Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Religious Liberty

In the April 2013 Imprimis of Hillsdale College, R.R. Reno writes about the changing face of religious liberty in the United States.  His position can easily be summarized in one line:  "Our secular establishment wants to reduce the autonomy of religious institutions and limit the influence of faith in the public square." He then goes on to say lay blame upon many groups for this trend, most specifically the "left" including the Obama administration, the libertarians and their utilitarian views, and more.  While his insights into the cultural shifts in attitude toward religion may be correct, I think his quickness to blame certain groups is sociologically naive, and he ignores the dynamics of the "orthodox" church that have contributed to the problem.

The fact is, throughout history, the greatest violators of religious liberties have not been the non-religious, but the very orthodox religious groups themselves.  The call for orthodoxy has a history of violence and oppression as those in power try to purge the heretics from church and country. This history contributes to the rise of the "nones", those people who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever.  How?  In my 20+ years in the pastorate I have watched the Christian church and its diversity of opinions and expressions face a siege from evangelical and fundamentalist voices, who want to call the church back to a more orthodox (in their eyes) position. These voices were so self-assured and so strongly represented in the culture, that many church people were convinced that if their church or pastor did not agree with this new orthodoxy, that the church they were attending must be non-Christian, and so they left. Also, these voices so altered the perception of Christianity, that people who once were able to consider themselves Christian because there was room for them in that less dogmatic era, no longer found themselves comfortable or welcome in the new Christianity.

This redefinition caused issues which were debated within the church, to suddenly issues of church against society.  The case of creation and evolution is a great example.  In college I was part of an evangelical student movement, but even within this group the issue of evolution was little debated.  There was a strong understanding that some parts of the bible are not to be taken literally, and that science has its place in the discovery of God and how God works.  But that changed as the new call to orthodoxy arose.  Suddenly the room for Christian debate was removed and redefined to Christians versus Science.  (This situation is certainly not new -- it has happened repeatedly in history, so I am not claiming this is a first). As that happened, people became convinced that to be Christian meant to be anti-science.

In a similar way, issues of abortion, homosexuality, prayer in school, etc., became calling cards of the new orthodoxy and people whose opinions were different faced being called non-Christian, heretical, and so on. This essentially ostracized or silenced a whole segment of the church. Those orthodox voices then called for a re-Christianizing of our country, asking for Christianity (specifically the evangelical form) to be named a state religion, or at least claiming they were being persecuted and oppressed by not being allowed to practice their orthodoxy in ways that forced it upon others in schools, hospitals and courtrooms.

That culture has backlashed against this movement should not be surprising. The rise of the "nones" is not a sign of a less spiritual people; but the rise of a group of people that have found our current religious atmosphere to be toxic to their beliefs.  And the desire of those so affected to have themselves protected from this atmosphere legally and constitutionally only makes sense.

R.R. Reno omits this dynamic, and in doing so also omits one of the steps that is necessary for the retention of religious liberty in America -- and that is the willingness of Christians to realize that inflexible orthodoxy crushes the human mind, and does not save the human soul. What keeps the church meaningful in life, is its infusion with the Holy Spirit, its willingness to hear as God calls us to new things, new ideas, and new expressions of faith. Until we allow faith the room to breathe, faith has trouble growing, living and thriving in society.  In other words, until Christians themselves are willing to give each other religious liberty and freedom, we will not have it in the political arena either.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Protecting the Bible

I have always been a little concerned about those that suggest that the bible is flawless and without error.  It smells too much like, the apparently urban legend that a deck hand said of the Titanic, "Not even God could sink this ship."  For the Bible to be completely inerrant, it would require too much from imperfect people.  And I think anything that we humans construct has the potential to sink, even holy books.

First, people would have to hear perfectly what God told them -- and I know from many experiences that people don't do that well.  Once after coaching a JV soccer game, the opposing coach came over to me and said, "I sense a rivalry here."  I replied, "No.  Next year we will be varsity and you will kill us."  Somehow, the other coach heard, "Next year we will beat varsity and kill you."  I discovered this when we played the varsity team next year and all their players were taunting us about "You're going to kill us?  Welcome to varsity, after which they trounced us 11 - 0.  All because of our imperfections in communication.  And with God, it is even more difficult for us to get our message right.

Second, for the bible to be inerrant people would have to refrain from adding their personal comments to what God told them, you know embellishing it a bit to make it more exciting.  Another soccer story.  After each game, I would send the scores, stats, and a written quote to the newspapers for them to print if they wanted to.  I put the quote in quotes with my name in order to make it clear it was an exact quote.  Yet on one occasion the sport's editor didn't think my quote was exciting enough and totally rewrote my statement using hyper-competitive language not befitting of a pastor.  I wasn't very happy.  With the Bible, it seems equally (if not more) likely that humans would want to add their spin -- us being self-centered and all.

Third, the transmission of the texts would have to be perfect.  It is true, that the texts have been passed down with remarkable accuracy, there are places where ancient texts have slight variations.  They usually make no difference to interpretation, and yet the differences are there.

Some people try to get around these issues by saying that the texts were perfect in their original form and in their original language. That may sound like an acceptable statement at first, but in reality it is problematic.  If God could get the bible perfectly into the hands of the original authors, wouldn't God have also ensured that the text remained pure and error-less during its transmission?  Why would people long ago have a more accurate ability to get God's word exact than people now-a-days?  It sounds good at first, because we don't know those people from long ago, and it is easy to trust people whose motives and personalities are invisible to us; while with current scholars, it is easy to distrust them because they must have an agenda they are pushing.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I think the bible is a wonderful book, written by people about their experiences of God.  I believe that it has the sanction of the Christian community and is intended to help us understand the faith and draw closer to God.  I believe it is the spirit-filled, authoritative, and sacred book of Christianity.  But I don't believe it is perfect.  We should be willing to say, "Yes, the bible is right about this, but not about that.  It is right that God is behind all of creation, but it isn't right about it taking 7 days.  Yes, the bible is right in teaching that children ought to honor their mother and father; yet it is wrong about sparing the rod spoiling the child."

So here is what started this little rant.  As I was working on my sermon this week, I was studying marriage in the bible and that favorite feminist passage about women submitting to men.  So many commentators have struggled to remind us that it isn't talking about an ancient hierarchy that accepted abuse, but about humble service, it is about respect for one another, sacrificial love like that of Christ.  But as I studied I discovered that those commentators are trying to protect the Bible from its own cultural bias where male dominance was acceptable, and hitting a woman to keep her pure wasn't morally questioned.  No one wants to admit that the bible is very close to suggesting that spousal abuse is okay, that would make it all too obvious that the bible is not a perfect book.

Even the translators are in on it.  Here's the verse as several Bibles render it.  Ephesians 5:33

"Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband." -- King James Version

"So each husband should love his wife as much as he loves himself, and each wife should respect her husband." -- Contemporary English Version

"Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband." -- New Revised Standard Version

"However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband." -- New International Version

The problematic word is 'reverence' or 'respect'. It is a nice word, a gentle word, an acceptable word; but it isn't what the original Greek says.  The original word is phobeo.  You should recognize that, it is the word we use as phobia -- a deep and life-controlling fear.  Every other time this word appears in the bible, it is translated as fear, afraid; but not here because that would not only unpopular, it would be immoral to suggest that wives should live in mortal fear of their husbands. Accurately rendering the word would force us to examine whether or not some of the biblical teachings are no longer acceptable; and admit that the authors were as human as we are, and subject to error.  And that in turn might cause us to question. What teachings are applicable to us today?  Where are the moments where God truly speaks, despite our human failings?

You see, I do believe that the Holy Spirit carries the text to us, but I also believe that the Holy Spirit continues to speak; sometimes correcting the past and leading us into newness of life.  Yes, there is the danger that we will hear wrong, that we will twist the words to our own intentions -- but there is also the chance that God has plans for us that are greater, brighter and better than even those envisioned by the sages of the past.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lesser Known Holy Days

One of the things that amazes me is how poorly attended the church services on special days in the Christian calendar.  I am not talking about Christmas and Easter, they get enough publicity.  Nor am I talking about the minuscule holidays like the feast of St. Briged of Kildare (which was February 1st) or the feast of the circumcision of Christ (which I am not sure why anyone would want to celebrate with a feast, and which has been overridden by New Years' Day -- although it does explain the use of alcoholic beverages as part of the celebration).  What really amazes me, is that days like today -- Ash Wednesday -- or Holy Thursday and Good Friday aren't big draws.

These special services are among the most powerful in the Christian year.  They have everything that the contemporary Christian seeks -- a strong appeal to one's emotions, an element of participation, music that is stirring, and the challenge to dig deep into our souls for that connection to God; and yet they only draw one-tenth of our Sunday crowd.  I have a hard time believing that the other 90% are so shallow in their faith that they feel that one worship a week is enough.  Nor am I willing to accept that these ancient rituals and stories no longer have meaning.  A few years ago when The Passion of the Christ came out, people flocked to the theaters to witness it, as though it were a new thing.  Yet every year, Good Friday provides a chance for us to hear the sacrificial story of Christ, and to contemplate its power in our lives.  The story still carries power.

Nor is it because our culture is less spiritual than in the past.  Those of the millenial generation increasingly say that they are spiritual but not religious, as if the two are different and disconnected.  What that tells me is that the spiritual hunger is there, the desire for deep meaning and soul-feasting are there. I think there are two things at work here, one which is a misunderstanding of the spirituality of religion, and one which is the church's lack of focus and attention to detail on these days.

First, the misunderstanding.  When the church provides the holidays which have spiritual power in its rawest form, people think of it as religious and not spiritual. Maybe I am wrong, but I think it has to do with one's view of tradition. Often the attitude is that if a practice is traditional, it comes from an impersonal organization, interested more in maintaining the institution and the old order, so people come to it with little expectation that it will affect them.  It is religious, born of past generations, and has little to do with me.  And when we come with that expectation, we close ourselves to the power of the practice.

To clear the misunderstanding, look not at the institution and the years of ritual, but look at the spiritual issue that the day addresses.  Ash Wednesday struggles with our humanity; that is, our mortality and our need for forgiveness. These are issues that are at the core of our spirit, our fears, our questions. To hear again ashes to ashes, dust to dust; while contemplating a God who forgives and offers new life is a profound experience. If we come to the service with the expectation of examining our spirit, ready to cast away our past and leave with new resolve to do better; we will discover why the practice has been maintained for so long -- it moves religion from the institution to the individual heart.

The second thing that affects attendance at these days, is I think, the church's fault, and I include myself in this culpability. We don't put as much emphasis on them as we do our Sunday services. Nursery facilities are often not provided, there isn't a children's message or activity for the kids to participate in. The choir and the praise band don't sing.  It is as though the pastor and the organist are the lone people involved.  I am not sure if it is because we expect the power of the holy day to carry the service, or if we are such creatures of habit that we just don't think about it until it is too late.  But whatever the reason, the church (including myself) needs to reevaluate its approach to these days.

It is time for us to emphasize the power and spirituality of the church experience, to help people see that the church puts as much effort into spirituality as it does into fund raising, and as much publicity for holy days as it does for its spaghetti suppers.

Thursday, January 31, 2013


Most atheists have no clue what atheism actually means as a theological stand.  People use the word as though it means that they don't believe in God. Even has only one definition, a doctrine or belief that there is no God.  While that is how the word is commonly used, it does not reflect its meaning in the overall scheme of theological positions.  Let me give you a review:

Theism is the traditional belief that God is a being, with a personality and mind, that stands outside of our own universe and yet exerts some amount of control and power over the physical world (perhaps as creator, and continued sustainer).  Usually theists also believe that God is all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing.  They key phrase here is that God is both a being and personal (having a personality).  There are beings that are not personal, at least as far as we can tell, such as bacteria, algae, and so on. More on that when I get to deism.

Technically, atheism is the denial of theism, with the prefix a- meaning not, as in not a theist.  What an atheist denies is that God has this particular package of divine traits. But it does not mean that the person does not believe in God at all.  Although some people have tried to create a newer word -- nontheism, for religious beliefs that don't accept a personal God -- there was no need to.  At its base, this is what atheism means.  Unfortunately the term atheism has been kidnapped from its original meaning to mean the rejection of any religious position, and even worse atheism became associated with people who have no morals along with no religion.  The term nontheism came to use because non-religious folk were afraid of being misunderstood when they said that they were atheistic. A person can be quite moral, and actually religious while being an atheist in the truest sense of sense of the word.

However, in defense of the way the word usage has evolved, in my experience most atheists are actually rejecting the dominant religious view of their culture (such as rejecting traditional Christianity) and are wanting to say that they are anti-religious. They often site the fact that God cannot be all-loving and all-powerful and allow evil to exist. Many never question whether God might have a different set of characteristics. Technically, one can be a theist and believe that God is evil, angry and wants to make your life miserable; rendering that argument insufficient for the denial of theism.  Such people are more accurately antitheists, they are rejecting and standing strongly against the religious tradition, and oppose the belief in God.  

Other people who use that label atheist will describe themselves as believing in science, in what is observable, repeatable, and arrived at by means of logic and research.  Technically this is not atheism either, because there are many theistic possibilities that do not conflict with science.  What these people are really saying is that they reject the fundamentalist position on God creating the world in seven days, or some other specific doctrine held by a religious sect (such as the earth being flat, or the sun orbiting the earth, or the idea that heaven resides on the dark side of the moon.)  Such persons have a black and white view of religions, you either believe it all literally or none of it; and probably could be helped by reading further about other ways of viewing God.

Deism is the belief that God set the universe in motion, but then left it to its own.  People often refer to this as the divine watchmaker theory.  God is that which initially started the big-bang, and then stepped back to watch the show.  Philosophers who suggest that our lives may actually be part of a computer simulation done by a higher being, are in a sense deists.  The programmer is God, and we are simply the bits of code doing what the program tells us. Deism is usually theistic as in the example above, but not necessarily so.  A deist could believe in a non-personal God setting things in motion by a natural life process, and simply not knowing nor caring that we exist as a product of its own life.

Panentheism (which my spell-checker doesn't even recognize as a word) is the belief that God and the universe are actually linked.  Many people say that a Panentheist is a person who believes that the universe is the body of God, the physical manifestation of God, while God's mind or spirit are either outside of the universe or the consciousness of the universe. The idea parallels the philosophy of a mind-body dialectic, we are physical and yet have consciousness, why couldn't the universe also have a larger consciousness. Panentheism often gets confused with Pantheism, as evidenced by one of my favorite scenes from Britcom Red Dwarf.

Kryten: Surely you believe that God is in all things? Aren't you a pantheist?
Lister: Yeah, but I just don't think it applies to kitchen utensils. I'm not a FRYING pantheist. Machines do not have souls. Computers and calculators do not have an afterlife. You don't get hairdryers with tiny little wings, sitting on clouds and playing harps.

What is being described here is more like Panentheism -- God in all things, and yet beyond.

Transtheism is similar to Panentheism because it believes that gods were once physically part of the universe, but have ascended into a spirit world which is outside of what we know.  Most religions that include a worship of ancestors are forms of transtheism.  In fact, within Christianity the veneration of the saints is close to transtheism, although its practitioners would argue that they are only asking the saints to intervene with God on their behalf -- there still is the reverential approach to that which was once physical and is now spirit.

Pantheism is the belief that nature is all that there is. In other words, God is nature, nature is God. God does not have personality, other than the personalities that exist in nature. God is no more spirit than nature is spirit. God is the universe and the universe is God. Many people who call themselves atheists are in my opinion more accurately described as pantheists. They wouldn't call themselves that because they don't think they worship nature, but if they believe that nature is the only reality and only real power -- in my opinion that is what they actually are.

Others who claim the tag of atheist could also be called humanist.  They still believe that there are ethics and morals that guide our lives, and that our lives are to be lived out within that code.  It also usually indicates a value for humanity, individually and as a community; and prefers freedom of thought over doctrine and faith.  Unfortunately the term humanist is as vague as the term atheist, and it has been used for so many groups that are religious in nature, as well as those that are not.  In general, humanism is not a theological statement; but an ethical one.

Agnosticism is when a person isn't sure what they believe.  Usually though it refers to a person who isn't sure if there is a theistic God.  There may be or there may not be. Many intellectual people who have struggled with traditional church doctrine are agnostics. Honestly, most Christians and pastors at some time or another have moments of agnosticism. An agnostic may be considering all of the above as possibilities and simply admitting that it is difficult to tell the truth about the mystery of God.

Here's the deal -- deists, panentheists, frying pantheists, some humanists, and pantheists are all atheists because they reject the theistic view of God. So, all you atheists really should pick a more specific word that describes your beliefs -- it would be clearer, and you may discover you have more in common with many religious folk than you think, because I know practicing Christians who are all of the above.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Believing in Stanley

Once in a while we Christians get it into our heads, that something is an absolutely essential belief of the faith, when it hasn't traditionally been one.  For example, the idea of a rapture where people are scooped up out of their lives in this world, and their sudden absence results in driverless cars, pilotless planes, and people sitting in restaurants wondering when the waitress is ever going to return with their bill.  In times past, there were other views of the end of the world and final judgment, just do a little research on the four primary interpretations of the book of Revelations and you will see.  But in our current climate, if one questions the idea of rapture, one is in danger of being kicked out of heaven by the watchdogs of faith.  In fact, a pastor friend of mine had that happen.  He simply asked other pastors if there were other interpretations of the book of Revelations, and they pounced upon him like grand inquisitors upon a Spanish heretic, saying that he was no longer a Christian.

But the rapture isn't my primary topic today (as fun and exciting as it is), I want to talk to you about Stanley.  You see, Stanley was once a pretty normal guy.  He went out for his daily walks, did a little work, reported to his boss, and for the most part people ignored him.  Like most of us, his tongue got him into trouble. Sometimes he said things in anger that he didn't really intend to be hurtful, and his stubborn pride was known to get in quarrels with people from time to time.

But then Stanley got his big break, he appeared in an epic rewriting of a classic tale and although he was cast as the villian, there was also something almost heroic and valiant about him as he stood up to the good guys.  Kind of like Darth Vader, I suppose -- without question a villian, but a sexy one that you sort of admire for his spunk.  Suddenly Stanley was everywhere.  His image was on t-shirts, he hawked products on tv, there were even songs sung about him.  His story was used to inspire revolutions and to terrify children into being good lest Stanley come to them in the night.

And Christians in time came to believe that Stanley was a necessary part of their religion.  Unless you believed in Stanley, you weren't going to heaven.  Which was strange, because if you look in the Bible, Stanley is hardly mentioned at all in the Old Testament.  In fact whole verses, chapters, and even books go by without him being mentioned.  Nor does he appear in the Apostle's Creed nor the Nicene Creed, nor even Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada.  Instead these things talk about God, and Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and much less exciting topics than Stanley, as if these are truly the important things in religion.  How blind those people of long ago were!  How could one explain life without Stanley?  Who would we blame the problems of the world upon?

We need Stanley, almost as much as we need God (not that he could rival God, that would be heresy too, but he comes a close second).  Once in a sermon I said that I didn't believe that Stanley was real, that Stanley was more of a metaphor for evil, and one man was irate, "You can't be a Christian if you don't believe in Stanley.  One of Stanley's biggest tricks is to convince people he isn't real so that he can take them unawares."  This surprised me, I didn't know that when I committed my life to following Jesus, I would have to watch my back for Stanley too. I was a little weak kneed in the face of such anger, and relented that I suppose Stanley could exist, but he certainly wasn't the focus of my life, and I wasn't going to stay up nights worrying about him leaping from my closet.

I just don't get this whole fascination with Stanley.  Why are we so fixated upon a bit part villain when we follow the greatest hero of all time, from whose love neither angels nor demons, nor powers nor principalities can separate us? I guess I just focus on the guy in the white hat who rides into town on a white horse, rescues the damsels and luckless lads in distress, and rides off a victor over sin and death, and ignore the "Snidely Whiplash"-like, mustache twirling, Stanley who shouts "Drat!" in the background.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Secret Fears

This last Saturday, the Herald Palladium ran a news article that was originally written by Terry Mattingly of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (that is the WJC at the CCCU for those of you who like acronyms).  The article is entitled Secret fears of your pastor.  In many ways, those secret fears are exactly why I started writing this blog -- to open up your eyes to the things that we pastors think, struggle with, and often don't share.  Here are the fears he shares, and my own fun, sarcastic and relentlessly foolish reinterpretation of them. 

Fear One -- That we won't be able to come up with anything from God to use for Sunday's sermon.  Actually it is a little more complicated than that.  Most pastors can talk without any problem, and most of us really don't have trouble finding a passage of scripture that we can talk about.  In fact that is easy.  But what has gotten difficult is that everyone is telling us we have to be 'relevant to the culture', that we must be entertaining, that what we say must have something that will change the lives of people who are in their 20's with young families, the Gen X'ers like myself, the baby boomers, and those who are in their 80's (by the way have you every tried to change anything in the life of an 80 year old?  Good luck.  As my high school algebra teacher used to say, "Your young and flexible, you can change.  I'm old, and I can't, so do it my way.")  The kicker to this fear is that the bible is often counter-cultural.  So the preacher's task is to take a radical text, explain it in a way that is meaningful to this culture and all its subcultures, and do it in a way that is fun so that people come back.  Now that's a challenge.

Fear Two -- That someone will notice that we are human.  Harold Bales says that while people often hold pastors to a higher standard, we are people.  But because we don't want to let people down, we don't tell people about our struggles with our marriages or our addictions or perhaps even our hobbies.  Some have described the pastor's life as a fishbowl, our lives are so public, but there are still secrets we try to hide behind that bubbling treasure chest or that 'No fishing sign' that have been carefully placed in the bowl.  Actually, for me and my family, this fact hasn't been that hard.  I guess I don't have much to hide.  I know that I make mistakes, like backing my car into my wife's van a few years ago -- and I am more than willing to tell people what a dolt I was to forget to check my rearview mirror.

Fear Three -- That if we preach the truth of Jesus Christ people won't like us anymore.  There is such a high pressure on pastors right now to succeed.  Churches are shrinking, our congregations are aging, and our supervisors are measuring us for effective ministry (meaning attendance and finances), the hard truths and recent discovers, that are about as much fun to swallow as that fake cherry antibiotic was as a kid, just don't seem very wise to speak on.  For example, what would happen if the pastor really laid into the congregation on the idea that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God?  Or if the pastor told you that many of the letters that are in the bible and attributed to the Apostle Paul probably weren't written by Paul, and the book of Isaiah was written by two or three different persons?  Or that the Holy Spirit is referred to as female in some of the early Christian writings?  Or that capitalism and even democracy really aren't the biblical models for economics and politics?  Yikes.  People would call us communist feminist revisionist historians who are unpatriotic and have bad breath.

Fear Four -- That we aren't making a difference.  18,000 pastors quit the ministry each year.  When I was ordained we were told that the average pastor would only last 5 years after ordination before leaving the ministry.  Five years!  Yes, there are days when I feel that I have done so little to transform people's lives.  People still struggle with finding meaning in life, people still face family breakdowns and crises, and people still fight over the color of the carpet in the sanctuary.  

Yes, we pastors have fears.  Thankfully, this last Sunday as I sat preparing for worship I read this:

Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work's in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.
If you can't preach like Peter, if you can't pray like Paul, just tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all.
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

Friday, January 25, 2013

God and Country

Last Saturday, the boy scout troop that our church hosts awarded the rank of Eagle to four high achieving young men.  I myself am an Eagle Scout and proud of that fact.  It was the result of years of work, persistence, and truly helped train me in the practice of leading others, working with and organizing others, and humbling learning at the feet of others.

My reflection for the day is the delicately balanced phrase from the scout oath: "To do my duty to God and my country". It is a wonderful phrase, reminding us of those higher purposes in life and recommitting ourselves to serve them.  No wonder then that so many scouts enter into the military, and that I myself entered into the ministry.  There is a profound sense of duty -- doing what is expected, what is best for the greater good -- that was instilled in me and other scouts from a very young age.

But what happens when those two duties conflict?  Because one of the great dangers of Christianity is the belief that these duties are one in the same: that by serving country we are always serving God (ie. that God has sanctioned our country above all others as the favored one, and so God sides with us in all things.)  Christians in the United States are particularly susceptible to this falsehood, but all we have to do is look at the bible to remind ourselves that such a connection is idolatry.  The prophets of ancient Israel called out to kings and leaders time and time again to bring themselves back to God, and certainly we cannot claim more of God's special favor than those leaders from the line of David serving the holy land.  Given time and given human proclivity, sooner or later we will veer off course; what God wants and what our country wants are going to come into conflict.

What worries me is how often Christians choose to fall into the hands of nationalism rather than considering their duty to God.  I know one pastor who moved the American flag out of the sanctuary, who had a man in his church say to him, "My first priority is my country, even before God."  The suggestion was that he would die for country before dying for God, that he would worship country before he worshiped God, and given the choice of removing the flag or the cross from the sanctuary he would remove the cross. Now, I realize that most Christians would not go so far as to say that, but often they act like it.  We act as though our duty to our country and its laws is greater than our duty to God, as though there is a US flag in the citadel of heaven and not a crucified redeemer.

The best example of this misplaced nationalism that I see is our attitude toward foreigners, whether they are immigrants (who are here illegally), or they are people in China working for minimal wages (and who stole our jobs), or beneficiaries of mission giving (when we have people who have needs here as well).  The words in parentheses are nationalistic attitudes that simply cannot be held up to Judeo-Christian ideals.  Strangers are to be welcomed as friends (as the old saying goes, you might be entertaining angels unawares), all people deserve a fair wage and a productive life (not just Americans), and the poverty here at home cannot hold a candle to the scale of those places far off where there is no infrastructure, no schools, no clean water source, no sewers, and no electricity (even before a natural disaster occurs).

As Christians in the United States we need to get our priorities back in line: put our duty to God first (as it is in the Boy Scout oath) and then our duty to country.  Don't automatically assume that decisions made by our country are okay with God. We need to be people with a global vision, perhaps even a universal vision as we look at issues.  Ask yourself, "What does God say about that issue?  What would Jesus advise?" We may not like the answers that God speaks to us.  I suspect that our real reason for putting our duty to country first is one of self-preservation, where we are hiding our self-serving attitudes behind a cover of our duty to our country, and when we are honest most of us really don't want to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

You Didn't Visit Me

Then the king will say to those on his left, "Get away from me! You are under God's curse. Go into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels! I was hungry, but you did not give me anything to eat, and I was thirsty, but you did not give me anything to drink. I was a stranger, but you did not welcome me, and I was naked, but you did not give me any clothes to wear. I was sick and in jail, but you did not take care of me." Matthew 25:41-43 (CEV)

Let me warn you, we are not driving where you expect to go.  The above scripture will totally mislead you if you think I am going to talk about the Christian duty to the poor.  Actually, I would like to totally misapply it to a number of modern businesses and professionals.

Imagine if you just bought a computer from Best Buy.  You and I both know they have those cute little black and white cars with Geek Squad on the side, and they will come to your house to help you set it up, plug it in, and get started (for a fee of course).  They will also come to your home if you have a problem, like the DVD drive stopped working after your three year old stuffed a piece of toast in there. But there is this customer service problem -- if you want them to come, you have to call them.  They should just now when your computer is broken and come out and help you.  There should be some way through the internet that they can tell there is a problem and send a driver over to fix it without your having to lift the phone.  Right?

Or imagine that you have suddenly come down with a horrible case of collywobbles (intestinal cramping) and you can't get our of bed.  It just keeps getting worse and worse.  You think you may have appendicitis, and you tell every one you know all the details.  But even after starting the telephone chain and the rumor mill your doctor never shows up at your door to take a look at you.  He or she should know by now, you've told enough busybodies that it should be the talk of the town -- its even posted on Facebook.  Even after a few weeks the doctor does not come.  Why?  Doesn't your doctor care?  Then one day your appendix bursts and you have to call an ambulance to take you to the hospital.  Certainly you have a malpractice claim, and the doctor should pay for your expenses, since if he or she had only gotten to you sooner your appendix wouldn't have burst.  Right?  

Or imagine that you are in desperate need of cheering up. You are down in the dumps so low that the earthworms know your name. What would really help is a visit from Ronald McDonald, because the nostalgia of seeing his happy smile and his big shoes brings you back to your childhood, when you had no worries.  Besides you are sort of craving a hamburger with extra ketchup and double pickles.  But day after day, Ronald doesn't show up at your door, and so you slip deeper and deeper into depression, and hamburger deprivation. Certainly as large an organization as McDonald's should have a way of knowing your need.  They must have a satellite with hamburger deprivation detection, so they can send out an emergency hamburger delivery by Ronald McDonald himself (or at least one of his employee minions dressed up like him).  Right?

So have you figured out where this is going, because there is a pattern here. If you want something, in practically any area of life, from any business or professional person -- you have to initiate the contact.  You call Best Buy, you go to the doctor's office, you drive through McDonald's and order three strawberry shakes to cheer yourself up.  But church people often expect the pastor to just be there, without a call, without a request, without asking.  I hate to tell you but if Best Buy, your doctor, and McDonald's haven't figured out a way to respond to your needs before you ask -- neither have we.  God does not deliver little notices to our e-mail inbox that say, "Mrs. Myrna Flynn is in the hospital and would like a visit."  And though we try to keep a close watch on our social network, sometimes the gossip train skips our house and we don't here the news. 

Yet, even though they haven't lifted the phone, or said anything to us, people get mad when we aren't there. I have even had people leave the church over something I knew nothing about until months later.  People, take responsibility for yourselves, if you have a need tell us.  Push the vending machine button and order E6 -- one hospital visit (free of charge). Do something to make sure we know. Then if we don't come, it won't be because we didn't know (it may be because we think you are a hypersensitive angry old goat, but then at least you will have good reason to be mad).  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Broken Hearts

Many pastors are under treatment for depression. I am one of those, as are at least two others in our small town. At first this fact seems incongruous -- shouldn't a person who trusts so deeply in God be filled with hope?  And yes, that is partially true, but depression isn't always a loss of hope, sometimes the reason we became pastors is that we were people with a darkness in our soul, or a lack of self-worth, who found in God a profound and deep love. At other times our depression is the result of a deep grief and a broken heart.

Pastors, like many other professions, walk with people through the most shadowed valleys of life.  We stand at bedsides of children who are in a coma, we hold a family member's hand as their loved one takes a final breath, we watch families split apart by poor choices and the dreadful consequences.  I have watched a hundred times as people have kissed the cold lips of their spouse just before the casket is closed. Loving people through these times is a huge investment of time and emotional energy.  Often we become emotionally intertwined with the families we serve, and so we grieve each loss even as we are supporting others.

But death isn't really the hardest grief for me -- I am able to grieve as one who has not lost hope.  A grief I never expected as a young adult entering the pastorate is actually the more difficult -- when people who you have an emotional investment in, leave the congregation to attend elsewhere, or simply stop coming.  Usually it is motivated by the programs another church offers, or it can occur when a congregation member has a conflict with another congregation member, or sometimes the person simply gets out of the habit.

What happens 49 times out of 50 is that the person who is leaving does so without informing the pastor; in fact, often when I follow up with a phone call to the individual, they will either refuse to answer the phone, or refuse to tell me why they left.  So many cynics have said that we just trade church members, and we are happy to see the troublesome ones go, that maybe church members have come to think it is better to leave in silence rather than cause a fuss.  Perhaps they are trying to be Christian and don't want to offend us, or perhaps they don't realize how much their pastors have truly come to love them.  Whatever the case, the lack of certainty plays back into those dark thoughts about ourselves, and the grief of losing a member is very real.  We try not to take it personally, and yet it is awfully hard not to.

I remember vividly as a teenager asking out a young lady with whom I was quite stricken.  The response was less than I had hoped for; in fact, she chose not to respond right away, and said she would get back to me.  When she didn't get back to me, I called again and asked why she had not replied.  Her response was that she thought it would be better to say nothing rather than to say no, she was not interested.  Perhaps this is the thinking of those who leave the church; however,  I disagreed with this young lady then, and still disagree with that attitude today. I would rather have a solemn goodbye with a shaking of hands, and an understanding of the problem; that to see people silently slip away never to be heard from.

For the last ten years this issue has been particularly poignant for pastors.  We have watched our congregations dwindle with attendance nationwide dropping by almost 10%.  That means one in ten people that we spent time caring for, visiting, having heart to heart spiritual conversations with, is no longer with us for whatever reason, and as pastors this breaks our hearts, it becomes personal, it becomes heavy.

The next time you decide to change churches, or you think perhaps no one will notice if you simply stop coming -- talk to your pastor first.  Help us understand.  Be a bold Christian and tell us the truth.  You may help us to grow even as we grieve your parting.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Fossil Fuels and Offending God

Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association said that when we don't use fossil fuels that we are hurting God's feelings.  He compared it to an experience he had when he was six years old: “I opened up a birthday present that I didn’t like, and I said it right out, ‘Oh, I don’t like those,’” the radio host recalled. “And it just crushed — and the person that gave me gift was there. You know, I just kind of blurted it out, ‘I don’t like those.’ And it just crushed that person. It was enormously insensitive of me to do that.”  He then explained that, “And you think, that’s kind of how we’re treating God when he’s given us these gifts of abundant and inexpensive and effective fuel sources, and we don’t thank him for it and we don’t use it."

Now, I am not going to debate whether or not we can hurt God's feelings, that is actually a good theological debate, in which I would agree with Fischer that we can disappoint and upset God.  No, what I really want to do is commend Fischer on his creative, nay brilliant use of logic and applying it to a social situation.  Consider the possibilities, we can all join the Lutherans in a good beer without guilt because, "God made it so barley and hops turn into a wonderful alcoholic beverage perfect for social occasions.  Those tea-totaling Methodists of the early 1900's with their prohibition agenda hurts God's feelings."  Or better yet, "We should spend as much time as possible appreciating the female (or male) form and giving thanks to God for making such beauty.  Covering it up just offends God." "And my neighbor, who has been such a jerk lately; well, God made my fist so that is could meet his face in just such a way as to draw blood.  Not punching him would be a sin."  We can now justify practically anything, even, "God put those chemicals in marijuana, coca plants, and poppies so that we might go on trips to happy happy Ozland, where the trees are orange and the jackalopes talk.  And if God put them there we better use them."

Okay, so yes, I am being sarcastic.  The whole idea of justifying an action because God put something there is silly, and luckily most people realize this -- that's why this story made News of the Weird. If you aren't convinced, let me point out that Fischer could just have easily said that God is offended because we aren't using wind turbine energy, or nuclear energy, or solar energy.  God gave us those too.  But he wouldn't say that because he is trying to justify an old fashioned approach to creation:  "God made it for humans to use up."  That was the thinking of the Imperialist era. Human exploitation of the earth was okay because our sole purpose as human beings was to run around and use up the stuff of the universe that God gave us.

As an example, listen to this Biblical argument made by the Cornwall Alliance’s Calvin Beisner, “The wicked and lazy master was the one who buried his talent in the ground and didn’t do anything to multiply it,” Beisner explained. “That’s essentially what those who say we need to stop using oil, coal and natural gas are telling us to do. Just leave those resources buried in the ground, rather than pulling them out and multiplying their value for human benefit.”

Beisner is referring to a passage of scripture in which a master gives a large sum of money to each of his three servants. The first servant doubles the money and gives the doubled amount back to the master.  The second also earns a sizable interest on what he was given and is also praised for increasing his master's wealth.  The third just buried the money in the backyard, and is chastised for not having done anything with the master's money.  Beisner is suggesting that God is giving us resources, like oil, coal and natural gas, as a gift -- like the money -- and that not using them is like burying them in the backyard.  In other words, use them to create something more, no matter what the consequences.

Thankfully most of us have moved past this line of thinking. As we watch our natural resources be used up, many Christians have a very different observation, "Even the one who buried the treasure in the ground didn't spend the ten talents for his own personal gain." Can you imagine a fourth servant saying to the master, "I know that you gave those ten talents to me, and so I went out and spent them. But here's a t-shirt I bought with the change."  You think the Master was hard on the one who simply buried them, what do you think is going to happen to the one who spent the money?  The parable never suggests that the servants use the money for their gain or in Beisner's words "for human benefit", it is to be used for their master's gain ie. God's benefit.

Sane people understand that it is the intentions of our actions, as well as their resulting impacts on ourselves, our neighbors and our world that make something good or evil. Using fossil fuels does result in some good things -- our quality of life is improved.  But there are also consequences -- consequences that Beisner and Fischer want to ignore and deny: global warming.  If the use of these fuels is in fact slowly altering our world; and causing harm to it, and by extension causing harm to ourselves, then we must conclude that these natural consequences are punishment for refusing to be good stewards of what God has given us. Which means that Christians should be listening very closely to the warnings of climatologists -- because if they are right, we must repent and rethink our approach to nature.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Christian Phobia of Sex

Yesterday I sat in a committee reviewing our school system's sexual education curriculum for the high school.  At the same time my wife was reviewing the elementary curriculum.  As our committees talked, one of the pieces of information that we had in front of us was a survey of parents' opinions on what should be taught and when.  For the most part, people were pretty sane -- they knew that you need to talk about puberty in late elementary, and you need to talk about the physical and economic effects of teenage pregnancy in high school.  But there were also those that felt that the subject should never be broached, that it was better for our kids to remain ignorant because "if you don't tell them about sex, they won't be curious about it."  Not to be rude, (well, okay, maybe a little rude); on which planet did these people attend middle school and high school?  My personal experience wasn't that my mind was curious about sex because of what it learned, it was that my body was curious about sex because of its rush of hormones.  It was also my experience that if the trusted adults (like teachers, Sunday School teachers, youth pastors, and my parents) didn't talk about sexuality, there were certainly enough unreliable sources talking about it, so that if it was only my mind that was curious -- I would have been learning a lot of misinformation.

Now, I am quite aware that many of those who don't want sex education in the schools are religious people, church people who are concerned about the sexual values and norms that their innocent, non-hormonal, angels will be taught.  Understandable to a point.  People can make sexual choices with devastating and life-altering consequences.  Obviously we want our kids to teach our kids to make smart choices that lead to happy and healthy lives.  But to be frank, many Christians have become far more Puritanical than is Biblical, sensible, and natural.  They border on erotophobia, a fear of sexuality.

So instead we have a culture that tries to explain sexuality, using the birds and bees.  To be honest I am not sure how it involves birds and bees.  You can try to talk about birds laying eggs to make a connection to female ovulation, and you can try to explain that bees pollinating plants is similar to fertilization; but beyond that it is a weird metaphor.  Eventually, if the kid isn't going to end up with an absolutely messed up view of sexuality, where mommy will lay an egg if she is stung by a bee, you have to tell the kids that what we are really talking about are a man and a woman and sex.

And that is not a dirty subject.  Let's be honest, God made us with only one way to propagate the species, and it is a wonderful, amazing thing.  If God thought sex was evil, we would be made so that we could split like amoebas or grow from seeds like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  But we don't -- in the words of the bible "a man and a woman come together to become one flesh".  That's pretty racy.

In fact, the bible is pretty racy in a lot of places.  It talks about Tamar pretending to be a prostitute and hiring herself out to her father-in-law so that she can have the child she deserves through Levirate marriage.  (My spell checker just suggested that I meant Levitra or levitate.  No, I don't think I meant that.)  The bible also talks rather plainly about menstruation, including both rules about cleanliness and stories which illustrate them.    We have the story of Esther who pickles herself in perfume so that she can use her feminine charms to persuade an emperor to do away with an unjust law, and book of erotic poetry called Song of Songs that makes a fun bedtime story for any couple.

But many Christians aren't comfortable with the topic, because we still somehow think that the sin of Adam and Eve wasn't that they disobeyed God and ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and then tried to pass the blame onto the snake, but the real sin was that they had sex.  Not Biblical my friends.  But just in case, we put fig leaves not only our bodies, but on the biblical text, so we don't have to be embarrassed.

We've become the masters of euphemisms -- we translate a word as seed that could just as easily be translated as semen, we skip over stories that make us uncomfortable (like the story of the concubine who is raped and her upset master cuts her into 12 pieces and sends her body to the tribes of Israel to incite them to war), and we even convince ourselves that stories like Ruth lying at the feet of Boaz are innocent, while original author is clearly giving us a nudge-nudge, wink-wink.  Even the wisdom of God is compared to a beautiful woman who is to be trusted and taken into one's home instead of the adulteress of foolishness.

If the bible can talk about sexuality openly, playfully, and without fear of shocking our sensitivities, nor leading our children into moral deviancy, so can we.  It's okay.  Lighten up.  You got your children by being sexual beings.  Teach them right from wrong, give them facts, and be one of those reliable sources of information.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

All About the Money

Yesterday afternoon a woman came into my office asking for some financial assistance.  At some point in the conversation she said, "I don't want to go to my parents' church because it is all about the money."  She mentioned that people there wear suits and dresses as though they are showing off how much they have.  I didn't respond, didn't defend and certainly didn't say that our church was any different because I know that many people have that opinion of church in general -- that we are "all about the money."

But for the most part it isn't true.  Even those big churches with expensive multimedia systems that could dazzle as well as any Kiss concert, and stages nicer than the Metropolitan Opera house, aren't really all about the money.  They may have money machines in the gathering areas, and have seminars on budgeting in which they remind you to include your gifts to the church, and they may have large capital campaigns to build larger sanctuaries with more seating capacity; but they aren't all about the money.

Really, for the most part it isn't true.  Even in those downtown southern churches where the men wear three piece suits and silk ties, and every Easter the women all come in wearing their new Easter dresses and hats with daffodils and ostrich feathers, it isn't really all about the money.  They may have to make special pleas for funds to fix the stained glass windows and redo the brickwork for the bell tower, and the pastor may drive a nice Ford F-150 (this is the south we are talking about), and they may even have a yearly pledge drive  to raise a half a million dollar budget, but they aren't all about the money.

And if you think I am being sarcastic, I'm not -- I'm quite serious.  My experience in the church is that money is never the primary motivator for our operation.  In fact, you are more likely to hear a person in a finance meeting say, "We can't do that, we don't have the money" than you are to hear "We have $1000 we don't know what to do with, where can we waste it."  Actually, I have never heard the second statement.

If you ask, you are likely to discover that many pastors have second jobs to make ends meet, and the pastor's spouse also works so that they can afford that F-150.  And if your pry more, you may discover that your pastor is a person who comes to the pastorate after a life in another job -- which made a lot more money, and he or she sacrificed many thousands of dollars to enter into the ministry.  For example, my first year out of college I made twice my starting pastoral salary, and it took 10 years for my pastor's salary to catch up with what I made that first year in another profession.  I have never met a pastor who was in it for the money (not saying that there aren't some out there, but I have yet to meet one).

The churches themselves aren't much different.  Many remember days when finances were much better, when we could afford several full time staff members, and a church bus with our name emblazoned on the side; but now we squeeze the hell (in a rather blessed way) out of every penny that comes in just so that we can operate.

So what is the deal?  Why do churches talk about money so much if it isn't really their primary purpose?  Because it is a vital issue of faith.  God asks us to be generous to everyone around us.  There are poor to be reached out to, disasters to be responded to, and homeless to be housed.  Second, God tells us as individuals that we will be held accountable for the way we use our earthly treasures.  And of course, there are bills to pay, buildings (often very old buildings) to maintain, and as much as we would like -- the electric company and the plumber don't accept prayers on their behalf as payment.  Finally, God wants us to show our thankfulness for what God has done by giving back -- it is an act of praise, an act of worship, an act of humility in which we admit everything we have comes from God.

Now let me challenge you.  If you are upset that the church is all about money, if you think we talk about it too much -- what does that say about you and your willingness to sacrifice, your willingness to reach out, your willingness to humble yourself before your Maker?  Mirror-ouch (my new word for what happens when we look honestly at ourselves in the mirror and what we see isn't what we wanted to see.)  Is it all about the money?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Subculture of Stupid

While I was in college at the University of Michigan, one of my professors pointed out that throughout much of history pastors and priests have come from the brightest and best.  In a world where education was rare, pastors were educated.  In a era when many could not read and write, priests could often do so in several languages.  Thus the past blooms with wonderful writers, thinkers, poets and even scientists who also happened to be clergy.

My professor then lamented that this is no longer the case.  Now, to be fair, he didn't come out and call us stupid, yet it was clearly implied that our educational process had been compromised, that our writing skills were on par with teenage love poetry, and that our brainial capacity had lost a quart (or a liter if you prefer the metric).  That statement challenged me then, and it remains a challenge to me now.

But I have learned a lot since those college days.  I have learned that Christian theologians are just as intelligent as they were in the past -- I have equal difficulty reading Aquinas, Hegel, Tillich, Pannenberg, and Reuther.  These people are so smart they make my brain hurt, so you could say that the branches at the top of our trees are providing the same high quality figs as they did in the past.  I also have met a number of pastors who can capably debate philosophy, read Hebrew and Greek, all while operating a motor vehicle.  Most exciting of all, there are among us great writers of inspirational stories, music lyrics, and poetry.  So many of the middle branches are pretty healthy too.

But my concern comes with those lower branches in the tree: the ones that seem to be filled with howler monkeys screaming anti-intellectual, monosyllabic dogma.  I worry that if they keep hollering and hooting like they have been, that slowly Christianity will fall into a subculture of stupidity.  For example, the sudden surge of home schooling among conservative Christians, so that their kids don't learn objectionable science, and are protected from the evils of independent thought.  My experience tells me, how shall I say this without sounding rude, that most parents who try to do this can't compete with the quality of our public school system.  They may be able to handle the three r's of reading and writing and righteousness, but they don't remember enough from high school chemistry, calculus, or literature to teach it ably.

Further, many Christians have come to view the scientific community with unhealthy skepticism.  We have people that believe that dinosaur bones are the creation of Satan meant to lead the faithful astray.  We have people that believe that evolution is an unproven theory on par with the idea that we are all inside 'the Matrix' and are experiencing a virtual world.  We have people that would believe that there is some secret group of illuminati out there manipulating scientific "discoveries", rather than admit that it may have taken more than seven days for the sun, the earth, and the moon to form.

What happens if this trend continues for five or six generations?

What I foresee is Christianity becoming a subculture of people who slow slip out of the realm of human progress and revert to medieval doctrine.  I see a group of people who become more and more out of touch with reality, because they won't admit the truth that they may be wrong.

Several years ago there was a petition to get 10,000 pastors to sign a document that stated that a person can believe in evolution and still be a faithful Christian.  I don't know if the petition got enough signatures or not, but that doesn't really matter.  What matters is that disputing the scientific facts of some parts of the bible doesn't make us heretics; in fact, it requires us to think about our world, to discern what religious truth is, and to strive for a deeper understanding of God.  I believe we need to reclaim our curiosity, regain our love for education, and allow ourselves to think; or else, face extinction as a people of faith.

So there's my two figs flung into the fruit-salad of philosophy -- waiting to hear the howler monkeys complain.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Yesterday I took the day off -- not just from writing my blog -- but from my responsibilities as a pastor.  It was a needed break, even though I just came back from a vacation a week ago, I needed the opportunity to spend extra time with my family, to refresh myself, and to go to the dentist.

And yet even though I tried to take the day off, I still checked my e-mail, read Facebook, talked a little bit about church with my wife, my kids and I talked a little bit about music that we might use in worship (they want the praise band to learn some Skillet songs), talked about being a pastor with my dental hygenist, and received one phone call from a church member.  Over all I would call this a successful attempt to take the day off.

I believe that most church members understand that pastors need to take a day off, but I don't know if people realize how difficult that really is.  When our family and friends are also part of the church family, even free time often ends up being work related.  Even when we are interacting with people who are not part of that circle, those who know our role often bring up church issues.  I know that this is the case with other jobs as well, but it should serve as a reminder to all of us just how difficult it is to separate the "pastoral hat" from the rest of our lives.

Not a particularly deep thought for the day, nor a particularly humorous one -- and yet one of importance none the less.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Lord's Prayer

Have you ever noticed that some things that sound like a good idea, but end up being stupid. Like the time your sister told you to climb up the slide and jump off holding a pillowcase for a parachute. Sounded like it would work, sounded like it would be fun, but in reality you were lucky to escape without breaking your leg. Or the time your youth pastor read in a youth magazine that it was really cool to pour lighter fluid on a mirror and then ignite it, because it gave a cool double 3D effect (yes, I really was dumb enough to do this), and the actual result was a rather frightening flash that made everyone jump and no one noticed whether the 3D effect was cool or not, because you were all trying to prevent your eyebrows from being burnt off.

I have another one for you: Dennis Kruse, senate education committee chairman, is attempting to push legislation which would require Indiana public schools to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each school day. On first read many Christians would say that that sounds like it might be a good idea, but let's pretend just for a moment that it is passed.

Which version of the Lord's prayer are you going to use? The one from the old English Book of Common prayer that uses trespasses? The one from the King James version of the bible that uses debtors? The one agreed upon by the National Council of Churches as the ecumenical version that uses sins? What about the shorter version in the book of Luke? And which ending are you going to use: the protestant one or the Roman Catholic one? We will have one kid trespassing, another debting, and a third sinning, while half the class is going on forever and ever. Will the teacher say, "let us join together in the Lord's Prayer" or "the Our Father"? You see, as Christians we can't even agree on what to call the prayer.

And that, my friends, is just the easy questions -- we haven't really delved into theological debate. What are we going to do about inclusive language? Are we going to assume that everyone is okay with the idea that God is Father? Are we going to ignore feminist voices that have reminded us that God also has characteristics of Mother? Or will we choose the gender neutral term Parent?

And then there is question on the line "deliver us from evil." Many authorities point out that the Greek actually appears to be better translated as "deliver us from the evil one." So are we going to ask for deliverance from evil people, or from Satan? There is a rather important difference.

The problem with the idea, and with the whole prayer in school debate is that people forget that prayer -- even one as common as the Lord's Prayer is deeply theological -- in other words it takes a very distinct religious position. What we believe shapes the words we choose when we pray, so much so that some denominations refuse to pray with people of other denominations. On the surface, it sounds petty and rather arrogant to refuse to pray with others, but on further examination it should serve as a reminder to us that prayer contains doctrinal statements that we may or may not want forced upon our children.

Of course, Senator Kruse has included the opportunity for children to opt in or out of participation. Right. Like that will work. Children are like herds, and if any one child tries to act differently than the herd, they get picked on, called names, and ostracized. As if we don't have enough of a problem with bullying now, lets bring back religious bullying because that will definitely cut down on school violence.

It may surprise you to hear a pastor suggest that school prayer is a bad idea, but that is exactly what I am suggesting. Imagine that you live in an area where the religious majority is different that your own -- do you really want your children to be forced to pray their prayers? I don't. The history of government sanctioning of religion is that religious people end up being killed. Sure, if you happen to be in the majority it sounds like a good idea, but what if you aren't. Think about it. It is rather like trying to parachute off that slide, or lighting a mirror on fire -- someone is going to get hurt.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Forwarded E-Mails

How many of you remember the olden days of chain letters?  You would get something in the mail with a closing tag-line of "Send this to five friends and you will have good luck.  Don't break the chain.  The last person who broke the chain was cursed with bad credit, broke out in boils, and died from leprosy."  Everyone hated them.  So why is it that people continue to pass on the same types of things in e-mail?  "Forward this to 100 people, especially the ones you love.  Include me if you love me."  Bleh.  What kind of passive aggressive person crying out for help started that e-mail?

But in the world of forwarded e-mails that is not really the bane of the pastor's inbox.  What I really dislike are forwarded lies.  The e-mails that talk about how our government is planning to build the death star and blow upMmars -- because there really are aliens living there and NASA has been covering it up for the past 350 years.  Or worse, the ones that slander people, like members of congress, the president or the queen of England; saying that he or she refused to salute the US flag. 

And then there are the inane videos with dogs riding unicycles, and skateboarding walrus.  You may find this hard to believe, but I don't have time to watch all of those.  In fact, in a recent discussion among pastors, all admitted that we delete them without watching them.

All of that got me to thinking, "Perhaps what we need are some etiquette rules for sending emails -- especially to our pastors."  What follows is my attempt:

Rule 1:  If it is a chain letter that begs to be sent on to others, don't send it to me.  

Rule 2:  If its primary purpose is to make someone look bad, whether that person is a school teacher, a politician or a rabbit trainer for the circus -- you have no business forwarding it.  As Christians it is our duty to love our neighbor, not to call them names like 5 year olds in the playground.  I don't care if you believe the person has contravened the human rights act of 1959, or desecrated the constitution.  Most of these e-mails are politically motivated, mean-spirited, twistings of the truth.  I don't want them, and you honestly shouldn't be forwarding them.

Rule 3:  If I haven't forwarded an e-mail to you that is similar in topic, then I probably don't want it.  If I am not sending you cute little stories about puppies, or treatises on school prayer (I'll talk about that topic another day)-- then you can confidently assume that I am not interested in receiving them.  

Rule 4:  Fact check before you send it.  Even if the e-mail claims that it has checked it out at much of what is out there on the internet is lies.  A duck's quack doesn't echo?  Yes, actually it does.  The muslims will take over the United States by 2050?  Not likely.  We have so many people in our country that can't be convinced that God is real, the muslims won't have any better luck convincing people than the Christians have.  (By the way, there have been many sermon illustrations that I have used over the years, which I have learned after the fact weren't true -- it is easy to get duped.)

Rule 5:  If you really think that the video or story would be good for use in worship, actually write a paragraph summary of it, and include a personally statement of why it touched you.  That might actually get me to sit up and take notice of it.

Rule 6:  If you are a Nigerian widow who wants to send me $25,000,000 -- you don't have to write me and tell me, just go to the church website and use the paypal button.  All taken care of!

So there you go, a few rules of etiquette for e-mail.  If any pastors out there would like to contribute further rules, please add them in the comments!

Friday, January 11, 2013


Have you noticed that certain pastors are able to get their every thought, sermon, memo (even their grocery lists, it seems) published in a book?  Trite little bits about what they had for breakfast and how that reminded them of God's grace, or reverent reflections upon the angels surrounding the Christ at his birth, or their opinions on everything from government officials to the spiritual causes of hurricanes.  Nothing against the Rick Warren's and Max Lucado's of the world, but they give the sense that no one else out there is capable of having a decent independent spiritual thought.  There is a vanity in believing that what we write and think has enough value that others should willingly pay for our thoughts.

And so it is with some trepidation and self-acknowledge vanity, that I set out into the world of blogging.  I do so not so much because I think my thoughts are better, but because I needed a place to honestly (and a bit irreverently) state that which often goes unsaid, "That we pastors think a lot of things that might be beneficial for church members, church haters, and people who are wondering about spiritual things like God, the universe and everything (as long as the people aren't members of my church or community-- because then I could offend someone), but we would never say them in a sermon because it would likely cause a riot or at least the tossing of tomatoes and rotten broccoli toward the pulpit."  In other words, stripping away the decorum of clerical robe and collar, and ranting like a grammer-hating, run-on-sentence writing Dennis Miller.  Okay, maybe not with that much talent.

So, if you happen to be from Buchanan, Michigan or attend the First United Methodist Church, you may want to turn away, stop reading, and preserve your happy and content view of the church and your pastor as perfect.  I suppose I should stop at this time and give some sort of legal qualifier like: "any resemblance between the people and characters in this blog is purely coincidental.  All situations and persons described are purely fictional."  But that would be lying, because every fiction is born of the flesh and blood of a real person, and no matter how hard we try we cannot wash that residue off from our final product.

You've been warned.  If you recognize yourself in one of these readings, that is probably because I had you in mind as I was writing.  You're vain enough to believe that aren't you -- just as I am vain enough to believe you'll read this meandering mess.