Humus

SeasonsThe following blog was first printed in Seasons: A Guide for Growing, a publication of Little Tree Farm & Retreat in cooperation with UMAR, an art ministry of the United Methodist Church.  I was pleased to be asked to write for this great little magazine.  Click on the link above for the whole webzine.  Little Tree is an intentional Christian community in Lincoln County, North Carolina started by Jason & Joanie Williams and Derek & Amber Dunn with foci on sustainable farming, rural poverty ministries, and spiritual retreats.  To learn more about their ministry, click on this link.  Now, onto the blog…

Spring is a messy, smelly business.

In the darkness of decay, of soggy humus – organic matter breaking down under the winter’s constant dampness – the seeds of new life hibernate, waiting for the warming soil to crack them open. There in the remains of former seasons lie the nutrients that will feed seedlings, whose tender shoots crawl into rotting crevasses to draw out the stored energy of past life. Bend down and drive your hands below the layer of last fall’s leaves into the moist soil below and smell the earth as you bring hands back out with mud and mulch clinging to your fingers. For some, this is the smell of heaven. Rich soil that will bring a bounty come harvest. For others, this organic goo is filthy – worms, dead bugs and rotting debris. They cannot get their hands washed fast enough.

Hope is a messy, smelly business.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” [Isaiah 60:1-2] Speaking out of the Jewish exile in Babylon, the prophet spoke of the LORD’s light rising through the darkness that covers the earth, and a thicker darkness that covers people. This word of hope was born out of the darkness of exile, fed from broken blessings and shattered truth. Its tender shoots crawl into the buried dreams of previous generations to draw out the stored energy of past faith. Hibernating in the darkness of suffering, hope reclaims the remains of former life. The light of hope arises from petitions for justice long denied. It appears from revised beliefs once trusted. For some, this is the smell of heaven, an ancient-future faith. For others, this organic goo of the suffering past is filthy and should be washed away as soon as possible.

Resurrection is a messy, smelly business.

The cornerstone of the Christian faith is that Easter resurrection came out of Good Friday crucifixion. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” [John 12:24] We cannot get to Easter without being willing to dig our hands into dirty mess of Good Friday. Promises broken. Tragedy suffered. Injustices endured. Regrets acknowledged. God resurrects life from our painful past. Not as it once was, but remade as a new creation. If we are not willing to look at the darkness inside of us, and instead wish to wash it away, we will not see the light arising from within us. There is an untapped richness in that which we have lost. This truth is experienced every spring we work the land.

From humus God creates human kind. From death God resurrects life.

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A Lenten Liturgy: Walking into Darkness

51pQy7fMPWL._AA160_Mandy England Cole and I have published a Lenten liturgy for 2015.  The liturgy includes a reading from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Learning to Walk in the Dark, a confessional prayer, scripture readings, a recommended faith testimony topic, an assurance of pardon, and the extinguishing of a Tenebrae candle for each Sunday in Lent.  Additional resources are available for Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday.

We hope you will review the material and use any portion, or all of it, during the Season of Lent.  We invite you to take a Walk in the Dark.

You may access the material on a PDF file from Alliance Connect, the Alliance of Baptists open source resource center.  If you are not a member of Alliance Connect, you will have to create an account.  Here is the link:  http://connect.allianceofbaptists.org .

You may also retrieve the material from Google docs, though the formatting is minimal.  Here is the link there:  https://docs.google.com/document/d/1QivIJIkppk7UwOq37qVMTlXNKhuhqQnoLOqOvbtIr9g/edit .

Worship leaders may print, adapt, or change any portion of the material for the purposes of congregational worship.  Reprinting of the material for other purposes without written permission of the authors is prohibited.

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Merry Winter Solstice

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s the shortest day of the year, which also makes this evening the longest night of the year. The Winter Solstice begins at 6:03 PM EST this evening, December 21st. The Northern Hemisphere will be tilted its farthest from the sun. Then moments later it will start its way back along with three months of winter.

While this is the shortest day of the year for the Northern Hemisphere, and every day of winter the sunlight gets longer by a minute or so, the coldest weather is still weeks ahead in January and February. The same affect occurs in the summer, when the warmest days of the year occur after the days have begun to get shorter. A testimony that accumulated habits (good or bad) do not bring results until some time in the future.

It’s not surprising that Christians hijacked the celebration of the Winter Solstice. The heavy use of light as a metaphor for God in general and Jesus in particular made the return of the sun a natural time to celebrate the birth of the Son. Both Winter Solstice and Christmas celebrations use candlelight, a spark of hope in the midst of darkness. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it [John 1:5].” But today we have to turn off the church lights to see the weak candle lights. Even an outdoor Winter Solstice observance usually as enough street lights and building lights to make the candle glow struggle to find enough darkness to shine in contrast.

The Industrial Revolution conquered the night with the inventions of electricity and the light bulb. The 24 hour work day, 7 day work week, began with its defeat. Now, we have so much light pollution that John’s famous Bible verse barely makes an impression upon younger generations who have rarely experienced real night darkness. You have to walk in the darkness before a single light makes such a difference.

I wonder if that means you have to walk in the darkness of your fears, your doubts, your regrets, or your sins before you can recognize a single ray of hope. As long as you live in the artificial light of busy-ness, or material accumulation, or clichéd answers, there is not enough contrast to see a single ray of hope. “The light shines in the artificial glow, and the glow did not notice it.”

We all have our own sets of Winter Solstices that cycle through our lives not unlike the Earth orbiting the Sun. As we age the fears may be less, while the regrets more, and doubts and sins less about pleasing God and more about meaning in life, but the revolution of the solstice is the same. In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she hopes to capture the wisdom, the spiritual practice, which came from ages that were surrounded by darkness once the sun set for the day. “It is the inability to bear dark emotions that causes many of our most significant problems and not the emotions themselves,” she writes.

To mark the Winter Solstice, to celebrate the birth of Jesus, means in the truest sense to first take a walk in the dark, so that first spark of light stands out. If walking into the darkness of your fears or regrets may be too big a challenge right now, maybe a good place to start on these days of long winter nights would be some walks in the dark. Some practice in physical darkness might prepare us to tackle the metaphorical darkness.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so… Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” — Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

Have a Merry Winter Solstice.

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Let them eat Little Debbie Cakes

I love Little Debbie Oatmeal Pies.  But that is now an after-school snack.

I love Little Debbie Oatmeal Pies. But that is now an after-school snack.

The headline story of my kids’ high school newspaper, The Eagle, focused on the USDA’s nutrition standards for school lunches and snacks. The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 tried to address our nation’s childhood obesity problem and childhood hunger in one swoop. Now that the legislation has been in full swing in our nation’s schools, the complaints keep popping up in one community or another.

The focus of The Eagle’s story was how the act affects club fundraisers. The orchestra’s chocolate candy can’t be sold during school hours; neither can Hershey’s kisses for “kiss-a-senior-goodbye” days, or candies and cakes for Valentine’s Day. All snacks in vending machines or for fundraisers sold at school must meet the same USDA nutrition standards required for the cafeteria. (States can waive part or all of the fundraising snack restrictions, but North Carolina has not chosen to do so.) If you have middle or high schoolers, you know in the past there has been a lot of candy and donuts sold at high prices by peers trying to raise funds to one club or another.  This may have helped food companies more than school clubs, but that’s another blog.

But the biggest criticism of the school food law has been aimed at school lunches. “Kids don’t like healthy lunches… It costs more to cook healthy food… They are throwing more food away… It may be well intentioned, but it’s wasteful…” Hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama is supposedly hitting Twitter, or at least has, under the mistaken impression that the First Lady, a healthy food advocate, had something to do with the legislation – she didn’t.

None of this is surprising. Children have been pushing plates of healthy food away since prosperous societies have been eating off of plates. Students complaining about cafeteria food ranks right up there with students complaining about homework and boring teachers. The story about the dependence on food-company candy for fundraisers was creative, though.

The number of adults giving credence to this whining is disappointing. But maybe it’s now just a symptom of greater problems in our culture – the inability to give children and teens what they need because we give them what they want.

There is no question that childhood obesity is at alarming levels. It didn’t get there by sugared and artificially flavored strawberry milk, macaroni & processed cheese-like food, and fries in the school lunch line, alone. But that’s been a helping hand. Uncle Sam is providing most of the meals served in public school cafeterias. Our tax dollars should be alleviating problems not adding to them. The act was passed with that in mind.

As for the cost and taste of healthier foods, any school committed to healthier children can solve those challenges. Big agri-business will be lobbying hard to pull back the law once the new Congress steps in. But if the act holds, they will figure out a way to provide food that meets the USDA nutrition standards. There’s just too much money that will be spent for food suppliers for them not to find a way.

If the adults in our school and political systems cave in to the whining, it would be hard to imagine what laws we could pass, implement and stick with in the future.

The inability to do what we need because we do what we want is a national problem. Setting aside our wants for our needs would be a big step in the right direction.

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Lectionary thoughts — Happy All Hallows’ Eve

IMG_0146All Saints’ Sunday – November 2, 2014

Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; I John 3:1-13 & Matthew 5:1-12

The great thing about Trick-or-Treating is the chance to pretend to be something other than who you are. Tonight skeletons, gorillas, nurses, cowboys, ninja turtles, some witches and pirates will be among the many other costumed kids walking house to house in neighborhoods around the country.

Pretending to be something else, somebody else, is an exciting game to play. It allows us to imagine ourselves being someone other than who we are. Someone who doesn’t have our fears, our troubles, our limitations. Someone who lives out the dreams that circle in our heads. I don’t think such games are only for children.

We all imagine how we might be someone else, do something different, wish the hands of time could reverse. We wonder what it would be like to be married, or get a promotion, or get another job. We wonder what it will be like when we retire, or have grandchildren. Sometimes we wonder how our lives would have been different if we had taken the other fork in the road.

“What do you want to be when you grow up” is a question we usually reserve for children. It, too, is a sort of pretending game. But it’s a question we could ask adults as well. I’m not going to be the person I am now in ten years, or twenty, or in the resurrection.

Pretending is in a way what we do as people of faith. The primary meaning of the word “pretend” means to simulate, to feign. In others words we act as if some other reality is true.

The writer of I John beautifully describes this. “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” The writer of I John wants us to believe that one day we will be like the resurrected Jesus and he wants us to live like it now.

Part of what it means to be Christian is to claim a persona, to put on a mask, to wear a costume, to in the good sense of the word pretend to live in another reality other than just the construction of popular culture. Only in putting on the Christ mask we do so not to deceive other people, but to become the person God meant us to be all along.

“See what love the Father has for us, that we should be called the children of God.” And in case we doubt that reality, in case we brush off that good news, the author adds, “And so we are.”

For all the ways that the world beats us up, for all the ways we beat ourselves up with self-condemning words, for all the ways we feel we don’t measure up, the Bible again and again tells us that we are God’s children. Put that mask on. Put that costume on and claim that for yourself. In claiming that, in pretending that it is really true, you may find yourself becoming just that in ways that not only God can see, but that you can see for yourself.

On this All Saints’ Sunday we as mortal human beings remember and celebrate the faithful witness of those who have gone before us. It is said that in every funeral we grieve a bit for our own mortality. “For whom does the bell toll, it tolls for us.” One day we will be like the loved ones who are named on All Saints’. One day our names will be on such a list, and our faithful witness in Jesus Christ so celebrated.

The Halloween fun of dressing up like goblins and witches, ghosts and ghouls is a part of that acknowledgment. We are mortal. And on All Hallow’s Eve we play games around death to acknowledge our mortality from the safety of make-believe. But the reason All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, is a holiday, is not because we will one day be dead like those who have gone before us. It’s a holiday, or holy day, because there is one who went before us and came out victorious. We go beyond superficial make-believe to a deeper pretending, an acting out of what God says about us.

The early Christians had a saying: Jesus became like us, so that we might become like him.

On All Hallow’s Eve we acknowledge death. On All Saints’ Sunday we celebrate life after death. Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

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Is the scarlet letter still hanging around churches?

51E-lPPSn2L._AA160_Is the scarlet letter still hanging around churches?

Things have certainly changed since Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th century novel, and yet adultery still tarnishes those involved.  Should it?  Do we shame liars the way we shame those who’ve had affairs?  Does infidelity invalidate a person’s leadership ability?  Does it irreparably damage his or her trustworthiness?

A couple of weeks ago I received a letter from my seminary’s new president, Martin Copenhaver, in which he confessed to an extramarital affair.  The affair happened and ended before he became a candidate at Andover Newton.  The relationship was not with someone at the seminary, nor at any of the churches where he had served as pastor.  There were no apparent power dynamics, in other words.  Andover Newton’s trustees also submitted a letter in which they explained their process for handling the president’s confession, future accountability, and the reasons by which they determined to keep him in his elected office.

In a Boston Globe report, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, explaining that pastors almost always resign after confessing to infidelity, added, “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a seminary president staying on after this type of indiscretion.  I can’t think of a similar situation.”  My immediate thought upon reading that quote was,  “What a pompous, self-righteous thing to say.”  (Of course he was probably contacted for the purpose of getting a quote like that.  Why else would a Southern Baptist official be called about the president of an American Baptist and UCC seminary?)  His comment very quickly took me to a place of reflection about sexual sins and how very ungracious we are about them.

Several years ago I was asked to head a denominational task force, in which I was to select most of the group.  One person I selected had left the pastorate because of an affair, but afterwards worked in business and gained specific expertise in the area we were studying, which was why I selected him.  I was surprised when two others declined my invitation because of his presence on the committee.  I wondered where was the mercy, the grace, so easily preached to others for him.

Complicating the move to grace is the way women have been treated throughout the ages regarding sexual mores.  In Hawthorne’s novel, as would be the custom, it is the woman who bears the shame, while her lover, the pastor of her church, retained his respectability for much of the story.  And even when Jesus was brought an adulterer to judge, she wasn’t a man.  He, of course, was nowhere to be found.  Still today, a woman pastor will be judged more harshly than would a male peer if she commits adultery.  But it seems to me that the answer to this double standard is more mercy for her, not more judgment for him.

Isn’t it time to stop condemning people in whole for sexual misconduct?  Hold them accountable in the future, yes.  Recreate boundaries, yes.  Lay out a process for rebuilding trust, yes.  Give them space for family, yes.  Condemn, fire, exclude?  Should we still go that far?

Infidelity by its nature is a betrayal of trust between spouses.  The damage may end the relationship.  Tear up a family.  Sentence children to the absence of a parent.  Does the Church need to pile on after that?  Shouldn’t the Church’s job be mercy?  Shouldn’t the Church be offering pathways of accountability, forgiveness, and restoration for all hurt by unfaithfulness?

There are any number of reasons a spouse is unfaithful.  Most are singular and point to issues that need care not condemnation.  Some are symptoms of larger problems in which removal from a position of trust may be necessary.  But unless a broader pattern is evidenced, a person that has been unfaithful to a spouse is just as likely to be trustworthy in other matters as anyone else.  None of us is truly faithful to our ideals, covenants or promises.

Having read Copenhaver’s book with Lillian Daniel, This Odd and Wondrous Calling, I was excited when he was named president of Andover Newton, glad that a pastor would be overseeing an institution whose job it is to train persons to lead churches.  His confessional letter saddened me.  The heartache for his wife and family.  The damage to his reputation and character.  The hard work ahead for him and those who love him.  But if he follows the path of accountability and renewal, this experience will help seminary students as they prepare to become pastors and leaders in parishes and congregations.

I’m glad Mr. Moore, the ethics guy for Southern Baptists, has finally heard of a seminary keeping its fallible president.  It’s another reason for hope in the Church of Jesus Christ. 

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Lectionary thoughts — The compromise of living in society

images19th Sunday after Pentecost – October 19, 2014

Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; I Thessalonians 1:1-10 & Matthew 22:15-22

If you are faithful to God, should you pay tax to Caesar or not?

It’s one of the most memorable questions Jesus was ever asked. The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees over paying taxes has been used for all sorts of preaching purposes over the years. Separation of Church and State. Tithing and Stewardship (It helps that the lectionary places it during October when church budgets are being formed). God and Country. Maybe it’s the nature of the question. Perhaps contrived encounters create many tangents. Since they are not authentic from the start, it is hard to get a true meaning from their appearance.

According to Matthew, two Jewish leadership factions – Pharisees and Herodians, who were usually arguing with each other – join up to entrap Jesus in a public faux pas. They begin with flattery so transparent anyone can figure out that it is phony. The question is not seeking an answer. It is seeking a “gotcha.”

Jesus doesn’t play along. He doesn’t acknowledge their insincerity. Neither does he provide a yes or no answer. He asks them for a coin. Perhaps if they had produced a Temple coin used to purchase sacrifices at the Temple things may have gone differently. But I guess he could count on hypocrisy from people who ask insincere questions.

When they produce the Roman coin – supposedly too impure to have on Temple grounds – he asks whose head is on it. And upon their answer, gives his famous reply, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

His response forces all of us to answer the question for ourselves. What are Caesar’s things, and what are God’s? While persuasive sermons could define those, it is doubtful that we as a society would reach consensus.

To choose to live in society is to choose to compromise. If I purchase an item at Wal-Mart for the sake of saving a few dollars, I am participating in the injustice of paying workers below living wages and without benefits as well as forcing vendors to sell more of their products at lower profit margins. If I send my kids to a good public school, I reinforce a system that segregates poor and minority children, thereby perpetuating the cycle of poverty for another generation. If I send my kids to private school, I rob an imperfect public system of a strong family and kids who can make positive influences. If I work in a typical community ministry to “help” people, I may end up depriving them of empowerment and creating a dependency on the ministry. If I commute a long way to work, I am creating climate change. If I move back to the city to cut out the commute, I contribute to gentrification, unjustly forcing long tenured residents to sell their homes because they can’t pay the taxes anymore.

There is no utopia on this Earth. There are places set apart from general society in which persons may feel as if they do not have to compromise their values or principles. Living in an Amish community, for instance, or taking holy orders in a monastic community, or withdrawing to the backwoods and creating your own commune. But those are choices very few of us shall make.

Jesus’ response is a call to live a compromised life IN society and to give to Caesar and to God what is rightfully due each – whatever that is. His call is to be AWARE of the ambiguity, and to nevertheless faithfully live into it. Justice is delivered incrementally and imperfectly.

The Herodians and the Pharisees imagine that one can live an uncompromised life in society. Is it right to pay taxes, or not? Is there right and wrong, or not? There is one way to support marriage. There is one way to be patriotic. There is one way to believe in the Bible. There is one way to bring economic justice and prosperity.

But Jesus doesn’t play along. He refuses to get into the either/or game. He will not encourage superficial piety, or know-it-all cynicism. The self-righteous are merely unaware. Which is why prophetic calls must be preached from a platform of grace. Jesus calls all of us to faithfully live with the ambiguity and the compromises of building a just society – giving to God, the things that are God’s and to government, the things that are the government’s.

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Lectionary thoughts — It’s tough to hang onto the radical love of God

images18th Sunday after Pentecost – October 12, 2014

Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 19; Philippians 4:1-9 & Matthew 22:1-14

When I was a kid, when you went to a football game you just wore whatever you put on that day. Now, if you go to a NC State game, you better have on red. Or at Chapel Hill, Carolina Blue. In Charlotte, at Carolina Panther games most people wear team jerseys (too often the jersey of the opposing team – but don’t get me started about that).

At ball games this helps home team fans to identify the opponent’s fans. This way you get to offer them hospitality, a drink at your tailgate party, good luck on the outcome. Right?? You wouldn’t use the dress code to give them a Bronx Cheer, would you?

Dress codes tell us if you belong. If you are with us or against us. If you understand the social setting, or if you are a newbie or an outsider that has no clue.

The parable in today’s gospel reading ends with concern about violating a wedding banquet dress code, an ending that turns the whole parable upside down. In addition to Matthew this story is also included in Luke 14:16-24 and in the Gospel of Thomas. All three versions begin essentially the same way. A king or rich man is hosting a banquet and sends his servants out to his guests with the message that the banquet will begin soon. In short time, however, the servants return with word that guests were now declining to come due to silly excuses. The rich man hurt and indignant tells his servants to go out into the streets and bring in any who will come. By the time the food is ready, the banquet hall is full. The kingdom of God, Jesus said, is like this. It is a story of God’s grace, of God’s salvation being available to everyone, even outcasts. The parable in Luke and Thomas’ gospels end at this point.

Matthew changes the parable to fit his theological agenda on Israel, the Church and the Last Judgment. As a story it stops making sense. It’s a little hard to believe that people who had already accepted a wedding invitation when receiving a personal message that the banquet is beginning would then kill the servant bringing the message. Then the king gathers troops, kills the murders and burns down the city – all while the food is being prepared!! So, he manages to fight a small war in the time it takes to cook dinner. Either this king had the X-Men fighting in his army, or his cooks used some really slow cooking crockpots!

But the biggest change Matthew makes is an addition to the parable. Instead of ending with the banquet hall full of the poor and outcast as Luke and Thomas did, Matthew tells us that the king walked through the hall. Upon seeing a poor man not wearing a wedding robe, he has him detained and thrown out into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew changes a parable about grace and turns it into a parable about judgment.

What’s great about Matthew’s version of Jesus’ parable is that we can see the theological tension between grace and holiness in the early church. We can read Matthew and Luke’s version (and Thomas’) side by side and see the disagreement.

Christians are still disagreeing about God’s grace. The Church has been excluding people thought to be unworthy century upon century up to our own day. The groups of people change with the times and cultures, but there seems to always some outcast group who aren’t wearing the right wedding clothes.

Matthew changes Jesus’ parable of grace, because Matthew believes that Jesus taught that upon receiving the grace of God’s love and God’s salvation people had to become holy by keeping the commandments, or doing the will of God. How does Jesus say it in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount? “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven.” Doing the will of my father – those are the wedding clothes.

It is tough to hold onto the radical love of God. The wrong people are always showing up. So, the pious are always trying to come up with ways that make us worthy of it and keep the unworthy out.

According to the Exodus passage for Sunday, it’s even hard for God. Moses and God have been hanging out on Mount Sinai while God carves the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Meanwhile, down in the valley the people begin to think Moses is never coming back. They end up worshipping a Golden Calf. God is furious. He tells Moses, “Those people that YOU brought here are stubborn ingrates! I’m going to wipe them out and start over with you, alone.”

Moses says, “Whoa, wait a minute God! What will the Egyptians think? That you liberated those slaves just to kill them in the desert? The Egyptians will say, ‘What a stupid God is that.’ Now, you don’t want a reputation like that do you? If you go killing off the people you liberate, whose going to want to be “saved” by you?”

And then Moses says, “Remember the covenant you made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is what it means to be a God of steadfast love – to be stuck with people making Golden Calves. Oh, and by the way, they’re YOUR people. I was just minding my own sheep when you set that bush on fire.”

Then, the ancient text says, “The LORD’s mind changed.” So, if God had trouble remembering God’s steadfast love, it’s understandable that Matthew struggled with the idea, too.

I understand the need to call Jesus followers to just and holy living. But when they soil their wedding clothes, or forget to wear them altogether, I’d like to think when the host sees one dressed improperly, instead of tossing them out, I imagine one of the host’s servants taking the guests to the dressing room. “I’m guessing you wear a size 6 dress, and you, sir, look like a 42 long jacket. I think we’ve got the perfect thing for you.”

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Same-sex marriage: Are the courts more compassionate than churches?

Photo by Alliance of Baptists

Photo by Alliance of Baptists

Yesterday’s decision by the Supreme Court to not hear any of the same-sex marriage cases before them signals that the fight for marriage equality in the United States is soon to be over. The ruling affects 11 states, meaning that very soon same-sex marriage will be legal in 30 of the 50 states, North Carolina included. Unless some new legal argument can be made for banning them, such discriminatory laws in the remaining 20 states will be ruled unconstitutional as soon as cases run through the court system.

While the courts of the United States over the past two decades have slowly begun providing equal protection under the law for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered persons, the question will shift solely to American churches. This will be the last legal place such discrimination will be allowed. Conservative churches will call this a “cross” they must carry, and there will be enough conservatives in this country to hold those churches to this dogma for several decades. Liberal congregations have already fully welcomed LGBTQ persons into their churches – as members, deacons, & pastors. Earlier this year the Alliance of Baptists joined the lawsuit of the United Church of Christ against the state of North Carolina and its ban of same-sex marriage (a case now unnecessary).

It’s the churches in-between that will have to make some decisions.

The culture has already shifted. The Supreme Court is following behind the wave. Various polls show an overwhelming majority of young adults and teens believe discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender to be morally wrong. Similar polls show young adults to widely support same-sex marriage. The Barna Group, an evangelical polling company, has reported for several years that one of the biggest reasons young adults do not attend church is because they believe churches are judgmental and anti-gay & lesbian.

For the in-between churches it will be more difficult to attract young adults (not an easy task already) if they do not begin to welcome gay and lesbian Christians. Unwilling churches risk being labeled as bigoted. If they have a generational split, between older members who are “not ready” and younger members and seekers who are demanding it, the pinch will be harder. Do you risk alienating your best donors, or your future? And if you already have had a declining membership that makes the dynamics even more heightened.

There are, of course, biblical and theological matters to discuss. This is not simply a membership policy decision. But theology is always contextual. As culture changes, theology changes.  Always has, always will. Marriage definitions changed over the course of the Bible and during the 2,000-year history of Christianity. There is not one biblical standard of marriage. This change is merely one of a long stream of marriage changes.

Fortunately, there are resources from those who have gone through this before. Mahan Siler’s journal on Pullen Memorial Baptist Church’s decision to embrace lesbian and gay Christians 25 years ago is a good place to start. Exile or Embrace? by Pilgrim Press chronicles the Raleigh, North Carolina congregation’s journey. Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Resource for Congregations on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity has been republished by three Baptist organizations – Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, and the Alliance of Baptists. Cody Sanders book, Queer Lessons for Churches on the Straight and Narrow, is written to engage a church audience in these matters. Finally, the Alliance of Baptists has just been awarded an Arcus Foundation grant to assist churches in engaging conversations about LGBTQ lives and Christian faith and will soon be announcing ways in which congregations can be involved.

It’s time for in-between churches to start talking. There won’t be a prize for being the last non-conservative church to welcome and affirm all in Jesus’ name.

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Lectionary thoughts — Did Paul “get religion”?

Grand Canyon from the South Kaibab trail

Grand Canyon from the South Kaibab trail

17th Sunday after Pentecost – October 5, 2014

Exodus 20:1-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14 & Matthew 21:33-46

Does it really have to be all or nothing?

In Paul’s brief personal testimony it seems so. Of course this is from a man that had to be struck blind before God could get through to him. What would you expect?

The contrast of Paul’s testimony in Philippians is extreme. The apostle begins by bragging of his superiority as a faithful Jewish believer. By birth, by office, by zeal, and by righteousness in the Law of Moses, Paul states that he stands above his peers. Humility, of course, was not on his list. No sooner than Paul lists his credentials, he then abandons them. They are nothing to him, now. Indeed, they are rubbish – b.s. would be the contemporary vernacular. Compared to his faith in Christ nothing in his past faith experience has value to him.

It’s all or nothing. He wants to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death….”

Paul makes me think of the Rich Young Ruler in the gospel story (found in all three synoptics) where Jesus meets a pious and rich young man. This man wants to know how to attain eternal life, something of interest to Paul in this passage. He claims, like Paul, to be blameless under the Law of Moses, having kept all the commandments since a child. Then, Jesus tells the young man to sell everything he had, give it to the poor, and then come and follow him. The gospel writers tell us that the young man sadly went away, because he was very wealthy.

Whereas the rich young man walked away, Paul followed (though maybe if the young man had been struck blind, he, too, might have had a change in heart). Is Paul claiming that he had given away everything to follow Jesus? Left his birthright, left his religious office, left his zealous task, and left his allegiance to the Law of Moses. He left everything he valued, or did he? Didn’t he say it was all just b.s. anyways?

Paul’s testimony sounds like someone who had “gotten religion.”

I’ve met persons like this over the years. Persons for whom a religious experience changed their habits and lives (at least for awhile) and within a short time they looked upon their former life with disdain. I’ve baptized persons who within a short amount of time felt they needed to save me from my heretical ways. The danger with a moment of enlightenment – a time when it seems God strikes you with an insight or a feeling or an experience that changes your life – is that it is easy to assume what is new to you is universally new to everyone else.

But is Paul’s description of his faith experience prescriptive for the rest of us?

What if Paul could have seen how his faithfulness to the Mosaic Law could have been a bridge to a new experience of God through Christ, instead of just rubbish? What if he would have used his previous religious experience to consciously inform his new religious expression? Maybe Christianity wouldn’t have separated from Judaism. Maybe they would have grown together and Europe would have had a completely different history. Or maybe Christianity would have only a few million adherents, instead of more than a billion.

Paul’s experience was his. It was part of a personality that went from persecuting Jesus followers on behalf of the Jewish elite to preaching Jesus to new followers across the Roman Empire. Maybe you don’t get the latter without the former.

But not all of us are like Paul. Most of us, probably, are not like Paul. We have no desire to persecute others for their faith, nor the zeal to proselytize others to our faith. We wouldn’t brag that we’re superior to everyone else in the room. And we shouldn’t feel like everything from our “life’s lessons of the past” is rubbish, either.

Sometimes an all or nothing feeling about faith is genuine and necessary. I’m going to take THIS path with my life. Here is where my ultimate allegiance lies. Or maybe it’s just in your DNA. Or sometimes it is hoisted upon you by circumstances – like the messengers in today’s gospel lesson.

But for many of us our faith experience is like a continuum, where one experience leads to another, and while some steps on that path grant Grand Canyon like vistas, those steps aren’t any more valuable than the first indistinguishable ones that eventually got us to the grand vistas and beyond.

It is in that way that “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

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