March 2018 INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
At every level of our lives together, we are facing some very necessary and difficult discussions about significant but divisive topics. Nationally, we face hot topics such as what we should do in order to reduce and hopefully eliminate the mass shootings we are experiencing much too often and the difficult challenges of immigration reform. Those and other cultural issues also impact the spiritual lives of our faith communities, but those communities also face issues of theology and polity that are equally divisive. Local congregations, including Calvary Hill, face important difficult discussions about the direction of future ministry that also reveal differing understandings of who God is calling us to be and indeed the very nature of the God who is doing the calling. Needless to say, but critical to acknowledge, is the fact that these are discussions that we do not do very well. In most cases, we don't want to experience the pain or the challenge so we stick our haloed heads into the sand of denial. But the issues cannot and will not solve themselves. Instead, without our active involvement in working for solutions and reconciliation, the issues grow more powerful and more destructive. So what are we to do?
The Scripture offers us a way forward if we are courageous enough and persistent enough to actually put it into practice. Ephesians 4:15 says that in order to grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ (I'm sure you hear your own Mission Statement in those words), we are to be speaking the truth in love. How about that for a model for addressing these issues? Speak the truth, but speak it in love. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Looking a little closer at the two key words might help understand both the difficulties and how we might go about overcoming them.
The Truth is to be the content of our speech. Of course, what else would be the content! But as Mr. Pilate asked Jesus, What is truth? What I believe, is not the truth. It is just what I believe to be the truth. There was a time in my life that I believed that a jolly old fat guy came down the chimney of our house (a chimney that led directly into the furnace!) on Christmas Eve and left toys and goodies for all of us. That wasn't true in spite of the sincerity of my belief. There was time when I believed that there was only one expression of worship that was acceptable to God, and that was the form as we practiced it at the First Baptist Church of St. Johns, Missouri. That wasn't true either. I once believed that God was far away and very mean. That one lingers with me, but I no longer believe it is true. There is a difference. What I feel is not the truth. It is just what I feel. When we talk to one another about the Truth, we should always phrase our statements as, "At this point in my journey, I believe ...." A healthy dose of humility is always appropriate when discussing Truth. My perception comes from where I stand and what I have experienced thus far on my journey. But my journey is not yet complete. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, now we see only a reflection as in a mirror,...now I know in part (1 Corinthians 13:12, NRSV). So our understandings of Truth cannot be complete until the journey is complete.
None of this is to say that Truth has no standard at all. Jesus said that he was the Truth, the Way, the Life. By that he meant that his life and teachings revealed the Truth of who God is and how we can follow a Way that offers us Life now and at the end of our journey. It has been wisely said that before sharing something about someone else, we ought to ask ourselves three things about the information we are about to share. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? If the answer to any of those questions is NO, then we ought to keep the information to ourselves. I would add that if we are seeking Truth we should ask ourselves does it reflect the mind, life, and teaching of Jesus? If it does not, it is not Truth.
A big problem is that each of us thinks we they know the truth. And our brains are not easily convinced that what we already believe is not reality, not true. So we can actually experience things that contradict what we hold to be "true," but refuse to allow that experience to change what we believe. This means that we all need to do two things. We need to expose ourselves to as many understandings of Truth that differ from our own as we can. We ought to seek them out. We out to listen to them and respect them. And secondly, we need to consciously and intentionally challenge the things we "know" to be true. In the movie, Men in Black, Tommy Lee Jones' character tells Will Smith's character, Fifteen hundred years ago everyone knew the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everyone knew the earth was flat. What will we know tomorrow? Most of us only read things that reinforce what we already believe, only engage in conversations with those with whom we know we agree. Unless, of course, you read the Comments on Facebook! I actually try to make it a point to expose myself to ideas of perspectives that challenge my own. (Just not the Comments section on Facebook! That's pointless and painful.) I know how hard it is to change my own belief system, even if it wrong. Humility. One of the good things.
Paul's point earlier in 1 Corinthians that I quoted above (vv. 1-3) is that no matter how pious or holy an action might be, if it is not done in love it is worthless. In Ephesians that same thing is said of speaking truth. If we do not enter these difficult but important conversations acting out of love that is genuine compassion and concern for the others engaged in the conversations, we are not growing into the mature body of Him who is the head, Christ. Social media has allowed us to hide in electronic devices where we don't have to confront the pain and hurt we cause with hateful words and arrogant claims to the sole grasp of Truth. Speaking the truth in love is to making yourself vulnerable out of respect for the other person(s) engaged in the conversation. It is always true that the Head, that is Christ, loves all participants and wants to help each one come to have the mind that is His mind. I promise you, that mind is not your mind. Nor is it my mind. But becoming vulnerable in the presence of the Spirit and facing these polarizing issue by sharing the truth as we see it, listening to the truth as others see it, and doing it all in love is the only way we grow and mature in Christ-like living. If these kinds of discussions cannot happen within communities called into being by the God who is Love for the very purpose of being the human expression of the Way, the Truth, and the Life then we are without hope for resolving them.
February 2018 - INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
She showed me a text she had received and asked me to read it. After I read it, she asked me what I thought about it. I asked her what she wanted to know and she replied that she “didn’t like the tone” and wanted to know what I thought of the tone. That’s when I got myself in trouble. I said, “The text itself has no tone. It’s just words on a computer screen. Any tone you get from those words is tone you bring to the text yourself.” I think that is very true. Even if the author of the text wrote some kind of “tone” underlying his words, that tone isn’t part of the text.
This incident reminded me of an article I had read recently. An article from Inc. by Minda Zetlin entitled You Should Never, Ever Argue with Anyone on Facebook, According to Science states:
We respond very differently to what people write than to what they say--even if those things are exactly the same. That's the result of a fascinating new experiment by UC Berkeley and University of Chicago researchers. In the study, 300 subjects read, watched video of, or listened to arguments about such hot-button topics as war, abortion, and country or rap music. Afterward, subjects were interviewed about their reactions to the opinions with which they disagreed.
Their general response was probably very familiar to anyone who's ever discussed politics: a broad belief that people who don't agree with you are either too stupid or too uncaring to know better. But there was a distinct difference between those who had watched or listened to someone speak the words out loud and those who had read the identical words as text. Those who had listened or watched someone say the words were less likely to dismiss the speaker as uninformed or heartless than they were if they were just reading the commenter's words.
In other words, the only “tone” in the printed word is that the reader brings to reading it and through which the meaning of the writing is interpreted. That’s not a real problem if the purpose of the writing is didactic, that is, teaching content or is responding to a direct question or a similar purpose that is largely focused on the exchange of factual information. If, on the other hand, the purpose is personal or relational rather than informational, it can be a large problem! The point of this is that if you want to build relationships, you best do your communicating face-to-face (actually or electronically) as much as possible. Tone and nuance and the ability to immediately check on what you are hearing are all critical to building healthy relationships. During the “Baptist wars” there was no shortage of name-calling and denigrating of the other side. The other side, the enemy, is a faceless “them” who embodies and practices everything that is evil and destructive. During those years, a group of four of us met every Friday for lunch. One of us was on each polar end of the Baptist continuum and two were in the middle, one leaning ever so slightly to opposite poles. The issues that divided us were discussed in these face-to-face lunch sessions, but absent was the name-calling and the demonizing. Why? Because around the table we were all “us.” Real human beings with names and families and feelings and ministries.
This reality has many implications. Theologically, even God could not communicate relationally with us without putting on a face and becoming one of us so we could share at the deepest level. So the Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and lived among us. He taught and lived that by entering into relationship with him we could know what God was like and experience relationship with God. To see him (to know him), Jesus said, was to see and know God. It also has implications for how we relate to one another, especially when we are confronted with difficult issues of significance over which we have sincere differences. Dealing with those issues in a way that can strengthen the relationship, that is face-to-face and with respect and a desire to truly understand one another, and will keep us from being able to just dismiss one another as uninformed or uncaring. Make no mistake, that’s tough work! But so was emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave and being obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-11)! But then, as now, that is the way to the narrow gate and hard road that leads to life. A way that, according to Jesus, few find (Matthew 7:13-14). May we be willing to do this hard work so that we can be persons through whom others can experience the love and grace of God in relationship with us.
January 2018 - INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
A new day is clearly marked by the rising of the sun. A new month can easily be noted by the beginning of a new lunar cycle – the appearance of a new moon, as did the ancient Hebrews (among many other peoples). The solar calendar is more concerned with the marking of a new year, especially so as to identify agricultural seasons. All of these divisions of time are related to the observed phenomena of the created order. Unlike the new day and the new month, however, it is less clear when the new year should begin. Why not in the spring, with the new life that becomes apparent? We have, of course, come to accept January 1 as the beginning of the new year – stretching all the way back to the Babylonians – in the celebration of the new year. They noticed that it was this time of the year when the days began to get longer, rather than shorter. They concluded that the sun was not dying but coming back to life. A cause for celebration!
We continue the celebration, although we have long since lost the mystery (and the awe that accompanies mystery) of the causes for the phenomena we observe. Even scientific ages, however, find it difficult to resist the temptation to use the occasion of a new year to encourage changes in our lives. We could use the “first day” of every week as such an occurrence. Or even the first light of every day as an opportunity for improvement. God is even willing to give us opportunities for repentance and life-changing commitments on a moment-to-moment basis. But it seems that the “year thing” works better for us, thus our New Year’s Resolutions.
And I’m ready for a new year. On a personal level, 2017 was an improvement on recent years and ended in a rather encouraging state. But it also included some pretty painful and unpleasant times. I’m also reminded of the truth of the definition of insanity as doing things the same way and expecting a different result. That means if I want things to be different in 2018, I need to do some things differently. I need to think differently. To act differently. That’s not how I want it, of course. I want to remain comfortably in my view of the way things are. I want to be able to behave in all the ways in which I’ve become comfortable. And then I want everything in my life to change and become like I want it to be. That’s insanity, according to the definition above, and it is also not going to happen. The truth is that it is hard to change. That’s why most of our new year’s resolutions never work. But in order for me to make the changes that I need to make, I need only convince one person – myself. That also happens to be the one person on the planet that I can control, which makes the whole thing at least possible. Now, to think about changing an institution (i.e., a church) requires so much more. And I’ve already got my hands full with me. Anybody out there willing to take on that challenge? I see that hand ... don’t I?
December 2017 INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
Here we go again. The annual “War on Christmas.” I’m not sure exactly when or by whom there was a declaration of war, and I find myself increasingly disturbed by the use of the term “war” to describe what is happening in our culture. Real wars, with real casualties, abound in our world this Christmas season. Refugees in the millions. Starvation. Hatred abounding and destruction everywhere. Suffering and hopelessness. That’s real war. The so-called War on Christmas in this country is not even an inconvenience. As a people, we are very good at fighting shooting, bombing, killing wars. Not so good with wars fought in some other way. Consider, we declared War on Poverty. Poverty has won. We declared War on Drugs. Drugs have won. We just don’t seem to do very good in a war that’s fought with ideas and relationships and won by enhancing life rather than by dropping bombs and firing missiles. Just consider the battlefields of the so-called War on Christmas. It’s primarily words. Do we say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays? To say the latter is to launch a battle in the war against Christmas. Christmas tree or Holiday tree? Do these really deserve to be called battles in a war?
The reality is that there are two Christmases celebrated in our culture every year. There is the secular Christmas of Santa and winter wonderlands and exchanging cards and gifts and family gatherings. These are not evil things and bring great joy to many people. Then there is the Christmas that is a spiritual remembrance of God’s entry into his world. And a reminder that he comes into our lives and our world over and over and over again for those who are looking for his appearing. We really need to keep the distinction clear in our minds. The secular Christmas is part of our culture, and it is celebrated by many people who are not Jesus followers. Many of us who are Jesus followers also participate in and enjoy this secular Christmas. That’s not a problem, unless we also try to insist that the secular Christmas celebrations also affirm the values of the spiritual Christmas. That is the boundary along which the war clouds quickly gather.
It is not possible for anyone to win a war against Christmas. The reality of Christmas as a spiritual celebration exists in us totally apart from anything those who celebrate only the secular Christmas can say or do. No one has the power stop you from saying all the “Merry Christmases” you want to share. An employer, however, does have the right to instruct employees who are representing the business to greet shoppers with a “Happy Holidays” in order to include all the business’ customers in the secular celebration of Christmas.
While no one has the power to rob us of our spiritual Christmas, it is possible for those of us for whom Christmas is a truly spiritual journey to surrender its significance. We do that when we allow ourselves to be drawn into behaving in ways that reflect the culture and not the Christ. That would include the concession that someone, anyone, can somehow steal or destroy our spiritual Christmas. We can always find – or be – God appearing once again! So if you really want to make this a spiritual Christmas, thus keeping Christ in Christmas, the only person who has the power to stop you from doing so is yourself. Feed the hungry. Comfort the grieving. Soothe the hurting. Welcome the stranger. And support those who are doing that in ways and places where you as an individual are not able to do so. Even if they don’t claim to do it in Jesus’ name sometimes. As our text last Sunday from Matthew 25 made clear, when you do those things, you are doing the work of Jesus even if you don’t realize it. So have it! Make this the most spiritual, Jesus-like Christmas of your whole life. Merry Christmas! And Happy Holidays!
November 2017 INTERIM PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
Next week I will be attending an Intentional Interim Ministers Workshop sponsored by the Center for Congregational Health in North Carolina. It will give me the opportunity to be with others who are also actively involved in Intentional Interim Ministry. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to pick some brains and to ask some questions.
I’ve been looking forward at where we are going in our journey together. I’m asking myself what do I need to do that I’m not doing now or not doing well enough. We all want to get to the same place. That time when your new pastor joins you to begin your journey together. And we all want it to happen as soon as possible. But even more than that, we want that new relationship be a long and successful one. And that, in turn, means continuing to work through the IIM process in a way that will confront the issues that might keep that from happening. And we will.
But that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do now toward the end we all want. There are several things that will be required if that new relationship is as successful as all of us want it to be. So here are some things that you can begin doing TODAY to make preparation for that day.
Accept the fact that change will be required. Change is the one constant with which we have to deal. It is literally true that not to change is to die. But most of us prefer to be able stay just like we are. After all, we are here because we like what’s here. We are living and ministering in a time of transition, and the change is coming faster than ever. To try to hold on to what has been in such a time is an invitation to disaster. Accept this and be ready to move forward and explore what will make tomorrow better than today. You don’t have to wait. You can begin today.
There are fewer of you now than there have been. That means that you are going to have to accept more responsibility for what happens. If you care about Calvary Hill’s ministry and future in this community, you will be called on to be a bigger part of making that successful. Each one of you. You will need to give more of all those things that are required of followers of Jesus. More of your gifts. More of your time. More of your resources. Yes, one of the needs is for a stronger financial base to deal with the expenses facing you with building issues that need attention. God’s abundance is shared through people and will only meet the needs when God’s people are good stewards of the gifts and are sacrificial in their giving. This is also something that you can begin to do today.
Everybody wants more people to be part of Calvary Hill, and the Mission statement adopted includes welcoming all to join the journey. But you cannot welcome others by seeing them as in some sense those who will help pay the bills. They are people with whom you need to build relationships and help them see and experience what you see and experience in Calvary Hill. You can begin to do that today.
And the best thing you can do is to reach out in love to your community by growing together in Christ-like love, sharing God’s love with the community and the world, along with welcoming all to join you in this journey. I believe that to the degree you actually make this your mission in your life, you will begin to impact the community in ways even greater than what you are doing today. If you want to do the best thing you can do to strengthen Calvary Hill and increase the odds for a successful result in the search for a new pastor, then begin to live out this mission. And you don’t have to wait another day. You can begin today.
Yes, there is still work to be done. But even out here in the wilderness, these are things that you can begin to do right now. Things that will make an impact on you personally, on Calvary Hill as a community, and on those who experience Christ in you and your ministry among them. You can do it. God will bless it. Will you start now?
October 2017 PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
What is happening here? “Blood moons.” Earthquakes. Heat waves and wild fires. Major hurricane after major hurricane. Blood running in our streets. Fifty-nine peope dead from a gunman in Las Vegas. What does it mean? Some say it’s God judgment on us for … well, for something. That “something” depends upon the perspective of the speaker. Most recently, Pat Robertson opined that the Las Vegas shooting was the result of the total lack of respect for President Trump. Others say these judgments are for having elected President Trump. Is God responsible for everything that happens? Nothing that happens? Some things that happen? Each of us has to wrestle with that question. And I’ve heard it asked in several forms over the last couple of weeks. There is nothing new about this question.
I’ve wrestled with it on a personal level. Do I blame God for deafness of my sons? Do I blame God for the death of my 3-month-old grandson? I recently heard someone say of a young father who died tragically, “God needed him more than we did.” Really? More than his wife? More than his young son? God took this young father in order to fulfill His own needs at the expense of a young wife and their son? What kind of God is that? At the least, a very needy God! I fully understand that there are some people who find comfort in believing that everything that happens is part of some master plan of God – a plan which we are not supposed to question. I am not one of those who believe that. If I believed that God “took” the life of my grandson, or that young father, or that God caused the death and suffering in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, and Mexico by sending hurricanes and earthquakes, or was somehow responsible for the shooting of the people in Las Vegas, then I would walk away from what I do and from any association with that kind of God. That is not the God enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth.
Here is what I do believe. God has shared the gift of life with us. He offers to join us in that journey, but will not force His presence upon us. And life can be messy. And painful. And sometimes very random and cruel. Where is God in all of that? Right there with us. But that’s not what we want. What we want is for Him to make it all go away, to fix it. Cure the cancer. Raise the dead. Right the wrongs. Punish the evil doers. Instead, the cancer often metastasizes. And the dead are still dead. And evil seems to flourish. And we are told not to ask any questions. Instead, accept it all as God’s will, because we really want to believe that there is some meaning to it all. I find myself unable to do that. Instead, I ask the “Why?” question. And I stand next to Job and shake my fist at God and struggle to understand what is beyond my comprehension. I weep. And God weeps with me. I search for God’s face amidst the pain and suffering, and I find it in the tears of those who share my suffering. Those who are there with me, even if they can do nothing to change the circumstances. They are for me exactly what God promised to be – with me. Some say that’s not enough. In my experience it’s all I’ve got – and, somehow, mysteriously it’s enough.
September 2017 PASTOR’S PONDERINGS
We’ve talked a lot during the last month about the power of silence as we have tried to hear God’s whisper in that silence. I have found it to be a meaningful experience and hope you have, too. I plan to make it an ongoing part of my life.
Silence. Sometimes it is a pleasant respite from the usual noise of contemporary life. Sometimes it is so loud that it drowns out all the normal sounds of living. It can be renewing and refreshing. It can also be depressing and even devastating. For me, it really isn’t about the physical sounds -- the sound waves that move through the air and stimulate our ear drums, which in turn sends electronic signals to the area of the brain designed to and charged with interpreting the meaning of such signals. God (and my wife) know I have enough trouble with those sounds. That’s why I wear hearing aids, which do help but which also cannot take the place of the kind of natural hearing I’m losing. Many, but by no means all, of those sounds aren’t worth hearing.
The sounds I do miss when they grow silent are those internal voices of mind and spirit. Sunday morning is coming and I will step into the pulpit and must have something to say. But what? Where are the voices when I need them? Could it be that the voice is actually in the silence and not in words? In such cases, I usually start thinking, talking, writing and see where the process takes me. Like now, in this space. I begin without knowing where I’m going or where I will end up or whether the journey will even be worthwhile. We’ll see.
There is a kind of silence, however, that is actually painful. Noise can be physically painful when it is loud enough, but silence can be emotionally, spiritually painful when it seems to be complete in the face of life’s challenges. When a hurricane devastates an area, taking lives and leaving chaos in its wake. Why did God make hurricanes? Silence. A parent is abusive toward a child and there is no one there to prevent it. Why not? Where is God? Silence. Jesus said that the meek shall inherit the earth, but it seems to me the earth is already firmly in the hands of the greedy and powerful. Who will stop them? Silence. I’m asked by people I love and care about why people treat others so mean and with such cruelty. I know the theological answer, but that’s not enough. I don’t know an answer that can still the Silence. Cancer. Alzheimer’s. HIV/Aids. Malnutrition. People suffer. Good people. Praying people. People who make the world a better place. Why? Silence.
There are plenty of folks out there who seem to have their answer. Just in the last 24 hours I’ve learned that Hurricane Harvey was God’s judgment against the State of Texas and its elected representatives. And that it was God’s judgment against Houston for having elected a gay mayor. I’ve heard many such pronouncements made in the aftermath of such disasters and I have noticed that the judgment is always aimed at someone who the speaker already doesn’t like. Additionally, a lot of seemingly innocent people always seem to have to pay a terrible price by sharing in that judgment. I’ve never heard anyone proclaim that such a disaster is God’s judgment on me or my side. Never! Isn’t it interesting how God works to punish my enemies?
Here is where my journey brings me. In silence is mystery. In mystery is God. Or not. Does that help? Of course not. But it’s true. Those times when the silence overwhelms and challenges us can be times when we are thrust deeply into the Mystery that just might give us more than answers. If we can learn to trust the goodness and grace of what we cannot understand – but have seen in Jesus – maybe we will have heard much more than we ever thought possible. A holy presence for our entire journey. Just maybe. Or not.