Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Present(ce) of Christmas

I read a wonderful article the other day that did a great job tackling the myth of Christian persecution in the Christmas season (the "War" on Christmas, Keep Christ in Christmas, etc...).  The full link to the article is here:

I would add that many of these Christians who feel so called to defend Christmas are also the same ones lining up at the doors when they open on Black Friday (or Thursday) to get great deals.  Because let's be honest, Jesus talked about discount shopping in a nation of excess almost as much as the Kingdom of God, right?  If there is a "war"...I'm not sure who is fighting on which side, never mind what the sides are.

But I do think there is an important point in the Christmas season which continues to be overlooked.  When speaking with many church members as we talk about the importance of Christmas many of them boil down the significance to the arrival of Jesus.  Why was that important?  He came so that he could save us from our sins.  I do not disagree with this statement but I also believe that an important point is missing.  We Christians celebrate a separate holiday for when Christ saved us from our sin (We call it Easter- proof that maybe Christians have lost this war since Easter comes from a pagan term-- I should point out I don't buy this argument as Christians have been adapting pagan cultures and traditions into many of our practices).  No, I believe there is a point in the Christmas season that is overlooked and its the presence of God.

It is no accident that God With Us is a title given to Immanuel.  In the birth of Jesus God became fully human- entering into a relationship with all of creation in an intimate way never before understood.  And so often we overlook just how powerful this moment in history truly is.  Yes, it is the arrival of God's Promise to the Chosen People.  Yes, it is the culmination of generations of waiting.  Yes, it is a new definition of "people of God" that transcends borders, race, socio-economic and now even sexuality.  But first, and always foremost, Christmas is about being present.

About being present the way my 10 year old still insists on climbing into my lap when we watch a movie at home.  Being present in the way my 13 year old son always asks if I am coming to his basketball game (and then ignores me while I am there so I can not embarrass him- which never works- I take pride in my ability to say or do something to embarrass my 13 year old son).  Being present with my wife in the evening after the kids are in bed and we relax from a long day of work, after school activities, etc...

There is power in being in another person's Presence.  And I mean when that other and you are both FULLY present for one another- giving your full attention, care, and support.  This is what happened with the arrival of Jesus- God came down, climbed into the lap of the world (or rather, cradled the world in his lap) and spent some serious quality time together.  The Christmas season is about being present with those whom we love!  They are family by whatever definition we choose.  And this intimate time is a Divine gift.  For whenever we are present in such a way we are reminded that God too is present in that moment.

Merry Christmas my friends and loved ones.  I really do hope you get lots of presence this year.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

God Loves Uganda

Last night I had an opportunity to sit down and watch a recently release documentary entitled, "God Love Uganda."  The documentary featured the work of conservative evangelical Christians who have used a version of the good news about Jesus Christ to this nation in order to promote and incite homophobia and hate in this African nation.

It was a painful video for me to watch as these self proclaimed missionaries, serving the good news about Jesus worked to brainwash an entire nation of people.  This ideology has spread and been twisted to the point where Uganda has now passed an Anti-gay bill into law in the country where known (or even suspected) homosexuals can be jailed for life.  For repeat offenders, the bill allows the death penalty.

A link to the website, complete with access to the video is here:

One of the men in this film, Scott Lively, is currently on trial in the US courts for inciting the murder and torture of homosexuals in that nation.  He is accused of violating human rights in this African nation with the spread of hate couched in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Is this the pastorate that God calls us into?  How is it that the desire to serve Christ can so easily be turned into a campaign of hate and intolerance? 

The actions of this IHOP community seem to border on the edge of criminal in its activity and scope.  It concerns me greatly that a community that is supposedly concerned with sharing the good news about Jesus Christ has become de-railed by this attempt to build a homogenous community of like minded people.  It appalls me that this community might be grounded not in the love for all of creation but instead of in hate for those they perceive as sinners. 

What can we do to call this community, and others that share these sentiments into a sense of responsibility for the message of love that Jesus calls us to share?  How can we avoid the judgment and condemnation that I so quickly want to cast upon these efforts so that we can engage this community in a healthy, authentic manner where growth and understanding can blossom?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Prader-Willi and Food as an Idol

We have some very good friends who have a child with Prader-Willi syndrome.  This is a genetic issue that manifests itself in many different ways, but one common issue everyone with Prader-Willi shares is an insatiable appetite.  This terrible condition leaves those afflicted with a never ending desire to eat.  The condition is so great that refrigerators, pantries, and other avenues for food storage must be locked at all times and their contents carefully monitored and managed to prevent people with this condition from literally eating themselves to death.  For more on Prader-Willi, please see this link

But recently they made a comment about what will happen when their daughter reaches this age where the hunger is triggered and their concern over how it will affect her, their other children, and even their relationships with other friends and family.  We get together often with them and other friends at events such as parties, Colts games, etc... and every time we gather there is a great host and selection of food available.  We all pitch in and share and no matter what the purpose of the gathering eating is an important part of each get together. 

Ministerially thinking, it has led me to consider the balance between food and eating as an important bond of fellowship and food as an idol.  Our American society is dominated by the abundant presence of a food culture.  We throw away more food in a week than many populations have available in the same amount of time.  Eating together is an important aspect of fellowship (think of how often our social time is connected to food and eating- dates, parties, celebrations, etc...).  The Scriptures are full of these references from the Jewish kosher system to the New Testament examples of the Last Supper (part of the Jewish feast) and early fellowship issues (food sacrificed to idols, etc..).  It is obvious that food plays an important part of establishing and developing human relationships.

So then how do we respond to our friends when food and eating has become for many purposes the enemy?  How do we prepare for that moment when the trigger kicks in and this darling little girl develops an insatiable appetite?  Is there a way to redeem the importance of a shared common meal together as a means of fellowship without allowing these gatherings to become an idol to excess?

Of course there is.  But it will take some adjustments.  It will ask us to place more importance on the fellowship of community and less on cakes, treats, and grilling out.  It will force us to consider whether we enjoy each other's company based upon our personalities or on our culinary expertise.  It will shift our emphasis to focus around the joy of community and the event planned rather than bowing down to worship at an idolatrous dinner table.  These are important adjustments that this community of friends will be asked to make.  I believe that these adjustments are important and necessary.  Not just for the sake of this family and their precious daughter, but also for the sake of the community of our friends gathering. 

If one is a believer in the resurrection of Christ, then it is important to understand that the resurrection is about life.  It is about life in abundance.  It is about a transformed way of existence that pays attention both to the blessings of the present and the hope for the future.  The resurrection of Christ Jesus reminds us that God did not just die for us-  God lives for us!  And calls us to be alive as well.  This gift of community, this presence of friends and loved ones, reveals the abundant life God makes possible to us today.  This adjustment will not just be about a sensitivity to the needs of our friends.  It won't be just a change so that a growing child has a chance to be included.  It will be a commitment from us all- friends and loved ones- to discover and reclaim the gift of life and fellowship that God has provided for us.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

World Vision, Missions, and Sin

In the past couple of days, World Vision had decided, then reversed the decision to hire and allow same sex couples and gay people to serve within its organization.  Their reasoning was that gay marriage is now allowed in so many states and some denominations are starting to recognize the validity of same sex marriages in their tradition.  In an effort to be respectful to the changing approach World Vision wanted to honor the decisions made by these states and churches without making any comments on their own version of legitimacy or understanding of Scripture.

It was, for a short time, a breakthrough of sorts.  At least while it lasted.

The reaction was strong and vocal from the religious right (specifically the Southern Baptist leadership) as calls immediately came to withhold funding to the organization in protest of its recent decision.  Even though World Vision was an organization dedicated to serving those in poverty all over the world he religious right refused to contribute to World Vision and its fight against poverty because of a theological issue.  Now, who loses?  You've already figured this out, right?  Children and families living in poverty all over the world.  How faithful is it to say to people all over the world, "My theology means more than your survival!"

Now, I believe that this withheld support would then be channeled into different agencies.  In fact I will list all of the new agencies targeted for increased donations as these groups withheld their support from World Vision here in this report:

Yep.  This was never about that.  It was about applying financial pressure on an organization to accomplish their goal.  It has been suggested that this is financial bullying. Now, this happens all of the time in our world and we have discovered that the contemporary manner to wage war is with economics.  Hard to condemn a group for withholding financial support to achieve their goal since this is a standard practice today.

I do have an issue with the pressure affecting an innocent party, such as people living in poverty worldwide.  This behavior is the same as church members withholding their contributions to churches when they are upset about an issue(s).  More people are affected than just the party with which you are displeased.

Is the difference between our understanding and interpretation of Scripture so important that this difference of understanding becomes more important than the mission of carrying the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world?  For the religious right, it appears that this answer is yes.  Because suddenly World Vision was not a company devoted to fighting poverty worldwide, but an organization leading people astray with a demented version of faith.  Never mind that this change in policy would have,  in no way, affected the work of the agency. 

For me, this crosses an important line.  Being correct becomes more important than being loving.  Theology trumps service and mission.  The "I" becomes more important than "Christ".  It is idolatrous. 

When this happens, it is our responsibility to offer hope, healing, and repentance to the afflicted.  I am not in favor of withdrawing from the religious right and this righteous call to only support straight people.  I am in favor of increased dialogue on how we together, with our differences, can continue to advance the good news of Jesus Christ together:  To discover and work according to the common ground we share to care for the sick, the poor, and those living in need.

And honestly, I am not sure World Vision is the organization to choose.  Roughly, only about 85 cents of every dollar donated goes to actually help people in poverty worldwide.  While that is a respectable percentage, it means that about 15% of each donation goes to other avenues such as advertising, salary for employees, administrative costs, etc...

In my own denomination we offer three separate special mission offerings where 100% of your donation go directly to help those in need.  To fight hunger and poverty across the globe, we support missionaries through the World Mission Offering:

And there is a special offering collected that is used to bring hope, healing, and recovery to emergency situations such as tsunamis, tornadoes, etc... the One Great Hour of Sharing  100% of these funds that are designated go directly to help in the situation a donor requests:

The administrative costs of these agencies are supplied through other gifts and offerings so that your gifts go directly and completely toward your desired goal.

And this is only the American Baptist denomination.  Chances are other groups have other organizations that offer 100% return on your mission investment.

More importantly than this is the concept that we can disagree on what is and is not sinful and still minister together in the work that God has set before us.  It saddens me that World Vision reversed its decision based on pressure from this religious right who demand it conform to its own theology.  But this sadness does not discourage me from wanting to work with the religious right, left, and center towards reaching out to a hurting, needy world.

Shame on us for fighting about this when there is so much work to do.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Does God Hate?

In preparing for a message on Sunday I found myself looking at a series of passages in the Bible that have caused me an undue amount of distress.  Specifically, I ran into a group of passages that talk about God hating...hating sin, disobedience, wicked people, etc...

Here are some of the sample passages:

Psalm 5:5- you (God) hate all who do wrong

Psalm 11:5- the wicked and those who love violence his (God's) soul hates

Leviticus 20:23

Proverbs 6:16-19

Hosea 9:15

Deuteronomy 12:31

Malachi 1:3- God loves Jacob and hates Esau (?)

Amos 5:21- God hates, despises the feasts...

Revelation 2:15- Jesus hates the Nicolatians

Hate is defined as an extreme aversion for or extreme hostility towards.  In Freudian psychology, hate is an ego state that wishes to destroy the source of its unhappiness.

In my work as a pastor, I have been drawn to the stories in Scripture of God's love for creation, people, and the desire to redeem those who have been lost.  Paul speaks of love as an activity in I Corinthians 13.  John tells us that God is love and anyone who claims to love God yet hate their brother is a liar (I John 4:20).

It does not make sense to me that the Divine could be in the business of hate.  Especially hate as defined by Freud.  If hate seeks to destroy, if hate is extreme aversion and hostility towards an object, then how/why would God ever go through the process of salvation?  Why save us?

I have heard the argument hate the sin, love the sinner, and reject this.  The sin is a part of the sinner, not an independent aspect of them.  I do not believe it is possible to separate the sin from the sinner.

And is there even any room for hate to exist where love is?  I am not sure this is possible. 

In spite of all the references in Scripture to God hating sin, wickedness, etc...  I find it difficult to accept that God could hate anything about us as human beings.  We are God's creation.  We are who Jesus came to rescue.  Why would God rescue us if there was a part of us that God hated?

Its why I believe that as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we should work to eliminate hate from our vocabulary- and not just by erasing the word, but by overcoming the concept.  Hate does lead us to destroy, whether in our heart or in real life.  It is a poison which affects and infects and shares no benefit with us.

I believe that this struggle to understand will continue.

Monday, December 30, 2013

A vision for a Faith community

Recently I read an interesting article by Dr. April Love-Fordham about the Non-Conservative Christian movement.  The full article can be found here:

Couple that with the end of 2013/the beginning of 2014 and it has led me to consider anew my understanding of a vision for an emerging faith community.  Much of what I am about to write comes from reflections from friends and church members as well as my own experiences pastoring in Indianapolis, IN.  For now, I would like to stick with what I believe to be a healthy approach for an emerging faith community in regards to:

The Bible
My vision for an emerging faith community begins with a new understanding of Scripture.  The Christian Bible containing both the Old and New Testaments will become both guide and source for believers in matters of faith, heart, AND activity.  It will be studied as a communication about God's love for all of creation and not worshiped as an end in itself.  Not only will these passages be studied for the information contained but also for the formation it can induce (I am indebted to M Robert Mulholland Jr. and "Shaped by the Word," for this concept).  I am rejecting the notion that Scripture can be mastered by human understanding while maintaining my faith that these works reveal the definitive Word of God.  Also be sure that while I say definitive, I do not believe exhaustive- I am convinced that Word of God is still being communicated to us through the Holy Spirit.  This modern communication of the Word will always be the communication of God's unconditional love.  So not only will this Word be studied, but so also will the emerging community of faith strive to be mastered by the Word.  It will, by necessity, lead us in this community to alter our behaviors and possibly adjust our priorities. 

This will also mean that there is room for the emerging faith community to ask questions of Scripture, discuss their doubts and understandings, and confess their confusion over seeming contradictions.  Scripture can be approached with a sense of literary, historical, and scientific criticism.  Rather than seeing these questions as a threat to faith, the emerging community will revel in these conundrums as a means for advancing faith!

A suggestion then:

The Bible is the definitive, communicated word of God's love for all of creation that testifies to the salvific act of Christ Jesus in the world. 

One who studies and endeavors to practice this love can find themselves transformed in body, heart, and spirit.

This also means that the Bible is not a club by which the emerging community of faith can use this as a weapon to denounce, attack, or demean any other human being, organization, or faith tradition.  There is no master of Scripture other than the Master- God's own self.  The phrase, "The Bible says..." will be transformed into, "My (Our) understanding of God's Word is..."  This does not mean that the Scriptures are open to anyone's interpretation.  Rather, each individual has both a right and a responsibility to engage the Scripture as it is the communicative tool of God's unconditional love.   

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A prayer for peace...

The following statement was issued on 5 September 2013

A lament for the people of Syria and a prayer for peace

The current debate in the United States Congress over whether to go to war against Syria gives the United States the opportunity to place sanity, logic and respect for the right to life above the understandable desire simply to hit back in anger and punish President Bashar al-Assad and his regime for their evil use of chemical weapons.

Yes, Syria's dictator has killed his own people. Yes, we all acknowledge the insanity of chemical attacks. Yes, we were horrified by the images of children, their parents and grandparents who died agonising deaths, probably from sarin gas, in Damascus on August 21. Yes, the general population across the globe must rise up against Assad.

But would an attack on Syria now meet the conditions required for a just war? To meet those conditions, we need to balance the chances that an attack will protect people's lives in future against the possibility that intervention will escalate the conflict and lead only to greater killing.

Military leaders warn us that once we start a war, the effects are unforeseeable and can quickly become unmanageable. Can we truly say that the international community has exhausted all peaceful ways of bringing humanitarian and diplomatic pressure to bear on Damascus? Are we sure no innocent civilians will die in a military intervention?

President Obama's advocacy of war is anachronistic and runs the risk of responding to killings with more killings. By referring the issue to Congress, he has given himself space to act, as we would expect of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and to exhaust all peaceful means of bringing an end to the suffering in Syria before considering a resort to war.

I lament in my prayers for the suffering of the people of Syria. I pray passionately that they will be given what we all desire for ourselves, namely security and peace. And I pray that President Obama will not go down in history as a leader who had the opportunity to broker peace but instead opted for war.