Friday, August 29, 2008

obama, katrina, congo

The speech by Barack Obama at the conclusion of the Democratic Convention was historic and inspiring. As an American I was grateful for his willingness to fight for many of the facets of our common life that are so vital to the people of our nation: social security, public education, public health. I was also heartened by his willingness to raise the bar in linking our future need for energy with the employment of our people in that search. Finally, with the great majority of the inhabitants of our country, I am ready for change. John McCain, if he is going to make any progress, is going to have to make the same case that he is a change agent. Our mounting debt, the ongoing war in Iraq, the neglect of Afghanistan, the crumbling infrastructure and deterioration of many of our larger cities, the abused ecosystem, the use of torture, the politicization of the justice department, the cost of transportation (which admittedly neither party has been willing to solve), global warming...we are reaching a tipping point, and simply traveling the same path will be only to our peril. The next two months should be interesting, to say to least.


The third anniversary of Katrina is upon us, and we are now tracking Gustav, which has already killed 67 people in Haiti and the Dominican Repuplic, and is heading perhaps to the shores of the gulf coast. I remain convinced that Katrina was a moral test of who we are as a nation. Well-worth reading: Douglas Brinkley's The Great Refuge, riveting, balanced, epic; and worth listening to: Terence Blanchard's A Tale of God's Will: A Requiem for Katrina.


The news from the recent episcopal elections in the Congo reminded me that the world has become smaller. Bishop Yemba was re-elected (apparently, one is first elected, and then after four years re-elected for life---interesting), and the other candidate was Rev. Richard Okoko. I have come to know both of these men. Eighteen months ago I worked with a group for two days drafting a paper on the United Methodist Church and Global Poverty; Bishop Yemba participated and spoke with great authority (the paper can be accessed through the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry). I also chose Richard Okoko's small group within the Global Ministries legislative committee at the General Conference in April. He led us with great dignity and skill, even as he was experiencing a significant health challenge and working with The Discipline which is not translated in his native French language. Both of these men are committed to the gospel, aware of the complexities of the world, and invested in shaping the future of our denomination.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

the clintons and the oxygen in the room

Is it just my imagination, or does it seem like the Clintons are taking up all of the oxygen in the room? Or is it actually true that Barack Obama is the nominee of the Democratic party for the presidency? And yet, for two nights in a row, has a Clinton been speaking to the party and to the nation in primetime, at the Democratic Convention? And, in the roll card vote for the nomination today, who would be at center stage but...a Clinton? And who would be the star of the John McCain commercials of late but...a Clinton?

Is it my imagination?

Is there a world that exists that does not have Bill and Hillary as its center?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

intentional faith development (romans 12)

For the last two weeks my eyeballs, at least late at night, have been glued to the television screen, in particular to the Olympic games. I have been watching gymnasts and marathon runners and swimmers and volleyball players and high divers and sprinters.

Like many of you I have viewed from a distance the amazing path that led many of these athletes to the moment when the gold or the silver is draped around their necks. It is a long journey, from the beginning exercises, through adversity and self-doubt, to the pinnacle. Surely they passed through the many dangers, toils and snares with the help of coaches, parents, sponsors, and encouragers. Most if not all of the athletes obviously have a great deal of inner drive, determination, evening calling to the effort. Many of them are born into athletic families---a parent, say, was also an Olympic athlete, or functioned as their coach---and so you might say they had it all in their genes. They have the gift, and yet, each of them had to develop that gift.

This summer we have been reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, which is also about a gift, the gift of salvation, to the Jew and the Gentile, to the insider and the outsider. This gift of salvation comes to us through Jesus Christ, his life, his death, his resurrection. Even when we were undeserving, far off, estranged, the gift was extended to us in Jesus Christ. From God’s side, the gift is offered. From the human side, the gift is accepted, or rejected. Some do reject the gift, for all kinds of reasons. This is a mystery, the human tragedy: We resist grace, we reject the gift.

But suppose, for this morning, we have accepted the gift, we have said “yes” to grace. What next? Well, that is the focus of the scripture for this morning: I appeal to you, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice…I thought about this verse as I watched the Olympic athletes. A sprinter who had won the gold medal said, “I left it all out there on the track”: That is sacrifice, the sacrifice of the body, pushing the body as far as it can possibly go. A marathon runner is so committed to his goal that he and his wife, also a marathon runner, must live at different altitudes because of the training requirements for their events. Sacrifice.

The gift is yours, Paul is saying, salvation is yours, but it doesn’t end there. That is what God has done for us; now, how do we respond?

We are focusing this morning on intentional faith development. It is a spiritual practice, it is a set of exercises by which we appropriate God’s grace, by which we fully receive God’s gift, by which we access the power to become all that God wants us to be, by which we enter into the life God has always wanted for us. It is a practice and a pursuit.

Intentional Faith Development is intentional in that we are on a road, a path. It is faith because it is not obvious, it is something we cannot see, but we know it is real. It is development in that we need to take the gift we have been given and exercise it, sharpen it, make it stronger. How does intentional faith happen?

As with the athletes, it is a process. It does not happen all at once. In American culture we are inclined toward instant gratification. We see the highlights of an amazing athletic feat, and we want to go out and do it, we want to swim, this weekend, fast.

But it takes time, it is a process. Intentional faith development is a lifelong process. If children will attend Sunday School on a regular basis, they will be exposed to the major stories of the Bible, from Moses being placed in the water to Jesus being raised from the dead at Easter. If children will sing in choirs, they will learn to praise God, to use their gifts, they will become leaders in worship. When youth participate in confirmation, and then youth fellowship and youth choir and the youth retreats and youth mission, something develops: faith. They become leaders and servants. And what is true for children and youth is just as essential for adults. But it does not happen in an instant.

It is a process, and it is all about showing up in Sunday School, or at Bible Study, or a worship service, week after week. 90% of life is showing up. A young woman who won the goal medal in gymnastics showed up at a small gym in Des Moines, Iowa, and her parents put her in a place for something good to happen, and she kept showing up. We see the end result, but it is all a part of something that has happened over a period of years, what Eugene Peterson has called “A Long Obedience in The Same Direction”.

I want to say this clearly. It is not that your child is good if she comes to church and bad if she doesn’t. Simply being in a place where faith can develop, however, increases the odds that she will have the skills, the knowledge, the desire, to live by faith. And if she sees that it is important to you, it will be important to her.

Intentional faith development is a process. It is not instantaneous. It is also something we do with others. Again, we see the athletes alone on a balance beam, or in a swimming lane, or on the diving board, but they are always surrounded by mentors and coaches and teammates, by parents and brothers and sisters, by encouragers of all kinds.

Yes, you might read the Bible on your own, in a given year, but it is more likely that you will do it if you are in a small group. Yes, you might pray, on a regular basis on your own, but it is more likely that you will do it if you know that others are praying with you. Yes, you might worship God on a weekly basis on your own, but it is more likely that you will do it if you are joining together with others.

In families, it is often true that young adults return to church when they have young children. As parents we tend to follow our children and their activities. And yet it is also true that children follow their parents, and value what their parents value. If a child sees his father praying, he will pray. If a child sees her mother reading the Bible, she will read the Bible. Intentional faith development is a process that happens best with others.

Now where are obstacles to developing faith, and they are worth mentioning: most of us don’t wake up wanting to exercise, to walk or run several miles or even through the neighborhood! And yet we know that if we are going to get into some kind of shape, walking or running is good for us. Now, I am going to say something that I want to ask you not to repeat too much. Sometimes people wake up in the morning and they don’t want to go to church. It’s true! I see the look of shock and disbelief on your faces.

One of my favorite authors is Anne Lamott, and one of her more humorous and profound essays is about her son, and the title is “Why I Make Sam Go To Church”. He never wants to go, he is the only little boy among his friends who attends church, and the short answer to the question of why Anne Lamott makes him go to church is simple. She says, “I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds”.

She talks about it a little more. "Of course, he doesn't want to come to regular worship, but he doesn't want to floss either. He does not want to have any hard work, ever, but I can't give him that without injuring him. It's good to do uncomfortable things. It's weight training for life." I like that as an image of intentional faith development: weight training for life. For Anne Lamott, intentional faith development is the simple act of showing up each week with Sam in her little church in the San Francisco bay area.

Now, why is intentional faith development important? This is captured in the scripture, and in the drama. To live by faith is to resist conformity to the world. Pride—that it is all about us, all about me. Vanity---that who I am, what I am worth is determined by appearance. Greed—that I need more, and when I get that, I will still need more, that my value as a human being is determined by what I own. Don’t become so well-adjusted to the culture that you fit into it without thinking. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.

How do we resist being conformed to the world? We are changed “from the inside out”. It happens through intentional faith development. What does intentional faith development look like for us? I spent a few minutes reflecting on many (not all) of the ways our people have taken steps toward intentional faith development.

Sunday School. Worship. A United Methodist Women’s Circle
Worship Readiness, where our first graders begin to learn about experiencing God in the sanctuary. A Disciple class
A Christ Care group. Youth Fellowship. Vacation Bible School. Scouts
Places: Camp Tekoa, Lake Junaluska, Garden City, BonClarcken
Confirmation, where our sixth graders prepare to make professions of faith and become members of our church.
The scholarships funded by the Wesley Class for students at Brevard College, Pfeiffer University, and Duke Divinity School
The Upper Rooms that Abe Moyer takes to our homebound members
The plan for reading the Bible each day that is printed in the Voice.
Singing in the Choir. Participating in a campus ministry
Going on a retreat (one of classes did that yesterday)
Teaching Disciple Bible Study in prison

So, here is the invitation. I am not standing before you this morning pitching a program, or two, or several. I am asking that you take the practice of intentional faith development very seriously. That you take one step, undertake one discipline, in your spiritual life. How that happens is a conversation between you and the Lord. But if every person in our congregation takes one step forward in this area, the effect within our congregation would be amazing. We would truly live into our vision, to be the body of Christ, glorifying God and serving others. Call it discipleship, or the pursuit of holiness, or the invitation to follow Jesus, or the desire to become the person God created you to be.

We have been given a gift; the gift of salvation. What do we do with it? We claim in and live into it, by faith. Intentional Faith Development will not happen by accident; it is intentional. Intentional Faith Development will not happen in an instant; it is developmental. But it can happen. As I watched the best of those athletes, I realized they were not in a competition with others. They were compelled to pursue their dreams by an inner fire; our lifelong calling is to become more like Christ, to be the light of the world. This happens as we are changed from the inside out. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Sources: Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

thoughts on china after the olympics

I have been quite taken with the 2008 Summer Olympics, which were hosted by the Chinese in Beijing, for those of you who have been on an extended backpacking journey without access to the media. Since our daughter has lived and worked in China, and took a degree in Asian Studies, we have had more than a passing interest in the country and its culture (s) over the past few years. I have paid particular attention to the media's treatment of China during the past few weeks. At first glance, much of the media's reflection on the host country has been what I would term very U.S.-centered: how China is using the games to become a super-power, to join the U.S. as a world leader, etc. Along these lines, much of the focus has been on the inadequacies of China in two basic areas, human rights and the environment. Of course, these judgments are often made with the assumption that the countries offering the criticisms have resolved all issues in these areas. And there is a corresponding historical template: that somehow China is evolving in a way that the U.S. did some time ago. Among the more prominent pieces that seems to reflect these sentiments is one by Anthony Lane in the current New Yorker.

Each of these perspectives ignores a basic sense that China lives in its own reality, and for the most part this has little to do with U.S. perceptions (this is a point made by Philip Pan in Out of Mao's Shadow---his recent interview with Bill Moyers is also worth watching). While China does violate the human rights of her citizens, and while there is a looming environmental crisis, these are issues that are internal to that country's own destiny. Our parity with China, the inevitable result of our increasing financial indebtedness to them (occasioned by the War in Iraq) and by the overwhelming population demographic (more people are learning English in China than living in the U.S.), is driving economic costs in commodities ranging from food to gasoline, and there will no reversal of this.

I reflect on all of this not to gloss over a country's imperfections---this is not a "Chamber of Commerce" piece. I simply submit that a few basic assumptions have prohibited many, at times, from appreciating the remarkable contribution of China's hosting of these games, from the Opening Celebration (which has the British puzzling on what exactly they are going to do in 2012) to the Gold Medal count, which at last glance had China in first place.

I have sensed a renewed patriotism within myself during these games, one that had been diminished in the past few years by Abu Ghraib, Guantanimo, our willingness to exploit the Arctic Wildlife Reserves (or the North Carolina coast, for that matter) as gasoline prices increase, and the truly ridiculous campaign rhetoric in this election cycle. The Marvin Gaye-Nike "Star Spangled Banner" commercial, for some reason, is very moving to me. Today I watched the taped finals of our Men's basketball team, winning in a tough battle over Spain (kudos to Coach K). It was great; pure fun.

But alongside this patriotism, I have the corresponding sense that another nation is claiming the center of the world's imagination, and may very well be the empire of the 21st century (although I could be wrong--this could actually be the destiny of India). Our default critique of the games---very polished and smooth, but what about censorship, human rights, environment---is finally unimaginative, unless we are willing to apply a rigorous political self-examination to our own love of sports.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Wilco, Either Way
Isaac Hayes, Never Can Say Goodbye
Donna The Buffalo, Locket and Key
Willie Nelson, Songbird
Blind Boys of Alabama, Run On For A Long Time
James Taylor and Ray Charles, Sweet Potato Pie
Steve Earle, Galway Girl
Emmylou Harris and Neil Young, Sweet Old World
Beatles, I''m Looking Through You
Solomon Burke, That's How I Got To Memphis
Buddy Miller, With God on Our Side
Terence Blanchard, Funeral Dirge (Katrina Requiem)
Jackson Browne, You Love The Thunder
Nanci Griffith, Trouble In The Fields
Lyle Lovett, This Old Porch
Darrell Scott, Hank Williams' Ghost
Linda Ronstadt and Carl Jackson, New Partner's Waltz
Leon Russell, Hummingbird
The Band, Unfaithful Servant
Van Morrison, Quality Street
Weather Report, A Remark You Made
Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley, I Feel Like Singing Today

Friday, August 22, 2008

michigan area school of pastoral ministry

I was invited by a wonderful group of people to speak at the Michigan Area School of Pastoral Ministry, and so I spent Tuesday-Thursday in Lansing. I preached two sermons, one on "Change", the second on "Repairing The World", and I gave a plenary address entitled "To Walk and Not Faint: The Path of Lifelong Ministry". I am told that the Senate of that school will have mp3 files available if you want to hear the talks, and communication about the school will be flowing from both the Detroit and West Michigan Annual Conferences. I was truly overwhelmed by the hospitality of the clergy there, and impressed by their care for each other. This is a strong school with a rich tradition (Tony Campolo spoke last year), and I was honored to have been asked to take part. I must also say that it was refreshing to cross a regional boundary of our denomination; I have been blessed in the past few years with friendships from folks who serve in other geographical areas of the church. For those of you who participate in the politics of our denomination, you will know how great the divide often is between us, and how necessary it is that we learn from each other. More than once I was asked "how often do you do this?", since I serve a local church. I actually enjoy speaking in other places, but I do carefully weigh whether an event is at the right time, and with the right group, and for the right purpose. A gathering at the end of the summer with pastors was a perfect fit. It was good to be there, and it is good to be home.

I am now at work on the sermon for Sunday, which is related to intentional faith development. We are trying to re-shape our "Promotion Sunday" toward the idea of spiritual practices, working closely with Bishop Schnase's work (see the link to "Five Practices" to the right). I am reflecting on Eugene Peterson's translation of Romans 12. 1-2, and the youth are going to do a dramatic presentation of it. It should be a great morning.

Have a good weekend.

The grace and peace of the Lord,


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

the road (cormac mccarthy)

Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006, The Road is an extended narrative of a journey taken in post-apocalyptic America (most likely the southeastern appalachian region) by a father and a son. The aftermath of man-made destruction (environmental?) is truly horrific, and the landscape is further scarred by the savage inhumanity that is always present (including cannibalism). The son's mother had committed suicide, and the implication is that this was the rational response to the situation; the father presses on, encouraging the son to hang on, not to give up. "Why?", the son will ask. The father simply asks the son to believe him. The road upon which they journey defies hope, and yet the father must instill some kind of hope in the son; this takes the form of reaching the sea, which, upon arrival, is not blue but gray. Along the way, at the point of starvation, the father and son stumble upon life-saving provisions, for which the son movingly gives thanks. The question of the purpose of the journey's purpose is answered by the father as "carrying the fire".

Reading The Road reminded me of several of Walker Percy's novels, and also Walter Miller's A Canticle For Leibowitz; I also recalled the music of the 1960s and 1970s: David Crosby's Wooden Ships and Jackson Browne's For Everyman and After The Deluge. IMcCarthy paints a dark vision of human nature, and indeed depicts a world that might exist apart from human agency (for this it has been hailed by environmental critics); his portrayal of human nature is similar to that found in No Country For Old Men, a novel written the year prior (2005), and later adapted by the Coen Brothers for the screen (it was voted best picture in 2007 at the Academy Awards).

The novel is amazing in many respects: in the portrayal of the intimate relationship between parent and child; in the sensory description of the toll that the journey takes on both (hunger, pain, rest, sleep); in the continuing conversation about the importance of story, dream, truth and memory; in the parent's need to shield the child from pain, and the child's need to understand; in the essential role of the parent as guide and the child as student; and in the need for a destination, a goal. The themes of prudence and altruism are also prevalent in the novel; the parent is guarded, the child would be more generous. And throughout the question: Are we the good guys? How do we know?

Again, this is a question that occurs in other McCarthy works, and especially in the ambiguous characters that populate No Country For Old Men. In the end, father and son do reach their destination; it is not quite what they had anticipated, and there is a somewhat surprising and, for me, satisfying ending. If you have not read The Road, I will leave the rest unsaid.

As a Christian, I was grateful for McCarthy's willingness to enter into the horror (hell) of a world devastated by environmental degradation and human violation in its most extreme form. Such a world cries out for those who will "carry the fire", who seek a better life even when such a pursuit seems irrational. I was also conscious, in walking along The Road, that many make this same journey, for we are all on this path with McCarthy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

why we say the creed (romans 10)

The word is near you, Paul says, on your lips and in your heart.

I want to speak this morning about the heart of Christianity: the simplicity and the complexity of believing. It all begins, Paul says, with a word, the biblical God is a God who speaks, not a God who remains forever silent. In Genesis 1 we hear, over and over again, “and God said…and God said…and God said…”. God speaks. But the word of God is unlike other words. It is both a word that comes from beyond us and a word that is deep within us, for we were created, you and me, in the image of this God who speaks, and the word is written on our hearts.

Preaching is an unusual line of work. I love it, but it is unlike anything else. I will often be leaving the service, and I will speak to someone, or they will email me the next day and they will talk about what God said to them in the sermon, and it has nothing to do with what I had intended! And yet I do not doubt that the experience is real. The word is active in the minds and hearts of the people who come here, week after week, the word is a living word, it is no distant word, it is near you, on your lips, you are just about to say it, it is in your hearts, you could not contain it if you tried!

This word is near you. We are a congregation that comes together to be shaped by the word, as it comes to us in scripture and hymn, in anthem and sermon. Sunday after Sunday, season after season, year after year, we hear this word, we digest this word, we internalize this word, we memorize this word, and it lives within us. And over time, miraculously, the word that is God’s story becomes our story. I love the line in the hymn we will sing in a few minutes:

I love to tell the story for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.

The word is near you, on your lips and in your hearts. It is also true that we discover the story not only in worship but in smaller groups, in Sunday School classes, and in other Bible studies. On your bulletin there is a listing of opportunities this year to intentionally develop your faith. What is true about most every one of these opportunities is that they are not merely informational but transformational---this is not just about knowing more, it is about connecting God’s story with the story of your life. You will read the Bible and you will see yourself, almost like looking into a mirror. The word is near you, on your lips and in your hearts.

And then Paul focuses on the most basic and fundamental Christian activity, the most elemental creed: If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord.

The earliest creed was composed of three simple words: Jesus is Lord. Now this meant and means a number of things, and while it is simple it is also complex. To say Jesus is Lord, in the ancient world, was also to say that the Emperor Caesar, who made claims of divinity for himself, was not Lord.

To say that Jesus is Lord was and is counter-cultural. It also was, and is political. Sometimes my faith in Jesus Christ brings me into conflict with my allegiance to the kings and emperors and presidents of this world. Christians in the first century Roman Empire knew this, Christians in twentieth century Germany knew this. Christians in twentieth century South Africa knew this, Christians in twenty-first century United States know this. To say Jesus is Lord is to make a political statement. At times following Jesus will put you and me in conflict with the platforms of the two major political parties of our nation. Now I realize that we often equate God and country, but, brothers and sisters, they are not the same. I love my country. But I must also confess that Jesus is Lord.

And yet this simple and complex creed is not only a statement about the world we live in, about the powers that be out there. It is also a direct assault on the powers that struggle within us, in here, and this is all about my pride and ego. To say Jesus is Lord is to say that I am not Lord, I am not in control, and, even more basic, that I need some kind of help that must come from beyond me. I am reminded of the first of the twelve steps: We admitted that we were powerless.

And so these three words, this earliest creed, relates to conditions outside of us and inside of us, and of course these conditions change. There are wise rulers and foolish rulers, and we have good days and bad days. But belief is not just about the subjective conditions in which we live. Belief is shaped by the word. There are creeds embedded in the scriptures themselves. The Shema in Deuteronomy is a creed (6. 4-5)

Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord.
And you shall love the Lord with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your might.

There are creeds in the letters of Paul, for example, in I Corinthians 8. 6:

For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

There is this fragment of a hymn, from I Timothy 3. 16:

He was manifested in the flesh, Vindicated in the Spirit
Seen by angels, Preached among the nations
Believed on in all the world, Taken up in glory.

I did not grow up in a tradition that said creeds, but I have come to appreciate them, over the years, for a number of reasons. I appreciate the fact that these words have been said by the faithful over a period of centuries and even millennia; that they are spoken, at least the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, by Christians who cannot agree over matters as diverse as eating together at the Lord’s table or sexual practice; but these words they share in common; that for the early Christians these words introduced men and women to the faith; that for many they are a guide to belief in places where there are no actual physical copies of the scriptures.

I also appreciate that many people struggle with creeds. I love the take on this by Kathleen Norris, one of the finest writers of our time and one of the most profound witnesses to the faith. She recalls a conversation between a seminary student and an Orthodox theologian at Yale. The theologian had given a lecture on the development of the creeds. The student raised his hand and asked, “What can one do when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the Creed?”

The theologian responded, “Well, you just say it. It’s not that hard to master. With a little effort, most can learn it by heart.” The student, with some exasperation, felt he had been misunderstood. “What am I to do when I have difficulty affirming certain parts of the creed---like the Virgin Birth?”

He got the same response. “You just say it. Particularly when you have trouble believing it. You just keep saying it. It will come to you eventually”.

The student at this point raised his voice. “How can I with integrity affirm a creed in which I do not believe?” Finally the teacher replied, “It’s not your creed, it’s our creed”, meaning, it is the creed of the entire church.

The early church had a saying, “I believe in order that I might understand”. Maybe when we are 12 years old we say the words “Jesus is Lord” at Confirmation, or when we are 16 years old at a youth retreat or 20 at a campus ministry gathering or 30 years old when we have been away a few years and other things have not worked and we come back to the words, “Jesus is Lord”, corporate America is not Lord, Caesar is not Lord, I am not Lord, and of course life moves on, we have to continue to say the creeds and live into the meaning of them. If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. A friend talks about the untimely death of his father, sitting in the sanctuary as the great hymns of the faith are being sung, hymns his family had chosen, in the moment he cannot sing the words of eternal life and resurrection, but he is thankful that the church can sing the hymns for him. “I believe in order that I might understand”. “It’s not your creed”, the teacher says, “it’s our creed”. It doesn’t depend on the fluctuation of mood or the shifting of circumstance or the limitation of knowledge.

It is a constant. As I was working on this message I somehow connected this passage of scripture with one most likely written a generation or two later, in the correspondence to Timothy, most likely composed by a student of Paul’s. Within a generation or two we have moved from this clear, concise expression of faith in Romans to what appears to be a danger. Listen to these words from 2 Timothy 4:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus I solemnly urge you:
Proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, Convince, rebuke, encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, But having itching ears They will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

To say “ I believe” is to believe what the church has taught across time and space. “Why do we say the creed?” If you did a market survey, you would find that more and more churches do not say a creed. “Why do we say the creed?” Because there is something we need to retain, something we need to absorb into our minds and hearts, something we need to pass on to our children and their children. And it is all grounded in what has been called a “generous orthodoxy”. What is a “generous orthodoxy”? The good news is that the God to whom the creeds point is gracious and merciful. This God in whom we place our belief and trust loves us, this God is always more willing to listen than we are to pray, always more willing to forgive than we are to confess, always more willing to embrace us than we are to return home. It is, finally, “the old, old story of Jesus and his love”. Again and again in Romans Paul returns to the core of the gospel, and here it is, again, at the end of our epistle lesson:

The Lord is generous to all who call upon him.
Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.

You have several opportunities to do this today. You may silently say, in your heart, “I want Jesus to be the Lord of my life”. You may speak with the church and say the words of the creed. You may sing the doxology and praise the Lord and giver of life. You may sing the words of our final hymn.

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord
And believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead
You will be saved.

(Romans 10. 9)

Sources: N.T. Wright, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire”, Center of Theological Inquiry ( Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. “I Love To Tell The Story”, United Methodist Hymnal, 156. Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of The Gospel.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

vince carter dunks

You have to watch this. Blogger's note: Ken and Vince Carter are not related.

Friday, August 08, 2008

john edwards and the question of public and private morality

The breaking news of this afternoon--that the former senator of our state and candidate for the vice-presidency John Edwards has admitted to an extra-marital affair within the context of his wife Elizabeth's battle with cancer---is tragic on a number of levels. The sad events await more truth to be revealed, and of course we do live in a country where one is innocent until proven guilty, but this much is apparent: once again, the damaging residue of the divide between public and private morality comes to light. Edwards has been a strong, even prophetic voice on the subject of poverty, which is the great moral evil of our nation, and yet this public work, which is so essential, and so needed, and his narrative of the two Americas, which is so truthful, is undermined by a private moral failure. One prays for the Edwards family, and for the restoration of all that is broken. And one also laments the distraction and the diminishing of the message.

The moral life is strongest and most appealing when it holds together the public and private. For this reason there are no private sins, or private sins without social consequence (note the lust of Bill Clinton or the sloth of George Bush, and the havoc created among countless people in the world and indeed in the creation itself). Our private lives flow into our public ones. There has been much discussion this week about the Archbishop of Canterbury's distinction between his personal feelings about same sex relationships and his actions related to his official role as head of the Anglican Church. Can one hold to this distinction? Yes. Is it ideal? No. Finally, the role becomes exhausting, and the need for alignment of person and work takes precedence.

Intelligent people do make mistakes, and all human beings commit sin. And yet we yearn for the integrity of the public and the private. These two realities are best held together when there is real accountability within community (Christian friendship) and ongoing acknowledgement of our human frailty (confession of sin, repentance and absolution). In the meantime, John Edwards becomes the very public face that conveys the disintegration of the whole into separate and weakened public and private spheres, and, simultaneously, the moral agenda to which he gave voice is pushed aside, awaiting a hearing on another day.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

the death of skip caray and other matters

Skip Caray, the voice of the Atlanta Braves, died on Monday, from complications related to diabetes. He was the son of Harry Caray, the legendary announcer of the Chicago Cubs. Skip had a wonderfully sarcastic, even cynical demeanor, and was able to pontificate on the fortunes of the Braves through the good times, including the 1995 World Series championship in the midst of 14 consecutive divisional titles, and the bad (which, unfortunately would include this year, with injuries to Smoltz, Glavine and Chipper, and the necessary sending of Jeff Francoeur to the minors). His tenure as a voice of the Braves lasted 33 years; he ably succeeded Ernie Johnson and Milo Hamilton. Skip was only 68 years old.

I am reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road. In the spring I gave a baccalaureate sermon entitled "The Path", which was itself based on a sermon that I had preached earlier in 2008. I realize in reading McCarthy that I am not always as reflective with people about the harsh difficulties of this life's journey, and McCarthy nails this. At any rate, The Road is a dark journey, and is a good corrective to my generally excessively hopeful attitude about life.

We saw the X-Files, I Want To Believe movie last night with our older daughter, who is visiting for a few days. Years ago, the X Files was our family ritual on Sunday evenings. We called it "Touched By An Alien". I would give the movie a "B".

Political card on the table: I am opposed to off-shore drilling as a solution to our present gasoline crisis.

Writing news: I have five sermons in the just-released congregational resource related to Five Practices of Fruitful Congregational Congregations (see the Five Practices link to the right). Also, my "Christmas Prayer For Those Who Do Not Attend Church" will appear in the November Circuit Rider.

Recent discovery--Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is simply amazing: complex, chaotic, melodic, at times reminiscent of the Byrds and the Beatles, alt-country, psychedelic, layer upon layer of music, unlike most anything I have heard of late. You may not like it, and some do not, but I find it fascinating. Five stars.

Monday, August 04, 2008

what about israel? (romans 9-11)

A few years ago, in a former church, I got to know a wonderful young man. He was very involved in the ministries of our church—in youth fellowship, on mission trips, retreats for students, he volunteered in vacation bible school, he was an eagle scout in the church’s troop. When he graduated he received one of the college scholarships that the church gave to young people.

He was accepted and went off to a very fine school in our state. We stayed in touch a little, but like most college students he was making his way in a new place. About nine months later, in the spring, I received a very long and passionate letter from him. In a early part of the letter—it was several pages-- he described the church he was attending in his college town. In the second part of the letter—he described all of the ways our church—his church—was falling short. It was a long letter, and he was very articulate! And in the last part of the letter, he outlined the ways that I would be held responsible, before God, for I was, in his words, “the shepherd who was leading the sheep astray”.

My relation with the young man had always been a good one, I thought. And once I got over the ego part, and the personal part, and once I stopped trying to analyze the puzzle that was the letter, I decided, after sleeping on it a few days, to write him a letter, one that would be equally long, and one that would be equally passionate. The Bible was very important to this young man, and the Bible is very important to me. And so I walked him through Romans 9-11, our passage for this morning. And here is the simple insight I shared with the young man.

I said, you are like a branch of the tree, and the church, your church, the church you are so critical of, the church, is the root system. You cannot be who you are apart from all of the experiences you have had in this church---and for him this would have included the nursery, Sunday school, vacation bible school, youth choir, retreats at Junaluska, united Methodist youth fellowship, not to mention worship, sermons, visits to his mother when she was hospitalized, anthems, scouts, I went on, I went into detail about people, people who loved him, youth leaders who had shared the faith with him but just as importantly mentors who had lived the faith with him.

I said, very simply, your very life as a Christian, as a young man of faith, would not be possible without this community of men and women. They are your spiritual mentors, your ancestors, your family. They are the root system that takes in life, and they have spent years sharing it with you. You are the branch. And something is about to bear fruit in your life. But do not, I urge you, do not, I beg you, do not cut yourself off from them. And then I used these words: I find your letter absurd. I find your letter arrogant. I wanted to get his attention. What you are doing, saying, thinking is not in the interest of your own spiritual well being, and it is not the truth. These people need you. But you also need them.

Most biblical scholars see two large purposes in the Letter to the Romans. The first is the struggle with the question of salvation, and faith and grace and works. We have focused on these matters over the last few weeks, in the first eight chapters of the book. The second is the issue before us this morning: what about the empirical fact that the Jews, the chosen people of God, do not seem to be embracing the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The children of God do not seem be claiming their inheritance. This was my young friend’s struggle. And for Paul this was a crisis of identity and faith.

This was a crisis because Paul himself was Jewish. He writes in Philippians: I was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee, as to righteousness under the law, blameless (Philippians 3).

And yet Paul had counted all of this as loss for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ as savior. For Paul, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the law, and for this very reason he is God’s gracious response to the law. And yet, Jesus comes to his own people, and his own people do not accept him. In response to all of this, Paul says, “I would give up my own salvation if it could be different”.

Early in the ministry I heard of an apocryphal experience that happened at a meeting of Presbterian clergy, who had gathered to examine (that means “grill”) a candidate for ordination. The meeting had gone on, it was warm that day, the questions were pointed, the stress level was rising, the candidate getting put out with the interviewers and vice versa. Finally, one of the crusty older ministers, with a deep drawl asked the question that is a favorite in Calvinist circles. “Would you be willing to be damned for the glory of God?”

The candidate was silent for a moment, and then he looked around at his situation, he thought again about the question, “Would you be willing to be damned for the glory of God?, and then he responded. “I can do better than that. I would be willing for this entire room full of people to be damned for the glory of God!”

It is an odd, even funny question to us, but Paul was there. He says, I would give up my own stake in any of this, if my own people could know the salvation that God has for them. You see the salvation has come from them and it is for them. To them, Paul says, belongs the adoption, the covenants, the law, the worship, the promises; it is their (our) family story and from them the Messiah has come.

And so it is a family story. Through history we have always been most in danger when we have tried to divide this family story, when Christians have distanced themselves from the Jews----In the second century, Marcion tried to remove all Jewish influences in the New Testament scriptures and was declared a heretic. And in the twentieth century there was the tragic history of the holocaust, and the church’s complicity in that those horrors.

We are one family, and yet there is a separation. From the Christian side, this has everything to do with the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah, the son of God. Mid-way through the New Testament, in the Book of Acts, this had to do with table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles. Many of the Jews could not bring themselves to eat with unclean people—for them this was a violation of the law. Jesus, the rabbi, caused problems by crossing these boundaries and meeting with sinners. When he was criticized---why would a rabbi do such a thing?---he told parables, the best loved and most remembered of these being the story of a prodigal son.

And yet, despite the separation, from the Christian side, we are still family. We have a great deal in common. Pam and I lived for nine years in Greensboro, and at the urging of a very active member of our church there I became involved in interfaith work. A part of this was taking groups of Christians and Jews to Israel once every two years.

These pilgrimages were experiences in my life. I came to love Jewish people. Like Christians, some take their faith seriously and some do not. Some are supportive of what is happening in Israel and some are not. Some have a sense of humor and some do not. Some of grace-filled and some are not. In traveling to Israel we would see the Garden Tomb and Golgotha and the Jordan River and Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee, but we would also see the Knesset and the Holocaust Museum and have a Shabbat (Sabbath) meal with a Jewish family. We met with the Palestinian Christmas Church in Bethlehem and we had dinner with Jewish settlers on the West Bank. Our Jewish friends watched as we renewed our baptisms in the river and they celebrated. It reminded them of the mikvah baths outside the temple, where people would cleanse themselves. And all of this reminded us, if we had forgotten, that John the Baptist and Jesus were Jewish. We were a family.

All of which takes us back to the scripture. Paul the apostle, Paul the rabbi, Paul the believer in the risen Lord is struggling, grieving over the reality of this family separation. To the Jews, his own people, who are separated, he says, “we honor the tradition, the history, the promises”. And to the Gentile Christians, who are growing, who are flourishing, he says, “don’t get to puffed up about this, do not become proud…stand in awe (11.20)”….they are the natural part of the tree, you were grafted in. Remember, they are the root system, you are the branches, you get your very life, all of it, from them, God is not abandoning them, in fact, God is going to graft the separated part of the tree back in. It is unnatural that there is a separation. It is natural, organic that there will be a reunion. And then Paul boldly says, in Romans 11.26, “all Israel will be saved”.

Why should we care about all of this? You see, we are all a little like the young man whose story I shared. He and I did sit down in the summer for a meal. We worked through a number of issues. And I will admit that even as he may have learned something from the experience, I learned something from him. We all tend to take our origins, our traditions, even our families for granted. As one of my teachers at Duke put it, bluntly, “without Judaism there is no Christianity”. Earlier in the summer I talked about God’s desire to salvage us. Someone has said that Romans 9-11 takes up the theme of salvation in Romans, but whereas most of the book focuses on the individual, 9-11 looks at the whole sweep of history. In other words, here Paul is talking about salvation not in retail terms, but wholesale. The salvaging of a people is for an even grander purpose: the salvaging of the human family. The mission of Israel is to be, in the words of Isaiah, a light to the nations (49. 6).

How is all of this going to happen? There is so much tragic history between Jews and Christians, there is so much that is of importance to each of us that cannot simply be brushed aside. What is this salvation going to look like? Paul concludes the three chapters by leaving that question in God’s hands, and simply giving thanks for the power and mystery of the One who creates us, who delivers and saves us, who draws us into the future. We read in Romans 11. 33-36 (tniv):

O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and
And his paths beyond tracing out!
For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to God
That God should repay him?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To God be the glory forever. Amen.

Sources: N.T. Wright, “Romans”, The New Interpreter’s Bible; Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of The Gospel.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

good things about life

An eclectic listing of good things about life, from my admittedly particular perspective, and not necessarily in order of importance: Eliptical machines for exercise. Brazos Press. The New York Times online. Two profoundly Wesleyan theologians: N.T. Wright and Rowan Williams (thanks, Jonathan). Wilco. The Daily Office. National Public Radio. The Banana Pudding at Phil's Deli in Charlotte. A happy marriage. SEC Football. Term limits for U.S. Presidents. Grilled corn on the cob. The local church at worship. Really depressing movies: Pulp Fiction, Fargo, Godfather Part II. 50 degree summer mornings in the Western North Carolina mountains. The poetry of Billy Collins and Mary Oliver. Morning Joe. Merlefest. ACC Basketball. The BBC. The coolness of approaching fall days. Braves baseball, even when it is going badly. The Office. The south. The sermons of William Sloan Coffin, John Claypool, Will Willimon and Fleming Rutledge. Reasonably good health. Generous Orthodoxy. The sportswriting of David Halberstam and the travel writing of Peter Hessler. Kind of Blue, The White Album, Live at the Fillmore East, What's Going On, Rock of Ages. Christian friends in Haiti and Canada. The short stories of Flannery O'Connor and Alice Munro. The pace of summer.