Saturday, November 29, 2008

thanksgiving gives way to advent

It is a nice Thanksgiving Weekend. We stayed home---the other two full-time pastors are traveling to visit family long distances away, and I made a vow to myself, years ago when I was serving as an associate pastor that if I were ever in the senior role I would not vacate the premises the Sundays after Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, etc. So we share the load on these weekends. It works well.

Our two daughters were home this weekend, although they have now moved on, one returning to college, one going back to clean up and clear out of an apartment. All of a sudden it is quieter and cleaner...and already we miss them.
My wife cooked a fantastic Thanksgiving meal, which we have enjoyed off and on since. And so after they left my wife and I had lunch at a diner we have probably not visited in a year or so; it is nothing personal or even used to be on the path that we traveled in the vicinity of our younger daughter's high school and now our habits have changed, taking us in other directions. But it was good--a nice, small family kind of place, unusual in a big city, and they were not too hard on us for having been awol for so church this way?

With our older daughter we passed some of the time by watching the entire first season of 30 Rock. I cannot believe I did not get tuned into this show is hilarious, and in it you can see the glimpses of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, a role she was born to play. The recurring tension between the managerial and artistic visions of Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey is very well-portrayed, and the other characters are odd and endearing.

The weekend is punctuated by two other realities---I have a wedding this evening, a nice couple, and I completed the sermon, in its basic form, when I taped it for Day One, earlier in the fall. Otherwise, things have been blessedly quiet.

By the way, you can read the Day One sermon by clicking on their website under links to the right.

During the Advent season I send a daily e-mail message that includes biblical reflection, calendars, humor, opportunities for giving and service, and cultural criticism.
I have been doing this for years, and it is somewhat unpredictable. If you would like to receive it, simply contact Carol Grinham at, and she will add you to the list.

Thanksgiving does give way to Advent, and I will revert to two of my longtime habits: listening only to Christmas music, but in a variety of genres (including Vince Guaraldi, James Taylor, Diana Krall, Bruce Cockburn, The Blind Boys of Alabama, and others); and reading from a daily devotional entitled Watch For The Light, published by Plough Publishing House. It is available from Amazon is is worth locating a copy.

Finally, I have just learned of the death of my friend Ben Witherington's father. Ben, you and your mother are in our prayers. The peace of the Lord!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

extravagant generosity (matthew 25. 14-30)

We call the story that Jesus tells “the parable of the talents”. Talent is an unfortunately misleading word---we think of talent as a skill, an ability. When we think of talent we think of athletes like Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps or poets like Mary Oliver and Billy Collins or musicians such Alison Krauss or Bono or Ray Charles or Yo Yo Ma. Or maybe we think of someone closer by: “she does this well, he is good at this”.

In the ancient world, those listening to Jesus would have known that a talent was the approximate value of fifteen years of wages. It was a significant sum of money. In the story a man goes on a journey and gives each of his servants a gift. One receives five talents, one two talents, the last servant one talent. Eugene Peterson in the Message translates a talent as one thousand dollars, and so one is given five thousand, one two thousand, the last one thousand.

Each is entrusted with something that is significant, each receives a different sum. It is not distributed evenly or fairly. Like other stories that Jesus told---the workers in the vineyard, for one, where everyone is paid the same, but for differing amounts of work---this is not about fairness. It is all a gift that we do not deserve or earn. It is all a gift. Then the master goes away, and the servants are left to work out, for themselves, what they will do with these gifts. There is a beautiful proverb that Haitians tell each other, “God gives but he does not share.” Everything is a gift from God, and yet God leaves it, to us, in how we are going to share it with each other. God gives but he does not share.

And so the master gives. Why does one receive five, and one two, and one one? The master gives to each “according to his ability”. Sometimes we are ready to receive a gift, and sometimes we are not. Jesus told other stories about this as well----some were invited to a party, but they declined----“We are too busy...please ask us again”. Others were invited---“Please keep us on the guest list… but for now we cannot accept”. Please ask us again. The master gives according to the receptivity and ability of the recipient. “God is always willing to give good things to us”, Augustine of the fifth century said, “but our hands are too full to receive them.” Sometimes we look around at each other and it appears that we have been entrusted with different gifts, and some may seem all out of proportion.

The gifts belong to the master, and they are God’s to give. I do know this: from the perspective of the world, this planet that we share with six billion people, all of us have received a very generous harvest of talents. Warren Buffett commented recently to someone who had made a fortune, “you are not a genius, you were just born at the right time and in the right place”. Much of life is a gift. As the story moves on, and a story does need to move on, we shift the focus from the master, who has now left the scene, to the servants.

Now we move from gift to response, from blessing to responsibility. In the same way that the talents are not distributed uniformly, the responses are not all alike. The one who is given five doubles his share; the one who is given two doubles the portion as well. The third servant, the one who receives one talent, buries his in the ground. At some point, a great time later, the master returns, to settle accounts. There will be a judgment, an accounting that we will give to the One who is giver of all things. Call it an audit. Why? Because the talents originally came from the master, who wants to know how it has gone.

To the one whose five talents became ten, the master says, “well done”. To the one whose two talents have become four, the master says, “well done”. To both of these servants the master says, “you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master”. You have been faithful over a little. It is interesting, in that five talents---seventy five years wages; two talents---thirty years wages---was not really “a little”. But the master is making a point---“you have not begun to see what I am able to give you”. As my friend Bob Tuttle says, “You cannot outgive God”. Stay with these two servants for a moment. Their presence in the story is a testament to the creativity and faithfulness of these servants. In the way the story gets told we do dwell on the third servant, but the first two multiply their gifts. Well done, the master says.

Now, the third servant. He comes before the master, and, as Lucille Ball would have known, he has “some explaining to do”. He comes up with a justification for his behavior, why he had buried his talent in the ground. I knew you were a harsh master, and I was afraid. It is all there, in that very brief response. What we think about the master, what we think about God shapes what we will do our gifts. And what we think about God shapes what we believe about human nature.

Here is the crucial question: Do you think people are basically selfish or generous? Are we basically stingy or generous? If you think we are basically selfish and stingy, then giving is a great challenge, it is unnatural, it is getting us to do something that is against our nature. But what if we are created in the image of God? And this leads to another question: what is God like? I knew you were a harsh master, the servant blurts out, and I was afraid. Sometimes we envision God as miserly, detached, up there somewhere in the sky, hands folded and clinched, disapproving of us. And yet, what if there is a different image of God? The best known verse in the whole of scripture gives us a simple description of God. It is the verse we learned as children. For God so loved the world that he…..gave. It is the nature of God to give. We are created in the image of a giving God. We were created to be giving people. I believe that, given a chance, people are basically gracious and generous.

Of course, giving is a spiritual practice and we learn to do it, somehow. A few weeks ago, during the time that was so economically tumultuous, I preached a sermon on the financial crisis and I asked a few of our members for guidance on what to say, what would help and what would harm. Since then I have tried to listen to the stories of how we learn to be gracious and generous in the midst of scarcity and I will share a little of that too. These stories come from one of our older adults and some of our youngest adults.

Over lunch a couple of weeks ago, a friend talked about living through the depression. He has done very well in this life, he would say, in marriage, as a parent, in friendships, in bonds with community and church, and in business. He told me that as far back as he could remember, as a child, he received an allowance of fifty cents, which was significant during the depression. His parents instructed him to give a tithe---one tenth---to the church. That would be five cents. He did not appreciate this, at the time, but it shaped his life. Because of that lesson his generosity has changed the lives of more people than he realizes. I thought of the saying of Jesus: “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much”. It all started with five cents!

A year ago a group of young adults in our church decided to live out this parable of the talents. They were each given a sum of money, they read this parable of the talents and began to think creatively about how they might bring it to life. Just as with the story that Jesus told, they were not given instructions on how to use the gift; they were given freedom to do it, to have fun. First, something of what they learned and then the outcome. One talked about self-discovery:

“it was liberating to understand that I am called to use my gifts. My gifts are different from others and the return on those gifts should not be compared to others. If I can confidently say that I have used my gifts to the best of my ability to serve God and do His work, then I can feel great about the outcome.

One talked about coming together with others: “People intuitively understood that we were investing our money, our time, [and] our creativity and they wanted to be a part of what we were doing”. One talked about risk: “I participated in the attic sale and I think there was a great deal of angst as to how to get donations for the attic sale. We were completely dependent on God to help members of the congregation to “want” to donate…I was probably the most fearful of this, but I did learn to trust that God would help the congregation to…to help us deliver. And she also talked about an unexpected gift: “during the sale after a few hours we still had many tables of clothes left. We started handing out bags, telling all the shoppers that they could buy as many clothes as they could put into the bag for $2.00. During these rough economic times, the joy and relief on people’s faces were really incredible.” One made a connection with his spiritual life: “what we were given was a pretty modest amount to be entrusted with, considering with what God has provided to us and trusts us with every day - yet we don't think about how to be stewards of those "everyday" resources nearly as much”. Another summarized it all in this way: “EVERYBODY has a talent. Sometimes we don't know we have a talent until someone asks us to try something new. There is fear of failure in utilizing your talent but the reward of even a small scale success outweighs the fear. I don't think God is a harsh master when we at least try to use our talents.... it's not necessarily about success, it's probably more about trying. What a fantastic feeling we have when we use our talents!”

Self-discovery, coming together, stewardship, spiritual connection, risk, overcoming fear of failure, a different definition of success.…it is all there, in the parable of the talents. This summer Pam and I took a couple of weeks vacation in the mountains and on one of the Sunday mornings we went to the Lake Junaluska Assembly to hear Tony Campolo preach. Tony Campolo is by training an academic sociologist, he is on the list of the twelve greatest preachers in the English- speaking world, and he is funny. I always enjoy hearing him.

Tony began his sermon by referring to a sociological study, and the results have stayed with me. In the study 50 people over the age of 95 were asked a question: If you had your life to live over again, what they would do differently? They responded by focusing on the following. There were 3 conclusions. “I would reflect more. I would do more things that would live on after they were dead. I would take more risks.”

What would you do differently? That is almost the question the master asks the three servants when he returns. I have been reflecting lately in relation to our church. We did not complete the parking lot and columbarium by burying our talents in the ground. We did not begin a mission to Haiti twenty-eight years ago by avoiding risks. That group of young adults ended up with net proceeds of almost $7000, and it will all go to mission beyond us---a new United Methodist Church in Florida, Crisis Assistance, Jamie and Holle Wollin in Thailand, and others. They did not do this by burying their talents in the ground. A number of our church’s leaders did not make a place for the homeless in the catacombs by avoiding risks. The Wesley Men’s Class, in a few weeks will fund three scholarships for deserving young adults at Pfeiffer University, Brevard College and Duke Divinity School. They will not do this by burying their talents in the ground. This church over a period of three months gathered the financial resources to fund an elementary school in northern Haiti for the first three years; they did not do this by avoiding risks. Our youth, this fall in an auction gathered $15,000 for missions, beyond us, and they did not do this by avoiding risks!

Over fifty years ago a group of adults began to dream about a new Methodist church on the edge of Charlotte, they met in homes to pray, and they made it happen and it did not happen by burying their talents in the ground and avoiding risks, and in the process many of them did indeed do something that has lived on even until this moment and they are no longer with us.

God gives, but he does not share. That is up to us, to you and me. Let us respond, let us give, and let us enter into the joy of our master. Amen.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

let it snow

So we came up to Lake Junaluska on Thursday evening---it had been a very full week: church conference on Monday evening, teaching an interfaith Bible study on Tuesday evening at the Temple, leading a discussion of The Shack on Wednesday evening, speaking to a senior adult lunch gathering on Thursday noon---it had been a very full week. My wife had a decorating project that was on tap for Friday and Saturday, and I would be raking the leaves at our small place here. Well, we woke up on Friday morning and it had snowed!!

I have not yet fully grasped the skill of importing photographs into blogs, so you will have to take my word---it was beautiful. Later in the day it warmed up enough for a two and a half mile walk around the lake----still snow in many places, the moist air coming off the lake, really rejuvenating.

Needless to say, few leaves have been raked. The snow will have to depart and the sun will need to absorb the moisture. In the meantime...A White Thanksgiving. How about that!

Monday, November 17, 2008

running on empty (matthew 25. 1-13)

The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this, Jesus says. And then he tells three vivid stories, which we find in the 25th chapter of Matthew: last week we focused on the parable of the talents, next week we will look at the parable of the sheep and the goats. The one story has to do with our gifts: do we take a risk with our gifts, do we bury them in the ground? The other story has to do with our actions: have we been compassionate?

In each story God is present, as master and as judge. In each story we are given opportunities, for a time, and then the door closes, and there is an accounting, a spiritual audit, a final answer. The Lord himself will judge us: what did I do with my money, with my time? How was I in a relationship with the poor, with the stranger, with the prisoner, with the sick?

And deeply embedded within these two parables there is the presence of Jesus, himself. What if Jesus is the treasure that we share with others, what if the good news cannot be suppressed, what if the gospel is the gift that is multiplied? What if Jesus is the woman who is sick or the man who is homeless or the young adult who is in prison? What if Jesus is there, in plain sight, waiting to be noticed! “When did we see you?”, he is asked, at the great judgment. “We were not quite prepared for your coming!”

Well, there is another story in the twenty-fifth chapter, it is less known, and yet it too is about time that is drawing to a close, the kingdom of heaven impinging on life. It is, most scholars believe, more allegory than parable. Parables have one meaning, one point, but allegories have multiple meanings, each facet of the story representing something else, something on the surface pointing to something beneath the surface.

The teaching of Jesus is set in the context of a marriage in first century Palestine. We are not sure about all of the customs of a wedding in that time and place, but we can draw some parallels with weddings in our own time and place. Bill Jeffries officiated in a wedding this past weekend, I will officiate in a wedding in two weekends, weddings tend to be sprinkled throughout the late spring, summer, and sometimes into fall. All sorts of customs surround these weddings: Who will light the candles, will the mother of the bride, the mother of the groom? Who took care of which preparations? Did anyone forget something? The marriage license? The rings?

In the story there is a bridegroom, who is Jesus. There are ten bridesmaids who take their lamps to meet the bridegroom. Five are foolish and five are wise. Here the bridesmaids represent the church, which is always a gathering of the wise and the foolish, of, as the movie title had it, “the good, the bad and the ugly”. Jesus seemed to grasp this: the church is always weeds and wheat, growing up together; it is one person building a house on a rock, and another on sand.

Jesus was a realist. The church was always a mixed bag of motives, pure and impure intentions, true and false beliefs. How could you tell them apart, the wise from the foolish? Well, that is what makes it all so interesting? You can’t really. They all purchased the bridesmaids dresses at the same shop. Externally, on the surface, it is all going according to plan, everyone is following the same playbook.

Years ago I was helping a couple in preparation for their wedding. They were fine young adults, having benefited from the advantages made possible by their parents, having spent some time passing through higher education, I don’t recall how much or where, good people, in love with each other, but something was not quite right, something was missing. I could not put my finger on it, and even though we had two wide-ranging discussions, it never emerged. It was just below the surface.

The day of the wedding came. The service began. The father gave the daughter away, he kissed her, walked to the first pew, sat beside her mother. The couple joined hands, walked to the altar area with me. They said the vows, they exchanged rings, they knelt in prayer, they stood up, a soloist sang the “Lord’s Prayer”, and I pronounced them husband and wife. They walked down the aisle, arm in arm. There was a tension there, but I chalked it up to the nervousness that is natural in a large gathering of people.

Later I stopped by the reception, and it was almost a different world. Everyone looked so happy, so joyous, so relieved! I gave it a brief thought but went about my business, mingling, saying hello to friends. Finally someone in conversation, as an aside, spilled the beans. It seems that this was the third (and gladly successful) take on the couple’s plans for a wedding. The first time the bride had called the wedding off three months before the date; the second time, one week prior. All along, things had been fine, externally. But internally, something was happening, something was missing. Weddings can be that way. We are caught up in the externals! But what was going on inside of the bride and the groom, just beneath the surface? What is going on inside of us?

In the gospel everyone is making plans for the great wedding feast. In the tradition of Jesus, one of the signs of the Messiah was that he would preside at a great wedding feast. A wedding was a huge event---it still us---but there was more going on than a wedding between two human beings. It was all about the union of God and the people of God.

Well, in the guestlist there is this cast of characters. How is it that some are wise and some are foolish? In the story, this has to do with whether there is oil is in the lamp or not. In the Old Testament oil can represent deeds of love and mercy, it can point to the scripture, and it can symbolize the Holy Spirit.

The problem in the gospel for today is not that the bridesmaids fall asleep in anticipation of the coming of the groom. They all sleep, the wise and the foolish. The issue is in their readiness, and externally they are indeed all prepared---every detail has been cared for, with one great exception. Is there oil in the lamp? Or are we running on empty? We remember the crisis this fall, we remember watching our gasoline guage moving farther and farther toward “e”. We remember the anxiety of all of that. And, of course, the obvious always points to the the not-so-obvious. I heard a professor once speak of preaching by using the imagery of a lantern, the oil being used up, the flame getting dimmer. The speaker, from the African-American tradition, said it plainly: “you have to keep oil in your lamp”.

It to see the 25th chapter of Matthew as a whole, Jesus making one extended argument. You and I placed on this earth for a purpose: to love and work, to worship and play, to take care of the needs of our families and those beyond us. And there does seem to be a note of urgency in these three stories. It is, as we say in the Great Thanksgiving, the mystery of faith: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”.

From a human point of view, the cliché has it right, “time is of the essence”; and so, John Wesley would say, “don’t trifle it away”. Be ready, be prepared. When I was a kid, I understood this as being about having my life in order in case the Angry Judge came today. I heard this in more than one revival service. But today’s story has a different tone: pay attention, or you will miss the great celebration!

I have wondered this week: whatever became of that couple? I did talk with them about it all later, and they laughed. This had been the right time for them. They had lived through their share of heartburn, on the way, and had been the cause of sleepless nights for their families. Somehow the inner conviction had to catch up with the external event. And it did.

It was their time. These three stories of Jesus are very much about timing. They got passed around the earliest Christian communities for a simple reason: Jesus had promised that he would return, but this did not seem to be happening. Where was Jesus? They remembered the word in Matthew 25. 5, “the bridegroom was delayed”. Was the bridegroom haggling with the bride’s family over some economic aspect of the wedding; more than one scholar sees this as likely. But the delay of the coming of Jesus was a crisis of faith. Is God trustworthy, is the word of God trustworthy?

We answer that question by learning to be patient, and by persevering, by giving thanks even when the future is uncertain, by preparing ourselves to wait a very long time. And so we set aside that extra flask of oil, the reserve, so that our faith is able to carry us through the darkness. This teaching has echoes in almost all of the later writings to the first Christians: do not be weary in your well-doing, the author of Hebrews says; do not neglect to meet together. And the author of II Peter, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years”.

The church in its wisdom places these three stories in Matthew 25 just prior to the season of Advent, which is upon us in two weeks. They were stories about patience, but not a passive patience. In the meantime, while we are waiting, while Jesus has been delayed----and on many days we ask, where is he?---and our patience becomes protest (!)---in the meantime we consider the lamp that is our soul, that is our heart, that is the interior life. It is, Jesus reminded Martha once, the one thing that is necessary.

Along the way there are questions.

Is there a flame there? Is a fire burning? Are we burning out? And how do we keep that fire alive? And here, for me, the three stories in Matthew 25 merge into one. The oil is that burning desire to love God and neighbor, to worship God, to take risks, to share our gifts, to make our lives mean something, even if we do not have the future figured out, even if we are discouraging because something has not worked out as we had planned.

We cannot control the external circumstances, the markets rise and fall, the wars do not come to an end and peace is delayed, those we love struggle with chronic disease while we hope for an intervention, an outbreak of peace on earth, a scientific breakthrough, or a miracle.

It would be easy to give up, to despair, to become passive. And yet each of these parables in Matthew 25 is a call to do quite the opposite. Do not be weary in your well-doing. Keep the oil in your lamp burning. Do not bury your talents in the ground. Use them for the glory of your generous master. Do not withdraw from those who need your prayers, your presence, your gifts and your service. In moving toward them, you may indeed meet Jesus. All of this may be your salvation.

And in doing all of this, the kingdom of heaven will come a little closer, the flame of justice will burn a little brighter, the warmth of the lamp will remind us that God loves us, if we had forgotten, he is not delayed forever.

So pay attention. Be prepared. Jesus is coming soon. Keep the oil in your lamp burning.

Friday, November 14, 2008

why i like morning joe

I blogged some time ago about my appreciation for some aspects of the Don Imus morning show on MSNBC. I liked the political conversation, and the soundtrack (background music), but could live without the vulgar banter. In time this would indeed become the downfall of Imus, and his show disappeared, and deservedly so. Imus was succeeded by Morning Joe, which has become an unlikely favorite in our household. It turns out that "Morning Joe" is Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Pensacola, Florida, and the co-hosts are Mika Brezezinski and television's own Willie Geist. Morning Joe airs from 6-9 a.m. (e.s.t.), but we usually begin watching at about 6:45, using dvr to pass through the abundant commercials (which, in post-modern, post-capitalist America, have to do primarily with pharmaceutical companies and oil companies attempting to convince us that they care about the uninsured and the environment, even as they search for ways to spend exorbitant profits)

I was not a fan of Joe Scarborough's former program, Scarborough Country, but I do like Morning Joe. It retains some of the best features of Imus, particularly sharp political commentary, ranging from David Remnick of The New Yorker to Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal. Regulars include Mike Barnacle, formerly of the Boston Globe, Patrick Buchanan, former Presidential candidate, Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post and pollster Chuck Todd.

The appeal of Morning Joe is one-part content, one-part quirkiness of the regulars, and one-part predictable routine. The content is whatever captures the lead in the day's political spin cycle: an unguarded comment by a political candidate, or the stock market bailout (termed by the MJ regulars as a "money party"), or speculation about the future administration. Much of the content derives from the substance of the major morning newspapers (NYT, WP, WSJ), and in this sense there must be something positive about people reading and being encouraged to read newspapers. And so the voices of Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedman, Eugene Robinson and David Brooks, Paul Krugman and Roger Cohen are heard almost every day, and this is all to the good. I do not know if the ratings are healthy, but MJ appeals to a sufficient audience to draw chief figures from each political party.

The quirkiness requires investing time in paying attention to the flow of the program and listening to the off-hand remarks. Joe steps on the comments of the others (he is not a good listener), and occasionally the others push back. At times guests are invited on, and they can sit for minutes before being acknowledged---it is as they are spectators. Mika is bright but at times defers to Joe, and this can be irritating---but then she can also be forceful. She is clearly a more liberal counter-balance, but again this is not entirely predictable; she has been fairly positive about Sarah Palin, and this has won her the criticism of many. Willie is off-beat, slightly cynical and at times even goofy. Chuck Todd, who must be the heir apparent to Tim Russert, is called "Chucky T" by all of the regulars, even though it is obvious that he hates this designation. For this reason, the nickname is employed at every possible opportunity. The morning includes financial reporting from London and New York, very brief sports coverage (which my wife also passes through) and a feature entitled "News You Can't Use", which is like "News of the Wierd". At the conclusion of the morning, there is a closing comment around the question "What I Learned Today", and each regular chimes in. I am usually out of the house by now, but I often tape it. It is a nod, I think, to the idea that politics is serious, and yet these people do not take themselves that seriously, in the end.

Joe is a complex individual, and this shapes the show to some degree. He is a southerner, a conservative, a former congressman (for a time a little bell chimed in the upper left hand corner each time he alluded to his tenure in this office, which was the regular's way of poking fun at his hubris). His identity is clearly in Pensacola, and yet he is at home in upscale New York and D.C. At times he seems to be playing to the home folks, at other times he seems to honestly critique the limitations of his (and my own) background and culture, and at times he rightly names the constructive qualities of small-town America. His lapse in conversation last week (saying the four letter word beginning with "f" on the air) was an honest mistake; it also revealed that Joe is a complext participant in both popular piety and the entertainment/political culture in which he is immersed. His personality is balanced by the other regulars, especially Mike, Mike Barnacle and Willie; each seems to appreciate him, while also pushing him when his bluster is not quite defensible.

You can learn a lot by watching Morning Joe. Are we a center-right or center-left country? Should we now bail out the automobile industry? Is there a gathering consensus, in both parties, about going green? Is Sarah Palin the future of the Republican party, and if so, is that good? Along the way you hear the arguments not only of the regulars, but of the major editorial writers in our country, and even if we are in the midst of the demise of many U.S. newspapers (this would be true of the Charlotte Observer), we are blessed with remarkably eloquent editorialists, who, in a few words, get to the heart of the matter. And along the way, you have fun. It is not a bad way to begin the day.

So, Morning Joe, 6-9 a.m., on MSNBC. As a friend puts it, "I just did you are real favor".

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

today is the birthday of fyodor dostoevsky

I receive the daily "Writer's Almanac" via email from Garrison Keillor, and learned this morning that today is the birthday of Fyodor Dostoevsky. If in your lifetime you have some ambition to climb a literary summit----to tackle a work of literature that will test every ounce of your mental and spiritual resources, I would suggest The Brothers Karamazov. Keillor disappoints in giving virtually no commentary on the great Russian novelist, so I will briefly address the oversight and post a couple of observations. I have been introduced to FD by two mentors, first Ralph Wood in lectures, and then Eugene Peterson, whose debt is rehearsed in at least two places: an essay entitled "God and Passion" in Reality And The Vision, and in Under The Unpredictable Plant.

In the latter, Peterson writes:

"I actively went looking for help to support me in maintaining and developing the pastor/writer vocation. I was looking for a pastor, a priest, a guide...I made several attempts to find a vocational mentor among the living, without success. Then I found Fyodor Dostoevsky...I took my appointments calendar and wrote in two-hour meetings with "FD" three afternoons a week. Over the next seven months I read through the entire corpus, some of it twice...I spent those afternoons with a man for whom God and passion were integral---and integrated."(49-50)

The Brothers K is massive and complicated, and I will admit having tried at least twice to make it through, but without success. But one year, the week following Easter, I made a plan to stay there, to stay with FD until I worked my way through 796 pages. And I must say that the novel is nothing less than stunning. As another literary hero, Frederick Buechner notes, the Brothers K is "a novel less about the religious experience than a novel the reading of which is a religious experience: of God, both in his subterranean presence and in his appalling absence."

It is all there in The Brothers K: rebellion, doubt, pride, self-destruction, materialism, disillusionment, corruption, materialism, scandal, but also grace, humility, forgiveness, simplicity, contemplation, purification, doxology and even holiness. I realize that the novel is simply too daunting for some, and there is the tendency to isolate particular chapters, books within the book: "The Grand Inquisitor", or "The Odor of Corruption", and the reader could do far worse than to spend time reflecting on these particular scenes.

The integration of God and passion is nowhere more present, or more crystalized for me, than the simple proverb voiced by one of the characters, "if there is no immortality of the soul, everything is permitted". My hope in the life to come, on my better days, infuses a motivation to act in accordance with the One who "was in the beginning, is now, and evermore shall be, world without end". And the separation of religion and morality, which was the enlightenment's great project, has not ushered us into paradise. Quite the opposite.

For these and other reasons I am grateful today for the birth of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821).

Friday, November 07, 2008

extravagant generosity

Those of us who live in Charlotte are enjoying the incredible beauty of the leaves that fill the trees here in Charlotte. The last few days must represent the peak season. This is also the season of peak activity in the church: a fall festival was held for children, a sixth grade confirmation retreat, the chancel choir is anticipating the music of Advent and Christmas, we have hosted the overflow women's shelter for Salvation Army, Bible studies of all types (Disciple, Beth Moore, Interfaith, Introduction To Christianity), two weeks of the Haiti Mission have just concluded...Not to mention preparations for charge conference. I could go on and on.

We are preparing for the Sunday Services, and the theme will be Extravagant Generosity. This is the first of our stewardship Sundays. I blogged recently about our uncertain economic climate, and I want to focus here on how our church is responding, and how you might help. For those in other churches, it might plant the seed of a good idea in your mind, or you might have a suggestion about something we are missing! I will keep it straightforward and simple.

1. The church plans for the future on the basis of "estimates of giving." In the past we have planned in a wise, prudent and yet faithful manner, and we will do so in the future.

2. We received "estimates of giving" last fall from approximately 514 individuals and families. We hope to exceed this goal in the coming weeks. We believe we are touching more people through the ministries of our church and we want to "broaden our base"!

3. We are aware that, because of recent economic events (locally and nationally), not everyone will be able to pledge. For those who struggle with this spiritually, four persons have stepped forward to listen and give counsel, and in strict confidence. These are members of our church who have skills in financial planning and professional employment search but also backgrounds in listening and Christian caregiving. Their role would simply be to listen and try to be helpful. We also have a group that meets every Monday morning at 11:00 to help persons seeking employment. It is an open group and welcomes newcomers. If either of these opportunities strikes a chord with you, let me know.

4. We are aware that not everyone will be able to participate with an estimate of giving. We also believe that some persons who have never done so before may recognize the crucial importance of doing so this year, and may pledge for the first time. We are the body of Christ, and in this way we lift up and support one another.

5. We sense that needs in our community will be greater than ever in the coming year, and two critical needs will be in the areas of housing and hunger. Our church is already involved in cutting-edge ministry with the homeless, and hundreds of our members volunteer in this area. A group of pastor/leaders in our community, including Bill Jeffries, are developing a community response to hunger through Loaves and Fishes, and this will be one of our initiatives from Thanksgiving to Christmas. In addition, our local missions budget includes over 33 local agencies and ministries, most of which are responding to increasing demands upon their own resources. The investment of time and money by PUMC in these efforts cannot be overestimated.

6. My own personal prayer is that a few persons in our church will sense a burden to give a large and sacrificial gift to our 2009 mission, in the awareness that this is an extenuating circumstance. I am fully aware that this is an uncertain time. I also know that the resources exist among our members to keep our momentum alive. This is not the time to constrict our budget. What if 5, or 10, or 25 persons made the decision to give the largest financial pledge they have ever given to a church? What a way to lift up the light of Christ in a dark time!

7. I will be preaching in the Sunday services on the parable of the talents (Matthew 25. 14-30). Please keep me in your prayers as I prepare this message. I am aware that I do not want to motivate persons through guilt or by tricking them, or by coming up with some way to say all of this that is clever or trendy. I want to clearly communicate whatever God wants us to hear. I want to trust that God will provide the resources that are needed. I want to proclaim the extravagant generosity of God, through Jesus Christ.

Now, if you have read this far I believe that you care about all of this too. So I ask you to pray. Read the gospel (Matthew 25. 14-30). Attend worship on Sunday. Reflect on what God is asking you to give in 2009 to the mission of PUMC. If you are a member of PUMC, you can pledge with a card that was mailed to you, or use one that will be inserted in the worship bulletin. You can make a confidential pledge on-line at our church's website. See the link to the right, under "churches". And if you cannot pledge, trust that God will honor the gifts of your prayers, your presence and your service! Every person is important.

If you are reading this and you a member of another congregation, pray for your pastor and understand that she or he is probably sorting out all of this: how to faithfully lead the church in this vital area, while remaining sensitive to what people are going through.

Have a blessed weekend, and, again, enjoy the beautiful creation that God has sketched out for all of us. This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice, and be glad in it!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

obama going forward

Had I sensed that the solutions to our primary problems were political in nature I would have chosen a career in politics. Instead, I have always sensed that our chief questions are theological: who we are in relation to God, to one another and to our world? How we work out these relationships, and how resources are shared across relationships and in the wider world has everything to do with the practice of politics and economics. I have served alongside people of deep faith who are very clear in their agreement about the importance of the great questions and yet differ in the practice of politics.

My sense of last evening and this morning, in the United States of America, is that we have entered into a new world, and I see that journey in theological terms: we are a country deeply scarred by the reality of slavery, and both oppressor and oppressed bear the wounds of that history. I do not reduce this reality to red and blue states, but understand that these impulses, which are about power and control, are at war within each of us. The free election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, by a citizenry of people of all colors is a testament to the breaking of the yoke of slavery, which accounts for the overwhelming ethos of joy on the faces of African -Americans across our country. And yet this same election should resonate within the heart of every white American as well; we are only now living into the conduct of our creed, that all are created equal. I agree with an anonymous person from South Africa who wrote to the New York Times last week: I think Barack Obama may be our Nelson Mandela.

I tend to be centrist in my politics, and see movements as swings of the pendulum; we have seen two national elections (06, 08) as correctives to a governing party that was elected by a narrow margin and yet ruled as if it had a broad mandate. In "the wisdom of crowds", our democracy worked, and now there is a move to the center. When Obama speaks of a nation that is not primarily about "red states" and "blue states" but the "United States", I take him at his word. And I know, from historical memory, that if he does not lead and manage in this way, another corrective is on the way. This is the messy beauty of our democracy.

I am happy for the election of an African-American man as president and delighted that an African-American family will reside in the White House. I am also happy that Obama did not make race the leading factor in his election. I take no delight in the defeat of John McCain, whom I do regard as an heroic, if also tragic figure--tragic in that he deserved better, in 2000 and in 2008 (I refer not to electoral outcome, but to the events embedded in each race). I recall the opinion piece written by David Brooks on the day following the national election of 04, a word of warning to the Bush Administration, that "pride goes before a fall". Brooks was encouraging President Bush to govern toward the middle, where the electorate actually was. This was not the outcome, and the results, again, have been two successive electoral responses.

In our congregation we spent some time this fall reflecting on the relationship between faith and the presidential election. In reading books by Jim Wallis and Adam Hamilton, I realize that my voting patterns are shaped by values largely related to a set of issues that no one party has yet assembled. To name just two of the values, I appreciate the government's role in securing a safety net for retired persons, for the poor, and, I hope in the future, for the sick. I am for a national health plan. At the same time, I am also for greater efforts to insure that the unborn are welcomed into the world, and adopted into families that will care for them.

In reading a recent book by Tom Friedman (Hot, Flat and Crowded), I also have the sense that our national and global crisis (rooted in concerns of economics and energy), will require engagement and competence in the future. The Katrina event, followed by the ongoing war in Iraq, have in my mind unleashed the continuing question of competence in our national leadership. That almost nine of ten Americans recognize this puts the issue, for me, beyond partisanship. The recent economic collapse has taught us that we have less margin for error. And, to be sure, this may have been the driving force in the electoral result.

In the midst of it all I was also asked to share a prayer with a clergy group, and the prayer eventually made its way to a number of websites: the General Board of Discipleship, the Upper Room, the General Board of Church and Society. I know that it was used in worship services, and adapted according to particular needs, and for all of this I am grateful. The closing words, "Let those who follow your Son Jesus Christ be a peaceable people in the midst of division. Send your Spirit of peace, justice and freedom upon us, break down the walls of political partisanship, and make us one. Give us wisdom to walk in your ways, courage to speak in your name, and humility to trust in your providence, " seem to me to be as relevant post-election as pre-election.

Note: I have always had the strong personal sense that I should not, as a pastor, endorse a particular candidate. This derives from my desire to serve individuals who are of any or no political perspective. What brings us together is not our political vantage point, but a deeper unity in the One Body of Christ, which transcends, judges and gives life to all political and economic practices.

Being a pastor in a large congregation, in a city and community that is pretty divided politically (I am not sure if North Carolina has even been called either way) is always an odd experience on the day after an election. There seem to me, on a day like to today, to be causes for celebration and caution. Celebration: we have reframed the history of our country in one electoral act---slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., all of it reframed in one historical moment. And, theologically, that is about redemption and the providence of God. And yet, a word of caution: our problems, and the solutions to them, are not fundamentally political in nature; they are theological. Every person, whether he or she resides in a red or blue state, whether he or she votes with or against you, has been created in the image of God. This imago dei has everything to do with freedom and dignity, and, at our best, this is why people across the world strive, against all odds, to make their way to the United States (I think of three people on our staff: one from Ecuador, one from the Congo, one who is a Montagnard).

A further word: it is true, someone noted, that all idols crack under the pressure of our need for them. At the moment Barack Obama is an icon, the projection of a massive social movement, one aspiring, at its best, to the cause of human dignity. I think he is careful to deflect this back to the people who listen to him speak, to say continually that it is about them. That is true, and yet Obama does not need to become an idol. Barack Obama is a Christian (the rumors of his being a Muslim were untrue), and he understands the need for humility. As he said late last night, he needs both his supporters and his opponents. God is speaking through each of them. And hopefully God will use all of them (us) for the rebuilding of the nation.

It is a remarkable day to be a citizen of this nation, and today I offer prayers of profound thanksgiving to God for the ability to witness, participate in, and reflect (even through a glass darkly) with you about all of this.