Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Memorial Day, Mayor Landrieu, and the American Future

Monuments to the cult of the Lost Cause were taken down recently in New Orleans. It's been well over a century and a half since the end of the Civil War, but the wounds inflicted by that period of history remain with us. I must confess that I have no time for the "Lost Cause." The Confederacy was wrong. It was built on immoral foundations. It wasn't "states rights" it was slavery, and the fear that with the election of Abraham Lincoln the "Peculiar Institution" would be set aside. Indeed, it took a bloody war to resolve part of the problem, but the belief in white supremacy has not gone away. People like Jefferson Davis remain symbols of that vision. It is good that New Orleans has finally removed the statues from places of prominence. Martin Marty draws our attention to a powerful speech given by New Orleans' mayor Mitch Landrieu. Since Memorial Day, now behind us, remembered, originally the war dead of the Civil War (specifically Union dead), it is as Marty says, a worthy time to remember and look forward. As Marty suggests it is not enough to read about. One must read the speech, which he provides a link. I read it. You should as well!

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Memorial Day, Mayor Landrieu, and the American Future
By MARTIN E. MARTY   May 29, 2017
Mitch Landrieu at a New Orleans mayoral debate in 2010 | Photo Credit: Derek Bridges/Flickr (cc)
Recommended homework for Americans on Memorial Day: read, don’t simply read about, the talk Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivered in New Orleans last week. (To make the task of locating it easy, we provide a link; see “Resources.”) As for “reading about” the talk, we do not lack commentary from analysts who are interested in eloquence, the destinies of the republic, and finding ways for citizens to address the future in times of chaos. Frank Bruni, in The New York Times, captioned his comment “This is Eloquence, Remember That?” Some are considering Landrieu’s efforts comparable to those of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and other modern prophets.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What Does This Mean? - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2)

2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’


                As the city of Jerusalem filled with pilgrims gathering to celebrate the festival of Pentecost, the disciples, that small band of Jesus’ followers, gathered together in a house in the city. Not long before this particular day, Jesus had commissioned this band of disciples to be his witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem and then extending to the ends of the earth. The only caveat was that they needed to wait in the city until the Spirit of God came upon them, for as Jesus told them, while John baptized with water soon they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:1-11). So, they waited for the Spirit to come upon them. To use a word popular among Pentecostals, they tarried in Jerusalem until the Spirit came and baptized them. As they tarried, the Spirit blew through that house, the Spirit alighting on each as a tongue of fire, and all began to speak in languages they did not know. This is the “unfettered Spirit” to borrow the image I used to title my book on spiritual gifts. The Spirit blows where the Spirit wishes. We don’t control the Spirit of God. We can cooperate with the Spirit, of course, but we don’t control the Spirit. This Spirit, who blows through the community, is about to break down the walls that we build, hoping to contain the religious dimension.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Memorial Day Prayer

This morning I will be offering the invocation and benediction at a Memorial Day Observance in the city of Troy, Michigan. In this prayer I seek to honor the memory of those who died in service to country, even as I offer a prayer for peace.  This is the invocation that will begin the observance. 

God of peace,

We come here today to remember women and men who gave their lives in service to this country. We remember them and their sacrifice with grateful hearts.

We also come to this place to remember loved ones who have died and no longer walk with us. They may not have died in service to country, but they have come to our minds and hearts this day. We give thanks for their lives and their influence on our lives.

We not only gather to remember those who have died, we also wish to remember families left behind. We remember and offer our prayers for family members who grieve their loss of loved ones

—parents, spouses, children, siblings.

We come to lay wreaths in their honor.

We salute the bravery of those who served this country, always hoping that when they are deployed they will return home safely, but always knowing that a different fate might await them and us.

Even as we remember those who died in service to country, we also come here today, hoping that one day such sacrifices will not be necessary. We look forward to that day, when, as the prophet declared  

—Swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

As we gather here today as a community, sharing different faiths, different ideologies, different ethnicities, may the example of those who gave their lives defending ideals of liberty and justice for all, inspire those of us left behind, to pursue these ideals, and build bridges of understanding and hope in this community and beyond. Amen. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Waiting - A Sermon For Ascension Sunday (Acts 1)

Acts 1:1-11

The wedding party was standing with me at the front of the sanctuary. The processional music was playing. Everyone was ready to begin. The only problem was that the bride was still standing there in the entrance to the sanctuary. As I stood there at the front of the sanctuary, in sight of the bride, I began to wonder whether my future father-in-law was trying to talk Cheryl out of going forward with the wedding at the last minute. Perhaps he was telling Cheryl: “Surely you can do better than this poor seminary student!” Now, there is a good reason why Cheryl stood there, not moving toward me that had nothing to do with cold feet or parental obstruction, but the delay was unnerving.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Interfaith Friendship

Yesterday I posted a word about the decision on the part of the Troy City Council to designate Troy, Michigan as a Welcoming City. The city of Troy is the most diverse city in Michigan. We are also the safest city in Michigan (I was reminded that it would be good to make that connection). Last night I attended an open house at the Bharatiya Temple, the Hindu temple located in Troy. There are about 1000 families connected to this temple, and it was a blessing to participate in this open house. A few weeks back, Brett and I attended a neighborhood friendship dinner at the Muslim Unity Center in nearby Bloomfield Hills. Prior to that, I attended, as is my custom, the National Day of Prayer observance sponsored by the Troy-area Interfaith Group. This event was hosted by the local Jewish synagogue. That's just May. Not too long ago I had the opportunity it visit through TIG a local Sikh Gurdwara. In less than two weeks, we will, at Central Woodward, be co-hosting an Iftar Dinner with the Turkish American Society. This dinner is open to the community, but is designed to break the Ramadan fast for that day. 

I wanted to share this because it has become common-place for me, but for much of my life it wasn't. I grew up in a small city in Southern Oregon. You were either Protestant or Catholic or maybe Mormon. I believe there was one Jewish family in town, maybe more, but I didn't go to school with any of them. That reality is common to many, perhaps due to geography, or perhaps due to a choice not to engage those who are different. Unfortunately, such isolation can lead to stereotypes, and stereotypes can lead to discrimination and worse. 

I am a devout Christian pastor. I believe in Jesus. I believe strongly in the commission Jesus gave in Acts 1:8, that we should, as Christians, be witnesses for Jesus to the ends of the earth. I have come to believe that to be a witness to Jesus includes cultivating interfaith friendships. I do so not in spite of, but because of my faith. I experience these friendships with Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikh's, Buddhists, and more, as a blessing. I needn't share their vision of God to embrace them as friends and fellow travelers on the journey of faith. I invite you,my reader, to take advantage of opportunities like the Open House at the Hindu Temple or the Iftar Dinner offered by a Muslim community. Be blessed by the encounter. Let us not build walls. Let us, as Pope Francis declared, build bridges!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Troy, Michigan -- a Welcoming City

With so much chatter about how bad things are (check your Facebook newsfeed for an example), it can be challenging to write something positive. With writer's block setting in this morning, I opened my email and received word from the convener of the Troy-area Alliance Against Hate Crime that the city of Troy, the community in which I live and serve, designated itself a Welcoming City.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Be My Witnesses -- A Lectionary Reflection for Ascension Sunday (Acts)

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

                The Easter season ends with the celebration of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Sunday doesn’t get the attention of either Easter or Pentecost, but it is important enough that the creators of the Creeds took notice:
 He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
      From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I realize that such a statement seems archaic and a reflection of an outmoded worldview. We no longer envision a three-storied universe, with God up and out there. We’ve been to the moon and back. We’ve sent space craft to the ends of the solar system. We’ve yet to find this heavenly realm out there. Yet, here we are with the story of the Ascension of Jesus staring us in the face. Now, it is true that only Luke tells this particular story of the Ascension, but does that mean it lacks importance? After all, only Luke tells the story of the continuing mission of God in the power of the Spirit (at least in narrative form).

Monday, May 22, 2017

Reinhold Niebuhr -- An American Conscience

As I watch the news, I am deeply disturbed by the chaotic nature of our political situation. Many Americans chose to throw a monkey-wrench into a broken system, perhaps hoping that it might reset things. In reality, that monkey-wrench has only made things worse. I watch as the nation I live in and love, becomes increasingly polarized. Partisans on both sides of the spectrum speak of the other in terms of good and evil. Perhaps it's my recent reading of 1 John with my Bible study group that has made me increasingly sensitive to this dualistic vision that is present in that letter, but is also present in our political debate. 

So where do we turn for guidance? I wish I could say that there were public theologians who could help us discern a better way, but there is no one with the stature today of a Reinhold Niebuhr. Whether you agree with him or not, he spoke to the great issues of his day, and his voice continues to echo into the present. The very fact, that we're learning that the now fired FBI director, James Comey, wrote his senior thesis at William and Mary College about Niebuhr, comparing his political philosophy with that of Jerry Falwell, is a good indication that maybe we should pay attention to his voice?

I finally got to watch the documentary that explores Niebuhr's life and message that has been broadcast on PBS stations. Ironically, it never got broadcast in Detroit, where Niebuhr got his start as a pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church. It was from Detroit that Niebuhr moved to Union Theological Seminary, 

In many ways Niebuhr is like Bonhoeffer, in whom one can find whatever one wishes to enhance one's position. While this is true, I believe that Niebuhr's realism is needed. Am I a Niebuhrite? I don't know. What I can say is that for sure, but I am paying greater attention to this former Detroiter! 

I direct your attention to the link below, which will take you to a full-screening video of the documentary An American Conscience at PBS. It should be available between now and September. Listen to figures such as Cornel West, Stanley Hauerwas, Jimmy Carter, Susannah Heschel, and David Brooks, among others speak of his legacy. Cornel West notes that Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society remains the most important book on religious social ethics to this day (and I've yet to read it -- I shall soon rectify that deficit).  Please take some time to view and then reflect on the legacy of this man who spoke to the reality of sin in human life. Then we might make better sense of our situation and find better ways of responding.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Sessions, Drugs, Incarceration

In yesterday's Detroit Free Press opinion section, former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade took up the U.S. Attorney General's new policy on drug prosecutions. This policy is a bit of a "back to the future" policy, in that the tough on criminals prosecutor wants to through the book at alleged drug offenders, going for the maximum penalties allowed by law. As McQuade notes, the policy failed back in the 1980s and 1990s to do anything about drugs, but it did fill up our prisons. If the policy is reinstituted it will once again fill up our prisons, often with elderly prisoners, costing the government millions of dollars. For what?

We tried the Sessions strategy in the 1980s and 1990s and it didn't work. Drugs are still prevalent.  The only difference is the number of people in prison. The federal prison population rose from about 200,000 inmates in 1970 to about 1.5 million in 2010. America is now home to five percent of the world’s population, and 25 percent of its prisoners.  What have we accomplished?  
By distrusting his own prosecutors, Sessions has set us on a course that is doomed to fail again. The drug supply will not abate, but the bills will keep coming due for generations. 
We have a mass incarceration problem in America. It especially affects communities of color, in part because the laws on the books often impact them more severely, and because the justice system still privileges those who are white, especially affluent ones.

So, here's my question: Will we make America great by filling our prisons with drug offenders,often throwing away redeemable lives and spending billions on policies that have failed in the past and will continue to fail? That is, unless we really believe in the employment possibilities that come from building more and more prisons so we can warehouse more and more of our citizens. As for me, I think there is a better way, one that deals with the demand side of the equation, empties the prisons, and allows lives and communities to be restored and redeemed. Thus, we need to say no to Jeff Sessions and say yes to the common sense vision laid out by Barbara McQuade, who during her term of office in Detroit was highly regarded (unlike the new AG in Washington).

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Democracy’s Darker Side - A Reflection

The following reflection appears in my book Faith in the Public Square, (Energion, 2012). This was written, as you can see, during the presidency of Barack Obama, but I think it speaks to what we're going through currently. I am, like many Americans, concerned about the current state of affairs. I don't think this is a partisan issue, it goes deeper than that. We are struggling to make sense of our national institutions. We are seeing the darker side of democracy, even as we hope for a better day.  I invite you to read and consider the message (and of course, I invite you to purchase a copy of the book, for it speaks to many of the concerns of the day.  (You can order from Amazon by clicking here).

I believe in democracy because despite its messiness it’s the best political system yet devised. In theory, it empowers us to take control of our lives, but if it’s to work we must take responsibility for our lives and actions. Freedom and responsibility are the two sides of the democracy, and an effective democracy requires that these two be kept in balance. Or, as St. Paul said: “‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial” (1 Corinthians 6:12).

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Living with Christ in the World

I am in the midst of a bible study series at church in which we are studying the Letters of John. Although 1 John does appear in the lectionary during Easter in Year B (and I've preached most of the texts), how often do we study these letters in any depth. There are wonderful passages in 1 John that declare that God is love and that we who love God should (must) love one another. These powerful statements about love, however, appear in a document that has strong dualistic tendencies. In fact, it is clear that one should not love the world. Instead, one should conquer the world.  
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,  for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.  Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?  (1 John 5:3-5).
Reading 1 John leads me to the current conversations prominent in Christian circles, many of which advocate some form of withdrawal from the world (Benedict Option, etc.). This leads me back to H. Richard Niebuhr's classic study Christ and Culture.  One of the categories in Niebuhr's book is the "Christ against Culture" paradigm. In his discussion of this paradigm, Niebuhr discusses 1 John. He notes why this view emerged, why it has a necessary witness, and why there are problems with it. Thus, with John, Niebuhr asks us to consider what the proper relationship with culture should be? 
So Niebuhr writes:

The relationship of the authority of Jesus Christ to the authority of culture is such that every Christian must often feel himself claimed by the Lord to reject the world and its kingdoms with their pluralism and temporalism, their makeshift compromises of many interests, their hypnotic obsession by the love of life and the fear of death. The movement of withdrawal and renunciation is a necessary element in every Christian life, even though it be followed by an equally necessary movement of responsible engagement with cultural tasks. Where it is lacking, Christian faith quickly degenerates into a utilitarian device for the attainment of personal prosperity or public peace; and some imagined idol called by his name takes the place of Jesus Christ the Lord. What is necessary in the individual life is required also in the existence of the church. If Romans 13 is not balanced by 1 John, the church becomes an instrument of state, unable to point men to their transpolitical destiny and their suprapolitical loyalty; unable also to engage  in political tasks, save as one more group of power-hungry or security-seeking men. Given Jesus Christ with his authority, the radical answer is inevitable; not only when men are in despair about their civilization, but also when they are complacent, not only as they hope for a kingdom of God, but also as they shore up the crumbling walls of temporal societies for the sake of the men who might be buried under ruins.  [ Niebuhr, Christ and Culturep. 68.]

This witness is essential, but there is a flip side to this vision. Niebuhr, of course, respects the Christ against Culture vision, but rejects it as incomplete. While we need this witness, the truth is that we live in the world. We are partakers of culture. He writes that "Christ claims no man purely as a natural being, but always as one who has become human in a culture; who is not only in culture, but into whom culture permeates (p. 69). I could go on, but hopefully the point is made. We live in the culture as followers of Jesus, that provides important challenges. 1 John offers us an important word, but it is likely not completely adequate to the task at hand.

Thus, my question to those who read this: What should our relationship to culture be?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Word about Religion - A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6A (Acts)

St. Paul Preaching - Sebastiano Ricci
Toledo Museum of Aart

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’ 
29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

            We live in a post-religious age, when growing numbers of people claim to be spiritual but not religious. By religious then mean, engagement with traditional institutional forms of faith. Where once religion and spirituality were essentially one and the same thing, today we tend to separate them. As Diana Butler Bass notes, “spirituality is understood as somehow more authentic, religion as having ‘a somewhat cynical orientation’” [Christianity after Religion, p. 67].  Many of those who read this reflection will, like me, be in the religion business. I am a religious professional, and so I have a vested interest in the survival of religion. At the same time, I would like that which I participate in to be authentic.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography (Michael Long & Chris Lamb) -- A Review

JACKIE ROBINSON: A SPIRITUAL BIOGRAPHY: The Faith of a Boundary-Breaking Hero. By Michael G. Long and Chris Lamb. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

I am a fifty-nine-year-old baseball fan, so I know the story of Jackie Robinson, or so I thought. I have known since I was relatively young that Jackie Robinson broke the color line, which allowed players like my hero Willie Mays, along with others such as Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and many more to enter major league baseball. Baseball was transformed as black players entered the system, proving that they were just as good if not better than white players. Even though Jackie Robinson was a Dodger, and I’m a lifelong Giant fan, I have always held him high regard. Jackie Robinson was more than boundary-breaking baseball player, he was a man of faith and a man of deep commitment to civil rights.

Although several biographies have been written over the years, this book by Michael Long and Chris Lamb is the first one I’ve read. While baseball factors into the story, it is not the main topic. Faith and commitment to civil rights. These are the key topics, and baseball was the vehicle through which Jack Robinson made a mark that transformed a nation.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Evangelical, Sacramental, & Pentecostal (Gordon Smith) -- Review

EVANGELICAL, SACRAMENTAL, & PENTECOSTAL: Why The Church Should Be All Three.  By Gordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. 140 pages.

Having been an evangelical, a Pentecostal, and an Episcopalian, I was intrigued by the title of this book. As a Mainline Protestant with progressive leanings, I have tried to integrate these three parts of my faith journey into my current faith experience. I came to this book with a certain set of expectations. I was looking to see how the author would explore these three expressions of the Christian faith to see how they fit with my own experience and understandings of the three. Because the publisher is rooted in the evangelical tradition, I expected that the book might reflect that orientation. I was correct in this expectation. The author is an evangelical writing to other evangelicals, inviting them to incorporate the gifts that the sacramental and Pentecostal traditions offer them. If I were to write this book, the orientation might be that of a Mainline Free Church Protestant inviting those who share my perspective to incorporate the gifts of the evangelical, sacramental, and Pentecostal traditions. In fact, I’ve envisioned that very book. But, that’s not the book in view. This is Gordon Smith’s book, and he writes from an Evangelical perspective..

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

How Life Should End -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

How should life end? We will all die some day, but how will we die? That is a question that many ponder, but few are willing to discuss openly. As a pastor I have some of those conversations. As a son I have been having some of them as well. Such conversations are difficult, even for people of faith. Martin Marty invites us to have that conversation, citing articles in The Economist, which speaks to dying well but without reference to religion. He also cites a Brazilian article that does. Having read recently with a clergy group Atul Gawande's Being Mortal, I am even more aware of the need to be open to the conversation, as difficult as it might be. Part of that conversation will need to include faith. I invite you to read and respond. How should life end?




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How Life Should End
By MARTIN E. MARTY   May 8, 2017
Photo Credit: mattyp_/Flickr via Compfight (cc)
It was not hard for Sightings to spot a topic of importance this week. “How life ends: Death is inevitable. A bad death is not” was on the cover of The Economist (April 29th). Inside were stories with headlines like “How to have a better death” and “Mending mortality.” And there was a story about Brazil, “Death wishes.” The task for this columnist is to spot references to religion(s), something one would think would be natural, since the “Abrahamic faiths” have so much to say about death, dying, and what might follow. Yet we did not find anything about religion or the religions or religious hopes in The Economist’s main story.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

A Dangerous Witness - A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5A

Acts 7:55-60 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Stephen was one of the seven disciples selected by the Jerusalem church to relieve the Apostles of their work serving tables. Ordained along with six others by the Apostles, he seemed to have a mundane job (Acts 6:1-7). In my tradition, we call them deacons, and they are supposed to help the Elders in their duties, by serving the communion elements. But, it seems clear from Luke’s account that the job of the seven would grow beyond serving tables, as important as that job was in a community where everyone shared everything in common. They were chosen for this job because some in the community were being neglected (the Hellenistic Jews). As for Stephen, he quickly moved beyond waiting tables to preaching. Apparently, he went to the synagogue of the Freedmen, where diaspora Jews gathered, and began preaching about Jesus. That led to his arrest on charges of blasphemy. In chapter seven Stephen makes his defense of the gospel before the Sanhedrin, facing trumped up charges of disparaging the Law and the Temple. To his accusers, these are the foundations of the Jewish faith.  Standing there, listening to the charges being laid out against him, his countenance changes, and we’re told that his face began to shine, as if he were an angel (Acts 6:8-15).

Monday, May 08, 2017

Intercultural Ministry (Grace Ji-Sun Kim & Jann Aldrege-Clanton) - A Review

INTERCULTURAL MINISTRY: Hope for a Changing World. Edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Jann Aldredge-Clanton. Foreword by Dwight N. Hopkins. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2017. Xviii + 208 pages.

Most churches in North America, including my own, are mono-cultural. We are evidence of Martin Luther King’s observation that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. Many of us would like our congregations to be more diverse, but getting there has proven difficult. We seem to like the cultural accouterments of our congregations. We like our music, liturgy, instrumentation just the way they are. To move toward a more inclusive experience of worship, one that reflects the vision of the heavenly court in Revelation will require great sacrifice. While we might want diversity, the cost seems too steep. It would probably be easier to do this if you were starting from scratch, but for existing churches it remains a seemingly impossible dream.

While not widespread, there are congregations out there that are not only racially/ethnically diverse, but intentionally inclusive. Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Jann Aldredge-Clanton, two theologians, one Korean-American and the other Euro-American, have gathered essays written by pioneers in intercultural ministry. In the gathered essays, the writers share their experiences with intercultural ministry and worship, along words of wisdom and some practical advice regarding something that Dwight Hopkins, in his foreword to the book, suggests “might be the defining theological line of the twenty-first century—how to be curious about, have sympathy for, and develop long term friendships in the mixing of the world’s cultures” (p. vi). We may be witnessing, at this moment, pushback against globalization, but the mixing of cultures isn’t going away. Younger Christians seem more adept at welcoming diversity and inclusion, but we all have a ways to go before we reach the point where intercultural ministry will be the norm not the exception.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

What Should We Do? - A Sermon for Easter 4A

Acts 2:14a, 36-47

Brett will often ask me “what’s going on in church-land today?” Even if his question is job-related, it is a good question. What is happening in church-land? What does it mean to be church? To use the words of a song by Bill Thomas, do you “see a church with a vision; ... a church with a mission?” [Chalice Praise, 133.]

Although we are still in the season of Easter, the reading from Acts 2 takes us to the Day of Pentecost and beyond. Easter is awe-inspiring, because it invites us to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. It invites us to take hold of the promise that in Christ life conquers death. But the story of resurrection continues in the life of the new community which was commissioned to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world, as Jesus directed on the day of his ascension(Acts 1:8), and then formed into a dynamic missional church by the Spirit on Pentecost. 

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The Stories We Live (Kathleen A. Cahalan) -- A Review

THE STORIES WE LIVE:Finding God’s Calling All Around Us. By Kathleen A. Cahalan. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Xii + 136 pages.

Maybe you were a lot like me growing up. I tried to envision what my vocation would be when I grew up. Living in Mt. Shasta, California, my next-door neighbor was a Fire Control Officer for the Forest Service. I admired Mr. Gray; so I figured that when I grew up I would be just like him. That was the first of many professions that envisioned. Later, I thought I would like to spend my life as a college or seminary professor. I even went and got the proper credentials for that vocation. In the end, I found a calling as a pastor. I also discovered a calling as husband and parent.

                In religious circles, we often speak of call in relationship to serving in vocational ministry. But what about the rest of life? Could each of us have a calling? And could it be that our vocations will change over time? These are the kinds of questions that Kathleen Cahalan takes up in this thoughtful and engaging book that invites us to share the stories of our callings in life, and to do so in the context of the life of faith.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

“Shocking” News on Worship and the Public - Sightings (Martin Marty)

When it comes to selecting a church, what do you value most? That's a question that Gallup wanted to test out. Apparently, the results of the poll are quite shocking. It appears that people value sermon content first and foremost, and music last. Do you find these results at all surprising? Here's my question, leaving aside the question of music, what is meant here by sermon content? In any case, it does appear that preaching is still important to a lot of people.

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“Shocking” News on Worship and the Public
By MARTIN E. MARTY   May 1, 2017
Photo Credit: Steve Snodgrass/Flickr via Compfight (cc)
The focus of Sightings is on the “public,” as in “public religion,” a concept which often leads to discussion of “church and state” affairs or “religion and public life.” The “private religion” of the sanctuary and temple does not often make news. Yet we have to be ready for surprise, and we were prompted to be surprised, even shocked, by headlines like this one from last week: “Survey shocker: music dead last, sermons first, as worship draws.” It headed an article at Baptist News Global by Jeff Brumley, who was shocked—shocked!—as he presumed most of his readers, Baptist or non-Baptist, must have been. Instantly the subject of this “survey shocker” appeared in many articles on the internet.