…and now, Montreat

I guess I got out of the driveway in Columbus just before 7:30 this morning, and had a long but uneventful trip down here today, arriving at about 3:20 in the afternoon – almost to the minute of the estimated time on the GPS. Technology can be spooky sometimes. 

I got my room squared away, briefly wandered around Assembly Hall – the main lodge-type building – and then had dinner at 5:30. The training sessions started at 7:00 this evening and ran until 9:00, and I’ve been just relaxing a bit since then. This evening’s sessions consisted of initial introductions, worship, and some icebreaker-type activities to help us start to know each other a bit. Tomorrow will be another full day, but I’m hoping to take at least a few pictures to share. This building is undergoing a substantial renovation throughout various portions. Based on a display in the lobby, the guestrooms are about to get a major renovation. It’s a good thing. If my room is typical of the whole place, the rooms seem to have last been fitted out in the mid-1960s. To be clear, I’m not complaining from a personal standpoint – the room is an adequate size, clean, and comfortable. I personally have no problem staying in semi-private hostels while traveling to save money, so this is more than fine for me. But it might not be to a more finicky traveler/conference attendee. This is an amazing facility and conference center, and the impending room renovations will make it really first-class, in my opinion. And the beauty of the overall campus and town is incredible, even the small part I was able to see today. Someone commented about the feel of this place earlier today, saying that as soon as you go through the stone gateway (I’ll post a picture soon), your blood pressure drops ten points. I already get that. This is a very neat place, and I’m looking forward to the setting just as much as the training.

OK, probably a good idea to get to bed now. More detail and impressions tomorrow.

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The Sermon You’ll Never Read

I didn’t preach today, since I’m currently sitting in a guestroom at Montreat, enjoying the evening air and the sound of whatever kind of insects are out there in the trees doing doing their insect things.

Last week’s sermon was kind of different for me – no “Four Page”s, no “The Tiny Dog Now Is Mine” structure (sorry, Hank), no lead-in image-setting story with a “bookend” return, no powerful “clincher” finale. It was just a simple meditation, on the Luke 12 text for the day. This is kind of an unusual blog post, too, in that I’m making a post about a sermon, rather than posting the actual text of the sermon itself. I felt that this more expanded discussion about how the sermon actually came about was probably more helpful than the sermon itself. Besides, most of the points within the sermon end up in this post anyway.

The Old Testament Lesson for the day was from Isaiah 5:

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.  He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.  What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?  And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.  For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! (Isaiah 5:1-7 NRSV)

followed by the gospel text:

 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;  they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53 NRSV)

Of course, this gospel text has been latched onto by Dominionist and Triumphalist strands within Christianity to justify their beliefs, and the near-breathless glee they often seem to have in their efforts to battle with supposedly inferior non-Christians. This text, they would argue, is Jesus’ endorsement of all kinds of mayhem perpetrated against others by Christians in their efforts to spread the gospel, all supposedly in the name of Jesus.

I certainly don’t see the text that way at all. As I read and re-read this text in preparation of the sermon, I actually sensed a completely different take on Jesus’ words from when I’d read it in the past. Jesus is nearing the end of his earthly ministry. He’s making his way for the last time to Jerusalem, and he knows what’s awaiting him there. He’s sharing with them from the deepest depths of his heart how stressed and burdened his heart is at this point. He knows that his earthly ministry is drawing to a close. And when he says these words to his disciples, I don’t hear any sort of happiness in his voice about this division and discord that’s to come into the world because of him. I don’t hear any bloodlust or dominionism or a call to battle. I actually hear just the opposite.

I hear the very human voice of the God/Man.

He’s sharing his burdens with those closest to him. He’s aware of what he is about to accomplish – reconciliation between God and humanity, bringing us together again, and modeling the sacrificial, self-emptying love that we’re called to have, that we’ve been created for. He’s aware of that. But he’s also aware, because of the same foresight that makes him aware of the good, of all the awful that will befall humanity because of his having entered human existence. He can see all the division – all the bitterness, and hostility, and arguing, and separation, and rejection, and violence, and bloodshed. He can see persecution and purges and Crusades and pogroms and Holocausts. He can see slavery and segregation and shunning and excommunication and burnings at the stake and beheadings and lynchings and more, and all supposedly done in his name, because he chose to walk among us and be one of us.

And in this very human moment, I can hear in Jesus’ voice, not triumphalism, but despair. I hear mourning, heart-aching sorrow about the coming division and strife. At the risk of blasphemy, I suppose, I hear Jesus’ human nature even wondering if it was really worth it, given all the division and pain and suffering and death that his coming would ultimately cause in the world. I hear Jesus almost questioning, Have I actually made a difference? Has my ministry actually had some positive net effect in the lives of people? In the end, was it really worth it?

It doesn’t take a licensed psychotherapist to understand why I might hear Jesus’ voice in this way at this particular moment in my life. I’m within a month of one phase of my ministry ending, and before the next call is in hand. And while I’m certainly not facing crucifixion, I’m also under a good bit of stress over the extreme financial implications this will have as well as the pace of the call process in my tradition, which makes a snail’s pace look like that of a cheetah. But I also look back on the past six years and find myself asking, on a much smaller scope, the kind of questions that I just imagined Jesus asking himself. In the end, have I made a difference in the spiritual lives of the people of my congregation? Have I been a net positive in the life of the congregation, collectively and as individuals? I think that I have, but I honestly don’t know for sure. I can point to some things that would seem to indicate that it was worth the considerable difficulties of trying to pastor a congregation more than an hour away from my home, and the congregation’s experience of me trying to balance comforting and discomforting, embracing and stretching, embracing and challenging. I wonder what awaits them after I leave, and as they begin a new chapter in the life of their congregation. I wonder if their specific congregational culture will enable them to make the hard and unprecedented transformational changes that will be necessary for them to survive in a location where economics and demographics are working strongly against them. I wonder if I’ve helped to guide them into that conversation collectively. I wonder if all my words, and all my non-verbal pastoring, has had any lasting positive benefit in individuals’ lives.

Those kinds of thoughts were the genesis of the sermon. But it really wasn’t self-absorbed navel-gazing; I didn’t get into those issues from my own perspective, at least not directly or too much. That was just the launching point. My real point was that ultimately, we all end up having this same question that I at least heard in Jesus’ voice as he said these things. We all have this existential need to know that our faith, and the lives that we live as a result of that faith, are actually having some positive effect in sharing the kingdom of God in this world (There you go, Hank – existential need – thetinydogNOWismine). Pastor or pew-sitter, not having the same kind of divine foreknowledge and ultimate assurance that Jesus had, we always have some degree of question whether we’re doing the right thing, headed in the right direction, making the right choices, in order for us to be a net good in the kingdom of God. Are we, in fact, expanding justice and righteousness in the world, and in the lives of othes, as Isaiah says God’s vineyard is supposed to do? In that wondering, as I said to conclude the sermon:

I think that in the end, when we consider our lives and wonder if we’re making any real  difference, we just need to recognize that all we can do in our lives is to give thanks to God for caring about us enough to become one of us. For loving us enough to walk our walk, and to know our human doubts and worries firsthand. And knowing that, God tells us to have faith and trust – and that all we have to worry about is to live out our faith by extending that same kind of love and compassion and grace to others, and to let God worry about the rest. It isn’t our job to see the results of our extending God’s love to others. God has told us that ultimately, we’ll know and see the results of our efforts. Even if we didn’t see it before, we’ll see that living our lives in the way that Christ calls us to really did make a difference. If we live our lives faithful to Christ and true to his teachings, he’s promised that eventually, we’ll know and taste the good wine that our efforts, our vineyard, produced.

Here I Stand.2

Should Education Time Be the Same Time As the Worship Service?
Or Should Kids Remain in the Service?
(and the related question, Why Are Our Youth Leaving the Church?)

A lot of congregations struggle with, and debate these related questions. Many congregations in the last generation have structured their Sunday mornings so that the education, or “Sunday School” time, took place during the worship service. If there were two morning services, the educational time would generally coincide with the main worship time. In most of these cases, the kids would come into the sanctuary and begin the service with their families. Then, relatively early in the service, they would come forward to hear a “Children’s Message,” after which they would depart the sanctuary and go off to their educational time.

The reasons for adopting this schedule were usually twofold: first, it allowed the parents at least a brief amount of time where they didn’t have to be watching over their children, making sure they weren’t fidgeting or making noise during the service, and where they could listen to the sermon and participate in the service undistracted, and without others seated around them being distracted by kids being, well, kids. The second reason was that with everyone’s busy schedules throughout the week, let alone weekends, having both of these functions overlap served to condense the time the family had to devote to being at the church – it was killing two birds with one stone, as it were. And in the midst of discussions about declining church attendance, especially among young families, this compressed schedule was put forward as a way to be more accommodating to those families, resulting in increased attendance.

Personally, I think there are several problems with this model. Maybe the most obvious problem is that the educational component of congregational life is not reserved only to children – at least it shouldn’t be. Adults should be an important part of Christian Education, too, and this is obviously a problem if the “education hour” on Sundays is the same hour that the adults are in worship.

The second problem is that in shuffling the kids out of the worship service, we’re instilling the attitude in them that “real church” isn’t for children and youth; that they aren’t an important, participatory part of Sunday worship. We’re also eliminating the very important aspect of the children learning the movements and flow of the liturgy just by osmosis – by simply being present and picking up these things passively. This is a very important thing in instilling the faith in our children, as I’ll discuss later.

I understand and respect that some people prefer this compressed model of Sunday morning scheduling. But personally, I think it causes more problems than it does solutions. Even though it’s supposed to increase attendance by young families, the statistics certainly don’t show a huge influx of new attendance by families where the model has been adopted. I recognize the reality that children can be distracting in a worship service; even the best of children are going to have their moments. I’ve struggled with getting my own children to at least behave, if not be attentive, during church services. I’ve been annoyed by other people’s children acting up during a service. As a pastor, I’ve been disappointed when just as I reach The Most Important Phrase in the Sermon on Which Everything Hangs, a child loudly drops his toy truck on the floor and ruins the golden moment. All of those are very real issues. But to congregations – and pastors – who are faced with those realities, I offer this humble suggestion: suck it up. Deal with it; learn to put up with it. The life and worship of the church is for all of us, regardless of age. The incredible significance of our children being around and within worship, and as soon as possible participating in it and even helping to lead it, is too great in the faith development of the child to preclude it by removing them from the sanctuary so they won’t distract us, or ruin the pastor’s golden moment. And as far as the time component – that families won’t be able to complete their Sunday church experience in one hour, I’ll suggest that this is another “suck it up” moment. How long is our children’s weekly football or soccer game? How long is the dance recital, or even the time spent in schlepping our kids to their various practices? If we think that our weekly commitment to worshiping God and our spiritual and faith development doesn’t deserve as much time per week as just *one* of those activities, it’s time we did some serious self-evaluation. I’m not big on laying down guilt, but really, come on.

One of the perennial laments in the church today is that our youth are abandoning the church. To be honest, I’d suggest that this isn’t quite accurate, since in order to abandon something, you have to actually have been part of it to begin with – and we adults seem to have done our level best to keep them from being part of the life of the church in any integrated, multi-generational manner. Yes, we’ve set up youth groups, and we’ve brought on hip youth directors who are supposed to connect with the kids, and we’ve supported all sorts of fun recreational outings for the youth. While these things are good as part of an integrated approach, they can’t be the only aspect of youth being part of a congregation.

A while ago, I attended a presentation by Rodger Nishioka, a Professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary. Beyond being merely a great and engaging speaker, he also raised many crucial aspects of good youth ministry, and instilling a sense of belonging as part of the community of faith in youth. Two of the concepts that he emphasizes is “groupness” and the church’s having adopted a model of youth ministry called “the one-eared Mickey Mouse.” Here’s a great video of him giving a presentation on these two concepts:

This video is about an hour and a half long, but it is absolutely worth watching. Really, I promise.

Both of these are important concepts that relate to the issue of children being in, and incorporated within, our worship time – especially the one-eared Mickey Mouse concept. That term is meant to define a bubble diagram that depicts the way many churches develop youth ministry:

Image

In this model, the youth ministry is something with very little, if any, real connection between what the youth of the church are doing, and what the rest of the congregation’s experience of congregational life is. So when the youth eventually “age out” of the youth program, they’re essentially ecclesiastical orphans: they’re no longer part of the youth ministry, and they have no commonality or shared history or experience (this is actually one form of “groupness”) with the established “adult” church life. Is it any surprise, then, that the church is losing its youth? If we’d tried to come up with a plan specifically designed to shed members once they became young adults, we’d have been hard-pressed to have come up with a better plan. We need to eliminate the one-eared Mickey Mouses (Mickey Mice?) in our congregations. And making this change begins by having a Sunday morning church schedule that allows both a designated, age-specific educational time, for *all* ages; as well as a worship service that includes all (at least, almost all) ages – and allowing them all to share in leading worship, even the youngest among us. Have a nursery for kids up to 5 or 6, but certainly age 7, they should be with their families in worship. Yes, from time to time the kids will act up and be ornery. But maybe – just maybe – those ornery kids are being used by God to teach us something about God’s Kingdom, just as much as they’re learning from us.

Here I Stand.1

Another foundation-setting post. This was actually written as an assignment for a class in late 2011. It’s much longer, much more personal, and more in-depth with regard to where I’m coming from theologically, and I thought it would pair nicely with the more basic Statement of Faith…

It’s a grey, rainy day as I sit at my favorite second floor library hideout to begin writing this assignment to summarize my core beliefs about how God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are part of my life. I stare out the window, watching the water streaming down the clay tile roof just outside, landing in a leaf-littered copper gutter below, and my first thoughts are about just how unexpected a life it’s actually been.

I was born to two teenagers who hastily dropped out of high school to get married when they learned I was on the way. Raised in a household that started out “housing project poor,” which over time became a comfortable, average small town life. Unlike most of the neighbors, though, our immediate family was not churchgoing, not even at Christmas or Easter. The details of my Christian faith were fleshed out more by “A Charlie Brown Christmas” than anything else.

From my youngest of times through high school graduation, I was always the smart kid in school – always at the top of the class, the one people expected to be President some day, or at least rich and successful in some way. It’s an image I came to share myself. At the same time, I was almost completely without a social filter. Even at a very young age, I had quite strong opinions about life, politics, society, current events, issues of justice (although at the time I’d have simply called it “fairness”). If I disagreed with someone, they undoubtedly got to hear my opinions about how to correct their poor, benighted understanding of things. Thinking back on some of the things I said to people, confident in the belief that they’d be grateful for my corrections, I’m amazed I actually survived to adulthood. This embarrassing memory is probably why today I have such a visceral reaction when I encounter fresher, younger versions of the inexperienced fool I once was, who exhibit that same sense of arrogant self-righteousness. It’s probably the simple fact that someone didn’t strangle me when I was younger that enables me to be gracious to them now (and sometimes grudgingly even at that).

Against all probability, I became a Christian while in high school. My entry into Christianity was originally through a very conservative Evangelical, even Fundamentalist strand of the faith, and now I added another topic of discussion I could be insufferable about. I remained in that mode throughout college – the late 1970s and 80s were good years to be part of the Evangelical Born Again.  Eventually though, cracks in the mortar of that experience began to appear, as I began to befriend people very different than myself – people from urban upbringings, who had no commonality with what I saw as the really American, really Christian small-town origins; Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists; gays, bisexuals, & lesbians. I remember a long, gut-wrenching conversation with a gay friend who asked me about my faith, and my belief that his sexuality was a choice that he could change or that God could “correct” for him. “Do you really think,” he asked through only partly contained tears, “that I would actually choose this life – where I’m hated, persecuted, spit on, beat up? A life where I’m told I’m so worthless that I’ve already tried to kill myself twice? If this is really a choice, don’t you think I’d have chosen differently?” I sat there silently, with no real answers for him and only questions for myself.

Another time, I remember a gathering of Christian students in someone’s dorm room, and everyone was introducing themselves and offering their personal testimonies of how they were born again. Finally, one student – Brian – quietly said, “I’m not sure I have anything I can share with you. I never had one of those lightning-bolt experiences like all of you seem to have had. I’ve always been a part of our Lutheran church, and I was baptized as a child and went through Confirmation, and my faith has just sort of always been there, growing over time.” Later that evening, after Brian had left and most of us were still there, I listened as the others talked about him – shocked and appalled at his apparent spiritual blindness, and they actually plotted a course of action designed to open his eyes and to lead him onto the path of becoming a “real” Christian. I walked out of the room disgusted, and while not actually renouncing my faith, it went dormant for a long time. My experience across the full spectrum of Christianity was about nonexistent. I didn’t know any other avenue to express or practice the faith that was beginning to take hold within me, but I knew that this was definitely not it.

So for the next dozen or so years, I focused on being the smart, successful person I thought I was supposed to become. I did all the right things; I set everything in motion that was supposed to lead to the American Dream. I became established in my profession, got married, had two wonderful daughters, bought a house. I started my own architectural firm, at an almost unheard of, ridiculously young age, and against the odds, was relatively successful at it. I even joined a church – not one like the Evangelical places I’d worshiped before, though. I picked a nice, respectable, somewhat stuffy Presbyterian church in an affluent suburb, one which I figured would look good to potential business associates but where I could just fade into the crowd and which wouldn’t ever place any real demands or challenges on the life I was shaping.

But things didn’t really proceed as planned. With the passing of another dozen years, the firm collapsed from lack of business. The marriage is over. The house is in foreclosure and the retirement savings have been completely wiped out paying off business and personal creditors. I’m 51 years old, and I’m starting life over almost completely from scratch.

But not completely from scratch, since while things were still going well, I did manage to reconnect with my faith. The stuffy, undemanding Presbyterian church ended up being anything but. I found a place to practice and express my faith which didn’t insult my intelligence, which challenged and enlightened, and which welcomed questioning and diversity of specific beliefs. It wasn’t anything like the rigid, judgmental strand of faith that had driven me away before. That tradition always had an answer – a clear, black-and-white one, if not an always thoughtful or intellectually satisfying one – for every question I’d had back then, and for every question that my experiences were leading me to ask now.

As a result of that, and in the years since that time as I discerned a call to the ministry, the core issues of my faith have developed and matured far from where they began, and largely as a result of the sometimes rocky trajectory of my own life.

I’ve come to reject the idea of a limiting, restricting God that I was first taught about. I’ve always believed in a loving God, but I used to believe in a God who reserved that love in a special way for a particular group of people in the world – particularly, Christians. I was originally taught that our primary purpose as Christians was to evangelize non-Christians, to bring them into the fold and to keep them from suffering damnation and eternal punishment in hell. Even the “best” of the heathen, I had originally been told, were nonetheless doomed to unending painful suffering if they didn’t profess Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. I’ve since come to jettison that belief as incorrect in three particular ways. First, I am not a universalist, nor do I believe in complete religious plurality – that all religions are an equally valid path to God. But I do believe that the atoning, reconciling work of the Son, the eternal second Person of the Trinity enfleshed in Jesus, was meant for, and is being applied to, all people who live faithfully in accord with the beliefs that Jesus himself taught were God’s will for human existence. I believe it when Jesus says that no one comes to the Father except through him. But I reject what I believe is far too narrow a comprehension of how one comes to the Father “through” him, the eternal Son. I most certainly do not believe, as I once did, that this reconciliation is offered exclusively to those who on bowed knee have professed Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. I believe human reconciliation with God is more complex than that. I believe that this was the point Jesus was making in his comments to the Pharisees in Mt 21:28-32: “Which of the two [sons] did the will of the Father?” The one who professed with his mouth that he would obey, but didn’t; or the one who refused to profess obedience to his father with his mouth, but who actually did obey the father’s will through his actions?

Neither, frankly, do I accept that evangelism – or to be more accurate, at least evangelism as we have traditionally defined it – is our primary goal as Christians. Exposing people to the good news brought into the world through Christ – the Great Commission of Mt 28:16-20 – is certainly a very important charge, but I believe that as servants of God and followers of Christ, this must be done simultaneously and inseparably with living out the Great Commandment of Mt 22:26-40 – caring for and seeking justice for others; putting skin on the Great Commission.

Because of the evolution of my beliefs regarding evangelism – or more specifically, regarding how Christ’s atonement “works” – I no longer  stress about the huge (and frankly, unfair) burden of evangelizing the entire non-Christian population of the world out of the fires of hell. I no longer have to lose sleep due to anguish over the supposed eternal suffering of my Jewish or Hindu friends – let alone the “Brians” of the world – as I did in my earlier days. I have come to believe that the most immediate significance of Christ’s teaching in the Great Commandment, and the rest of the gospels, is of far more immediate and earthly significance, rather than being a checklist of behaviors intended to earn us a golden ticket to heaven. And I believe in a God who is the very essence of love, mercy, and justice, and while I may not know all the answers about how God handles non-Christians, I know that however God does handle them, it is the most perfectly loving and merciful and just way possible – and simply condemning them all to hell does not seem to me to be merciful, loving, or just.

For that matter, I no longer believe in the idea that those who ultimately are not reconciled to God through Christ’s atonement are subjected to unending suffering for their actions during their earthly lives. Frankly, to believe in infinite punishment for finite acts of sin seems to me to be completely inconsistent with all of our understanding of God. I believe in a literal hell of some kind of punishment for the unreconciled, but I believe that such suffering is proportionate to the actual sin. This, I believe, would be the proper action of a God who is completely just.

All of my life’s experiences seem to have conspired to open and expand my understanding of the nature of God’s grace. I don’t believe that God limits grace to only a select group of specially selected people. Certainly, we see throughout the scriptures continual examples where God loves and is gracious, merciful, and loving to those whom had earlier been categorically ruled out as the enemies of God or of God’s people, or who had been restricted from full participation as the covenant people of God – the Ninevites forgiven in Jonah, the full acceptance of Ruth the Moabitess, and the baptism of Gentiles and eunuchs into the Christian faith, are just a few examples. Throughout my own personal experiences, as I questioned the judgmental “ruling out” of various people, whom I observed and, like Job examining his own life, found them to be just as good, and just as undeserving of being specially called out for their sin, as I am. I believe that God’s grace is extended to all humans, in equal measure and with equal love – and that refusing to see this, and trying to restrict who is, and is not, “worthy” of receiving God’s grace – is a result of simply not understanding the full depth of God’s grace actually granted to one’s self. It shows a lack of complete understanding of just how much we ourselves have been forgiven of by God.

I’ve also come to have a far deeper appreciation for the experiences of those who are the “others” in our society and other societies around the world. I have enjoyed the very comfortable, affluent life in this country, and I’ve had much, if not most, of it taken away from me. I played life by conventional wisdom’s rules, expecting one outcome, only to experience a completely different one – putting me in a place where much of society would consider me a failure, someone of lesser value, marginalized. Many might look at my own current circumstances and think that surely, this is the result of my own actions – if I’d just played life by the rules, I’d have been able to elevate myself out of my difficulties. I must be lazy, or stupid, or both. That’s the retributive justice that Job’s three friends believed in. It’s what our world largely believes in. Earlier in my life, it’s probably what I believed as well. But I no longer have the luxury of believing that way. I know my own circumstances, and I know that many others have endured the same types of things, and far worse. These personal experiences have changed my understanding of how we are to truly live out the Great Commandment in the world. I believe that we must take far more concrete actions to help bring Christ’s love, and a more just existence, to the lives of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the unjustly suffering. This has become a core belief which cannot be superseded by concerns about maintaining personal or social economic status quo or appeals to national economic interest. In fact, my own painful experiences served to point out to me just how much I had made idols of social standing, financial status, and material wealth and possessions – things which I’d quite clearly come to idolize, but which I could have never seen – or at least admitted – until I’d had them taken away, and been forced to reflect on what their significance had come to be in my life.

Christ calls us to care for every manner of the oppressed and marginalized in this world, and if we are not doing this, then I do not believe we can truly be in communion with Christ himself. In essence, in participating in the sacrament in this manner, we have brought our offering – ourselves – to the Temple, while having done nothing to first make peace with our aggrieved brother (Mt 5:23-24). It is the very act of human reconciliation and justice, in all of its various forms, that I believe to be our primary earthly charge as followers of Jesus Christ.  This charge to us unquestionably plays out at least in part in the political realm. I’ve always accepted this, but in the past my assumption had been that Christian political expression would always be conservative in nature. Through my own life experiences, as well as more in-depth theological study, I’ve come to believe that the liberal-conservative divide is much more ambiguous for Christians. I’ve discovered that as I personally try to live out my faith in the political realm, my opinions range from extremely conservative on some issues, and just as extremely liberal on others. As I’ve come to understand that the key is to honestly try to adhere to the gospel, as opposed to simply maintaining a (literal) party line. And evening that, I now see where Christians can, and do, vary widely in good faith as they try to apply the very same Christian and moral, ethical, social values – that the ends may be agreed upon, while the question of the best means to achieve those ends are arguable. My larger point here actually has little to do with politics, and much more with the application of that same understanding to the life within the church. Just as the Presbyterian congregation provided such crucial nurture for me while accepting a wide range of particular belief, so must, I believe, any congregation remain open to those differences – political, social, economic, racial, sexual – in order for us to truly discern the moving of the Holy Spirit among God’s people. I believe that for our individual and corporate faith to remain vital, and continually being reformed – Christians with very different applications of the faith not only can, but must be in dialogue – and not merely in dialogue, but in communion with one another while sharing the common mission of our common Lord.

The unexpected twists taken in my life have unquestionably caused me great personal turmoil. But in another way, I’m actually grateful – almost joyful – for having endured them. Not joy in the traditional sense, but a more deeply seated joy and gratitude, in having been shown that God does indeed remain with us through all of our days, good and bad. Having endured these things has profoundly changed the way I understand my own faith, and by extension, both how I understand the nature and mission of the Church, and where and how I’m being called to help lead it; as well as how I can offer pastoral care within a congregational setting. Having experienced a broad range of personal and professional highs and lows, and some of the best and worst of family life, I believe that the Holy Spirit has led me, guided me, strengthened me to be able to be a much more effective pastor and leader. Shortly after I became a Christian, I thought that I sensed a call to the ministry. But through a number of ways, I came to believe that God was telling me no, that I was to become an architect first, and that some day that would change and I would enter the ministry. I didn’t understand that answer at the time. And there were a number of years that I forgot about that answer to me, and another handful of years that I tried unsuccessfully to forget it. I’ve come to believe that had I gone into the ministry when I first thought about it, I’d have been a terrible pastor. I’d likely have adopted a dangerously exclusive, rigid, and judgmental theology and leadership style. I’d have been ill-equipped to understand many of the common real-world catastrophes that people go through, which now I’ve also gone through. As a pastor, I would likely have continued to be as insufferably self-righteous, intolerant, inflexible and opinionated as I was when I was younger. Now, I have come to see that there is indeed, as the hymn says, a wideness in God’s mercy that all too often, Christians only pay lip service to.

It’s now several days since I began this paper. I’m sitting in the same library hideout, staring out the same window at the same roof beyond. The clay tile is dry now, and the gutters are empty. In reviewing this paper, I realize that I’ve not discussed many theological particulars that might be required in a more technical theological statement of faith. But as I think about the convergence of my theological studies with the experiences of my life, I think that what I’ve mentioned in this paper are truly those core issues to my faith – the absolute immeasurable grace given by a God who is not merely loving, but who is Love itself – and given to all of God’s created humanity equally, through the cross of Christ. The command of Christ that we love God with all of our being, and our neighbor as ourselves, with all of the implications of justice that entails. The understanding that we are part of the reign of God that is already partially initiated in our world, and that our primary earthly charge is to fashion our existence as closely as possible to its ultimate reality. The humble acknowledgment of the Holy Spirit’s nurture, encouragement, and guidance through the world’s experiences to shape our faith, to take us to newer, deeper levels of understanding of God’s ways; and thereby forming us to be more effective and gracious pastoral leaders. These are the primary, non-negotiable points of my faith.

Here I Stand.0

While this place is meant to be a repository for my thoughts in general, it’s also a place I invite pastoral nominating committees to learn more about me, read or listen to sermons, and so on. To that end, I thought I’d make a series of posts, “Here I Stand,” which will detail, in no particular order and with regard to things large and small, some of my personal theological beliefs and how that plays out in the life of the church. I’ll collect these posts on a separate page for easy reading, but they’ll start out as individual posts on the home page.

This first post just sets the foundation – it’s the statement of faith taken from my Personal Information Form – it’s basic, concise, lets people know that I’m not a wildly unorthodox heretic, and (just) meets the maximum-word limitation of the PC(USA) online form field. So, here we go…

Statement of Faith

The Triune God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; three distinguishable Persons yet inextricably in relation one to another as one Being.

Human beings were created in God’s image, in love, through love, and for love. Our ability to give and receive love is the foremost aspect of our having been created in God’s image. We cannot be fully human as God intends, merely as an individual, but only when we are in relationship, with God and one another. The inseparable loving relationship among
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit illustrates the kind of intimate relationship that God desires to exist between us.

However, all of creation has been irreparably broken and altered from God’s original intent through sin. This brokenness is the result of both our deliberate actions, as well as simply being creatures now existing within this broken creation. This brokenness makes us unable to be in proper relationship with God and one another, and we cannot repair this separation through our own efforts.

God has made our reconciliation possible by entering the world, in the flesh, in Jesus Christ – fully divine and fully human. He is the true Word of God – the fullest and most sufficient revelation of God to humanity. Through his life, death, and resurrection, creation is redeemed and reconciled with God. Through Christ, God reveals to us that we are so beloved, so good, so beautiful, so precious, that our redemption is worth dying for. Through this act of pure grace on God’s part, and through our faith in Jesus Christ, God chooses to consider us as righteous, even while we are not.

Once we have received this grace through faith, neither life nor death can separate us from God’s love, due to the work of the Holy Spirit – who dwells within us, guides us, comforts us, challenges us, emboldens us, and sustains us in our faith.

The Spirit guides proclamation of the gospel and opens hearts, minds, and ears to hear it. The Spirit guides interpretation and understanding the Scriptures, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ, and God’s word to us. The Spirit acts within the Sacraments of Baptism, sealing and claiming us as God’s own; and the Lord’s Supper, enabling us to be genuinely and effectually united with Christ.

Christ established the Church and is its one and only true Head. God’s mission for the Church is to enable corporate worship of God, through proclamation of the gospel, administration of the sacraments, and execution of discipline.

Consistent with Reformed tradition, the proclamation of the gospel by the Church, in word and deed, must always be consistent with the context, time, and place that the Church finds itself within. The Church must always be willing to reform itself as necessary to carry out this mission, and must never settle into the familiarity of traditions arising out of any one context, which may make the eternal truth of the gospel inaccessible to people living within a different context.

Insurance/Assurance (sermon 8/11/2013)

Luke 12:32-48

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

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Image courtesy Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

They walked into the coffee shop together, the three of them – a middle-aged couple, dressed casually in shorts and flip flops, along with another man, a businessman who was probably much more comfortable in a suit but who was trying hard to dress down and look informal for the meeting with the couple. They grabbed a wobbly little table and the businessman took the couple’s orders up to the counter. The woman told a joke, and the businessman laughed loud and hard, just a little too loud and hard for what she’d said, a little too forced for it to have been genuine. Once their coffees came to the table and the preliminaries were out of the way, the businessman started into his pitch, trying to sell them a package of insurance coverage to protect their financial security in case of death, disability, dismemberment, disease, and all sorts of mayhem. After peppering them with all sorts of personal questions about their finances that they were clearly uncomfortable talking about in the openness of the café, he laid out all the details of how his products could be their financial salvation in case of catastrophe – and he was laying the catastrophe on pretty thick, painting pictures of all kinds of horrendous possibilities, and how they’d never have to worry about any of those things, if they’d just sign on with him.

I’m sure we’ve all sat through similar presentations. We want to be prudent, to save for a rainy day and to insure against some reasonable amount of risk. So it’s through that mental filter that we hear Jesus’ words in today’s passage from Luke – sell your possessions, give the money away to help others in need. This is how we become truly rich, and secure, in God’s eyes. Don’t be afraid, Jesus says.

And he says don’t be afraid to a group of people who live lives that had to do little else but cause fear. They were living lives of near nonexistent medical knowledge. Most of them had a standard of living that we’d consider well below the poverty level today. No retirement plans, no Social Security, no Medicare, no life insurance. An average lifespan of maybe 45 years if they managed to survive childbirth and youth –  and all under the thumb of the oppressive occupying force of the Roman empire. It would seem that they had every good reason to be afraid about their security, and to squirrel away every little bit they could. But Jesus tells them not to worry. To not be afraid. To take even what little they have, and to give it away.

By comparison, we’re lucky. We have all sorts of protections and wealth and social and economic advantages over the average people of Jesus’ time. And yet, with all of those things, are our lives really more satisfying? In the end, are we really any more worry-free, stress-free, fear free, or have we just shifted our fears to preserving those things that would supposedly protect us from fear? Have all of those safety nets brought us nearer to living more closely to the way we should, as members of God’s kingdom, or do they push us further away?

It’s no mystery that so much of the world, and our society, is sending us a message – teaching us a catechism, if you will, that’s almost completely at odds with the one that Jesus is laying out to his disciples, and by extension to us, all through this section of Luke. So much of our culture, our culture’s values, our economy, is based on scarcity and fear. Fear of not having enough, having to hoard for ourselves. Fear of not having as much as someone else. Fear of not being cool enough, or smart enough, or attractive enough – better buy something to fix that. Fear of not wearing the right clothes, the right shoes. Fear of being different, not fitting in. Fear of death, which really just boils down to the biggest fear of all – the fear of not being loved.

Even though their lives were more difficult than ours, maybe in those simpler times it was easier for Jesus’ listeners to tap into his message than it is for us. Maybe it’s harder for us to really hear and accept Jesus’ message that God loves us, and is trying to offer us this amazing, abundant, eternal way of living, and that it doesn’t have anything to do with all the things we try to do to create and safeguard our own security. Maybe all those kinds of insurance that we try to provide for ourselves just entangle us and keep us further away from the kind of joyful living that God is trying to hand us. Our society and its values are every bit as much fishers of people as Jesus and his apostles were, and we’ve got to consider just whose nets we’re really in.

But… we can’t really do what Jesus says here, can we? We aren’t supposed to take his words literally, are we? Well, honestly, I don’t know what Jesus is telling you to do; we’re all on our own path laid out for us by God. But based on his words, that’s exactly what he’s telling at least some of us to do, at least to some degree or another. Divest. Simplify. Use less of our money for ourselves or to ease our fears and shore up our security, and use more of it for the purpose we’ve been entrusted it to begin with – to advance God’s kingdom, to help others and support the mission that God has given to the church. Stepping out in faith even if it seems scary and our guts tell us it’s contrary to our own self-interests. Because trying to cling on to all these false securities only increases the anxiety and fear in our lives, and that fear clouds our judgment about how we are to live as Christ-followers.

Contrary to what pretty much all of the advertising world tells us, we don’t need the newest thing, the nicest thing, the biggest thing. Christ has called us to have fewer things, smaller things, simpler things, so we can channel our money in the directions Jesus tells us please God. We’re being called to have more faith, more trust, that God will provide for us and reward us for this kind of faithful risk-taking – and not least of all, by immediately rewarding us – transforming our hearts through compassion whenever we use our resources to help others. We all know just how good it makes us feel inside whenever we see the gratitude of someone who’s been helped by us. Imagine feeling that way most of the time; imagine the deep-in-the-soul joy and contentment that kind of life would cause in us. That’s the eternal way of living that God is offering to all of us, according to Jesus, if we just trust enough to do it.

Shifting our financial priorities away from ourselves and our own concerns, and more toward a Jesus-driven life, is scary, there’s no doubt. But in this passage from Luke, we can hear Jesus coaxing us to not be afraid, to have the faith and do it anyway, because God has promised us our lives would be better, not worse, more joyful, not less, more secure, not less. This better way of life that God is putting in front of us is so close, we really can reach out and grab it. Jesus is coaxing us on, like a parent teaching their child to swim. The nervous child standing on the dock, Wrapped with water wings and enough other inflatables to keep the Titanic afloat; little toes curled over the edge. And the parent standing down in the water just beyond the dock, smiling, arms outstretched, trying to coax them to jump in – it’s OK; you’ll be fine. Don’t worry; I’ll catch you. That’s my image of Jesus in this passage. He’s coaxing the disciples, and us, to have faith, to trust, and to jump into this new kind of life because he knows it builds our real treasure in the kingdom of God, and it produces results immediately. It gives us a more joyful way of life. God promises us that. And that blessed assurance is worth far more than any insurance that we could ever buy.

Thanks be to God.

Remember the Giants

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The Giants, 1970. That’s me in the back row, far right; Grandfather/Manager’s hand on my shoulder. He seemed so old then. He’s actually 5 years younger in this picture than I am now. Oy. The man in the back row, right/center, is Mikey.

My name is Dwain, and I am a Giant.

I say “am” despite the fact that I haven’t worn a Giants uniform since 1972, because, as the recently started Facebook Page states, “Once a Giant, Always a Giant.”

The Giants were – actually, still are – a team in the Little Knights Baseball League in my hometown, Masontown, Pennsylvania. In the 1950s, Masontown had Little League – in fact, in 1954 they just missed playing in the Little League World Series, finishing third in the country. But the league got to be very selective in its tryouts, leaving lots of kids out of an opportunity to play ball – and even if they did make the team, Little League rules then and now allow kids to be bench-sitters, not getting to play in every, or maybe any, games.

Recognizing this problem, a handful of men – mostly fathers of young kids, mostly coal miners, mostly World War II veterans – decided to start another baseball league in town. This league would have tryouts – not every kid would make a team – but the league rules were that every kid on every team would play at least two innings of every game. And so the Little Knights League was born.

A local fraternal club provided the land, and the field was built. Probably most of the materials for the backstop and the chain link fence around the field were perpetually “borrowed” from the mines where most of the men worked. Dugouts were built, and bleachers were brought in, and a little building just behind home plate was built to house a concession stand and equipment storage. You could get a bottle of pop, or a bag of popcorn, or a Sno-Cone, for ten cents. There were still kids who didn’t have a dime, and at the end of the night, when the concession ladies were cleaning up, those kids would come up to the window for a free bag of the little broken bits of popcorn and half-popped kernels left in the popper, asking “You got any scraps? You got any scraps?”

A window from that building looked out at the plate, and just inside the window sat the official scorer and the game’s announcer. I’m not sure how they managed to do it, but the field had lights for night games and a PA system. The Little League field had none of this. The games were always well-attended, but many residents of the neighborhood could sit on their back porches on warm summer evenings and listen to the play-by-play on the loudspeaker.

Little Knights may have originally been seen as a poor substitute for Little League, but over time, Little League faded and Little Knights became the League that most of the kids in town wanted to play in. And in 1969, I followed in the footsteps of my seven-years-older uncle and my one-year-older cousin, and became one of the Giants, coached by “Bones” Baily and managed by my grandfather, Quentin “Queenie” Pontorero, one of the founders of the league. Later, my two brothers would also become Giants, and my father would coach them for a time.

The Giants were a perennial powerhouse in the league, but I freely admit it wasn’t through any of my skill or effort. For most of the three years I played, I was the worst player on the best team. I couldn’t hit a ball to save my life. Any time I came up to bat, my parents cringed, my grandfather cringed, my teammates cringed, the fans cheering for our team cringed, because everyone knew I was going to strike out. And I cringed, because I knew I was going to let them all down. And as bad as I was at batting, my fielding was even worse. Anything hit into left field was pretty much a guaranteed single, at very least. It was like that for the first two years, anyway. The third year, I managed to develop at least minimal hand-to-eye coordination and not completely stink. And one game in my last year, I played amazingly – but that’s another story.

Thinking about those days, I was reminded of all those “Everything I Needed to Know in Life, I Learned in Kindergarten” kinds of lists, and I thought I could prepare a similar list – “(Almost) Everything I Needed to Know in Life, I Learned as a Giant.” Or, if I didn’t first learn it as a Giant, it was reinforced there. So, here’s my list:

1. Character matters.

2. Always work hard at whatever you do. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to always do your best.

3. Never be without a good black leather belt (as you can see in the picture, a required part of the Giants’ uniform).

4. Similar to #1 above, whatever you do, do it honestly and with integrity. Do not be afraid to own up to your mistakes, and be willing to work to correct them. Life will give you plenty of unexpected ups and downs, but live with honesty and integrity through all of them.

5. You are important as an individual, but working well as a team can achieve far greater success than the sum of the individuals.

6. Always be gracious, in victory or defeat, because whichever you’re experiencing at the moment, you’ll be experiencing the opposite soon enough. Plus, the kid on the opposing team that you just beat is your next-door neighbor and one of your best friends. You’ll sit next to him in geography class tomorrow.

7. Whether you win or lose, nothing makes the victory so sweet, or takes the edge off the loss, quite like the ice-cold carbonated sting of an Orange Nehi.

8. Clove gum rocks. So does Beemans. (my grandfather passed out a stick of chewing gum to every player just before the start of every game)

9. The tag in our uniforms said to Wash in Lukewarm Water. When in doubt, always do the same.

10. No matter what you do, there is always going to be someone who does it better than you, through a combination of hard work and practice, and natural inborn ability. No big deal; we all have our particular God-given skills and abilities. Whenever you’re around those better than you, observe them, learn from them. You’ll never be as good as they are, but you will become better at whatever it is than you were yourself, and that’s all that matters. And no matter how modest your skills may be, you will – maybe only once, but you will – at some point, shine like a star. And you will see, smell, hear, and bask in the memory of it for the rest of your life. I do.

11. Succeeding in life will require you to improvise, adapt, and overcome. For example, if Hannah’s dry goods store is out of white felt letter “G”s to sew onto your cap, you can make do just fine with a “C” and scraps of an “I.”

12. There are some people among us who have mental or other developmental disabilities. Often, they are, as Harper Lee might say, the mockingbirds among us: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us..” And anyone who would tease, or make fun of, or hurt, anyone like that is an absolute moron. (our team’s mascot and good luck charm  was Mikey, a developmentally disabled man who almost never missed a Giants’ game)

13. No one – no one – likes a smart alek, even if on occasion they may pretend to. Really.

14. Whatever you do, whatever the chosen game or field, hustle onto it, and hustle off of it.

15. Life may not always be easy, but it is good – enjoy it. Play ball!