‘Final Words’ chapter 5

“I thirst.”

My Thursday group really resonated with this chapter, with those simple words from Jesus. To them (and, largely, to me as well), the group found “I thirst” a good follow up to last week/chapter’s “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. That is, for our group Jesus expressing thirst expressed his humanity even more. Our group is firmly in the camp that Jesus was fully human, actually suffered, and truly died. This chapter helped reinforce those ideas.

Our group was floored by the way Hamilton connected Jesus’ thirst on the cross to Jesus’ experience with the Samaritan woman at the well. It seems so obvious now, but somehow none of us had thought of that before. We agree with Hamilton: “What does it mean that the one who offers living water was now himself thirsty?” A pathos-filled scene, indeed.

I do have a concern with this chapter, though. Once again Hamilton takes liberties with the biblical story – liberties that denigrate a woman. This encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well is only found in John 4. It is a terrific story. Jesus ignores several cultural norms to speak to the woman. He treats her like a full human being who wants to learn how best to live. He treats her with dignity and she becomes a follower of his who tells others about him; she becomes an evangelist.

The story reveals that the woman has had five husbands but is currently living with a man but isn’t married to him. Hamilton declares “This Samaritan woman had been divorced and remarried five times.” He goes on assert she is “thirsty for love, but none of her husbands had satisfied this thirsting in her soul.” Now it could very well be that she was married and divorced five times. But it couldn’t be due to her “thirsting” for something she hadn’t yet found in a man. Women couldn’t start divorce proceedings in that time. Plus, there are plenty of possible reasons for her multiple  marriages besides divorce: death, war, accident, imprisonment…we can’t know because the text doesn’t tell us. If this were a courtroom drama I might say Hamilton assumes facts not in evidence in order to reinforce his narrative of thirsting.

I could be picking nits here, but I find it important. The church (in the historical, global sense) has been -and continues to be – complicit in subjugating women. That must stop. When famous white male pastors with large platforms even hint at making women into objects for lessons or don’t think twice about making them seem somehow deficient, well, I think we must call that out. [end rant]

Studies like this one are at their best when we make connections from the texts to our own lives. Nancy offers this story from her life regarding “I thirst” (shared by permission):

In the last few days of my daddy’s life, hospice advised we were not to give him water as it may cause complications in allowing him to die peacefully. He was on morphine and wasn’t asking for anything. On the last day of his life my sister, Deb, asked me to give him some water.

I used a tiny sponge dipped in cold water, opened his mouth ever so slightly, and gently swabbed his mouth. It was the last reaction I saw from my daddy and he died less than 24 hours later. He somewhat puckered his mouth and one could tell that little bit of moisture was a comfort to him. His body seemed to relax.

“I thirst” has a lot of meaning for me.

 

 

‘Final Words’ Chapter 4

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

The most important words ever spoken.

These words of Jesus from the cross are found in both the gospel of Mark and the gospel of Matthew; and in turn are originally from Psalm 22. And at least from a Christian’s perspective of the atonement, they are the most important words ever spoken, for they demonstrate God’s solidarity with humanity in suffering. These words demonstrate God’s solidarity with humanity in feeling godforsakenness.

How can God experience godforsakenness? That is the power of Jesus, the God-man, dying.

So you can imagine that I had high hopes for this chapter. And for one, brief, shining “godforsaken” moment, Hamilton gets his Moltmann on. Hamilton actually uses the term. He also does a good job in this chapter of connecting Jesus’ words with our contemporary experience of mocking others and being mocked by others. Hamilton reminds us (as he has each chapter) that we are part of the crowd crucifying Jesus. We are part of the problem. He even hints at the reality of communal sin, which I find very important. Too much of current Christian thought (or at least that which find its way into the broadest acceptance) focuses solely on individual sin and individual redemption.

I would have liked to hear more from Hamilton on communal sin and communal redemption. I would have liked a little less of (what I perceived as) Hamilton trying to soften the abandonment that Jesus felt.

How about you? What connected with you in this chapter? What left you wanting more?

 

Lenten Book Study, ‘Final Words from the Cross’

Been way too long since I posted here. Of late, my blogging has been focused on stuff for my congregation, so I haven’t cross-posted. But this week I changed my mind. Maybe my reflections from our Lenten book study on Adam Hamilton’s Final Words from the Cross will interest a wider audience? I have no idea; guess we’ll find out.

I’ve cobbled together my reactions to the first three chapters of the book, which makes for a long post. Hope you’ll bear with me.

CHAPTER 1:

There was a time in my life (namely, as a college student) when I couldn’t be bothered to read the introduction to a book. I probably figured that if it was important it would be in the main part of the book. Now that I’m middle aged (though you should feel free to protest that designation on my behalf ;), I see the folly of that approach. As you are much smarter than I, you know this. Introductions set the stage. That is, they help define the context of all that will follow. Final Words is no exception.

Hamilton does a good job reminding us that the very name of the book is a misnomer. These are not seven final words from Jesus but rather seven statements. But even that isn’t really true either, as Jesus has more to say after he is resurrected. So in that way, the statements by Jesus that form the chapters of this book are neither just words, nor are they final. Though they are the final words from the cross. So the title doesn’t lie, you just have to read all the way through. With me so far?

More importantly, Hamilton reminds us right away that we are “confronted with the fact that the Gospels do not agree as to exactly what Jesus’ final words were” (9). This seems a good time to recall that the gospel writers were not investigative reports sent on assignment from Channel 5 to record and report verbatim what Jesus did and said.

Rather, the gospel writers were individuals living in a particular time and place writing with a particular purpose for a particular audience. We know some of those particulars, we guess at some, and tradition holds some. This is why the gospel writers are often referred to as ‘evangelists.’ They are purposefully trying to share a message. (And ‘evangel’ means gospel; that is, good news.) That’s why it doesn’t bother me in the least that we have four different accounts of how Jesus’ last hours went down. It’s not that kind of writing.

Anyway, on to chapter 1! “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Who are ‘them’? Who is Jesus asking God to forgive?

I think this is a great question. Read Luke 23 and list all the people who played a part in crucifying Jesus. List all who watched as Jesus was crucified. List all who ran away so they didn’t have to watch. All those people are the ‘them.’

But there’s more. Who else should be on that list?

Hamilton reminds us of the song, “Where You There When They Crucified My Lord?” Here’s one of my favorite versions by Marion Williams.

Johnny Cash has a good one too. What other renditions do you recommend?

The other topic that Hamilton spends time on that I expect will be a focus of our discussion is theories of atonement. He uses the example of a scapegoat…and if that’s not a set up for talking about Rene Girard and mimetic theory, I don’t know what is! I wish I were better versed in mimetic theory. I always seem to stumble over my words when trying to convey it. From Adam Ericksen, “The function of a scapegoat is to unite us in hatred against them, so the scapegoat who seems to us to be completely guilty, like a cartoon villain, the better sense of unity we can form against them. The best scapegoat is one who even agrees with us about just how terrible he is…

He revealed the truth that our scapegoats are as human as we are. The druggies, the power hungry, the self-loathing, the smug, even the priest who is a potential pedophile, are more than their despicable qualities; they are broken human beings, just like the rest of us.

And there’s the truth we would rather avoid about our scapegoats. We would rather project our own brokenness and self-hatred upon them, and thus avoid taking responsibility for our own despicable qualities… What’s the alternative to uniting against a scapegoat? Hoffman pointed to the answer: to recognize our own broken humanity and respond to our cultural scapegoats not by uniting in hate against them, but by uniting with compassion, pre-emptive forgiveness, and love.”

I appreciate it because it takes seriously the communal aspect of sin, and because it avoids the horrific idea of God needing appeasement through violence. I’ll see if my friend, Adam Ericksen can be a guest speaker one week.

What part of the reading did you find particularly helpful or new or intriguing?

What part of the book did you find disturbing or frustrating?

What questions did the reading raise in you?

CHAPTER 1 POST SCRIPT

The Thursday morning group surprised me a bit: Hamilton’s “who is the ‘them’?” question wasn’t all that engaging. For those present it wasn’t a new question. They weren’t shocked or disturbed by adding their name to the list of those who crucified Jesus.

We did spend a good deal of time considering forgiveness: how it works; what stages of it there might be; if others are required to forgive us or if we are required to forgive others.

We also talked some about the doctrine of original sin and a little bit about theories of atonement. For further reading in this area that is theologically sound, engagingly written, and inexpensive, I highly recommend Tony Jones’ ebook, A Better Atonement. Best $3 you’ll ever spend.

Scapegoating was another topic of interest to the group. Again, The Raven Foundation is the best source I know of for accessible content on mimetic desire, scapegoating, and their connection with religion in general and Christianity in particular.

CHAPTER 2

I’m at a disadvantage this week. I was away for a few days participating in the Progressive Youth Ministry conference, meaning I was unable to attend this week’s group session. Which in turn means that I do not have communal wisdom to share with you here, instead I can only offer my reactions to Chapter 2. Missing the class also means the communal wisdom hasn’t had a chance to mold and correct these reactions of mine. Just another reason we don’t just want but need your input in the comments below! Don’t let mine be the only voice here; that’s just not healthy.

I offer all the above throat-clearing both because it is true and because, well, I thought this chapter left a lot to be desired.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)

It starts well enough: by asking good questions of the text. Namely, “what does this scene teach us about Jesus, and what dos it teach us about ourselves?” (Please forgive the lack of page citations. I’m reading on Kindle which doesn’t include page numbers.)

But the missteps begin right after that as Hamilton writes, “Jesus allowed the prostitute to wash his feet with her tears.” Ugh. Here’s what’s actually in the text, NRSV-style. “And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.”

You can argue that the “who was a sinner” clause is a euphemism for prostitute. And you may even be correct. But here’s the problem: to assume such a thing about this woman is to perpetuate the still-ongoing, extremely harmful stereotype of women as either saint or slut.  The text does not say she was a prostitute. Why make that assumption? This woman offers this beautiful, meaningful act that moved Jesus to praise her. Yet she remains nameless and voiceless. Why denigrate her further?

I know there is a tradition that says she is a prostitute. There is also a tradition that says this woman is Mary Magdalene. Then there’s the tradition that conflates the two and makes Mary Magdalene into a prostitute. All those are wrong and I’m disappointed Hamilton included it. Doing so feels lazy to me.

Plus, this opens up a whole other rabbit hole that needs to be explored: patriarchy in the bible, in the church, in society and the ways those are connected. Patriarchy in the bible and the church help prop up patriarchy in the real world. Seemingly small things like this – making a woman not just a woman but a prostitute – add to the oppression of women in the church and in the world. I expect Hamilton to be better and smarter than that.

Hamilton does a good job of examining Jesus’ words, breaking the statement down into ‘today’, ‘you will be with me’, and ‘paradise.’ But it seems to me that Hamilton’s deconstruction doesn’t go far enough. He never makes it to the big picture; he uncritically accepts Paradise/heaven as “being transported to some other plain of existence.”

Don’t get me wrong; I’m convinced, with Paul, that not even death can separate us from God’s love. Whatever happens to us after we die, I expect that, in some way, we continue to live in God’s loving presence. However – and contrary to the way I read Hamiltion here – the book of Revelation describes the eschaton (the end of the world as we know it, the end times) as a new beginning. But it is not a spirit existence somewhere else. It is a new beginning here, in this world, on this earth. According to Revelation, God is renewing all of creation; redeeming it; saving it.

This is important. The proliferation of the disembodied, otherworldly vision of heaven has harmed the Christian witness and our planet. For far too many people, the goal of faith is essentially a “get out of hell free” card. This has led to far too many Christians caring only about their individual “salvation” to the exclusion of any concept of communal and global salvation. This has led to far too many Christians treating the earth and her environment terribly. Not only that, but for some it has also meant actively fighting against those who are trying to care for creation!

Hamilton has a big platform and I’m very disappointed he let all these opportunities to dispel bad ideas pass him by unacknowledged. Again, I know he is smarter than that and I expect better of him and his work.

CHAPTER 3

I am looking forward to what our group has to say about this chapter. I need their inspiration, their insights as this chapter left me anguishing in yet another battle in the never-ending, intra-Christian culture wars. Yuck.

This chapter, “Behold your son…behold your mother”, is fine. I think its ultimate message, “care for other people like they are your own family”, is good and right and true…if a little bland. However, I’m thrilled that – unlike the missed opportunities in chapter 2 – Hamilton acknowledged the progressive manner in which Jesus treated women, the unquestionably vital role women played in Jesus’ and the early church’s ministry, and the unshakable affirmation that women are leaders and pastors in the contemporary church.

But this week? This week there is no way we can talk about our call to be parents to those in need without talking about World Vision and their train wreck of policy change announcements. This week there is no way we can talk about our call to be parents to those in need without talking about the real harm that is being done to some of the poorest children in the world by the virulently anti-gay sentiments of some who claim the name Christians.

If you have managed to miss this story so far this week, well, I’m sorry to burst that particular bit of bliss…

On Monday World Vision made this encouraging announcement: it will no longer discriminate against gay employees. At least those who are married. “The organization’s U.S. branch will recognize same-sex marriage as being within the norms of ‘abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage’ as part of the conduct code for its 1,100 employees.”

And there was much rejoicing! At least among people who understand that treating people equally – that treating other people the way any of us want to be treated – is a good and Jesusy kind of thing.

But not all Christians saw it that way. The next day, World Vision told its employees they’d lost 2000 sponsors of children over that announcement. Think about that. Those who withdrew support essentially said, ” You’ll hire openly gay people, World Vision? Then I can no longer support the hungry, impoverished child(ren)…who lives somewhere else in the world and has nothing to do with this decision.”

But wait, there’s more. Wednesday – just two days after the initial announcement – World Vision turtled, offering this statement. “After announcing earlier this week that it will no longer define marriage as between a man and a woman in its employee conduct manual, Christian relief organization World Vision reversed course Wednesday (March 26), and said it would no longer recognize the same-sex marriages of its employees.”

World Vision got bullied into submission. And then apologized to those who bullied them. “We’ve listened,” World Vision president Rich Stearns told reporters. “We believe we made a mistake. We’re asking them to forgive and understand our poor judgement in the original decision.”

Ugh. An ugly couple days. It seems to me at least 2000 people need to read this chapter of Hamilton’s book. At least 2000 people need to be reminded of the call to “behold their children.”

Use the comments section below to offer your thoughts on the chapter and/or your reactions to my reflections.

Bad debate

Last week we were treated to excellent content on the relationship between faith and science, first from Deacon Beth’s column and then the music, prayers, and Pastor Jim’s sermon in worship.

In our youth ministries we spent the month of January examining that same relationship, utilizing the experiences of some of our congregation’s scientists (THANKS Richard, Kathy, & Wally!). Add to that all the response to the recently televised “debate” between Bill Nye (TV’s The Science Guy) and Ken Ham, the young-Earth creationist and president of the Creation Museum, and you wind up with a whole lot of words shared on the topic.

My favorite blogger, Fred Clark has an extensive rundown of the Nye-Ham coverage.

Along with all these thoughts, I want to add an image, a quote, and a thought.

First, an image (from James McGrath) to sum up the Nye-Ham “debate”:

Ham-Nye-debate-in-a-nutshell

 

Now, the quote. I don’t always agree with the UMC’s Book of Discipline, but on this topic I find it exactly right:

science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.

The UMC also has a 2008 resolution opposing using “faith-based theories such as creationism or intelligent design” in public school science curriculums.

See, all this faith versus science stuff really comes down to how we understand (or misunderstand) the bible. UMC pastor and blogger, Roger Wolsey has a terrific post on how we read the bible. I think he describes my position very well.

The accounts – yes, plural – of creation in Genesis 1 & 2 aren’t trying to offer first-hand reporting of how the universe was created. That’s, of course, impossible. Also, those accounts were written millennia before the scientific method. It’s unhelpful, unfair, and, frankly, ridiculous to try to impose scientific standards on pre-scientific material. We just end up looking dumb when we do so. For instance, Genesis 1, when read (il)literally like Ken Ham does, would have us believe that plants grew before the sun was there. Even Middle School students know that’s impossible.

But I’m very glad we have the witness of Genesis 1 & 2. They may not be scientific statements, but they are significant in their own right.

They are very significant statements – by real people who lived in a particular time and, inescapably, had a particular understanding of how the world works – about what the world is like (spoiler alert: it’s good!) and what the Creator God is like. For instance – and I believe this is paramount – unlike the creation stories told by basically every other nation around them, our faith ancestors left us a creation story noticeably absent of war and rape. Instead, we have  that rare depiction of a god who can create without violence of any kind. It is that rare depiction of a god who is intimately involved in, and related to, the world. It is that rare depiction of a god who wants not slaves, but lovers. And not just any kind of lovers, but lovers “made in our image.” That is, lovers in the image of the Triune God: engaged in mutual, egalitarian relationship.

A loving, egalitarian relationship extended to themselves, each other, all people – confoundingly, even their enemies – and to all of creation.

How’s that for a Valentine’s Day tie-in?

 

 

 

 

The Gospel According to Thor #sermon

You might think that putting up a sermon is the easiest kind of post. I mean, really, the content is already created, how hard could it be? Yet, somehow, it never ends up being that easy for me. Once again, here it is Thursday and I’m just now posting my sermon from this past Sunday (January 26). Which still beats the many times I didn’t post my sermon at all.

I’m sure this pathetic pattern is largely due to me being an inept blogger. But my particular process of sermon preparation plays a role as well.* I think a sermon is, first and foremost, an oral/auditory event. So I hope to add the audio soon. In the meantime, here are the notes I used as I spoke. Below I mention some of Julie Clawson’s writing; additionally, her 7-21 talk at Christianity 21 also informed my thoughts here.

Let me know what you think.

photo credit Colleen Erbach
photo credit Colleen Erbach

“The Gospel According to Thor”

Isaiah 9:1-4 & Matt. 4:12-23

Realms collide as the only son of God comes to earth, offering displays of power, bringing his light into places of darkness, saving the world. I am, of course, talking about…Thor!

Why Thor? A quick search on Amazon of “Gospel according to,” yields 39,647 results. I am not making that up. Results include:

Pop culture icons: Dr. Seuss, Sopranos, Simpsons, JRR Tolkein, Peanuts, Shakespeare, Harry Potter, Disney, Star Wars, Hunger Games

Other bible stories: Job, Daniel, Jonah, Isaiah, and, my favorite, The Other Mary.

Even some, er, really creative ones: Coco Chanel, The Beatles, Jazz, Waffle House, Hoyle, Elvis, Patti Labelle, and Starbucks – which I’m pretty sure is, treat others the way you want to be treated…unless they say ‘ex-presso’ instead of ‘espresso.’ Then you are to mock them mercilessly.

So really, why not Thor??

Still, I’ll forgive you if you’re a little skeptical.

Heck, my own son – who has become a bit of a comic book geek himself (not sure how that happened) – even thinks it’s crazy.

“Hey Josh, look at this cool picture we’re using in church this week!”

“Why?”

“Whaddya mean ‘why’?? Isn’t that awesome?!?”

“You should’ve used Captain America; he’s cooler.”

“What! How do you figure?”

“His shield can stop Thor’s hammer.”

While Joshua hasn’t seen it yet, in The Avengers movie we have the video evidence that he is correct.

So why Thor? He’s become a fascinating and complex character. His stories are almost all about hope overcoming fear. And aren’t those the kinds of stories we need right now?

A recent story arc had him pondering the very nature of gods, had him questioning his own existence, had him flying all over the multiverse teaching people to pray.

When his not flying around the multiverse or smiting frost giants, what does Thor do? The answer might surprise you.

There’s this book, a filler of sorts, an issue between story arcs. But this stand alone issue continues a theme from the beginning of Thor: Thor always returns to Midgard. (That’s earth to the uninitiated.) If the tech will work, I’ll show you what Thor does on earth:

[I showed a few panels from Thor: God of Thunder #12]

-Thor drinks with friends. Ok, maybe not too surprising; he is a Viking god after all. Though I seem to recall another story about a son of God who made sure a party he was at didn’t run out of good drink…

-Thor visits a friend on death row and brings him his last meal.

-Thor brings food to seemingly orphaned children.

-Thor entrusts nuns with the seeds of an extinct orchid.

-Thor sits and talks with the proverbial wise man at the top of a mountain.

-Thor drinks with wounded soldiers; brings rain to dry land; scatters a crowd that claims “God hates you”; and hangs out with some fishermen.

-like a good celebrity, Thor responds to video invitation to attend a ball

-Thor grieves with a former girlfriend who is dying of cancer.

-Finally, far ahead in the future, Thor returns to Midgard…no matter how much it pains him.

Thor learns from and is inspired by his interactions with people on earth. The son of the highest god belongs on earth.

So what is the gospel according to Thor? Seems like it is “bring light and life into dark and dying places.”

“I could use a good saving the world story,” said Jane Foster as she was dying of breast cancer.

We need stories that inspire us; stories that remind us that hope doesn’t die; stories that remind us that fear, intimidation, injustice, oppression, and even death – as ubiquitous and implacable as they may seem – do. Not. Have. The. Last. Word.

As Julie Clawson writes, “We need as a culture to see that if we are creative and brave enough sometimes the biggest and baddest dragons can be defeated. Only story could do that for us.

Julie also points us to this quote from author Gerard Jones:

For young people to develop selves that serve them well in life, they need modeling, mentoring, guidance, communication, and limitations. But they also need to fantasize, and play, and lose themselves in stories. That’s how they reorganize the world into forms they can manipulate. That’s how they explore and take some control over their own thoughts and emotions. That’s how they kill their monsters.

Or consider this from CS Lewis:

“Since it is likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”

Stories within stories within stories.

In Matthew, Jesus has gone through the water via his baptism, has been sent by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted, and is about to, in chapter 5, go up on a mountain (of sorts) to offer his fresh take on God’s law.

Through the water –> into the wilderness —> up the mountain… remind you of anything??

Matthew references Isaiah. Isaiah references Judges and the story of Gideon. And really, what is the book of Judges if not tales of superheroes? Men and women who display immense courage, who overcome their fear and their people’s fear, to defeat an enemy.

Gideon’s story is one of Israel’s deliverance from oppression – and all such stories of deliverance are references to the Exodus, when God delivered the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.

So we’ve come full circle once again, from Jesus back to the Exodus, God’s great deliverance of God’s people.

Stories within stories within stories.

There is a shadow side to superhero stories: apathy. If we are so wrapped up and addicted to the need for a super power to save us – whether religion, technology, or political platform – we might never live the courageous path the stories inspire us to take.

(paraphrased from Kester Brown: “We need also to let go of our hope that some other superpower—whether religion, technology or a political formulation—will bring eternal peace and equilibrium.” and Julie Clawson)

God continues to delivery us from oppression and misery. God does that by continually calling us to live lives of grace and peace and hope. God loves us and call us to live lives of love.

Do you know that? I mean really know that in the very center of your self? That at the core of your identity you are God’s beloved child? No matter who you are or who you aren’t; no matter who your parents are or who they aren’t; no matter what you’ve done or what you’ve left undone…you are God’s beloved child. Do you know that?

Well the story isn’t over. Because you are also called by God. You are called by God to be God’s agents in the world – this world, our world, God’s world.

One biblical commentator wrote, “God designates human agents whom God empowers and authorizes in the public process of history. Such human agents turn the public reality of politics and economics toward the will of God.”

You are called by God to be agents in the world fighting, what are our vows?, “fighting evil and oppression in whatever form they present themselves.”

Frankly, there’s plenty of evil to go around. Not to go all “We didn’t start the fire on you”, but we know the big evils:

-1 Billion w/o clean safe water

-800 million hungry

-27 million trapped in slavery

-1 in 5 women sexually assaulted

-climate already 50 parts per million above sustainability

There’s plenty of actual, real evil to go around. We can’t afford to waste time making up pretend evils, like fighting about which particular consenting adults are allowed to get married.

And we’re acting on those evils. Sometimes indirectly through our UM connectional system: clean water projects, rebuilding after the Haiti earthquake, UMW demonstrating in Chicago to fight the sex trafficking that accompanies every Super Bowl.

Sometimes very directly: your generosity in Nov & Dec resulted in over $1000 donated to West Suburban Community Pantry. That will allow the Pantry to buy 3 tons of food!

But if those evils I mentioned strike you as too universal, here are some closer to home:

-We have heroin deaths on the rise in DuPage & Will counties.

-we have drug addiction ravaging young people – though not just young people

-I learned this week that 52% of children in Woodridge schools receive free or reduced lunch.

-There are children in our schools in Woodridge who are homeless. Children whose only meals each day are the free breakfast and lunch provided by the school.

How will we address those? Maybe we start with just one. Maybe we need to partner with the Woodridge Resource Center, see how we can go to them with offers of help. Maybe we can help provide meals for children in the summer months when school meals aren’t available. I don’t know but I’m convinced you do know. God is at work in and with and through and even in spite of, you and me and us.

What story will your life write? What story will we write together, as the people of God called Woodridge UMC?

I say let’s make it a story of ordinary people who dared to respond to God’s call and do extraordinary things! I say we overcome fear and evil with stories and faithful actions of hope! Amen?

————–

*I almost never write a manuscript (that’s preacher-ese for writing out each word of the sermon); instead I use a hybrid style. By which I mean I use a combination of outline, fully-written sections, and, er, inspiration. I always have a thesis so that I know where I’m going with the message. I usually write out the opening and the conclusion and just outline the middle. I find I think about the message all week long, almost constantly playing it in my head, revising it and playing it again. For whatever reasons, I ended up writing almost all of this one. Go figure.

All Apologies

I screwed up yesterday.

Twice.

Within the span of an hour.

Twice within one hour yesterday I had to apologize.

Not a Seinfeld-ian darkly humorous, “I’m so sorry, George?” apology.

Not a Better Off Dead-esque really darkly humorous, “Gee, I’m real sorry your mom blew up, Ricky” apology.

Not a CYA, “I’m sorry if…” non-apology apology.

But an actual, sincere apology.  Twice.

(At least that’s how I intended them. I’d say it’s up to the recipients to determine sincerity.)

First, I put our son in an untenable situation. I help coach his 2nd grade basketball team; we practice on Thursdays. Practice ended with that time-honored tradition: a scrimmage. A half-court scrimmage. Which was fine and fun until Joshua grabbed a defensive rebound…and immediately put a shot right back up. The head coach said something to him that I couldn’t hear, but I saw his face fall and get that look. The look he gets that says, “I was just reprimanded and I don’t understand what I did wrong…and, even though I don’t want to, I’m really close to crying.”

I hate that look.

Then, a few minutes later, it happened again: Defensive rebound, immediate shot, comment from coach, face falls even farther, the look – this time revved up to tears-forming-in-the-corner-of-his-eyes.

I really hate that look.

C’mon, not in some meat-headed, boys-shouldn’t-cry type of hate. It’s a my-child-is-in-pain-and-I-can’t-make-it-better kind of hate. Then it hit me: it was my fault.

It was my fault because we’d never played half-court before. Josh didn’t know anything about “taking the ball back” before shooting. We didn’t explain half court rules, we just assumed everybody knew them. I set the boy up to fail. I put him in a position in which he couldn’t succeed. I failed him as a dad and as a coach. I really, really hate when that happens.

Clearly, I owed him an apology.

In the car on the way home I explained what I did wrong, we both cried a little, and I tried to explain how to play half-court ball. Which is harder than it sounds when strapped in a seat belt.

Fast forward about 45 minutes…

My phone rings. “Hello, Dave? This is Chris*…”

Now my eyes widen huge and fast just before my face falls; synapses fire revealing the truth I didn’t even know I’d forgotten: I was supposed to be meeting Chris and Chris’ betrothed right at that moment.

I. am. a. dope. Completely forgot the meeting.

Once again that night, I needed to apologize.

It is humbling to be offered grace by your son and a parishioner.

As Nadia said at C21, “grace is easier to preach than to receive.” Turns out, though, that receiving it is pretty fantastic too.

————————-

*Protecting the innocent by not using real names.

Match Game: a Christianity21 Quiz #c21denver

Last week I attended Christianity 21, an excellent and fun conference organized by the incomparable JoPa Group. It is a conference ostensibly offered for those of the (E)(e)merg(ing/ence/ent) persuasion. Whatever that means anymore.

Based on my experience at this gathering, it means something along the lines of, “smart, compassionate, diverse people who want their Christian faith to matter in tangible ways in the world, now and into the future.”

On the mainstage, 21 speakers were given 21 minutes each to offer their Big Idea for Christianity in the 21st Century. It was a hard 21 minutes too – they were truly on the clock and when time was up an ‘Applause’ screen appeared and they were done. It was even more effective than the orchestra at the Oscars.

In the near future I hope to offer deeper insights from my time at C21. But for now I thought it might be kinda fun to try a little match game. See if you can put the presenter together with her/his Big Idea. Don’t worry if you are unfamiliar with any of the presenters. I didn’t know them all going in – and I heard similar thoughts from, well, from everyone I talked with at the event. Just have some fun with it!

DISCLAIMER: In my estimation, not every presenter declared a distinct “my big idea is X“. For those, I’ve done my best to represent what I heard as their big idea. For that matter, I’m sure I haven’t perfectly captured even those big ideas that were overtly declared. Any errors are mine. I ask for grace in these matters.

MAINSTAGE PRESENTERS

1. Jonathan Merritt

2. Paul Raushenbush

3. Noel Castellanos

4. Nadia Bolz-Weber

5. Kent Dobson

6. Sarah Lefton

7. Mike Foster

8. Romal Tune

9. Charles Lee

10. Phyllis Tickle

11. Sarah Bessey

12. Enuma Okoro

13. Bruce Reyes-Chow

14. Sarah Pulliam-Bailey

15. Jose Morales

16. Ani Zonneveld

17. Jamie Wright

18. Joshua Dubois

19. Sarah Cunningham

20. Tony Jones

21. Doug Pagitt

BIG IDEAS

Z. A personal gospel

Y. We don’t need a new way to think about how God is, but an encounter with the God who is.

X. Christianity is so wide-spread that no country can claim to be the center of the faith.

W. People want to be loved and belong somewhere.

V. Faith embodied as a movement of innovation. Don’t argue with your words but instead with your execution.

U. Be good allies.

T. Take sacred texts and have people make things (art, apps, movies, etc.) out of them.

S. Reclaim and embrace apocalypse.

R. Remove the words “missions”, “missional”, and “missionary” from our vocabulary.

Q. I don’t know what the future of Christianity is, but I know I’m not going back.

P.  Let’s recover a theology of fun; let’s “gameify” faith.

O. Spiritual connectedness: each of us can decide where we can be ‘No Man’s Land’, i.e. the middle person grabbing one hand of a person to the left of us and one hand of a person to the right of us.

N. The margins are at the center of God’s ultimate concern.

M. Do greater things than Jesus; Recognize where we’re acting like God wants sacrifice not mercy; Be friends, even with evil people; Figure out a new understanding of created order.

L. Pneumatology

K. Relearning faith (in this case Islam) as a progressive movement.

J. Let’s be gangs of the Gospel.

I. Stop being professional Christians and start being disciples of Christ.

H. Seeing our lives as prophetic outposts for the way of faith

G. Embrace the hyphen.

F. Reflect on what you are doing and respond to questions.

ANSWER KEY (not squished together because I hate that; too hard for my old eyes to read. And because this is the internet not a newspaper; space isn’t an issue.)

1. Y

2. Z

3. N

4. F

5. Q

6. T

7. W

8. J

9. V

10. L

11. H

12. X

13. U

14. P

15. G

16. K

17. R

18. I

19. O

20. S

21. M

How did you do? How many did you match correctly?

Finally, our C21 benediction from conference musician, Heatherlyn:

Maybe it might be, hopefully it’s true.

God in the midst

It seems to me that a lot of us relish these days after Christmas. As much as we might love gathering with family, exchanging gifts, and sharing meals, there is often as sense of relief that, as we often say, “we made it through” the holiday. We breath a collective sigh of relief and relax a bit.

This, of course, is only really possible from a place of privilege. Some of us enjoy a few days of lighter work schedules and plenty of new toys with which to engage the children. Most folks aren’t in that position. Most people must try to find moments of hope, moments of peace in the midst of often-chaotic lives.

That’s why I find the Christmas story to be such good news: God shows up in the very midst of our messiness, in the midst of our blood, sweat and tears, in the midst of our stressors and our fears. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. All of us, all the time. And  not just with us, but also continually pushing us to share our love with people, especially people in need.

This prayer from our Advent Study book, James W. Moore’s  Finding Bethlehem in the Midst of Bedlam, seems apt for today:

God of all people and all creation, help us find Bethlehem in the bedlam of our lives. Open our eyes and our hearts to the light of Jesus Christ in our midst. Guide us as we mind the light of your peace, hope, and love. Amen.

Christmas candle

Happy Christmas 2013

Merry Christmas!

It’s my Christmas day tradition to post this Isaiah passage (which is a reading for Christmas Eve worship every year), Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” (the world’s best – and most challenging – Christmas song), and a lighter second song that changes each year. You’re welcome. ;)

Isaiah 9:2-7:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

No, not “all the boots of the tramping warriors” or “all the garments rolled in blood” have been burned as fuel just yet. But I do believe there will be a day when both the weapons and the uniforms of war will be obsolete. I think that’s why I like “Happy Christmas” so much: it simultaneously acknowledges that the reality of evil in the world and reminds us to hope for – and actively strive for – a better future.

Yes, our sisters and brothers in Syria and South Sudan know all too well that war isn’t over. The Prince of Peace wants all wars to end. To worship the babe born in Bethlehem means facing reality, means seeking to end war. But following God in the way of Jesus also means we don’t believe in hopeless! It means we’ve got some work to do.

(Trigger warning: some images involves children, many are difficult to watch.)

Still, childlike joy is also an important part of Christmas. This song has been around a long time now but still makes me laugh every time.

Merry Christmas from the Buerstetta’s to all who celebrate. Happy Wednesday to all who don’t. 

Changes for the Holidays

“One word can bring you round”

To say that change is difficult is no kind of insight. We know this is true. Yet change comes to us all and sometimes even proves to be a Good Thing.

This fall our wonderful partners at the West Suburban Community Pantry changed how they distribute food boxes at Thanksgiving and Christmas and how they distribute gifts at Christmas. Let’s face it, giving money and unwrapped gifts just doesn’t feel as involved – doesn’t feel as good – as giving a box of food or a gift chosen and wrapped for a specific person. But here’s the effect of that change: previous years the Pantry had food boxes for 400 families at Thanksgiving. With the change in procedure this year they gave food boxes to 1300 families!

But wait, there’s more…Previously at Christmas they only had gifts for families in Woodridge. But we know they serve people from all over DuPage County, not just Woodridge. The change in procedure this year means they have a gift for every child (up to age 12) who comes to the pantry!

Read that again: food boxes for 1300 families and gifts for every child. This change was most definitely a Good Thing. Being part of that rocks. Hungry people being fed rocks the most.

“This year, let the day arrive when Christmas come for everyone, everyone alive!”

Obviously, music is a huge part of our Christmas traditions. Everybody has a favorite. Hopefully we’ll sing yours on Christmas Eve. (If not, be sure to request it at the hymn sing on December 29!)

I love a lot of the regulars: “Joy to the World”, “Silent Night”, the aforementioned “Star-Child”. I’ve said before that I really like John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas” and the Bare Naked Ladies/Sarah McLachlan collaboration “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen/We Three Kings.”

My current favorite is “The Trumpet Child” by Over the Rhine. (H/T David Weasley.) I love, love, love the jazz references and the plaintive tone. Check it out.

How about you? What are your current favorite holiday songs?