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.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Making sense out of military action

As I was preparing for the message this Sunday (Psalm 3) I started to find some parallels between what I was thinking about in this Psalm and the current event of an impending attack on Syria. At the point of this writing, President Obama is seeking approval from Congress to authorize some limited military strikes against Syria for its use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians.  This plan has left many people in our nation, indeed all over the world, uncomfortable.  The situation in Syria is vast and complex and there are questions if whether either of the two sides in the engagement have the best interests of the people at the heart of their conflict.

Even though I find it ironic that now is the time the United States and possibly France plan to intervene (so its all right for thousands of people to die by conventional arms and millions more to flee, but its not all right to use chemical weapons to do so...What a humane people we are), I can not help but point out the failure of our policy in this nation nor of the ridiculous nature of the intended strikes to "kill some people so that they won't kill any more people anymore." 

My experience as a Christian reminds me that all of us have been created in the image of God.  To take the life of another human being is to destroy a part of God's creation- an image that points us towards the Divine.  While I understand the desire to preserve human life, I mourn the fact that this preservation must cost other human life.  These proposed military strikes are not to bring about success, they are to prevent us from failing further in our desire to save lives.  I have hope that the hesitancy displayed by so many people across the world has more to do with this valuation of human life than it does the muddled political scene in Syria.

This week I have been preparing a message on Psalm 3- a psalm possibly composed by David as he fled from Absalom.  One of the interesting aspects of this Psalm lies with the trust that David places in God for deliverance.  As I pondered this idea I was drawn to other Old Testament passages where God makes a point to remind the children of Israel that it is not by the power of their military presence, but by their faith and trust in the Lord their God, that they are able to persevere and achieve victory over their enemies.  Military victory does not lead one to success.  It is faith, hope, trust in God as Sovereign that does.

Do I oppose strikes in Syria to remove their chemical weapon arsenal?  Not in that sense.  But I do oppose the taking of human life that will be a part of such a strike and see the two as being integrally connected.  Do I understand the desire to remove indiscriminate tools for destruction from the hands of unscrupulous people?  Absolutely.  The strikes that appear to be more and more likely represent to me a failure of our ability to peacefully solve our differences.

Here is the other issue with this military solution:  It does not really solve the problem.  There will still be civil war in Syria.  The conflict will continue due to the religious and political differences along lines very few people completely understand.  In some of our most recent involvement in the wider global area we have learned that military conquest leads us to the very beginning of some long seeded problems within these nations.  Not only do we fail to resolve the crisis, but often seem to exaggerate some of the already existent conditions (Anyone else uncomfortable with the fact that we might be providing terrorists with small arms inside Syria?). 

Until we commit to providing more than military interference, we do the people of Syria and our nation a dis-service by working on a solution to the symptom of a problem, instead of the cause.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Unchurched Problem with Easter

Recently I happened to have a conversation with a young woman who, to the best of my knowledge, has no regular church affiliation.  She knew me well enough to realize what I do for a living and that I do not fit well into the traditional conservative evangelical model of ministry (we were together working on a local community theater project).  Somehow the conversation turned to the topic of our Resurrection service set for this March 31 when this young woman explained to me that she has a hard time buying into the resurrection story due to the brutality of a God who would allow the Son to die abandoned on the cross.  She knew enough to remember the Matthew-Mark version of Jesus' last words, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" and this apparent abandonment made her uncomfortable.

Pastorally speaking, I shared with her how this phrase is a reference to Psalm 22- a psalm of David that ultimately speak more of faith in God's Presence than the fear of abandonment.  Since the Psalms were not numbered in Jesus' time as they were now they were often referenced by using the beginning line of each Psalm.  New Testament scholars point out that this reference might be more of an expression of faith than it is a feeling of abandonment.  But I don't buy that either.  I think it was a direct reference to Psalm 22- but it was not a celebration of victory near as much it was a commiseration with David in the midst of a very bad day.

For me, and understand that I am speaking only personally here, I see Jesus as feeling abandoned by God on that cross.  It only brings to fruition the dilemma of the crucifixion after all of Jesus' disciples had fled, one had betrayed him, and he was left to die on a cross.  In that moment as he slowly and painfully died from carbon dioxide poisoning, I find it highly probably that Jesus felt totally and utterly abandoned by everyone- God included.  Many physicians have commented that ultimately we all die isolated from the ones we love.

But I am not troubled by this thought.  I have the personal experience of too many people I have known and loved who have taken their own life.  I have sat in my office while a man I have loved called me a reprobate and demonic because we disagreed over how to interpret a passage of Scripture.  I have felt alone.  I have been so wounded in caring for God's people, sometimes as they die on the inside and others on the outside, that I have felt as if there is no one or nothing that understands what I experience in my life's calling.  Not even God.

I have no idea how Jesus felt on that cross.  But I know how I have felt carrying the cross I have chosen to bear.  I know how I have been affected by the spear of hate and mistrust that has pierced my side and my heart.

So you see, a forsaken Jesus appeals to me.

Why?  Because even in that feeling, God was present.  I remember Elie Wiesel being forced to watch as a small child slowly asphyxiated at the end of a rope and his fellow Jews called out looking for God's Presence in that moment.  How much later in life he came to believe that God was present with that child at the end of that rope, gasping for a breath which would not come.  I remember that even though Jesus felt abandoned by God, the story does not end there.  There is more to that temporary feeling of isolation.  There is the third day.

Even though there are people who will betray, abandon, and assault us, this is not the end.  I find hope that just because we are not aware of God's Presence with us that means God is not present.  My ability to perceive God's Presence does not limit that Presence (thankfully).  And there is always more.  Another day.  Hope.

I also point out that if by leaving the Son to die on the cross seems brutal and hard to us- It happened because God knew it to be the best way to provide for our salvation.  And if this is the best way God could accomplish this feat, imagine the less perfect, flawed models that were rejected in the design...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

You keep using that word...I don't think it means what you think it means

Tonight my Facebook page is full of posts about an attempt to have a straight only Prom is Sullivan, IN.  One of those articles can be found here:

It recalls to mind a recent conversation I have had with a person who wanted to lay out for me their understanding of Scripture as to why homosexuality is wrong, a sin against God, and a threat to our peaceful loving society.  Well, let's be honest- this person wanted me to validate and agree with their views.  I did not, but this post is not about that conversation.  Its about an apparent lack of understanding between the gay community and the opponents of such a lifestyle.  From my limited encounters with both groups of people, I have become convinced that certain concepts around the gay life are not properly understood.

The example?  Sexuality- in my conversation with most opponents to a gay lifestyle the basis for much of their understanding revolves around the concept of human sexuality- gay couples can not produce children naturally, homosexual activity is forbidden in Scripture, the act of homosexual intercourse is wrong, immoral, dirty, etc...  This leads me to believe that the focus of these anti-gay organizations seems to be solely on the idea of gay sexual relations (its also interesting for me to note that in most cases this stance against gay sex focuses only on sodomy). 

I will admit to having a limited exposure to gay men and women and we need to understand that I can only speak in relation to those openly gay people with whom I have conversed, but in most conversations I have had with openly gay men and women the issue of sexuality rarely arises, or only arises in a limited capacity after something much more important happens- a relationship.  In EVERY conversation I have had with an openly gay person their regret/desire/hope is for a meaningful intimate relationship with another human being.  These conversations are not about sexual pleasure, they are about the desire to be loved, accepted, and supported by a person and having the chance to do the same for that person.  Gay people speak of an emptiness in their life when they are denied love and a great longing for a deep impactful relationship with other human beings.  This is not to say that one night stands take place in the homosexual community- this is also true for heterosexual activity as well.

This leads me to conclude that homosexuals are really not all that different from heterosexuals in their desire for such a meaningful loving relationship.  And this helps me understand why gay people sometimes get so confused at the vitriol directed their way- its not about sexual immorality- its about a desire for a relationship- something heterosexual people also crave.  Why is it wrong to desire this?  Dr. James McGrath deals with this in a recent blog where he points out in Genesis God's comment that it is wrong for man to be alone. 

Now, I am not so naive to believe that there is not a sexual component to a homosexual relationship, but this is also true for heterosexual relationships as well.  But how much time is spent engaging actively in sex in any relationship?  We spend so much more time just sleeping!  And if we are going to object about unnatural homosexual relationships that are less than 1% of a couples relationship, then should we not also object to all of the unnatural heterosexual sexual activities that also comprise 1% of their time (or less).  I don't accept the belief that human sexual activity should only be for procreation.  It is a gift from God given to human beings involved in a loving relationship. 

In fact I find the opposite happening in my conversations, leading me to believe that extreme opponents to gay men and women are focused in a very unhealthy percentage upon the act of sex- be it gay or straight, and that there is much more going on in these conversations that appear to be more about these individuals sexual understanding of self than their understanding of the gay community.  Maybe Freud did touch a nerve...

Monday, January 14, 2013

Moving in a Pro-Life direction, but not like you think it means

In our recent trip to South Africa we had a chance to meet with a Catholic Bishop named Kevin Dowling.  He serves in a part of South Africa where some of the worlds largest platinum mines can be found.  In this community roughly one out of every 3 women aged 25-29 is infected with HIV or Aids.  It is a terrible epidemic exasperated by the poverty and culture around the mines.  In these mining communities alcohol and sex are the norm, not the exception.  The estimated percentage of people infected with HIV/Aids lies somewhere between 22-29%.

Bishop Dowling is at odds with the rest of his Catholic community due to his endorsement of the use of condoms among the people in his community.  He promotes their use, not as a form of birth control, but as a way to protect human life.  If you are going to be pro-life, the Bishop claims, it has to be for every aspect from conception to death.  Using condoms in South Africa is about preserving life.

This has lead me to once again consider what it means to be pro-life in America, especially in light of some of the current topics up for discussion.  I have always considered myself a pro-life kind of person, but probably not according to the definition of the anti-abortion right wing definition of pro-life.  I find it difficult to reconcile the general consensus that works so hard to protect the lives of the unborn then do nothing to help this unborn live or grow in a healthy environment.  Its almost like after birth these so called pro-life advocates assume that their job is complete and they can kick back and relax while the child grows up.  Little to no energy is expended to protect these children, other than the occasional complaint about welfare or other government program costs to raise these children.  A suggestion has been made to stop referring to such people as pro-life and instead call them pro-birth.

Now, I understand the complaints that the welfare system is in need of reform and that there are people who take advantage of the current system.  Of course there are flaws in the process and even as repairs are attempted politics, funding, and other matters interfere.  The issue at hand here is whether we can be pro-life unless we are pro-life in every aspect and age of life.

It also leads me to question some of the current controversy over gun control.  Many of these same right to life people are also vocal against new gun laws or legislations that tighten the governments control over handguns, semi- and automatic weapons.  Here is the problem as I see it:  what is a gun supposed to do?  Fire a projectile at a high speed.  A gun is a weapon.  It was created to be one and is used by police and our military in that manner.  The clever turn of calling a weapon such as this "for defense" just does not make sense.  You don't defend yourself by firing a weapon.  Such a weapon is used to attack.  Arming people as a deterrent seems to be counter-intuitive.

Now I understand that there is a culture of hunters out there who use these weapons for a different purpose all together.  But most of these advocates hunt with a rifle or shotgun- not a pistol.

It would make more sense if these advocates would be more vocal for such items as kevlar, or bulletproof vests and equipment.  Now there is a device solely with a defensive purpose.  If we are going to be defenders of human life, why urge more people to arm themselves with a weapon- a device that threatens human life?  In the state where I live, all it takes for someone to legally own a handgun is for them to pay a license fee and pass a criminal background check.  There is no requirement to understand how to use such a handgun, how to load, check, and safely fire such a handgun, or any kind of decision making training on when it is and is not legal to draw or use such a weapon.  How can this be protective of human life?  It encourages irresponsible gun ownership.  And irresponsible gun ownership leads to the loss of life, something both sides of this controversy seek to prevent.

Why are these so-called gun advocates who seem to universally opposed to any laws tightening the use of guns as weapons?  Why are they not the ones leading the charge against irresponsible gun ownership?  Why have they not at least tried to develop some plan for safe and responsible gun ownership that involves training, understanding, and good decision making skills for those who wish to carry and conceal a weapon?

There is much that I simply don't understand.