Monday, March 21, 2016

Who Speaks for the Church?

Paul Ramsey authored a critique of the 1966 Geneva Conference on Church and Society titled “Who Speaks for the Church?”  Ramsey never really answered the question.  Every faith group, denomination and nondenominational “church” has its own rules about who can claim authority to speak for the whole church.  In the United Methodist Church, only the General Conference, which meets every four years, has such authority—and even then, when the General Conference makes some pronouncement it may not be in tune with what many members of the whole denomination think, feel, or believe.  Thus, the church, in all its myriad forms, cannot really speak as a whole people or institution.  The Pope can make proclamations and suggest moral concerns about various social issues, but his statements do not “speak” for the whole church.

I cannot and you cannot claim to speak for the church—for the church is not one, but many.  Most of us, especially in Protestant denominations, however, have come to understand “church” and the “voice” of the “church” through the ordained clergy, the pastor, the priest, the preacher, and/or the bishop.  Still others, using the Bible as their authority, claim that book [as their leaders interpret it] to be the voice of the church.  But there is no single voice that can really speak for the whole church.  Therefore, it is erroneous to claim “the evangelical Christian vote” to be the voice or the stance of Christians or of the Christian Church.

While there may not be a single human voice which can speak for the Church, there is that One Voice that the church is supposed to hear, proclaim and follow.  It is the Voice of Love, the Voice of One who said, “Love your neighbor, love your enemy,” and so much more.  

Martin Niemoller was a Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany.  He failed, at first, to hear the Voice, and became a supporter of Adolf Hitler.  Like many of us, he listened to the toxic rhetoric of Hitler and fell into believing what Hitler said.  He made disparaging remarks about the Jews, joining the antisemitic movement of that time. But, finally, he came again to listen to that One Voice and heard and followed, opposing the nazification of the German Protestant Churches.  Eventually, he was imprisoned in concentration camps from 1937-1945.  He expressed his deep regret for failing to hear and follow the One Voice, writing: 

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Father to His Son

Spring comes today and the words of the Hymn of Promise come to mind:
In the bulb there is a flower, 
in the seed, an apple tree;
in cocoons, a hidden promise:
butter-flies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter
there’s a spring that waits to be,
unrevealed until its season,
something God alone can see.

Just as there are seasons in nature’s patterns, so there are seasons on this trail of life:  infancy, childhood, school years, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, and finally maturity (some say old age, but I refuse to use that term).  Last night we attended our son’s 50th birthday celebration.  His birthday was back in February, but the party was delayed until the threat of snow had passed.  Wouldn’t you know—it snowed last night!

It was a wonderful party.  We enjoyed meeting Paul and Helen’s friends, neighbors, and  colleagues.  Some we had met previously, some we knew as they were growing up, and still others we met for the first time last night.  As always, it was special to be with our grandsons, Austin and Nick.  They are great guys and it is always a joy to hear the little pieces of their lives they share!  And Helen, Paul’s wife and the mother of my grandsons—well I just can’t say enough about her! As Paul’s dad, I was deeply touched by the celebration.  This morning my mind travels back over the years, remembering, cherishing, and celebrating.   I am ever so grateful for the gift of Paul—for the gift of our daughter, Rachel—and our youngest son, Luke—and our grandchildren—and for our first great granddaughter. 

I can’t find the words to express what it means to be a dad, or a grandad, or a great grandad!  I can’t find the words I want to say to my son, Paul.  If I were a poet, like Sandburg, perhaps I could.  So, Paul, the best I can do is quote Sandburg’s poem:  A Father to His Son.

A father sees his son nearing manhood.
What shall he tell that son?
'Life is hard; be steel; be a rock.'
And this might stand him for the storms
and serve him for humdrum monotony
and guide him among sudden betrayals
and tighten him for slack moments.
'Life is a soft loam; be gentle; go easy.'
And this too might serve him.
Brutes have been gentled where lashes failed.
The growth of a frail flower in a path up
has sometimes shattered and split a rock.
A tough will counts. So does desire. 
So does a rich soft wanting.
Without rich wanting nothing arrives. 
Tell him too much money has killed men
and left them dead years before burial:
the quest of lucre beyond a few easy needs
has twisted good enough men
sometimes into dry thwarted worms.
Tell him time as a stuff can be wasted.
Tell him to be a fool every so often
and to have no shame over having been a fool
yet learning something out of every folly
hoping to repeat none of the cheap follies
thus arriving at intimate understanding
of a world numbering many fools.
Tell him to be alone often and get at himself
and above all tell himself no lies about himself
whatever the white lies and protective fronts
he may use against other people.
Tell him solitude is creative if he is strong
and the final decisions are made in silent rooms.
Tell him to be different from other people
if it comes natural and easy being different.
Let him have lazy days seeking his deeper motives.
Let him seek deep for where he is born natural.
Then he may understand Shakespeare
and the Wright brothers, Pasteur, Pavlov,
Michael Faraday and free imaginations
Bringing changes into a world resenting change.
He will be lonely enough
to have time for the work
he knows as his own. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Religion and The Gospel

There is a tendency among the religious to project god beyond history, into the unknown and the unknowable.  Religion often enthrones this god somewhere, in some after life which we may (if we are good enough) gain someday and be in this god’s company.  There is a tendency to put this god outside the present as one who is oblivious of our present existence, or at least indifferent to it.  For me, this god is so abstract, irrelevant, and impotent as to be a ridiculous god, in fact, no god at all.

Religion of this sort does not interest me.  Religion of this sort does not do anything for my practical, everyday life.  If God lives somewhere and someplace else, I do not care much about such a god.  But I do care “that God is with us now, anyway and already, and even, thank God, before we call upon Him.  I care a lot,” writes William Stringfellow, “when I hear the news of Jesus Christ (Gospel) because it is a different news than I receive when I encounter various religions.”  There is a difference between Religion and the Gospel.

The Gospel (Jesus) gives evidence of the care of God for everything that has to do with actual life.  The Gospel (Jesus) reveals a God who cares for me and with every life lived by anybody and everybody, everywhere!  Jesus speaks to my life: its fatigue and compulsions, its contradictions and freedoms, its ambiguity, its quiet, its wonder, its sin, its triumphs and its defeats.  I believe Jesus comes to your life: touches your whole biography, holding every secret with you, whoever, wherever you are, any time, any place.  The Gospel (Jesus) tells of a God who also cares about the destinies of the nations and all the various institutions. 

Religion tends to suggest that God is yet to be discovered.  Authentic Christianity knows that God has already come among us—not for a visit of 30-some years—but has been with us and will be with us for always.  Religion suspects there is a God, somewhere.  The Gospel proclaims His presence and action in this world —even in those circumstances within which we are unaware of Him.  

The religious think that only the religious know about God or care about God, and that God cares only for the religious.  What nonsense this is!  We have the Gospel, which tells a far different story.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Awake My Soul and Sing!

There are many in our modern day who see science as antithetical to religious belief.  This is not the case at all.  Every truth which science discovers about the world and verifies increases the scope and range of life.  The Father’s House is so much more than we used to suppose.  There are more levels to it than we knew or guessed, and it has been being built for much longer than we thought, longer than the Bible (according to Bishop Usher) suggests.

Glen Canyon, Arizona
Science does not diminish religious life.  Science enhances religious life.  Through science I am more sure than ever that the visible part of creation comes out of a wondrous Creative Spirit that I cannot see with my eyes.  Quantum Physics suggests that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in some far off place has an effect on other places far distant.  Amazing!  What does that mean?  It means that my life and your life is more than just a mere existence measured by years.    Religion is not asceticism, but an abundant life, a life  measured by its aims and aspirations, by its reach rather than its grasp.  Life is ours!  Christianity is all about liberating and infusing our lives with a spiritual burst of new and exciting ideas and wonders.  “Things present and things to come are ours.”  Science is not an enemy of religious life; it is a part of an authentic religious life.  Science is part of the spiritual quest—the quest for life in all its abundance.  I wonder if the “fluttering of my wings” makes a difference?  Both my religious faith and science suggests that such “fluttering” really does!  

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Agape at the Heart of Things

“I may speak in tongues of men or of angels, but if I am without love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  I may have the gift of prophecy, and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have no love, I am nothing.  I may dole out all I possess, or even give my body to be burnt, but if I have no love, I am none the better”  (I Cor. 1-3, NEB).

Two centuries ago, the Quaker, John Woolman of Mount Holly, New Jersey, heard news that the Indians along the Susquehanna River (not far from where I live) were considering going on the war-path because of broken promises and treaties and threatening the lives of the settlers in the region.  Woodman felt God’s call to go out on horseback and have a meeting with the Indians.  Here are the words written in his Journal expressing his mission:  “Love was the first motion, and thence a concern arose to spend some time with these Indians, that I might feel and understand their life, and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth among them.”

When Woolman met with the Indians, “divine love attending,” his mind was “covered with the spirit of prayer,” and he was “moved” to pray in English, which the Indians did not understand.  Yet, when he had finished praying he overheard the Indian chief say to another, “I always love to feel where words come from.”

"Thou (Love) art ever on their lips,
yet far from their hearts."
Beneath the words, the deeds, and the gifts we offer others there is something even more important.  It is not the words, the deeds, or the gifts themselves.  It is the spirit in which the words are spoken, the reason for the deeds done and the gifts given, that counts more than these outward things.  This more excellent something, this spirit, from whence these things come says St. Paul, is Agape (Love).

So many of the words we speak are empty words.  Many of the deeds and gifts we give are from a sense of guilt or out of a superficial compassion.  Those who hear our words, who accept our kindnesses and our gifts—do they “feel”where the words, deeds, and gifts we offer “come from?” 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Grandad’s Braggadocio

Matt, third from the left
A few years ago you would never have found me in front of the TV on a Sunday afternoon watching a Raven’s football game, NASCAR, or as I did yesterday, the Grand Prix in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Two of my grandsons have been influential in this  new “couch potato” lifestyle, or it could be that I’ve just finally settled into the “retirement syndrome.” Whatever the case may be, I’m blaming it on my grandsons.  Two of them have played high school football and that peaked my interest in football, and my oldest grandson, Matthew Gildner, is the one responsible for my watching the Grand Prix yesterday.
Addison, watching Daddy
 at the race

Matt, from a very early age had a dream, a typical 10 or 11-year old dream, of one day becoming one of those guys at a pit stop changing the tires and pumping fuel in a race car in a matter of seconds.  Yesterday at the Grand Prix in St. Petersburg Matt did just that!  His dream was realized as he became part of the Penske pit stop team for the Grand Prix winner, Juan Pablo Montoya.  How many of us can say that of our youthful dreams?  Congratulations, Matt!  You are a winner!

What fun it was, not so much watching the race (I may have even taken a nap during part of it) but rather watching for Montoya’s pit stops and seeing Matt and the flawless Penske Team members pumping the fuel and changing the tires on Montoya’s car.  The fact that Montoya won the race makes Matt’s involvement even more special to his doting grandad.

Addison, our first
great granddaughter
How quickly our children and grandchildren grow up.  I’m stunned by the fact that Matt has not only realized his pit stop dream, but that he and his beautiful wife, Emily, have given us the gift of our first great granddaughter, Addison Elizabeth.  We have seen lots of photos of Addison, but we haven’t met her yet.  We hope to do that very soon.  I’m grateful for the gift of Matt, my grandson.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Toxicity of Words

I wrote in March 2014 a blog with this same title.  I was reminded of it last night as I watched what was happening in Chicago.  A part of me resists making any comment about the situation, but another part of me demands it!  

Mr. Trump’s rhetoric over the past months has been toxic.  One news commentator said, “This is politics.”  I refute that!  Politics is a nasty business especially during election years—always has been and always will be—but what is happening before our eyes is not just nasty, it is inciting hate, violence and discord.  It is being done consciously and purposely. What we witnessed in North Carolina and in Chicago this past week is a direct result of Mr. Trump’s toxic and twisted words.  How twisted?  Last night he repeated over and over again in a telephone interview with MSNBC, “We can’t even hold a rally in America anymore.”  That is not at all true (both he and other candidates have been holding rallies for months—and by the way, rallies held by the other candidates have not had trouble with protesters) but by repeating “We can’t even hold a rally in America anymore,” over and over again, gullible people will believe it to be true.
"This land belongs to you and me!"

The toxicity of Trump’s rhetoric is well publicized.  ”If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them," he said at a February rally in Iowa. "Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”  "I don't have regrets," Trump said last night, "These were very, very bad protesters. These were bad dudes. They were rough, tough guys." "I love the old days, you know? You know what I hate? There's a guy totally disruptive, throwing punches, we're not allowed punch back anymore. ... I'd like to punch him in the face, I'll tell ya." –Donald Trump on how he would handle a protester in Nevada, sparking roaring applause from the audience on February 22, 2016.  If we are not careful, we (who disagree with Mr. Trump) may ourselves be “carried out on stretchers.”

Human speech, says James in the New Testament, seems innocent enough.  After all, the tongue is just a small part of the body.  Yet despite its size, the tongue is like a bit that controls a horse or a rudder that steers an enormous ship.  The tongue can burn like a raging forest fire incinerating everything it touches.  It can corrupt both the subject and the object of speech.  What we say to one another can be "full of deadly poison" that kills.

The power of the uncontrolled tongue (toxic rhetoric) is a serious problem.  Our words have power--power for good or for evil.  What we say to one another can exclude or embrace, heal or humiliate, lift up or tear down. What we say to one another or about one another reveals more about us than about the person to whom or about whom we speak our words.  That's a scary part about toxic talk--it reveals the character of our own inner identity.  We project on others that which we refuse to deal with within ourselves.  We put other people down in order to raise ourselves up or to insure our own superiority.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Thy Kingdom Come

“Again, when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogue and at the street corners, for everyone to see them…when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is there in the secret place…In your prayers do not go babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard.  Do not imitate them…This is how you should pray:

Our Father in heaven, thy name be hallowed; thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.  Give us today our daily bread.  Forgive us the wrong we have done, as we have forgiven those who have wronged us.  And do not bring us to the test, but save us from evil” (Matthew 6:5-13, NEB).

Guanacaste, Costa Rica
There is a time and  a place for family and public prayer.  I do not deny that, nor do I criticize such practice in worship or at the family table.  Though I must say some public prayer is grossly overdone. We need to be conscious of Jesus’ words about how, when, where, and what we pray.  Jesus offered us an example in what we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.”  In its simplicity it suggests what is important in our dialogue with God.  

Standing before Pilate who represented the totalitarian power of the Roman Empire, John, in his gospel has Jesus say, I represent another Kingdom which is established, not by fighting, arguing, and bickering, but by the emergence of truth.  The reason we are in such dark days now is because we have lost faith in the reality of this Kingdom (the emergence of truth) and have not maintained our allegiance to it.  We buy into just about anything that is said without seeking out the facts of the matter and allowing truth to emerge.

We shall perhaps never agree on the meaning of the phrase, “Kingdom of God,” as Jesus used it.  But so long as we say it mechanically as in The Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” rushing through it with no content of meaning, we should not be surprised that nothing comes from it.  It is just “words, words, words!”  

In today’s ever-deepening darkness (as I see it) we ought to go into that closet, shut the door, and pray, “thy kingdom come,”  or let truth emerge.  “Thy kingdom come” means this for me:  Don’t swallow whatever is said or written on Facebook, or proclaimed in the media, or by a politician, rather seek and pray for the kingdom, the emergence of truth.  Otherwise we shall become a People of the Lie!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Religion--"Dead or Alive?"

“If religion offers only some advice or instruction relevant to personal behavior, if it has nothing to do with politics and the public life of society, then, … it is not good for me.  If religion is only that, it has not the dignity to claim my life….It has not the dignity to claim my life because my life — just as that of any human being — is such that the issues of personal behavior cannot be extricated and neatly isolated from the life of society….

Religion which attempts to isolate and shield private life from the rest of the life of the world, although it may contain the comfort of escape, the illusion of security, and the pride of pietism, is essentially a fraud, and, in any event, alien to the Gospel with its passion for the whole life of the world as it is.”  (William Stringfellow, A Private and Public Faith)

A religion isolated by synagogue, mosque or church and held captive by the Torah, the Koran, or  the Bible, is a religion that has lost its dignity, its passion and vocation.  Such a religion is wholly committed to serving its own existence.  It has only to do with religion, but not with life.

When I hear the media suggesting that a presidential candidate is winning the “evangelical Protestant” vote, my stomach churns.  First, I resent the labeling.  I consider myself an evangelical!  The word  “evangelical”  means emphasizing the authority of the Gospel and the proclamation of that Gospel (Good News) to the world.  That good news, for the Christian, is that God loves the whole world, not just a segment of it, or only those who happen to agree with a certain ideology, or are of a particular race.  

The crocuses are blooming and as I looked at those beautiful blossoms yesterday, I thought to myself, “Nature has provided this beautiful sight, not only for me to see, but for all to see and enjoy.”   This is the nature of any genuine religion and of any evangelical message—it is available to all.  If it is limited to only one segment or group, it ceases to be a viable religion and  it corrodes the evangelical message.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Dark Days

This morning I see “green” showing up in the flowerbeds.  It is the hyacinths, the crocuses, the daffodils, and even the irises, coming up out of the dark earth into the light.  Spring is just around the corner.  It may even come before its time because of the tropical warmth we are experiencing this week.  Today the weather people are predicting a heat wave of 75 degrees!

The dark days of winter are passing away, slowly but surely,  as they always do and have done for eons upon this earth.  Yet I feel that we are living in the dark in terms of our religious and political life.  The darkness grows thicker with every passing month (and primary) and I have no idea how much longer it will go on or how deep this darkness will become.  I cannot see in the darkness of the present moment and I do not know what may emerge from it.  

I do know and trust that there is One above the storm and darkness, One who knows what is in the dark.  In the book of Daniel in the Old Testament the nature of God is being interpreted and it ends with this:  “Wisdom and might are His.  He removeth kings and setteth up kings.  He giveth wisdom and knowledge and revealeth secrets.  He knows what is in the Dark” (Dan 11:22, KJV).

History tells us that this is not the first time that darkness has enveloped us as a nation.  It also tells us that these dark periods have, strangely enough, almost invariably been the birth pangs of a new day of light and hope.  Just as nature brings spring out of winter with hyacinths, tulips, and daffodils bursting forth from the dark earth, so God gives “the treasures of darkness” to us in the form of new insight and hope.

Rufus Jones writes of a legend in the traditions of Creation which tells how, as the earth received its form and the waters were gathered into the seas, God sent out His heavenly host of angelic beings to scatter seeds of flowers and fruits and grains all over the newly created earth.  The Prince of Darkness watched with hate and scorn this new stage of Creation and reacted by sending his crew of bad angels to destroy what the good angels had done.  The bad angels were told to cover these seeds wth earth and so spoil the work of God’s angels.  They did, and it was just what was needed to make the seeds sprout and grow!

I believe, as has happened since creation’s first day, that the darkness we are experiencing now will be followed by the light.  I don’t know when, or how, but I trust that even now God knows what is in the dark.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Jonah of Yesterday and Today

Jonah was a man of faith.  He loved God and he loved his people—Israel.  Now that is the first important part of the story.  He loved the people of Israel, his own kind of folk, but he did not like Assyrians, or Egyptians, or Babylonians.  

God calls Jonah in a dream to go to the city of Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria.  Nineveh was a big city like Washington DC, Baltimore, San Francisco, New York, Cincinnati—a big city with all the troubles of a big city.  God wanted Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh to get their act together, or their city would be destroyed in 40 days.  But Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh.  He didn’t like Assyrians and he didn’t think God should like them either.  

So Jonah runs away from God’s call.  He’s not about to go to Nineveh!  Jonah runs as far as he can in the opposite direction, toward Tarshish, 2000 miles away.

He gets on a boat and off he goes.  Suddenly, a big storm develops and the boat is in danger.  Everyone on board is scared and they begin to think there is a jinx on the boat.  Jonah is singled out and he confesses that he’s running away from God.  The sailors try to accept that, but the storm keeps getting worse and worse.  Jonah knows he is the trouble, and to save the others on the boat, he tells the sailors to throw him overboard.  They do it—and what do you suppose happens?  The storm stops!

What happens to Jonah splashing around in the water?  He becomes fish bait and is swallowed up by a big fish (the Bible says big fish—we say whale).  Jonah is in the belly of that fish for three days and three nights.  He turns to prayer and tells God that he will now do what God wants him to do.  He’ll go to Nineveh, if only God will get him out of his present predicament.

God tells the fish to give Jonah up.  The big fish can’t stomach Jonah anyhow and is suffering from indigestion.  The big fish vomits—and out comes Jonah all in one piece on dry land.  Kind of graphic isn’t it?  Sometimes God has to do some drastic things to get us to hear His call.  

So off Jonah goes, reluctantly, to Nineveh.  He does what God has asked him to do.  He talks to the people—the people in the slums, the people in the suburbs, the people in the condominiums, the people on Nineveh’s Wall Street and Fifth Avenue.  He tells them to turn to God and change their ways or their city will be destroyed.

And behold, the Ninevites do turn to God and do change their ways.  They repent.  They turn over a new leaf—everyone—from the slums, the suburbs, the condominiums and Wall Street and Fifth Avenue.  The Ninevites turn to God.  Jonah must have been a powerful speaker to make such a difference.  And you would think that he would be happy with such success.

Not Jonah.  He was furious with God for letting it happen. He goes into a deep depression.  He becomes psychotic, wanting to do himself in or for God to do him in!  Why?—because the people of Nineveh are now God’s people. God has changed his mind about them.  God isn’t going to destroy them!   Here God is walking hand in hand with them and loving them, as if they were Jonah’s own people, Israel.

Jonah just can’t take it!  God may have changed his mind—but not Jonah. He despised the people of Nineveh. He hated them! So he yells at God:  “God!  I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen.  That’s why I ran off to Tarshish!  I knew you were full of grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!  So God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!”

What was Jonah’s problem?  He wanted God to play his game. If Jonah wanted to do away with these Ninevites, then God ought to do away with them!  If Jonah hated these people, then God should hate them too.  God should act the way Jonah wanted God to act.  But God said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways,” and God still says that to us in the 21st century.