Monday, January 15, 2007

The Virtue of Magnanimity

I was reading an article today from the magazine The Christian Century. It’s one of those editorial comments that are the opinion “of the magazine”, but is unsigned by a specific author. It’s a discussion about church growth in the “Mainline” church in the modern world, contrasted with other current strains of Christianity, specifically what the author calls the “evangelical” or “conservative” churches. And it got me to thinking.

For some context, let me define a few things: By this author’s lights, “mainline” churches are denominations such as the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans and us, the United Methodists. The term “mainline” comes from the 1950’s era designation of these churches, dominant in that time, as the main lines.

“Conservative” or “Evangelical” churches, by the author’s contrast, would be churches that are not aligned or members of a specific denomination, or are conservative wings of mainline churches.

Among many differences between what I believe are now two distinct Christian traditions, the one that sticks out for the authors is the matter of Biblical interpretation. Generally, the “mainline” churches take a much less literal interpretation of the Bible. Said another way, Mainline churches (The United Methodist Church included) have the freedom to interpret the Bible much more broadly.

Rather than a failing, I see this as an advantage, and evidence of our good character. It is not better or worse overall, but it is different and special. When Mainline churches are at our best, we (quoting the article) “exhibit a magnanimous spirit. We accept doubts and differences of opinion.. . .” When “confronted by the hard knocks of life,” such as divorce, death and children making choices they shouldn’t, we are the church “that is not afraid to ask tough questions”, the church “where doubts can be aired.” And this is often evidenced in how we read the Bible. We do not have one opinion on divorce, or death, or any of the other issues of our lives. There is right and wrong, to be sure, but when we are at our best, we have enough humility to realize that we do not have the right to judge what is right or wrong. We seek to judge only our own lives in light of God’s teachings, as best as we understand them, and if we err, we err on the side of grace.

All in all, mainline churches are places where “grace is not only preached, but embodies in hospitable relationships.”

Life is messy, and sometimes our lives do not turn out to be what we would have chosen. When we are at our best, we can be vulnerable with each other, and receive help from each other in a place that worries less about who are sinners and who is “right with God”, and worry more about “how is God working in this person’s life, and how can I help?”, because, after all, we are all sinners.

Certainty about faith and Scripture does make for an easier life, but it can also alienate those whose lives fall outside that certainty. Let us be our best, and lead with grace to all who are before us, even those with different opinions who are fellow members of the church. Magnanimity is one of our best graces, after all.

If you would like to read the article that got me to thinking, you can find it online at

Called Reluctantly, Served Enthusiastically

1 Corinthians 12: 1-11
John 2: 1-11

Sometimes, hesitation isn’t necessarily a signal that someone doesn’t want to do something. Sometimes, hesitation is the moment when someone takes a breath, and steps forward. Like a bride that takes a deep breath before she takes her first step down the aisle, or like a President who stops to pray before he or she steps out onto the Capitol rotunda to take his oath of office.

“My hour has not yet come”, He says. “Woman, what am I going to do with you?” He says. To our modern ears, we can make Jesus’ voice sound loving, as in teasing his mom, or chiding, saying something like, “don’t push me!” But John gives us this moment, perhaps to highlight the moment when Jesus has decided to begin his ministry. Mary seems to know, too—“Do whatever he tells you”, she says to the stewards.

There’s a moment that people often take during events of great importance.

It’s often said that Rosa Parks was an accidental pawn in a greater struggle, that she did not intend for her refusal to give up her seat to a white man to become the Montgomery Bus Boycott. According to David Garrow, author of a history of the Civil Rights movement Bearing the Cross, she did hesitate briefly, before she allowed her arrest to become the basis of the boycott. She had been a member of the NAACP, had held several offices before that day. But she did hesitate briefly, initially reluctant, before she realized that this was the moment and she was the person.

John, the writer of this Gospel, tells this particular story for a reason. He seems to be saying, by this miracle being first, we can learn something about Jesus, and through him, something about God. God’s grace is abundant, and God loves his people to be happy. The wine running out at a wedding party could have been very embarrassing to the bridegroom. That Jesus made more wine for the party, and the best stuff of the day at that, shows us how abundant life can be with him. And it is the right kind of abundance—not abundant in terms of cars or video games, but in terms of friendship, relationship, and grace.

It was relationship that ultimately persuaded a reluctant Martin Luther King, Jr. to assume the presidency of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the group created to administer the Bus Boycott. He had actually preferred another of the ministers of Montgomery. But there was an impasse, and he was nominated by his friends as a compromise candidate. According to Garrow, his response was “well, ok, if you feel I will do some good”.

And ultimately, he did do some good. Good enough to be remembered with a federal holiday that celebrates what would have been his 78th birthday. Good enough to be the leader and catalyst of a movement that enabled America to grow as a country and claim for itself part of it’s original promise, that all men are created equal. That it is not yet fully realized is not to be blamed on him. He did more out of his original hesitation than most of us do with our blind and rigid certainties.

Our hesitations can be based in insecurity. We can hesitate because we are scared of the job before us, because we are uncomfortable with the people we need to work with, because we don’t feel we know enough about what we are doing. But we know, in the story of the wedding at Cana, God provides, and provides abundantly.

God provides, but what does God provide? God supplies a people a variety of gifts, but it all comes from the same Spirit. God supplies these gifts for a variety of situations, a variety of services, but it is just one Spirit that does the supplying. In a community, a true community where people talk, eat and worship together, one Spirit provides all the talents, gifts and graces to keep the community alive and well.

If we but ask. If we but believe. If we but trust.

If we but take a moment, hesitate, and ask God for guidance. If we give our prejudices, decisions, and fears to God, and try REALLY hard not to take them back. Then we can be led by the Spirit to God’s will. We could be led to great things, and we know that great things remain to be done in our world. The United States was changed by a young African-American Baptist pastor, a preacher’s kid, no less, who began his ministry in Montgomery, Alabama. He was human, he had his failings and made his mistakes, but then, so did King David. So do we all.

God is stuck with us as his vessels. Anyone God chooses to do God’s will in this world is going to be flawed, make mistakes, be in danger of losing contact with God. Our egos can get in the way, life circumstances can distract us. So it is so important, if we truly desire to follow God, to pray, and to pray often. Scripture study is important, because it shows us the ways God can work. But reading about the past only shows us so much, because God’s is always breaking into the world in new ways. The way to look forward is through prayer. And to pray properly, you must stop and be still. To others, it might look like hesitation.

King said “well, ok, if you think I’ll do some good”. And within ten years later, schools across the nation were desegregated, the voting rights act was passed, and here we are, 50 years later, with significant and attractive African American candidates for president in both parties, an African American Secretary of State, the second one in a row. King wasn’t alone in his efforts, but he was a catalyst, and when we honor him, he is a proxy for all the people who have made the effort.

Rosa Parks’ first instinct was not to allow her arrest to be used to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott. If she had followed through on her first instinct, the world might have been different. We might still be waiting.

King’s first instinct was to not step forward into leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association. If he had followed through on his first instinct, the world would have been different.

Jesus waited until the time was proper. He did not perform his first miracle at his mom’s bidding, but when he was led to by God.

Significant decisions deserve a moment for thought, a deep breath, and prayer. They deserve the leading of God, and taking a moment to reassure ourselves that God is with us. The world can indeed be changed by taking that moment.

So to take that moment for ourselves isn’t wrong. There are many worse things that can be said of us than “they were called reluctantly, but they served enthusiastically.” Prayer is be the best thing we can to in serving God. Prayer will help us to indeed serve God enthusiastically.

Devotional for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is a day where we remember the man, Martin Luther, King, Jr., who was such an effective and brave leader of the Civil Rights movement, a movement which started a long time before he came along, and continues now.

While in prison, one of his many times, he wrote a letter to a group of white clergy who were generally supportive of the movement, but thought he was moving too fast. His response came to be known as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. All over the Conference, today, there are readings of this letter, the bulk of which outlines a theological belief for not being incremental, but being insistent about injustice. And he is clear that while the church has at times been the vehicle for societal change, it has also too often been the vehicle for obstructing that same change.

It was in this letter that he wrote that “In deep disappointment, I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church; I love her sacred walls. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But oh! how we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being non-conformists.”

My prayer for us all this day is that we do not add any more scars to the body of Christ—that we help heal the ones that are there, and that we realize the vision of the Beloved Community, where all war is seen as simply and deeply evil, and the thirst for power and the exercise of one’s own beliefs to the detriment of one’s own community is seen for what it is, separate from the will of God. My prayer is that we learn to truly live by what the Prophet Micah teaches us:
He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks;nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Micah 4:3

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Right Thing to Do

Hebrews 10: 5-10
Luke 1: 46b-55

Preached on the fourth weekend of Advent

Four Sundays of Advent. 30 some-odd days of Christmas songs on Magic 93. 1 Christmas pageant, one Christmas concert, 1 showing of It’s a Wonderful Life, and at least one showing of “Christmas Story”. We’re making our lists, we’re checking them twice, were going to find out where there’s butter and spice. Turkey, ham, tofu for Mia, got it all. Vacuumed the house, swept the kitchen, set votives in all the right places. Almost ready.

Almost ready for what?

This is a time of gift giving. It is a time of remembrance, of asking forgiveness, of renewal of one’s first principles in faith. I hope that the past month has been one where you have journeyed to this point of remembering who Christ is for you, why he has come, and why we celebrate his birth. And now, nearly at the end of Advent, we return some measure of ourselves and our talents in an attempt to give back what we have been given. For our having been saved by who this baby becomes, we want to somehow spread our joy and gratitude. So we clean, we cook, we invite people over, we seek to repair torn relationships. We seek to maintain relationships that mean something to us.

God knows we care by the care that we take. Let me explain by telling a story. It is a story from Mexico, but of course I have to hear it in Pennsylvania for the first time! I first heard it in song on a Christmas album by a newgrass group I saw about a month ago.

There was once a girl named Maria who was walking to market. She stopped to rest, and under the brush next to the path lay a small bird with a broken wing. She picked it up gently and laid it in her apron pocket wrapped in a handkerchief. At the market, she bought her goods, but her last peso went to buy a small birdcage with which to protect the bird. On the way back home, she picked up stray kernels
of corn to feed it with, having spent all her money.

The bird, over time, got stronger.

Christmas Eve came to Maria’s small town. The tradition there was for the villagers to leave gifts for the Child at the altar of the church, in front of the manger they had set up. There were gifts of incense, some of the richer townspeople had left gold and diamonds, and other rich gifts left in ornate and beautiful boxes, all piled in front of the manger.

Maria carried the birdcage to the church, and was ashamed for her gift—this ratty old cage, made of rushes, grass, and twine, holding a small bird.

Because she was ashamed, she waited until almost midnight to go inside. It was dark, other than the light from the candles and the reflected glow from the tinsel and the gift boxes. And she was alone. This was good, because no one would see who left this pitiful gift. Suddenly, but gently, a voice called out. “Maria? What brings you to me? If the bird in the cage is your offering, open the door, let me see!”

So, she did. Well, of course, the bird flew right out of the cage, and up into the dark rafters of the church, and she cried to have lost even that gift, as pitiful as it was. But then, it turned to midnight, and the church bells began to ring.

And the bird began to sing. It was a nightingale, and it sang with the bells. Its voice matched the bells perfectly, and the duet was glorious. On and on the bells went, accompanying the voice of the fully healed and joyous bird. It was a song that no one could recapture with whistle, or guitar, or voice. The bird sang it’s thanks to Maria for saving it, and Maria realized that the gift she had given to the Christ Child wasn’t the gift of the bird that night. It was the gift of mercy all those weeks before, and this song at this moment, the first minutes of the day of Christ’s birth, was actually the gift she was to receive.

The things that are important aren’t always given on Christmas. Sometimes they are given months before, and Christmas is the time to acknowledge them, or to receive them. Mary wasn’t told she was with child at Christmas. Like any mother, she carried Jesus nine months. When she was informed and agreed that she would be carrying a child to term, and that the child would become the Son of God, then that is when she said what she said to Elizabeth in today’s gospel passage, what classical musicians can tell you is the text of the Magnificat, which is what “magnifies” is in Latin.

She joyfully agreed to do God’s will, and it is for this she is celebrated. And that did not happen at Christmas, but it is at Christmas that we acknowledge what she did, and what it meant.

Because of Mary, Jesus was able to be born. Because of Mary, God’s plan to show us his love for us in this way came together. Because of Mary, Jesus grew as a human being.

Mary chose to do God’s will. And it didn’t seem immediately to be a wise thing to do. Joseph was greatly affected by her decision, and came close to undoing the agreement he had with her family. After Jesus was born, they had to run in fear to Egypt to avoid the death squads of Herod. But it all came to fruition in the end—Jesus grew to be a man; a man whose choosing humanity and dying on the cross saved all of us.

If you act in faith, if you choose the faithful path, then God’s purposes will come together. On God’s time, in God’s way. Our responsibility is to apply faith, and persistence, and courage. It may not look like it is supposed to, but we have to believe that in the end, God knows and will bring it all together.

And so we do the right thing. We clean house, we maintain or renew old relationships, and sometimes we receive grace from an unknown direction. We feed and keep our hurt birds because it is the right thing to do. We don’t do it because we expect something, but we do it because it is the right thing to do.

Mary accepted God’s responsibility because it was the right thing to do. And she had the faith to carry it to the end—to birth a baby, to raise him through childhood and then to manhood. And like the bird, the gift she received was unexpected and glorious. It was the gift of a son. This son, the Son of God.

Who Cares?

John 3: 16
Philippians 2: 6-11
Luke 2: 1-20

Christmas Eve, Family Friendly Service

Jesus is born! God is with us. We celebrate the birth of the Christ Child and we should also remember why he came.

God cared enough to change the world by sending a part of himself for us. Jesus was with God in the beginning, John tells us in his gospel. Jesus was first, and Jesus was near to God, God was near to Jesus. They were with each other. They also were each other. Jesus was God, and Jesus was with God, present from the beginning of everything. Everything from Christmas trees to ice to bugs to milkshakes was created through Jesus, and nothing was created outside of his being there.

And then, at the right time, Jesus came to earth. He had equal status with God, but put his great powers aside, emptied himself out, chose to lay aside being all powerful so that he could become fully human.

And he came in the human way, the way we came. Mary carried him for nine months, just like our mothers carried us, and he was born like all the rest of us.

And while Jesus was a human being, he didn’t reclaim the all powerful part of who he was. Sure, he did miraculous things, and he was very wise. But he only could do miracles and teach the people as much as the people, the sick as well as those who watched, believed in him. Where there was faith, he could work wonders and give great insight. Where there wasn’t, he couldn’t do much.

He lived as one of us, and died as one of us. But then he changed, and got back his God parts. His all-powerfulness was given back to him, and he rose from the dead. He was again with God, and he was again God.

While he was a human being, he gave us a great gift—we know now that it is possible to serve God the way Jesus did, because he, as a human being, did it. We shouldn’t assume that we can do all of the things that Jesus did, but then again, we aren’t being asked to do what Jesus did, either.

This is the gift we have been given. Through God’s love for us, and our paying attention to God, we can do anything that God wants us to do.

Jesus came to help us get gentler hands. It’s Jesus in the ability to cook for hundreds when you don’t even like to cook for yourself. It’s Jesus in the boy who drove around his city giving blankets to homeless people during the winter a few years ago.

It’s Jesus in the eyes of the person who stands up to the bully; it’s Jesus in the eyes of the person who has realized she is worth more than she’s been told.

He came to give us bigger ears. It’s Jesus in the willingness to listen to people without offering advice back. It’s Jesus in learning how to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”.

When we feel like a big shot, that’s not Jesus. When we find ourselves having fun by hurting others, that’s not Jesus. When we feel that being a Christian is embarrassing or praying is beneath us, that’s not Jesus.

God is real, God cares, and God expects things from us. God doesn’t demand, but nonetheless, God expects things. And Jesus showed us that we can fulfill those expectations.

And here we are, with him now. He’s in the people around you. If you stand where I stand, you see Jesus in this assembled group. Stand up. Look around. See all those people? That’s Jesus, the Jesus with all of his God parts, all around you. And you are part of him. When we light our candles, those will be like God’s lights in us, and we will carry them out into the night, into the world. Just the way he wants us to.

Thank you God for sending your son. Thank you Jesus, for emptying yourself out for us, being born for us, and saving us. Thank you, Jesus, for choosing to save us.

Thank you.


Hit the Ground Running

It has been almost a year since I last posted a blog last month. It feels like it anyway. Since then, I have been a leading part of worship services, witnessed one of my best friends get engaged in my dining room on New Years Eve, visited my father-in-law as he was diagnosed with cancer, and have had some difficult moments professionally.

I have two sermons from Christmas to post yet, and I will be getting to them soon.

The Christmas eve services were great, as they are supposed to be. I was in charge of the early family friendly services, and got great feedback! Specifically, people loved that I used Linus' soliloquy from "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown" as my reading of the Luke 2 passage. Some folks said that that was the only moment in the service when all the children were quiet!
There was another, later, service on Christmas Eve. I assisted in the service, then was up til about 1:30 wrapping presents and sitting with Donna. Basically it was a matter of letting the adrenaline peter out of my system. My son of course was up by about 5:30, but he did a great job of being patient until we were all up. After presents I made breakfast, and then, as Donna says, I "dissapeared". I had gone back to bed.

Donna's dad was diagnosed with cancer later that week, and so we ran there for a couple days, saw him in the hospital and Donna helped her mom distract herself. His big surgery is mid-January, so prayers for him are requested. It is a slow moving cancer and is localized.

When we got back, My friend Morissa and her boyfriend Jason came to visit. Let me explain a little bit about Morissa. she and I know each other from college, and became friends after I was a peacekeeper in an Anti-Klan rally that she had helped organize. She has come to visit us almost every New Years' since Donna and I were married, even when we lived in Texas. We give her Christmas presents, she gives us Hanukah presents. We have a Mezuzah on our door, a gift from her. the last two years, she has brought her boyfriend Jason with her.

We usually have a nice New Year's Party, but because of us just having been away, we called everyone we invited and explained that we pretty much needed to crash when we got home.
We forgot to call one couple, who came over, and it was nice to have them there. They are good enough friends that the condition of the house didn't embarass them or us.

Jason was planning on popping the question to Morissa that night, as it turned out. He had worked on a digital animation to do the deed, and there was a last minute panic that our home computer wouldn't run the video. We got it worked out, though, and she was thrilled!

Because of what I do for a living, sometimes I receive the blame from the problems of the church that existed long before I arrived. There has been a good bit of that these past couple weeks, but I am blessed to be working for a church where the members know these people. They are not dismissed, but neither do they get much traction, because the source is considered. Still, I have had more than my share of sadness and anger for the first two weeks of a new year.

Here's to hoping that that was the worst distraction of the year, but I don't know. In talking with a friend yesterday, we were complaining that there always seems to be ministry that isn't getting done because there are fires to put out. I think that is partially true, but I also think it is true that to be a minister in this congregation is to walk with them as the pain of the past heals or is cut out. It would be great if 100% of the ministry is directed to mission, education, and spiritual growth, but here there is good bit of triage and the binding of wounds, too. So be it. This won't be the last church I serve where that is true, and if that is part of ministry in my time, then I'd best be about it. Mission, education, and Spiritual Formation can be the goal we work toward.