Monday, March 06, 2017

An unlikeable sermon

One week ago, I got some strong affirmations for a sermon I preached on Christians and Protest. In that sermon, I stressed that there are times when Christians need to raise their voice in protest against or for certain subjects. There were very strong affirmations about that sermon. Stronger than I typically receive. It was nice. It also told me that it was a likeable sermon.

Yesterday I preached an unlikeable sermon.

I decided to narrow in on one subject that the Bible consistency tells the people of God they should be attentive of. It is a subject that God protests about. It is a subject that is highlighted in the commandments and statutes of the Covenant. It is a subject that the prophets hold the people of God accountable for. It is something Jesus refers to in his ministry. It is something that the letter writing apostles bring to the attention of Christians.

The subject that God protests and expects Christians to protest about is how the poor are treated.

Due to an electronic malfunction, there is no video of that sermon. I want to share the main points here.

The wrong protests
I have watched churches, congregations, and Christians protest many things in my 20+ years of ministry. They have protested against abortion, gay marriage, and the Walt Disney Company. They have protested when they lost influence in schools over school prayer, against stores that acknowledge diversity with “Happy Holidays”, and the inclusion of diverse religions in the public square. They have protested against these things but there is minimal evidence that God calls us to protest any of them from the Bible.

But there is something the God clearly calls believers to protest throughout Scripture, yet many congregation or Christians do little to raise their voice to it. It is something that affects 1/6th of the world’s population. It is something that is responsible for the death of 22,000 children every day. It is something that touches this nation and the communities we live in. The thing that God calls us to protest is how the poor are treated.

The godly protest
The theme of protest for Christians should come around to this at some point. I am not saying the Christans, congregations, or churches should or should not protest about the previous things listed. I am saying that at some point Christians should raise their voices about the subject of the poor and the excluded.

God explicitly commands followers on how the poor and excluded are to be treated. In Deuteronomy 10, the relationship between the people of God (Israel) is summarized. In the midst of the summary of the covenant, the only commands about how the people were to relate with other people. Out of the 6 commandments that deal with relationship in community, Moses highlights the poor.

Through the Law, Prophets, and Gospels, we find God directly addressing the needs of these specific people: the poor and needy, widows, orphans, and strangers. This theme of how the faithful treat the poor is dealt with all the way through the Bible and never does it deviate from this message: God cares about the poor. And God wants the people who follow God to care about the poor also.

The poor and excluded are always put in front of the biblical people of God. Before the people of God enters the land of promise, Moses brings the covenant of commandments and statutes to the people. Exodus 20-23; Leviticus 19, 25; Deuteronomy 24, 25 are all commands regarding how the poor and excluded are to be treated. After the land has been established, the prophets call the people to accountability for how the poor have been treated since the land has been settled. Isaiah 58:6-12; Jeremiah 22:3-5,13-17; and Amos 5:10-15 are all examples of prophetic declarations about the failure to care for the needs of the poor and excluded. In the Gospel, Jesus puts the needs of the poor upfront with those who follow him in Luke 4:18-19 and Mark 14:7. And the first epistle of John offers this expansion upon the "laying down of our lives" in 1 John 3:17-18. The Bible stresses that whoever wishes to know and do what pleases God will at least stand up for justice and righteousness with regard to the poor and the excluded.

Justice and righteousness are themes that run parallel in the Old Testament with the poor and excluded. Micah 6:8; Isaiah 1:16-17; Jeremiah 22: Amos 5 all refer to the justice that is required of God's people. Justice does not just represent punishment for crimes, though. Justice is the treatment that all deserve equally. It is the lifting up of the poor and excluded out of forgottenness and into community. It is providing the generous sufficiency so that the poor and forgotten can live and produce what is needed to live as dignified people. It is caring for those who cannot care for themselves in generous way. The widowed, fatherless, foreigner, disabled, aged, homeless, hungry are all people that the God’s followers are called to be concerned about, as highlighted in Luke 14:12-14; Matthew 5; James 1:27,2:5.

God has an expectation that we will be standing up for the poor and forgotten.

When laws further demean people of certain status - we should protest.
When drug and insurance companies and the government remove needed medical care from the sick and disabled - we should protest
When nursing homes are filled with forgotten people and mental health facilities turn out the mentally ill because they can’t find room - we should protest
When we see foreigners being shunned in communities because they are different in some way - we should protest
When we are afforded certain rights that others are not because we fit into a certain class - we should protest
When we receive the benefit of a better life because we are a certain race or social status and others are turned away because they are not - we should protest

This is what God calls us to by command and prophetic word and applied to our setting. It is what Jesus Christ calls us to in determining our fitness for the kingdom. Matthew 25: 34-46 highlights the end of days and the judgment of the Christ. In that judgment, those who have responded to the needs of the poor and excluded will benefit from the kingdom. Those who have overlooked the needs of the poor and excluded will be rejected from the kingdom. We are called to protest for the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the stranger.

This sermon received no affirmations or accolades. It wasn't liked very much. It wasn't received as warmly. And with reason. It is an uncomfortable sermon. It is a sermon that was designed to hold the congregations accountable for a portion of scripture that is not frequently highlighted. It is a sermon that puts something we are responsible for right in front of us. To ignore the way the poor and excluded are treated is to ignore a significant portion of the Bible. And it demands a response.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

My Lenten Sacrifice

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and so begins the Lenten Season. Lent is the season that leads us into Easter. For more Traditional faith pursuers, Lent is a season of penitence, self-denial, and preparation for the Easter event. Historically, this was the period of intense focus for initiates into the Christian faith. For non-Traditional pursuers, this is a time when we "give something up".

This year, I am in a place I have not been before. I am facing a period of health issues that have not ever been a problem before. Specifically, I am facing my second surgery in 6 months. All signs point to the need that I have back surgery and soon.

I am not afraid of the surgery. That may be because I am too stupid to be afraid. There are complications pre-/mid-/post-surgery that could impact my life. That is not far from my thinking. But of these things, I fear not.

What I am afraid of is the dependence that this surgery will require.

I view myself as a "do-it-myself" type. I don't like asking people to do what I can do myself. If something needs to happen to a certain level of quality, I prefer to do it myself. Rather than asking for a helping hand, I prefer to get it done.

This surgery will require me to let others do for me what I can't do for myself. My mobility will be slowed. I will not be able to do the jobs around the house that are mine to do. I will have to rely on someone else to prepare supper, fix my coffee, and do the little things that I do because normally I can.

Worse still, I will have to step out of active leadership of my churches for a few weeks. I have stepped out of active leadership for one week, or maybe a little more, because of vacations. It is possible that I will lose up to a month of active capacity. And that bothers me.

It isn't that my folks aren't capable. Turpin has a great team of leaders and a strong core of passionate and capable people who have always shown themselves willing and able to step up and do what needs to be done. Baker is a tight knit community church that already works together to keep the church operating in the face of difficulties. It isn't that I am afraid the churches will fail because I am not there.

I don't like the feeling of not doing what I do, what I'm called to do. I have always understood the calling that God placed upon my life as leading the church into maturity and personal growth. I want to equip people to continue to develop a deeper and more meaningful life with God. I see my gifts and tempers being suited to being a mentor to assist people in discovering how good and strong and powerful they can be in relationship with God.

My sacrifice this Lenten season is letting my people fill in where I will not be able to.

It doesn't sound like much. But it will challenge me. It will push me to do what I can in the absence of being there for them as leader, pastor, and mentor. It will push me to pray more deeply about their growth. It will push me to pray more deeply for my own humility (because I am weak and think they need me to be there).

I know this sounds horribly fatalistic. It will only be one month. It will only be a few weeks. But it will be a few weeks of knowing that I am not doing what I am called and appointed to do. It will be like letting my child leave and make his way in the world. Which is also happening, but that is a whole different set of emotions.

This isn't a test; it is a season. This isn't about God putting me in a "wilderness" or giving me a "thorn in my flesh". This is about the natural ebbs and flows of guiding people in a church. I have to learn to rest in their ability, strengths, and gifts. I have to believe in them and in the God who is within them. I have to put faith in the vision we share for the churches and the communities.

So, in this Lenten season, may God show me the grace that I need to step back, allow God's people to be the ministers I know that they can be. They will be able to do this. I just pray that I can.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Sorry for the lag in writing.

For the major portion of this week, I have been either flat on my back or seeking correction for what put me on my back.

Monday, I experienced a severe pain in my lower back. It forced me to remain very still or I would experience sharp pains. I have since learned that it is two bulging discs in my lower lumbar region. This was discovered after a trip to the emergency room, a 6 hour round trip to get an MRI, and a lot of sitting, waiting, and stewing over the pace at which modern medicine progresses.

I am considerably better now. I can sit up, walk around, bend down (over is still not a good idea), and do the same things I was before, only slower.

Part of the slowing was being on pain medications and muscle relaxers to ease the stress on my back. That led to some very fuzzy thinking processes.

But I am on the mend. And will resume writing next week. If all goes well this weekend.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Where do I draw the line

Am I a Conservative or Liberal?
Am I a Republican or a Democrat?
Am I Pro-Life or Pro-Choice?

With all of the latest posts that are hitting the internet, some people may wonder where I draw the line that defines my stance. Well, I want to point out where my line is drawn.

The easy answer to the questions above is YES.

Let me give you some background. I was born to a family to moved due to my dad's Air Force stations. I was born in California. My sister was born in the Philippines. The first home I remember was in Wichita, Kansas. I grew up in southeastern Oklahoma. I saw a lot of the world early in life. I don't remember much about it. My memories don't kick in until we lived in Wichita. But I was exposed at an early age to different places and cultures and races.

In Wichita, my parents divorced. My dad disappeared from my life. My mom worked hard to make a living for us. We weren't rich by any stretch of imagination. We always had a roof over our head and supper on our plate. We were clothed and comfortable and had some of the things that kids desired (my mom indulged my geek love in its infancy by getting me Star Wars figures). I saw that life could be lived with the necessities met and a few little things added along.

When my grandmother died, we picked up our life and moved to southeastern Oklahoma. We visited my grandparents often and spent extended time with them at different points. It was not a new place, but it was a new life. Moving from the city where everything was within a short drive was totally different than needing to make a special trip to get groceries or clothes. Mom started working at home but eventually had to seek a job away from the house. My sister and I learned that we had chores that needed to be done and we had a part to play in keeping the house in order.

My grandfather was in declining in health. He had emphysema. He progressed downward in strength and ability to do things. But he was a great man who showed me some important things in life. It is because of him that I love to cook. It is because of him that I have a tinkerer nature about me. It is because of him that I extend a lot of grace to people.

Living in southeastern Oklahoma, I grew up in a very theologically conservative church. Through the course of my growing up, my mother renewed her faith and began to move to more charismatic Christian experience. Growing up Methodist, clapping your hands in worship would be considered charismatic by some. But I received a firm grounding in traditional American Christianity and a basic Wesleyan worldview. I also began to be connected with people in other United Methodists churches and began to see the bigger church at work.

When I went to college, I was exposed to a different worldview. I enrolled in the history department and met one of the greatest influences on my life. Dr. Davis Joyce was my advisor. He taught with passion about history and historians. What I learned from him, though, had less to do with historical events and persons. I learned to see the world as a place where people have different points of view. I learned from him that just because people have a different point of view does not mean we have nothing in common. I learned from him that there are people in the world who are overlooked, forgotten, and intentionally rejected. I learned from him that someone needs to come alongside those people and tell their stories, be a comforting arm, or stand with them against injustice. He reads this blog and I want you to know Davis that you have have had a huge influence in my life. I thank you and love you as a friend and mentor.

It was also in college that I knew I was to fill the role of pastor. I bounced around a little in ideas of what I would do after college and with my life. It was the example and leading of one person who opened my ears to hear God's calling into ministry. D.A. Bennett was the campus minister at the United Campus Ministry. He was a pastor in a model I had never seen. He showed me that pastors bring their gifts into the setting to which they are appointed. He showed me that in order to minister to people, you need to know what their life is about. He showed me that there is room to explore and discover and fail. He showed me grace when I did the last one. He reads this blog at times, also. D.A., if it wasn't for you, I would be floating along trying to find my place. It was your example and walk that made it possible for me to come to this place in ministry.

Graduating college, I knew that I was to go to seminary. The one I chose was Asbury Theological Seminary. It was built upon classical Wesleyan theology. I had begun to identify as Wesleyan in my theology (thanks again to D.A.'s influence). I felt this was the place to broaden that part of my life. At Asbury, I was able to bring all of the influences in my life to bear on becoming a minister. What I learned of Wesley and his process of developing the theology that would influence the United Methodist Church made me more convinced that I was called into this life. I was shaped as I was to become a minister in this church. All of the things that had risen and fallen, all of the people who had crossed my path, had brought me to the right place.

And then I began ministry. And I found that people didn't believe the same way. And people didn't think that there were forgotten, overlooked, and rejected persons around them. I found people who were content to be comfortable. And some wanted to be more. From that point at the beginning of ministry, I felt that my place was to move my lines.

When I was in a group of people who were very conservative, I had to represent a more liberal position. If I was around people who were very liberal, I needed to represent the conservative point of view. I chose to be identified as Independent politically. It isn't to say I don't have an opinion. It was to represent the side that needed to be represented in any appointment or setting. I have to move my lines because all too often I have encountered people who won't look past their own lines to see the bigger picture.

I could be conservative all the time because I hold some very conservative ideas.
I could be liberal all the time because I hold some very liberal ideas.
I could identify with a political party because I support platform items in many different parties.
I could identify with a social position because I can understand where they are coming from.

But I choose to move my lines so I can be a voice for people who aren't being heard. I choose to move my lines to speak a counterpoint for an under represented position. I choose to move my lines so that I can bring some sense of community and belonging for the different sides of a position.

I move my lines because I think Jesus moved his lines. He ate with sinners and spoke to them about living a more disciplined life. He attended the parties of the powerful and reminded them of the hungry and homeless outside his door. He walked with Jews to tell them their Kingdom had come to them. He touched the lives of Gentiles to tell them they were welcome to the Kingdom. He created and reigned from the heavenly throne and he moved into earth. He walked among the men and women, powerful and poor, of this world and moved the line of heaven toward them.

I don't draw a line on where I am because I have to move them too often.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Funerals for the loved, alone, and despised

I had a funeral today. It was a celebration for a 96 year old woman who was loved by her family. I like doing services like those. I had never met the woman. She had not lived in this region of the world since I have moved here. But it was easy to do her service because her family loved her so deeply. They made it easy to find a life worthy of celebration. Since I didn't know her, I could tell you what her personality was or what she believed or how she lived. But her family took her life and painted a picture of who she was. And it was beautiful. It was so easy to see the Gospel through her life and proclaim the hope through faith of the Good News.

I had a conversation with one of the funeral home employees about "difficult funerals". It reminded me of the hardest funeral I ever had to conduct. It was for a person who had no family who lived near. The closest family member was half the country away and was too feeble to make the trip. They couldn't afford to bring their loved one to them, either. The people who knew her were few. And even those weren't super close. When it came time to address the gathered few in that service, there were no memories shared or expressions of love for her. It made it nearly impossible to know who I was proclaiming Good New over.

The beginning of the week, I listened to the reading of an article from Smithsonian magazine. It concerned one of the darkest chapters in modern U.S. history - the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The article was about the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, and it described his funeral. Oswald was buried in Fort Worth. The only mourners who were at the graveside where Oswald's mother, wife, and two children. There were no pall bearers; reporters who had been tasked with reporting on the event were asked to serve. Those who opened the grave had not been told who it was for in fear that they would not be willing to do the work. Two pastors turned down the task of conducting the graveside service out of fear that a sniper would attack anyone participating.

I can only imagine how difficult it would have been to fill the role of being the proclaimer of Good News over the grave of one who was despised by so many. I can only hope that my belief in God, as I hold those beliefs, would overcome the overwhelming sense of what that moment represented to the nation and the world. I can only hope that I would be worthy of the grace that must fill that place and moment that every graveside, no matter whose, represent.

It doesn't matter who is to be laid to rest in the grave. It doesn't matter how they lived or died. It doesn't matter what they believed or if they believed. The grave is an equalizer. We all face its maw. We may no know when we will approach it. It is the last moment any of us has to have a word of grace spoken over us.

For me, I approach a funeral from two directions. The first is to celebrate the life of the one who has passed. I consider every life to be of sacred worth. I feel that everyone is given life as a gift. Some people make the most of the gift. Some people are faced with circumstances that limit their acceptance of the gift. Others have that gift taken from them through choice, consequence, or tragedy. But every life is one that should be celebrated for the very fact that they lived for some length of time. The most emotional funeral I was part of involved the life of a child who never had the chance to see the sunrise or sunset of a day. He never had the chance to draw a breath outside of the womb. But we celebrated his life. Everyone should have their life celebrated.

The other direction I take is to approach it from the other end. I work back to the funeral from the eternalness of life that God offers. There is a lot of mystery (in my theological perspective) on what eternity is or how we pass from this life to the immortal existence. For persons who have no faith or it is unknown what faith they have, I still think there is Good News that should be proclaimed. God's grace is encompassing. I believe that the fullness of eternity is limited. I believe that there is a people God selects who will receive a more complete experience of the eternal life. But I believe that there is a general experience of eternal life that all will know. And for those who do not have the complete experience of eternity, there is still a ministry of God's presence that comes to them.

This isn't Universalism. This is Revelation chapter 20 and 21. The nations stand outside the recreated city of God and are ministered to from the leaves of the tree of life. I am not sure how that is to transpire. I just see it in that book as the only image of eternity. But if this is the case, then there is a chance that no matter who is laying at the opening of the grave will experience God's eternal presence.

I don't preach hell at funerals. I don't need to. There are plenty of opportunities to give up on hope in life. There are plenty of experiences in life where people don't get to hear Good News spoken over them. For the pastor who was conducting the service over Lee Harvey Oswald, there was enough hell surrounding that grave. No more needed to be proclaimed.

It would not be easy. It sometimes isn't easy to speak that Good News over people who haven't killed a world leader and much-loved President. It is sometimes difficult to speak a word celebrating someone's life or declaring the Gospel when you have no one who remembers them, no one honors them. But they are still worthy of having that grace spoken.

So I hope that if the day ever comes, I will be able to proclaim the Gospel over anyone who rests at the mouth of the grave. I ask that I can lead people in the celebration of a life of sacred worth and into the hope of a god whose presence is eternal and will be big enough to touch anyone.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What right does a man have on a woman's life?

This morning, I was apprised of an article of legislation that has come before the Oklahoma House of Representatives Public Health Committee. HB1441 was tabled previously, but now comes up for consideration in committee. The substance of this bill would make it a law in Oklahoma that a woman must seek permission from the possible father of an unborn child to be aborted. This bill would also allow a man who was named as the father of such an unborn child to require a paternity test be performed to prove his sirehood.

Here are the points of HB1441:
A. No abortion shall be performed in this state without the written informed consent of the father of the fetus.
B. A pregnant woman seeking to abort her pregnancy shall be required to provide, in writing, the identity of the father of the fetus to the physician who is to perform or induce the abortion. If the person identified as the father of the fetus challenges the fact that he is the father, such individual may demand that a paternity test be performed.
C. This section shall not apply if the father of the fetus is deceased and the woman upon whom the abortion is to be performed or induced signs a notarized affidavit attesting to that fact.
D. This section shall not apply in cases in which a woman upon whom the abortion is to be performed or induced was the victim of rape or incest and the pregnancy resulted from the rape or incest, or in cases where the physician determines that the carrying of the fetus places the woman's life is in danger.

(emphasis is mine)
Let me clear something up front. I am not a fan of abortion as a method of pregnancy control or birth control. I believe that every individual human being is to be respected as a person of sacred worth and identity. And as a member of the society under the Constitution of the United States of America, they are afforded certain rights that are theirs by right of their personhood.

That being said, this bill is not about abortion. This about diminishing personhood.

I know "pro-life" arguments say that this stands in the gap of the unborn child, who has no voice in this decision. I would not take away the due consideration that an unborn child's personhood should be considered when contemplating abortion. But I don't want to lose sight of what matters in this legislation.

First, a woman is required to obtain the written consent of a man to undergo this procedure. This should be recognized as an insult to women in this nation or anywhere. A woman does not require permission to have any healthcare procedure performed. There are some dangerous precedents being established here. It isn't too far away from this to say that any woman in a significant relationship with a man would need his written consent for any life altering procedure. And in our nut-job litigation nation, can you imagine the damage that would be done if a rapist sued a woman because she aborted unborn child he sired and aborted? If you don't think that is possible remember this: rape is about power and control, not sex.

Second, a man has the right under this law to require a paternity test. This is humiliation of a woman. It is putting her word into question. We are not ever going to settle the "he said, she said" arguments of intimate encounters in a legal way. So let us say for argument sake that a couple has an intimate encounter, a fling, a hook-up. It has no lasting meaning when it happened. It was that moment lived out for the moment it was. Then she becomes pregnant. That wild powerful intimate moment now becomes a battle over the value of a woman's word because she is required by law to bring the "father" to the point of giving his permission. If he challenges her word, her value as a person is destroyed exponentially. Sex is not something that is to be taken lightly. It is something that should produce honor in both parties. In any case where sex results in dishonor, then the gift that God intended for sex has been turned into the sin that Satan can use to destroy and deceive.

Third, go back and read C. It is good to know that a woman has freedom to seek a procedure if the sire of her unborn child is dead. But to have a notarized affidavit signed as a testimony of this is ludicrous. Honestly, why don't we just have her father sign it and get back to an Old Testament authority over women's lives. She can't claim authority over her own life, so she has to have a legal binding document that gives her authority.

Can you see where the idea of abortion is now lost? Can you see that this is not about a woman's body or an unborn child's fate?

This is about dignity and human rights. This is about the subjecting of women to another authority, higher authority, wiser authority - a man or a man's authority.

I do not want anyone to think I am arguing for abortion. I am arguing that this is a demolishing of women's respect and independence. It would rankle me to the core if I thought that my wife had to have my written permission to do anything with her body. She is on my health insurance plan. My children are on my health insurance. I MUST be informed of anything that my minor children, who are in my care and custody, have done to their body. My wife is a free and independent woman who is intelligent and wise in her own ways. She does not need my authority to accomplish anything in her own health care. But I trust her enough to believe that any decision she would want to make about her body would be discussed, as her life and mine are intertwined. What is good for her is good for us. What is bad for her health is bad for us. But she would not need my permission to have something done.

Here is my great fear - this is going to walk back the rights of women to independent. I see that this could be used to argue for any health care decision that may impact a husband's perceived rights on his wife's body. THOSE DO NOT EXIST! A husband and wife have a mutual partnership in caring for one another but that is not a right to her life in any way.

If this makes it out of committee and into the House for a vote, this will be a dangerous declaration for the people of Oklahoma to allow. Every person is imbued with certain rights as a member of the society of this nation. The greatest is to be an individual person.