Monthly Archives: May 2012

Of Sacrificial Worth…

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8, NIV)

In the lives of most Americans, we spend a great many holidays eating and creating merriment. New Year’s, Valentine’s, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Fourth of July are all days that feature prominently food and/or food products. The value and worth of those days are often measured by the food you eat and how you consume it on what day, (Hot Dogs on July 4th, Boiled Eggs and Chocolate Bunnies on Easter, Turkey on Thanksgiving). While I can understand the origins of many of these feasts that occur (history often shows feasts as being communal ways to celebrate events), our contemporary celebrations carry the feast traditions without any real understanding our reflection on the significance of the holiday. Thankfully, not all holidays are lived in this way. Yesterday was Memorial Day…

Sure, Memorial Day is the day that prominently features cookouts and parties in the good ol’ American feast tradition, but it also has a prominent feature that, no matter how full you get, you cannot ignore. It is the one holiday that features solemnity and reflection while offering hope through celebration. It is a holiday that is built upon the oxymoron of the “good sacrifice”. The feasts of this past weekend cannot happen or continue in the future without the sacrifice of those who have gone before. In many respects, Memorial Day carries with it the same peculiar paradox that Good Friday carries in the Christian experience. We celebrate the memory and sacrifice of families and service persons who have fought and continue to fight for this nation, its freedoms and the promise of this Union of States to be a “more perfect union.”

The significance of this day cannot be devalued. In spite of capitalistic attempts at making a easy dollar with a “Memorial Day Sales”. The sacrifice of too many men, women and their families will not allow the marring of this Holiday. They serve as watchpersons and gatekeepers that protect the legacy of the past for the heritage of the future of this nation. The wreath laying, the sound of taps being played, the height of civil religion on display all provide forceful reminders to the contextual ‘spirit’ of any the celebrations (more appropriately, observations). In my area, the sound of 15-20,000 bikers fills their air on Sunday prior to Memorial Day.  Rolling Thunder, as they are known, serves to disrupt the quiet peace of Sunday afternoon and force into your memory the real reason for why we observe this day. Like the sound of nails being driven into the cross at Calvary, these motors cry out for attention and respect. For those who have died, they are the voices to call attention to their sacrifice.

Like this passage of text, Paul reminds all believers of the irony of the sacrifice. We are often taught that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or the one). My Star Trek fans might recognize this! (Greek Philosophy also addresses this.) Paul turns that thinking on its head by recognizing the rarity of sacrifice for a greater good or ideal. He takes it a step further by proclaiming, Christ died for those who are imperfect and flawed. Rare is the one who dies for the just, but even rarer is the one who dies for the one who is wrong and unjust. It doesn’t happen! O, but it has, for the text says “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Every Sunday we proclaim Christ and Christ crucified for the sins of the world! This  and every Memorial Day weekend, let us endeavor to say quite simply, “Thank You!”

Much of the world finds it hard to believe that such a man would do such a thing (let alone that it is even possible for such a thing to take place). Yet, we on this past weekend celebrate the many who have lived and died in service to this nation. Some of whom did so when this nation was unjust in their treatment of them.

The many women who served….

African-Americans who served prior to desegregation…

The Native Americans who served…..

The Japanese Americans who served in WWII….

The GLBT who have served silently….

Those who served in Vietnam….

The power of Christ resides in all those who answer the call to serve in spite of the world’s labeling of them to not be qualified. We give thanks to God for the sacrifice of Christ Jesus who died for all of us in our ‘lowly state’. But we also give thanks to God for those who answered the call to serve even when this nation treated them with ‘lowly stature’. This Memorial Day week, let us continually thank God for the visions of truth our service members fight for each and every day. Here’s to that day when we beat out swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks…

 

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Filed under Christian Church, Civil Religion, Hope, Jesus Christ, Justice, New Testament, Political Theology, Sacred Memory, War

Commencing the Journey

This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. (Exodus 12:2-11 NRSV)

Its that time of year again, trees are blooming, rain showers are plentiful and school years are coming to an end. Commencements and graduation season is upon us. Mothers and fathers, grandparents, godparents, sisters and brothers, extended family and cousins travel near and far just to hear that loved one’s name called out. Even in an economic downturn and unsure career moves, excitement still pervades the air. The melodies of Edward Elgar’s classic march ‘Pomp and Circumstance’, beautiful colors on robes, honorary degrees, famous and ignoble dignitaries, processionals and recessionals, all contribute to a festive and exciting atmosphere.

This year, my family celebrates three graduations up and down the east coast. We have seen more processionals, academic regalia and heard graduation speeches to last us all through the decade. Despite the fatigue, I must reflect on the real importance of this time. In attempting to wax philosophical, many graduation speakers fail to capture the real meaning of this moment of triumph and completion. In reflecting on the importance of commencement and the value of completing one thing and starting another; I must wax theological.

To commence is to begin and start anew. It is to have start on a journey that is filled with all of the unknowns and uncertainties that are part and parcel of the journey. Commencing the journey of life is more than a joyous concept that fills one with hope and excitement. Often, beginning the walk on the new path is frightful and intimidating. After two, three, four, five or more years in school, you grow familiar or accustomed to the culture of school, the timing of class schedules and the overall atmosphere of college life. Overnight, you are thrust into the world of resumes,   job interviews, and the hustle and bustle of life. Leaving one culture for the unknown is disorienting. Finishing college (or any degree) is intimidating and disconcerting. To put it mildly….

You see, commencements are about beginnings and not endings. In our social life, commencements are one of those glorious contradictory moments that are ripe with meaning and significance. The text above reflects a pivotal moment in the life of the incipient nation of Israel. Captive in Egypt, the last plague of ten is about to be enacted on the land. Included in the instructions to Moses to give to the people is the statement, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.” It is an instruction of beginnings. The calendar and the life of Israel will begin again.

The ironic thing about this passage is that the instruction is given on the eve of the end of captivity in Egypt. Israel is not free yet. They people are still enslaved, but they are given a foreshadow as to the journey they are about to start. This is the first commencement. They are to leave the old ways of doing and being behind (slaves) and live into the new reality of journeying with God in the unknown (the people of God). The journey will be long and its end result is unknown at the beginning, but all paths must start somewhere.

This Commencement season 2012, all of the graduates in our lives  should take a lesson from this text: All of our endings are really new beginnings. Nothing is ever over until it is OVER. The God of all of our journeys plans, orchestrates and executes our beginnings and our endings as part of life with God. Just because one path draws to a close, doesn’t meant the journey is finished. Sometimes you need to go off the beaten path and make your own way, and sometimes you have to wait until a new path is carved for you. In any case, stay the course and keep the faith.

This commencement season, in the crowd of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, there stood a son who watched this teaching lived out in a most special way. One of the first graduations we attended this season was my mother’s baccalaureate ceremony. She started 35 years ago as a freshman at her local state university. After only a year and a half, the path changed and moved in a different direction. After that, life continued with each twist and turn that made the original quest for a college degree seemingly insurmountable and distant. Including my birth, a military career, and a stint as a corporate executive. She reached a point in her career where she really didn’t need a degree to achieve the things she wanted and do the jobs she felt equipped to do. Regardless of her successes, there remained something that was incomplete. Even after I finished my undergraduate degree, she stayed the course, walked the path and kept the faith. She finished her requirements and walked across the stage, and I was the proud son beaming with joy as her ‘commencement’, albeit delayed, was ushered in the life of God. Congrats MOM!

Congratulations to all of the graduates this year. Many blessings to you and the ways your paths with twist and turn with the vicissitudes of life. Whatever may come, may your paths be graced with visions of truth, and a steadfast hope in the promise that the next end is really a new beginning.

 

 

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Deal with Reality…

I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing. You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”(Revelations 3:15-17, NRSV)

The President supports same-sex marriage. Surprise!! It’s a political position that honors his reading of the Constitution and upholds equality under the law. It’s an important position because it brings consistency and equality to a nation that has nearly always been unequal in its execution of the law (see race, ethnic,gender, class distinctions). He says he has been evolving and while that may be true, reading the text of his presidency already saw a continual movement in one direction. The President’s position also exposes the deep rift in this country regarding reality versus perception.

We distort arguments to validate our position. We allow our preachers and pastors to throw the Bible and it’s God to the dogs when it talks about wealth with responsibility, women’s roles, sacrifice and obedience, injustice and righteousness and nearly every other subject we as a society disagree with, but want any passage that speaks against homosexuality to be foremost in our spiritual discipline. Really? Really?? Really!??

For many in our society, the President’s words are deeply problematic. Being for traditional marriages and civil unions is one thing, but being for gay marriage is something else. Really? Black communities (in some instances a bastion of homophobia) who voted for him in record numbers now are questioning their allegiances in ways that they never questioned Bill Clinton (when he knowingly cheated on his wife). Black church pastors who touted their involvement with helping to bring awareness to Barack’s campaign are now silent or withholding support because they can’t “condone a President who is against the word of God.” Insert expletive of your choice here….

I don’t believe that the political agenda of the GLBTQ community is the problem in this society anymore than the civil rights movement was ‘problematic’ to the society of the 1960’s. It is merely inconvenient and tiresome. Why? Because we in America don’t like frank and direct conversation about anything! We can’t stand it. Be it long-term debt, social safety nets, race and gender roles, and discrimination or anything else that defies our perception; we don’t discuss it. We use comedians to laugh at our ineptitude and satirists to disguise our fear of reality.

People of faith can disagree about matters of faith and that is fine. We cannot disagree about reality though. The reality is….

…that the Bible is NOT as clear as we like to think about the sexual standard for God. Several texts speak against homosexuality, while others say love your neighbors as yourself. Don’t stone me, I won’t stone you?! The Bible in several places speaks strongly against homosexuality for cultural and sociological reasons (wrapping it in theo-logos) but it also treats women in a way that we abhor for those same cultural and sociological reasons. Why is it permissible to be for in way scenario and against in another? For the same reasons though? Choose you this day………

The reality is…

….that we don’t believe everything that’s in the Biblical text ANYWAY. Our behavior toward one another in general bears this out. We don’t believe, Jesus really died on a cross. We don’t believe that David slew Goliath and we don’t believe that “it is harder for a rich man to get into heaven than pull a camel through the eye of a needle.” For if we really believed those passages as much as we believe the ones about homosexuality, then we would be different. We would have a little more gratitude and gratefulness because of an empty tomb. We would view many more of our challenges as empowered believers as opposed to deflated fear mongers. And we would have a lot less of our possessions because we needed to “get into heaven.” We would act different and live differently. Jesus himself says, “I judge a tree by its fruit,” and now I see the tree as bearing the fruit of hypocrisy.

The reality is…

….that many of the same black parishioners, pastors and clergypersons who are criticizing the President so often employ, collect money from, and even counsel members who are gay and lesbian. Some of those members are forced into secrecy and live double lives so as to not be “outed” and ostracized from family and friends. All the while their Pastors preach a gospel of being your best self and being transparent before God and humanity. It is widely known and accepted in many Black churches that the choir directors, some choir members, and musicians are gay and lesbian. These churches operate under a spiritual DADT policy that gives the church everything that they want on Sunday without the church having to acknowledge the hypocrisy to which they operate under. We the church rather have our individuals live out a lie rather than stand to tell a corporate a truth.

The reality is…

…that the President is elected to be President. He ain’t my pastor or the chief theologian of the empire. He is a political animal with opinions. He has every right to support, advocate and petition for his agenda however he wants. I do not expect or require whoever the president is to attend church, read a Bible, or even be Christian. I do expect them to govern fairly, equally and within the bound of the Constitution. Get over it, President Obama is a Christian and he is a politician, (you can decide which one comes first). He also is a Christian and he is for same-sex marriage (you can be both).

The reality is….

…that we as a nation (particularly as Christians), do not take marriage seriously. Marriage historically is not a religious phenomenon. Marriages were global and not rooted in some expression of God to humanity. Marriages have been and are cultural expressions. To watch any wedding is to see a cultural dynamic at work. Because religion is so often intertwined with culture, the two are inexorably linked. But that is an educated argument that can be persuasive for the logical. Let me be real... Churches have failed to counsel, promote, educate and engage the questions people have in their marriages. Divorce rates are through the roof. People get married and have children for tax benefits, money, fame and nearly every other reason under the sun, but if gay people get married, its the end of stable and loving families as we know it? Really? Wanna keep marriages strong? Be consistent in your commitments, loyal to your spouse and stop peeking in everyone else’s window!

The reality is that God wants consistency. The text above admonishes the Church and its body of believers to be “hot or cold”. One or the other. This or that. For God or against God. But not both. Be consistent in your living of God’s precepts or else fail in your living within the life of God. It seems rather self-evident that if you are not consistent, then you are inconsistent. But the witness of the text, is that the standard is always consistency and not holiness (true the Bible doesn’t agree on this either). The same is true in the prophetic texts of the Hebrew Bible, don’t worship me if you not gonna DO and BE the stuff that I need you to be (see Amos and Jeremiah). At some point, God wants to count on you to be love, be faithful and be steadfast which may mean that holiness may have a different context to be lived out.

I believe that what concerns God most is our consistency in approaching God and applying the texts of our faith. The same-sex issue is the slavery issue of our day. We were inconsistent then and we are inconsistent now. Churches can practice whatever they want to practice.

If they don’t want to practice same-sex marriages, fine! Don’t! But be real, blame it on doctrine and tradition and not on God. It ain’t God’s fault.

You wanna be against the President? Don’t! That’s your business. Blame it on your ideology and not your Bible.

Believe gay folks are going to hell? That’s your belief and you can keep it. Just blame it on bigotry and not God. Say what you want, God did create Adam and Steve, Mike and John, Sarah and Jane, Adam and Eve, David and Sally, baby girls and baby boys, malformed and disabled, friend and foe, liberal and conservative, Me and YOU! God created everybody and everything! Recognizing the sacred worth in our society as basic people created in the image of God is a universal truth. Being consistent with how we treat them is a vision of truth.

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Filed under 2012 Election, Christian Church, Christianity, Discipleship, Homosexuality, Hope, Interpersonal Relationships, Jesus Christ, Justice, New Testament, Political Theology, Social Justice, Uncategorized

Disagreements, Decisions and Life Together…

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (Romans 12:1-5, NRSV)

Decisions and disagreements mark our lives as human beings. Every aspect of our lives together as community is marked with deliberations, conversations and decisions that bind us together in one ‘communal’ life. Families engage and fight and even disagree, but they manage to maintain (for the most part) the sense that they are bound together by familial connections. Businesses, governments and communities all come to work of finding commonality and purpose through the infinite ways of disagreement, deliberation and conversation. The church, (the body of Christ), even has to reconcile itself to agree-to-disagree and/or be of differing views and yet be under the banner of Christian fellowship.

Sadly however, the hallmark of the age of partisanship (there is no such thing as a post-partisan), is that we have lost the ability to disagree and yet hold to our common bonds of identity and fellowship. Churches split, governments gridlock, businesses dissolve, and families separate because of disagreements that highlight our individuality over our sense of communal life together. Because I disagree with your position, I can no longer be identified with this group and must define myself by how I am different. This is what community looks like in the 21st century: fractured, breaking/broken and distraught with individuals searching for other individuals who they ‘can only’ agree with.

The scriptural passage above is taken from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. It is one of the most comprehensive places in the New Testament where the theology of Paul is on display. He writes here as a pastoral theologian with great attention to the nature of faith, the power of the church and the work of God through Jesus Christ. This Chapter (12) is one of the most profound chapters in the book as it conveys the relationship of the believer to their community….the Church. The admonition here is that community takes sacrifice. Community takes an individual sacrifice that keeps the whole of the community in perspective. Sometimes, the whole (community) benefits and is strengthened when the particular beliefs and ideologies of the individual are sacrificed in light of the whole. Be wary of however, of the same individuals being asked to make all of the sacrifices. There is a fine line between elevating the greater good and oppressing the minority.

As much as Paul’s teaching makes sense, it is hard to live into the existential truth of its claim. The work of keeping the ‘bond’ in the forefront of our minds is always difficult if we think our position is of supreme importance. The text of the letter here reminds us to “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” The scripture offers a truly profound statement in an age of partisan gridlock and 30 second sound-bytes, all designed to gain the upper hand in the debates we have in our communities.

Last Friday concluded two weeks of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference. The General Conference is the legislative body for the global United Methodist Church. According to the church’s website, “is the only body that officially speaks for the more than 12.1-million-member denomination.” Nearly 1,000 delegates from all across the world traveled to Tampa Bay to discuss, debate, caucus and vote on nearly 1800 pieces of church legislation. With the addition of live streaming, social networking and all of the other ways we are connected, the global church participated in the deliberations in ways that have never been experienced before.  Despite the Christian nature and character of this particular gathering, the UMC is much like every other community and institution that suffers disagreements. Self-disclosure: I am not United Methodist, but a proud member of the Baptist Tradition. I am married to a UM pastor and son-in-law to a Methodist Bishop.

Watching on live stream, I witnessed mean-spiritedness, politicking, anger, hope, sadness, betrayal, offense and at times, gridlock and failure. Issues around sexuality and inclusivity, structural reorganization, and commitments to long-term change so stymied the assembly that protests, tears and gridlock seem to rule the day. Initially, I thought all of that I had witnessed was chaos, disorder, and the disintegration of a mainline protestant denomination. However, in light of the larger issues presented in the text and the struggle for communal unity, I see a different paradigm. I am sure many of my progressive UM friends will challenge me on this, but I like to think the world witnessed a Christian community struggle to be…. community.

Getting nearly 1000 people to sit in a room and agree on anything is a miracle in itself. Getting 1000 people to agree on what the Bible says takes nothing short of Divine intervention and influence. The fact that over a two week period, Methodists were able to hold in tension their individuality over and against the community of the global church is a model for the communal life together. Do they sometimes get it wrong? YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT! Are some people hurt in the process? YES, and their hurt, challenges the whole to be better. Can the way we communicate be done in better ways? Certainly! An assembly like this still takes place and the community remains intact (even though hurt in the process), means that God is still in the reconciling and communal business.

The way I saw the above scriptures most strongly lived out was when the Conference voted to continue exclusion of openly practicing LGBT from recognition as clergy or as living in concert with Christian teaching. The failure of the Conference to even acknowledge the continuing disagreement around human sexuality speaks volumes regarding the lack of frank disagreement in our communities. Both of these positions are certainly the ‘right’ and privilege of the Conference to vote on according to UM polity. Regardless of how you feel about the issue, the fact that this segment of the UMC church has said they will continue to live as part of UMC church and as United Methodists speaks volumes to the love and belief of this population in the community as a whole. The world can take a lesson from the hurtful dialogue and discussion that surrounded this issue. Disagreements do not need to define us exclusively. Instead, the community we live through should always be our defining quality as people sharing life together.

A professor of mine once said, “The greatest sin in Christian community is schism.” Disagreements are an unchangeable part of life, schism is a choice. It violates our unity together and separates us from the diversity that strengthens us. A future without communal hurt and pain is a vision of truth; but so is a future without schism.

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