? I had a professor of worship that insisted that at least the grape juice was necessary, but I doubt he anticipated that scientists are now saying that sometime within the next hundred years, climate change will make it impossible to produce wine. 

Paul's letters to the church at Corinth (known to us now as the books of the Bible First and Second Corinthians) represent some of the earliest attempts to put a framework around what it means to be a Church. Paul speaks with authority, and his words about aspects of church life and conflict resonate with us today, but individual congregations and Christians as well as larger Christian affiliations such as denominations still struggle to define what it means to be the church. 

The important thing to bear in mind, I feel, as that most of these struggles, most of the time, involve well-meaning, sincere people. There are occasions when wolves in sheep's clothing seek to take unfair advantage of people, but in general, disagreements within churches and between churches cut deeply because people put their heart and soul into the church and feel that changes in the church are tantamount to attacks on the faith that they rely on to keep them going in life.

Some of my best experiences in life come out of connecting with people on the basis of what we have in common rather than our differences. In a church some standards of practice need to be maintained, but too often church people tend to major in minors. This tendency, I believe, is a tremendous factor in church decline. So-called mega churches, though not perfect, are less prone to the sort of pettiness that creeps into congregational life too often.

While church life can be challenging, I believe the challenge can be worth it. I also think that most church people tend to cling too tightly to the comfortable and familiar, and to stake out turf and defend it as if in an actual war. I believe that any congregation of people that learn to laugh at their own foibles is likely to be a growing congregation, but that is harder to get to than it should be.

Monday, January 7, 2013


An example of the gifts in our congregation: Kissing Hands Mittens knitted for Sandy Hook by one of our Handmade Ministry members.

Here are the thoughts I'm having in preparation for my sermon for 1/20/13 on 1Corinthians 12: 1-11. Feel free to comment.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Our congregation just had our annual “Star Gifts” distribution. (If you don’t know about this fun tradition, read about it here.)

Our congregation, like many Christian congregations, is filled with gifted folks. In fact, I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that the gifts within our congregation are extraordinary both in number and in quality.

Alas, like every other congregation, our congregation is filled with sinners—not terrible criminal types, mind you, but garden-variety sinners—short-tempered folks, impulsive folks, spendthrifts, misers, gossips, nit-pickers, messy people and neat-freaks, and the like. In short, our church is filled with human beings, people who are not perfect, but are mostly good most of the time.

In spite of their flaws, (or maybe even because of them, for all I know), as individuals, our folks do a lot of good in the community. Collectively, alas, our congregation can sometimes be less than the sum of its parts.

The Church of the Savior, a somewhat famous mission-oriented church in Washington DC, requires each of its members to re-commit (or to choose not to re-commit) to the congregation each year. This idea terrifies most congregations. We tend to think of a worst-case scenario—like, what if the church is going through a rough time, and a group of people quits en masse? But the truth is, that can happen anyway, regardless of whether or not the congregation has a formal, annual process of membership renewal.

And another truth is that a crisis, whether large or small, is always either just beginning, just ending, or looming in every congregation.
The Chinese word for crisis is the word for danger merged with the word for opportunity.  This is a fact that has fascinated me for a long time. So much so that I once asked a native Chinese speaker to draw this for me. (I used to keep it taped over my desk but it got misplaced in a move.) Individuals, as well as groups (including churches) sometimes do emerge from crisis situations stronger, wiser and better than ever before, but usually not without some pain in the process.

I believe that being part of the Church means being in ministry, whether you are a pastor or a lay person. We are called to different ministries in our lifetime. Just as pastors are called to a church and then called away, sometimes lay people are called to join or leave a congregation as well. Making it an annual event just acknowledges that fact.

I have no authority to change the bylaws of my congregation regarding membership, and I don’t think I am going to try. But I am going to preach about this idea. And whether you are a member of my church or another church, I think it is a good idea to ask yourself, perhaps annually, or maybe just when the going gets tough, “Where is God in this situation?  What is God calling me to do?” And then just listen. God will tell you what to do. 

I have been in that situation in the past, in churches and in other situations. Sometimes God leads you away from a difficult situation. Other times, God calls on you to change.

A little over a year ago, I realized that God was calling me to change. In my desire to be more kind and loving I had turned into kind of a doormat. At first I tried to change the people who were wiping their feet on me. Then I realized I was the only person I could really change, and so I asked God to help me change. And God told me to stand up and defend my piece of ground, and to call out oppression and bullying and bad behavior when I see it. 

And so if you are reading this and you know me personally and you have been thinking that I have changed and I am suddenly kind of a pain in the neck, no, you aren't imagining things. I don't believe that I have created a single crisis through my changed behavior, but I do believe that by pointing out this or that crisis and saying "we have to do something about it," (or in some cases, to be honest,  "are you going to do something about this?) I have put some noses out of joint, at least for a while. 

It hasn't always been easy. At any given time now more people are angry at me than I ever remember happening at any other time in my life. But some of them have started to get over it. And when they get over it, those relationships vastly improve. My life is slowly and steadily getting better than ever. I feel more myself, and also more the person I feel God is calling me to be. I feel like I'm becoming a better person--a better pastor, a better boss, a better mom and wife and friend and sister and cousin and even, at nearly fifty, a better daughter, which should show you that it is never too late to make changes in your life and your self.

God wants to manifest gifts through you in the most effective way possible. The vehicle that God has given us for this is churches, which are human institutions, and therefore, like the humans who make them up, sinful and imperfect. By its very nature, the human experience is the experience of God's perfect love clothed in imperfect vessels. Under other circumstances, a person that has thoughtlessly hurt your feelings on many occasions might be quite willing to die for you. And, admit it, you might be very willing to die for a lot of people who mostly kind of annoy you, should circumstances demand such a sacrifice. That's God's perfect love at work in us.  

We may not be perfect, but we can be awesome. And our churches can be awesome. God is willing. Are we willing?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Got Baptism?

 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." 

I'm working on a sermon on the problem of evil. It's not my first and it won't be my last.

In seminary I was taught to run, far and fast, from anyone who said they had figured out the problem of evil, and never look back. I still think that is excellent advice.

Religion is supposed to help people wrestle with evil. It doesn't solve the problem of evil, and as for religions that claim to, see above. The irony of this, acknowledged in the Bible (and, I assume, in other classical religious texts) is this: that which we seek to destroy we often become.

I learned about this paradox in seminary as well, from a wise man named William D "Chip" Aldridge Jr. : "If you cut off the dragon's head, another one grows in its place," Chip said to me, one day, when we were talking about the evils of bureaucracy.  "If you slay the dragon, you become him."

Yeah, I know it's not from the Bible, but it was a revelation to me at the time and it rings even more true to me now. Evil is tough to overcome, because it is like a black hole that leads to more evil.

I've been thinking a lot about the problem of evil lately, in the wake of the terrible shootings at Sandy Hook elementary. 

This horrifying event brought so much good to the fore, beginning with the teachers and administrators who sought to stop the shooter, and then the first responders, the local, state and national officials, and thousands of untold others who prayed, sent cards and gifts and organized and attended candlelight vigils. 

All of that vast immensity of goodness can never erase those minutes when evil held sway at Sandy Hook. This is why evil is such a terrible problem. A few minutes of evil can wreak havoc on countless lifetimes of goodness.

There are many aphorisms about good and evil, and for good reason. Evil has a glamorous  appeal. It is simultaneously attractive and repulsive. It is seductive. We all succumb to the allure of evil to some degree or other, whether the temptation is a small one, such as a minor social slight, or more serious, such as participating in a criminal act.

Evil is a shapeshifter, a con artist that often clothes itself in the wardrobe of righteousness. Another paradox about evil is that if a particular opinion or act makes you feel self-righteous there is a greater than average likelihood that it is to some extent evil. More than one mass killer felt particularly virtuous in performing the act. We may never know if the Sandy Hook killer fell into that category, but it would not surprise me.

The problem of evil is fascinating and frustrating, sort of like evil itself. And it is also the reason why I am a Christian.

I'm not a Christian because I believe that the words of the Bible should be taken literally, or that scripture is inerrant. In fact, I'm not even sure what it would take for the Bible to be inerrant.  The very idea strikes me as facile nonsense, easily dismissed out of hand. 

I'm not a Christian because I think the pope is always right. The pope is a person. People make mistakes. And anyway I'm not Catholic. My family moved away from the Catholic church when my Great-Great-Grandmother got disowned for marrying a Protestant. Yes, I think that was evil, but I don't believe my relatives were completely evil because they made a mistake. And I don't think that religion is the root of all evil. Religion is an ideology, and rigid, doctrinaire thinking about any ideology leads to evil.  Religion isn't special that way. Yeah, it purports to be about ultimate reality, which means that the evil that comes out of religion can be extra-evil but  it also means the good that comes out of religion can be extra good. (Exhibit A: the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. You may think that didn't come out of religion, but if that's what you think, you're just factually incorrect.)

I'm not a Christian because I believe that Churches or Christians are perfect. The church is a human institution. Christians are humans. Humans aren't perfect, and the institutions we manage are not perfect. And by the way I don't like the bumper sticker that says, "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven." Forgiveness is for everyone. Christians should be too busy figuring out who they should forgive and who they should ask for forgiveness to have time bragging about the forgiveness they have received.

 I'm not a Christian because I hate science and logic. In fact, I love science and logic. Neither are perfect but life is better with them than without them.

I'm not a Christian because I believe that if I'm not I will be tortured for eternity if I don't believe a set of doctrines. I wouldn't even know how to make myself believe things that go against my own logic. Maybe there is a hell, and maybe I deserve to go there because I don't follow the right brand of religion. One thing is for sure: I am going to find out, because I am going to die, as are we all. However, I'm concerned about life on earth and give much more thought to this life than life eternal. I think trying to be good is its own reward, and doing evil is something to be avoided because doing evil puts more evil in the world, and the evil in the world leads to terrible deeds, like war and murder.

I'm not a Christian because I doubt the basic goodness of most people. Most people are basically good most of the time. I believe this basic goodness is not just a by-product of society, it is the only product of society that really matters.

I'm not a Christian because I've studied every religion carefully and decided that Christianity is the only, or even necessarily the best, way. I do know that it feels like the best way for me. And I firmly believe that an endless search for truth that involves no commitment is one of the temptations that evil offers. This is one of the tricky aspects of evil--a search for truth is good, but an ongoing rejection of the good in favor of a fruitless questing after the perfect is evil because it is a road to nowhere. (Don't get me wrong: the inquiry itself is not evil, but seeking after perfection and rejecting everything less eventually leads to misery. Seek perfection, and don't settle for less, but know that sometimes perfection clothes itself in imperfection. Yeah, I know: another paradox. True faith, faith worth having, is loaded with 'em.)

I am a Christian because Christianity has stood the test of time. I'm not talking about a particular "way" of being a Christian, such as Presbyterianism, or the contemplative tradition, or whatever. Wisdom and goodness and truth have come from Christianity for 2000 years. Yeah, stupidity and evil and lies have come from Christianity as well, but again, the perfect is the enemy of the good. 

I am a Christian because when I think about my Baptism, I am thankful. It is true that I was a young child when I received my Baptism, and when I consented to be Baptized I didn't really fully understand what I was saying (do any of us ever fully understand anything?) but when I think about all the good things that have flowed from that day, love and friendship and moral education and peace and comfort and joy, I'm so so thankful. 

I know that some of you have had a different experience of religion. Here's the thing: so have I. I've been a victim of narrow-mindedness and stupidity and mendacity committed in the name of religion. The world is an evil place. But I believe that a light shines into all this darkness, and the darkness has not yet overcome it. And for me, Christianity is at least a part of that light. And so I embrace that light, and seek to walk in it for the remainder of my days. This commitment has been a blessing to me.

And so, at the start of a new year, and in the face of evil that sometimes takes an unspeakable form, I offer: Baptism.

I don't do a lot of Baptisms. I think I did one last year. I do even fewer Baptisms than marriages, because right now in our culture, we believe more in marriage than in Baptism, and that is saying something, because as a culture we don't believe very much in marriage.

But I believe in Baptism. And so I am making an offer: I will Baptize you. No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey. If you have already been Baptized, I can't re-Baptize you (because Baptism is supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing), but I can offer you an affirmation of Baptism, in which you repeat the actions of your Baptism and give thanks for it. 

I will Baptize you (or affirm your Baptism) in any way you like: with a sprinkling of a few drops of water on your forehead, by immersing you in a river, lake or pool, in the church or outside of it, in a public space or private, while you are clad in a white gown or a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt, at any hour of the day or night, whether you are free or in rehab or a halfway house or even if you are in jail. I will Baptize you.  I can Baptize you in an all-night diner with the water from the water glass. I can Baptize you with the remains of a puddle in your driveway. All that I need is: me, you, some water and the Holy Spirit. If you bring yourself, and I bring me, and we find some water, the Holy Spirit will be there.  

I once offered to Baptize a (mostly secular, Jewish) friend with the water from the flower vase on a table at a Borders Books and Music in Towson, Maryland. We were talking about Baptism.

"Could you Baptize me right now?" He joked.

"Sure," I said, in a lighthearted way but not exactly joking. "We can use the water from the flowers. Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and renounce the powers of evil?"

"How about one out of two?" He joked.

I didn't end up doing a Baptism that day, and of course, we are still friends. But if he had answered yes to both questions, it could have gone the other way. I would have Baptized him then and there, if he had truly wanted it, if he wasn't really joking but just saying something serious in a kidding way, the way sometimes people do.

If you are a rational person, a person who calls yourself an agnostic or an Atheist, you probably don't believe in the Holy Spirit.

Do you believe in love?

Do you believe in goodness?

Do you believe that people can change?

Then you believe in the Holy Spirit. You may not call it that and you may be extremely upset at the idea that I am projecting my own religion onto your anti-religion. Or maybe this inspires you, somehow. Whatever. All you need to know right now is that if you ever decide you want it, I will Baptize you, the way John the Baptist Baptized people thousands of years ago except unlike John I live in a house and I don't eat locusts. (I do eat wild honey. It tastes good. Try it in your tea, or on toast with peanut butter or almond butter.)

I want to do some Baptisms. It may not seem like much, but it is what I can do and I want to do it.

Are you in?

I know, maybe it is the "Lord and Savior" bit that you don't get. What does that mean, anyway?

It means different things to different people. If you are curious about how rational people who believe in science and logic think about it, I would encourage you to check out Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg. (And yes, it is available on Kindle, and you can get the Kindle App for free on your computer so if you are reading this you can most likely be reading this book within a minute.)

I always say I was Baptized because my mom wanted the best for me, and to her, the Christian faith was a gateway to the very best that this world has to offer. And Mom was right. Through the church I was exposed to music, art, the niceties of polite society, and most of all the idea that my life mattered, and what I did and didn't do with it mattered.

Maybe you think that Christianity is a religion for poor people, or for people who are down and out and desperate, people who tend to extremes like addiction, people who are not the brightest or most educated, and the answer is: Yes. Christianity has something to offer everyone, including the folks that other folks despise and reject, as well as the most popular and successful folks, (because though it is a hoary cliche, worldly success and popularity aren't everything.)

So I'm asking you, in a lighthearted but completely serious way: Got Baptism?

Because if you don't, I want to help you change that.