Tuesday, September 29, 2009

random questions

1. Should the Panthers stay with Jake, or should they trade Julius for a quarterback in next year's draft?

2. Why do church consultants always use the pipe organ as a pinata to bash, with everything that is bad about the church falling out of it?

3. Is the Roman Polanski issue about a middle aged man raping a thirteen year old girl, or is it about the persecution of a great artist?

4. Can the Braves make it into the playoffs?

5. Do I really think Sarah Palin has written a book?

6. If the public option is so terrible, what do I make of family members and friends who attended 1) UNC-Chapel Hill 2) Clemson 3) the University of Virginia 4) the University of Georgia (I could go on...)?

7. Are we headed into another derivatives debacle in the financial world?

Monday, September 21, 2009

the problems and possibilities of healing

When you hear the word healing, in the context of faith and church, what images form in your mind? For some it might be parents refusing to get proper medical care for their child because of their religious beliefs. For others it might be a man in a polyester suit “slaying people in the spirit”, with another man throwing down a cane or a woman getting up out of a wheelchair and everyone applauding. An understanding of healing is present in each of these cases.

For most of us, if we are honest, religious healing is a strange idea, and so we reject it. But there is one problem, at least for a follower of Jesus: he was a healer. As I mentioned in the blog post on health care in America, Jesus did three things: he preached, he taught, and he healed. The kingdom of God encompassed all of life, and the renewal of the whole person: the spirit (preaching), the mind (teaching) and the body (healing).

Healing, religious healing seems like a strange idea to us…and yet Jesus was a healer. The gospels are filled, page after page, with stories of his healings: Peter’s mother in law, a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit, the daughter of one of the synagogue leaders, a paralyzed man, a woman with uncontrolled bleeding, a man who had been bound by chains and lived in the graveyard, those who could not see or hear, a leper, a woman who touched the garment of Jesus while he was walking through a crowd, a man with a withered hand, the slave of a roman soldier, a widow’s son, the daughter of Jairus, the man who had been an invalid beside the pool for 38 years, the daughter of a Canaanite woman, his friend Lazarus, I could go on….you can almost read the details of Jesus’ life and it is as if he lives in a perpetual state of triage. He is constantly around people with profound needs, and the narrative thread of the gospels is that he touches people and he heals them.

What do we make of this? Well, one response would be simply to deny the truthfulness of these incidents; we might say, “Jesus was a caring person, a humanitarian leader, a wise teacher, but the miracles, I am not so sure”. We could take our scissors and cut out these stories, but, in essence, we would end up with a Bible full of holes, but this would present another problem: the healing of the man born blind leads to one of his great teachings: “I am the light of the world”. The healing of Lazarus leads to another: “I am the resurrection and the life”. And so it goes. The preaching, teaching and healing are an interconnected web, just as the spirit, mind and body are a unity.

Another way to view the healings is to say that “they were unique, they took place in a particular circumstance, Jesus was divine, but all of that is confined to a moment in history, first century Palestine, we live in a modern era.” Healings are history, but these portions of the gospels don’t apply to our lives. And so maybe we don’t cut them out of our Bibles, but we skip over them.

So, the healings are not true, or they are not relevant. For me, as a Christian, neither of these responses is adequate. I want to propose an alternative: the healing ministry of Christ is at the very heart of the gospel, it is both true and relevant, healing comes to us as gift and as commandment , healing meets us at the point of our greatest need. And the integrity of the gospel---think back, to last week and the parable of the Good Samaritan---is that Jesus’ life and his teaching, his actions and his words, are consistent. He is a preacher, a teacher and a healer. The biblical evidence is overwhelming.

And yet, still, I know, it is strange. So a few comments on what we can make of it, a series of convictions about the healing ministry of Christ:

1. All healing is from God, and this can take a variety of forms, one of the most important being the health practitioner. The best health practitioners use their skills, their education, their gifts, and they teach us to live by faith, they teach us to draw on our own strengths.

2. Some healing is up to us. In the gospel of John the man had been lying beside the pool for a long time, and Jesus asks him an odd question: “Do you want to get well?” “No one has helped me”, the man responds. And then, a teaching that points to the need for personal responsibility, Jesus says, “rise up and walk”. Some healing is up to us: the food that we eat, how often we exercise, the importance of rest, and how we care for the environment. Some healing is up to us.

3. Most healing is relational. In the gospel of Mark, four men bring a paralytic to Jesus. Notice that Jesus is moved, not by the faith of the man who is ill, but by “their faith”, by the faith of his friends. And so he says to the man, “your sins are forgiven, get up, go home”. If the healing in John’s gospel is about the responsibility that we take for our own healing, the miracle in the gospel of Mark is about the responsibility that we take for the healing of others. Some healing is up to us. Most healing is relational.

4. Healing is about our situation and our response to the situation. Only the second is within our capacity to control. Some of us struggle with chronic diseases. Some of us are burdened with traumatic memories. Some of us live with the daily companion of grief. Some of us have lived in broken families. And the temptation is to allow these situations to define us. At times life that is beyond our control. Perhaps we cannot control the situation, but we can control our response to the situation. We can make our way to the source of healing. And that is a start, because…

5. Healing is less like a decision and more like a process. It’s football season, if you haven’t noticed, and one evening recently I became engrossed in a movie I had never seen, Friday Night Lights. One of the moving scenes is when the star halfback is injured, and in his absence the team is losing. He dreams of playing in the pros, and he wants to get back in the game, and so he ignores the advice of the physician and lies to his coach, who probably really does not want to hear the truth either, and he returns too soon, and, for all practical purposes, his playing days come to an end. He ignored that truth that healing is a process. It takes time. I sensed this on Friday, September 11, as I thought about the thousands who died eight years ago. We all know this. The healing of an injury, the recovery from surgery, the restoration of a relationship, making peace with a difficult outcome---healing is a process. It takes time.

6. Healing is less about confession and more about reconciliation. When I was getting started in the ministry I was given four churches in a rural county. Beautiful country, great people. Each of these churches had, in their yearly schedule, a fall revival and a spring revival. There was also a community revival, and these revivals lasted anywhere between five and seven nights. So, you can do the math, I had nine weeks of revival a year. I was a very revived person. And it is God’s grace that Pam remained married to me.

Well over time I puzzled, in my own mind, about the purpose of these revivals. They were of course to reach the lost, but the same people attended them, night after night, week after week. No one sold farm land, there were no new residents to the area. For the most part, if you were in the family you were in church. Why the need for these revivals? Over time, the answer came. They were not so much about saving the lost as reconciling those who came. When you live with the same people, in close proximity, day after day, month after month, year after year, conflict arises, misunderstandings take place, divisions emerge. How do you break through all of that? For us, it was at the altar, it happened in those revivals, the walls that separated us from God and each other were broken down. It was reconciliation.

7. Healing includes pain that is the way to wellness. For some of us, the idea of Jesus healing us is frightening. C. S. Lewis reflects on it this way. He says:

When I was a child I often had a toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something that would deaden the pain and allow me to sleep. But I did not go to my mother. Not, at least, until the pain became very bad.

“And the reason was that I knew that she would not only give me an aspirin, but the next morning she would take me to the dentist. I could not get out of her what I wanted without getting more. I could not get relief from my pain without getting my teeth set permanently right. And I knew these dentists: I knew they would start fiddling around with all sorts of other teeth that had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie. If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.”

God desires that we be healed, whole, but on the way there is self-examination and purging, the breaking of our hearts of stone, the opening of our clinched hands so that the idols that we have trusted can fall to the ground. Our separation from God has had the effect of numbing us into denial, into complacency, into the illusion that everything is fine. And then we face, at some point along the way and for some reason, the reality, and our need for a higher power. It is painful, but it is the way that leads to life.

8. The ultimate healing is in the resurrection. We read in the letter of James: the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up. Many of us have prayed for the healing of loved ones who are no longer with us, in the body. We believe that the ultimate healing is in the resurrection. I return again and again to the vision around the throne in Revelation 21: God himself will be with them, he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more…for the One seated on the throne says, “Behold, I make all things new”. Not everything that is broken in this life will be made whole in this life. The ultimate healing is in the resurrection.

9. A last comment: the ministry of healing, so prominent in the life of Jesus, does not end with his earthly ministry. We, his followers, are sent out into the world to be healers---sometimes, in the language of Henri Nouwen, wounded healers. We read in Luke 9. 2, He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. There is a wonderful phrase in Judaism, “tikkun olam”, which means, “to repair the world”, has its origin in their Mishah, commentary on the laws. Some deeds, some actions are not required by the law, but they should be done anyway, “for the sake of the repair of the world”. For you and me, the teaching is clear: we may not have an obligation or a duty, but perhaps there is some action laid upon us, that we can do, to repair a relationship, to heal a division, to bring about reconciliation, to say, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”.

In the name of God, our creator, who makes all things new; in the name of Jesus, our healer; in the name of the Holy Spirit, who gives us life. Amen.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

who is my neighbor? health care in america

The first rule of thumb in ministerial etiquette is “do not mix religion and politics”. Of course, people do like it if your politics match their politics, but, of course, people disagree about politics. This morning I am going to mix religion and politics, but I hope to avoid partisan politics. At the same time, I think the subject----health care in America—is too important for us as Christians to sit on the sidelines.

So let’s get started. Since making the decision to preach about health care, but even prior, I would receive the occasional e-mail suggesting that government should get out of health care. I have come to think about health care from the opposite direction. The church should be getting into health care. This flows from our recovery of the healing ministry of Christ, and the root meaning of our word salvation; as Joel Green of Fuller Seminary notes, "scripture as a whole presupposes the intertwining of salvation and healing".

Government got into health care because the church got out of it; the church got out of health care because we "spiritualized" salvation, we “disembodied” the soul, we disconnected the mind, body and spirit, and this has had disastrous consequences for the poor, the sick and the creation itself. One of the implications of the incarnation (John 1. 14) is that God takes on our mortal flesh; the gift of salvation is, in the language of the Apostle Paul, a "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5. 17).

When the church got out of health care (leaving behind a rich tradition of hospitals and hospices formed by the Christian movement), the government took on our work. At this moment we began to lose the connection between our motivation---to continue the healing ministry of Jesus---and our actions---to be his hands in this world. In the name of efficiency and productivity, this work of government was later privatized, and came to be governed by the forces of the economic market. In time the motivation shifted from service to service plus profit, from the common good to the common good plus the creation of wealth. I am not talking about why a physician or a nurse treats a patient. I am talking about how that service is provided and how it is organized.

The way back into the matter, for a Christian, is to reflect on what God wants us to do in this situation. The salvation of God, in the ministry of Jesus, includes preaching, teaching and healing; he ministered to the spirit, the mind and the body. These were the three core activities of Jesus, and the three tasks he gave to his disciples.

So what does God want us to do? Jesus was asked this question, and he responded in a number of ways, usually by telling stories. God uses stories to get truths into our brains, and this particular story, the parable of the Good Samaritan, is among a small handful of the best known stories in the Bible.

In a culture that is saturated with religious communication, and at a time that our national conversation is obsessed with health care, it is amazing to me that I have heard no one talk about this story of Jesus.

The parable begins with the question of a lawyer, who, like many of us, was not really wanting to learn something new, but making a point. He wanted to know: “what is going to get me into heaven? What is required of me?”

Jesus says. You know the law, you tell me! He responds---Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

This was also question that the prophets had reflected on, Micah, six centuries earlier, stating it with clarity: the Lord has shown you, and what does the Lord require of you---to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6. 8). Jesus, who stands clearly in the prophetic tradition, would have remembered all of this, he knew the law and the prophets, do you remember Psalm 1, he had meditated on it day and night. Right answer, Jesus says.

But the lawyer could not let it go and so he pushed it, Luke tells us, to “justify himself”, And so he asks, “who is my neighbor?”

At this point, Jesus responds with what has become a well-known story. If you have been paying attention to the debate about health care, we all have a story, and I asked you to share your stories with me, and you have done that. Many stories have been told lately, when this topic arises: physicians who have less time to treat patients, patients who cannot receive care, or who receive a poor standard of care, or senior adults who may be deemed to be beyond the stage of deserving care, or patients who will not exercise self-care, or corporations who limit care, for the sake of greater profit, government waste. If you watch one network, you are likely to hear a certain story; if you watch another network, you will hear a different story. Each sees a different villain, a different danger, a different hero. Those who tell these stories are not talking to each other; they are talking past each other.

Well, I chose this story, it is a compelling story, but, at a deeper level, what brings us together is not our politics or even our experience of health and disease, it is the One who told this story, and so, I believe, it has a claim on us.

In the parable a man is beaten, and is suffering. A word about suffering and illness: Some suffering and illness can be prevented, and is related to our lifestyle—what we eat, how sedentary we are, whether we get enough rest. Some suffering and illness is unrelated to our behaviors: a friend has a chronic disease, through no fault of her own. Some human suffering and illness is genetic. And some suffering and illness is related to our mortality. We are finite creatures, and some day, maybe sooner, maybe later, we will die. This is for many in our culture a taboo subject, and has been a tool to cause fear and confusion among many of late.
The New Testament teaches us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and we are commanded to care for them. Where we abuse them, we and the society suffer the consequences, and more than one physician in our church has said to me that an epidemic is on the way, in our country, related to our self-care. At the same time, we all know many people who are ill through no discernable action, and we make matters worse by implying that they could have done something different and avoided the pain and suffering.

In the parable, there is a suffering person, and the question then becomes, “how do we respond?” Jesus gets to that first by noting how we do not respond, how we avoid a response. We pass by on the other side.

What does it mean, for us, in this moment, to pass by on the other side? One way to pass by on the other side is to say, “it is too expensive, it is too costly”. The paradox is that we already spend more money per capita on spending for health than any other country; however, that help does not always get to the person on the other side----this is related to the specialties that we fund, and to other factors that are irrelevant to the 46 million who are uninsured, or in growing numbers, undersinsured.

Another way to pass by on the other side is to politicize the issue, to fire up the rhetoric and to accuse those who disagree with us of either lacking compassion or being a socialist. I was talking to a friend this week about this sermon and he said, “I am looking forward to seeing how you dance around these issues”. But my sense is that our national debate is not really about health care; it is about politics, and it is a way of passing by on the other side.

Another way to pass by on the other side is to be silent, to despair, to become cynical, but, of course, this is never an option for God’s people. In the parable the Good Samaritan picks up the suffering man, pours oil and wine into the wound, the medicine of the ancient world, binds up the wounds, takes him to an inn, and provides payment for his care, which is somewhat open-ended: whatever it takes, I will return and pay.

Back to the question, which Jesus changes: Not who is my neighbor, but which one is the neighbor? For me, this is a simple and yet complex story, and the question of Jesus leads to other questions, including ones of of compassion and justice? Mercy is about our command to give. Justice is about another person’s right to receive, and the deeper question is “does the person have a right to health care?”. The parable does not answer this question, focusing more on the Good Samaritan than the man who fell among robbers, more on the question “who is a neighbor” than “who is my neighbor”.

If Christians are to participate meaningfully in the conversation, we will rediscover what is uniquely at stake for us in all of this: the fullness of God's gift of salvation, which is extended to all people, even the beaten man on the side of the road. A response to the question is going to take people of all faiths and members of both political parties beyond rhetoric to reality. It is going to call forth, not the worst of us, but the best of us, namely justice and mercy, which is, the prophet says, what the Lord requires of us. As in the most effective responses in society to most needs, this will be a public-private partnership.

But I am not speaking, right now, to people of all faiths, or even members of two political parties; I am speaking to Christians. We will be less than Christian toward those who suffer if the political conversation of this summer allows us to pass by on the other side.

Another question: Where will the resources come from to help the neighbor? The answer: they come from us. Now how they get distributed is the complexity of it, and here Christians can, in good conscience, disagree. Do we trust the government to distribute health care? Do we trust an insurance company to distribute health care? Do we trust health professionals themselves to distribute health care? Whichever method of distribution we prefer, each and all of them must be weighed against the biblical concept of justice.

A last question: Where do we locate ourselves in the story? What if you are the person who is suffering? The orientation for most of us is that, if it is someone else, we want care that is good but limited and efficient. If it is for someone we love----my daughter or sister, your father or grandmother, no expense is too lavish. When it becomes personal, it is different.

And this is where the parable leads us, because, for God, it is personal. The neighbor extends farther than we had first thought. Some have a limited definition of neighbor, others have a more expansive definition. Is an aging person the neighbor? Is the unborn the neighbor? Is the immigrant the neighbor? Is the poor person my neighbor? The scriptural answer to each of these questions is yes.

I have wondered lately: can Christians approach this issue of health care in America differently, and I think it is possible. We can offer gratitude to those who have heard the gospel and have moved toward those who suffer, and here I think of health practicioners in our own congregation, and how they spend most of their waking moments.

We can repent of the political divisions that have allowed us to pass by on the other side of human suffering.

We can turn toward our brothers and sisters in Christian conservation, in patient listening and measured speaking. And the outcome, with the help of God, may be the channeling of resources toward those who are suffering, and the creation of a world that is more just and merciful.

If we can do this, the parable says, we will live.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

home (psalm 84)

We can begin in acknowledging that this is a beautiful song, Psalm 84. I cannot read it without hearing our Chancel Choir singing it, and especially at memorial services.”How lovely is they dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!”

Psalm 84 was sung by God’s people as they made their way to Jerusalem, more specifically, to the Temple. For a Jew, the Temple was and is the dwelling place of God. A few weeks ago we looked at Psalm 137, a song of exile, in which the writer asks, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” In that Psalm we hear the voice of one who is far from home, who is separated from God, who is disoriented.

In Psalm 84, just the opposite. The pilgrim is reoriented toward Jerusalem, toward God, toward the heart’s true home. It is a place of safety and sanctuary and it is a place of beauty. This is echoed in Psalm 27.

One thing I asked of the Lord
that will I seek after
to live in the house of the Lord
All the days of my life
to behold the beauty of the Lord
And to inquire in his temple.

Providence UMC blessed by the beauty of the music that is offered to God in worship each Sunday. Our choir is on retreat at BonClarcken at the end of August, their annual time at the end of the summer to work on the music for the next few months, even extending to the service of Lesson and Carols at Christmas. Last year I sat in the back of the rehearsal hall an listened to them sing “O Magnum Mysterium”, O Great Mystery, and I realized that few choirs that I am aware of could sing like this, and then, at a deeper level I thought how beautiful this is, and then, how beautiful God is.

“To behold the beauty of the Lord, to inquire in his temple.” For a few years I was organizing pastor of a new church in Greensboro. In the first years we worshipped in a school, a community college, while we purchased land and developed our community and outreach. To be more particular, we worshipped in the student activities center. The President was a good friend and he made the space available to us at a great price – it was free!

On Sunday mornings we would get there early to set things up, to rearrange the furniture, to put up our banners. I also remember that there were several signs which read “No smoking or playing cards!” Often I would put a sign over these words, to say something like “welcome”, and then I would come back later and one of our members, someone with a sly sense of humor, would have changed it back to “no smoking or playing cards”. It would be as if Paul Bumgarner or Brett Logan said that to you when you come in today!

It was a student activities center, and it served our needs. We were grateful but also to be honest, it was not beautiful! Well we decided to commission the design and sculpting of a large cross for our worship space. One of our members, David, was asked to guide them, and he did. David was a graphic artist, and his company had worked with the Eastern Music Festival and Duke University. He had not been especially involved in church for a time, but our new community reached out to him, and he responded.

David was an artist, and he kept his creative work on the cross very much to himself. The Sunday came when we were to consecrate the cross in the service. He carried the cross in during the offering. It was a large beautiful Celtic cross and he carried it the way a person would in holding a sacrificial animal. It was his sacrifice, and it was a work of beauty.

We enter into the temple aware that it is the dwelling place of God. And if you believe this, it is a compelling experience. My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord, my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.

If Psalm 137 is a Psalm about being in the wrong place – by the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept where we remembered Zion – Psalm 84 is about the desire to make the journey home.

Most of us know what that is like – most of us can identify home, in some way, and we have a strong desire to return there. I was thinking about a day in the late winter. It was Friday afternoon, I had been to Washington, SC for a 24 hour church meeting. I was in the airport at about 4:00 Friday afternoon. I noticed a member of ours and we talked. I also ran into one of my seminary professors, who was also there. But even the presence of these familiar faces did not change the basic reality. No one wants to be in an airport on Friday afternoon or evening!
I wanted to be home.

The pilgrims who composed Psalm 84 yearned and ached to be home, in the presence of God. The remainder of the Psalm is a description of God’s dwelling place, the Temple, and what it means. The birds of the air find a place to build a nest – there it is a place of sanctuary and safety. The musicians and those who lead worship are there – it is a place of praise and thanksgiving.

It is home. The late commissioner of baseball, Bartlett Giamatti, who was also formerly the President of Yale, was once asked why baseball has such a widespread appeal – “Baseball,” he said, “is about home and we all want to get home.”

The desire to be home motivates the pilgrims “who set their hearts on pilgrimage.” They pass through the valley of Baca – the desert, and make it place of springs. The rabbis and the scholars disagree on the meaning of this verse. The springs may refer to the blessings of water, to the good that is done by God’s people in difficult times. Or the springs may be translated as tears – or the way home, or the way to God. We also confront our struggles and our griefs. Along the way they, we go, “from strength to strength” – we are transformed; in the presence of God’s people, in the community of those who love us we discover resources that we did not know – hope, assurance, comfort, clarity, compassion.

The 84th Psalm is filled with images: the nest (3) what parent does not think at some point along the way of the “empty nest”? ; the Lord as our shield, the one who protects us. The psalmist’s desire to be a doorkeeper (10), which was probably not an office, but a reference to continually seeking God, knowledge or the door, entering the Temple. The Lord is a sun (11), a lamp to our feet, a light to our path.

And so, in the Psalm we have a rich reflection or what it means to be seeker, a pilgrim. Every one of us today is a pilgrim in some way.

We come to this sanctuary because of the beauty of worship; we come because we have drawn strength from something that has happened here and we need that strength again. We come to be a blessing and we come to shed tears. We come seeking protection in a dangerous world. Or light in a confusing world. We are here to behold the beauty . . .to inquire in his temple.

Maybe we come for practical reasons, or personal reasons; it is our habit, it is a struggle but we drag ourselves here. During it all, I am convinced we come for a theological reason – God is here, and finally it is about coming to know and be known by God. In this life and in the life to come, this is what compels us to move forward. We used to sing the gospel hymn “Come home, come home, you who are weary, come home.” And Augustine’s words expressed the same truth, “You have made us for yourself, O God and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

It is about home, and we are all trying to get home.