Archive for September, 2017

The Giver

Saturday, September 30th, 2017

The Giver is a 1993 American young adult dystopian novel by Lois Lowry. The society has eliminated pain and strife by converting to “Sameness”, a plan that has also eradicated imagination. The Community lacks any color, memory, climate, or terrain, all in an effort to preserve structure, order, and a true sense of equality beyond personal individuality.

As I prepare for my World Communion sermon tomorrow (October 1) it feels like I serve in a colorless, memoryless world, that has forgotten who it is, and, therefore what it must do. I find myself serving communion to a world, and, to a lesser extent, a congregation, that is modest in its expectations, limited in its energy, tentative in its hope. In other words, we lack any color, memory, climate, or terrain, all in an effort to preserve structure, order, and a true sense of equality beyond personal individuality.

Therefore, as I prepare my pastoral sermon, I realize that, tomorrow at least, I will need to be a prophet, not a pastor:

“The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same consciousness that makes it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger. Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination

Our world has lost hope because they cannot imagine a different world from the dystopian world in which they imagine they live. They live in a world of sameness where hope is an aberration because they cannot imagine a world any different from their world. It would be absurd to do so. It would be fanciful to do so. “Hope, on one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretensions of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question. . .”

So what I intend to do tomorrow is to put on my prophetic hat and offer an alternative reality. I will make the bold claim that Christ is the Giver. This bold assertion will be difficult for my congregation to accept. We are upper middle-class Presbyterians; we are the givers. But if this thing is going to work tomorrow, this communion-thing, it really has to be the Lord’s Supper and He alone is the Giver. We have to accept His grace. We have to stand again at the foot of the cross and accept the gift we could not earn, did not deserve, but is given to us anyway. “The cross is the assurance that effective prophetic criticism is done not by an outsider but always by one who must embrace the grief, enter into the death, and know the pain of the criticized one.”

Tomorrow, then, we gather to blow the hopelessness of the world apart! We will make claims that are powered by the imagination.   We dare to hope that we can change, indeed, that our whole world can change. We will begin with the astounding truth that our God loves us, our Savior died for us, our Holy Spirit empowers us. We will color our world with hope. We will leave that place tomorrow with renewed expectation. Bold assertions. Bold hope. A new tomorrow! Let us begin . . . “On the night that our Lord was betrayed . . . He took bread.”


Friday, September 29th, 2017

At a church meeting/breakfast this morning I was faced with an ontological dilemma: what do I order for breakfast?

I am being trite, even disrespectful you think.  Well, listen . . .

I am on a diet. Really. The kind of diet that disallows all carbohydrates. Potatoes, toast (even, healthy whole grain toast), and everything sweet, are history!

Which is why I faced an ontological (relating to the basic nature of things, beginnings) dilemma this morning.

The first crisis: I could do what I liked.  My surrogate conscience (my wife Karen) was absent.  I knew full well that my church comrades would willingly, with no judgment attached, join me as co-conspirators. It is a confession of faith among Presbyterian men, indeed, the eleventh commandment, “thy shall not tell thy brother’s wife what thee and thy comrade ate at the men’s breakfast.” Oh we don’t lie but half-truths have evolved into a perfidious science. When asked what we ate we respond, “Oh it was health” or “It was not as bad as usual.” And then we quickly change the subject, “Honey, your hair looks beautiful today” or something like it.  I hope my readers will appreciate my raw honesty, and will not, ontologically, condemn me. So I could have sinned today and eaten what I liked . . . but I didn’t. I will tell you why I didn’t in a minute.

The second crisis: my brother-in-Christ Jeff, who is not on a diet, ordered a double hash brown order “to make up, Pastor, for what you are not eating.”  Of course, Jeff was doing no such thing—eating my portion to make up for what I was not eating—he was being mean. Spiteful. Disrespectful. Ontologically, he forgot my high and lofty role in his church! For a few moments I wished to be an Episcopalian or Roman Catholic priest, full of hierarchical power, but, alas, I was captured by a dilemma: I thoroughly embrace the notion of the “priesthood of all believers” so Jeff, fortuitously, escaped clergy wrath and I smiled and with great frustration sprinkled more hot sauce on my unappetizing American cheese omelet.

The last crisis: in the midst of a plethora of choices—indeed, my life is normally full of choices—500 plus television choices, 18 different menu items—Belgian waffles, blueberry pancakes, Texas toast sandwich—sigh, I now had one choice: Eggs and bacon or sausage. And I was not enjoying the feeling.

So I ate my breakfast, without sin and guile. I did so with a smile and joy in my heart (sort of). I will take my ½ pound of weight loss this week and smile. I do it to please my wife, to improve my health, etc. But I also do it for love.

And here is the point of this blog—eating this breakfast is sort of like my walk of faith. I do it because I love God and I want to please Him and I want to . . . well that is about it: I love Him.  I do not wish to trivialize the grace of God by suggesting it is remotely related to my diet—but human motivation, in the face of so many choices, in the face of so much temptation, when push comes to shove, comes down to love. Not fear. Not manipulation. But love. God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son—That is pretty well the reason I obey God’s commandments. He will love me anyway—I do not embrace a performance-based religion—my Savior died on the cross for my sins because He loved me and willingly chose to do it.

So think of these ontological things . . . and pass the hot sauce. . .

“Now” to me has become a wonderful thing.

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017
I greeted the sun this morning on the crest of the hill behind my 1880ish Mennonite built farm. The foundation allegedly was part of an earlier structure, probably built in the middle 1700s.
I walked on this hill today to greet the sun and also to wrap myself in history. It is on this hill where I remind myself that I am part of something much bigger than my farm, much bigger than my lifetime. From this hill Algonquians braves, perspicuous German settlers, and now this old campaigner greet the dawn. I know my God liveth when I stand on this hill. Behind me is an old wagon trail. An earlier Mennonite tenant threw perfectly sculptured sandstone rocks that I have built stone walls to support perennial flowers and thriving holly bushes. At this point, at this  confluence seven springs join to provide my family with the sweetest, cleanest mountain water that a person could hope to experience. I hear the bubbling overflow from my spring house. Whitetail deer, bear, rabbits, and other critters, are even now gathering to enjoy its bounteousness. No wonder Native Americans fought for this land!
I peer over the horizon.  From this place, or nearby, hay chewing squint eyed dairy farmers peered at the smoke from the Flight 93 site only eight miles away. “Yep,” my neighbor observed, “Them A-Rabs are attacking us.”  Even then I wondered what a terrorist had against our old abandoned strip mining fields.
There was 16 years ago and this is now. “Now” to me has become a wonderful thing.  I am as young (at heart) and full of fight as I was then, when America struck the first blow for freedom, on that beautiful autumn morning in early September. 

No, I am as young as any man alive, at any time. As I am reminded as I serve the Lord’s Supper, I (we) join a cloud of witnesses who celebrate and proclaim the goodness and mercy of our God! I remember again, that I am alive, will always be alive. Not in some smoky pantheistic karma, but in the presence of our Almighty God. In the pens, in the memory of my students, I, and all those who serve one another in Christ, who call Him Savior, shall live. This is not a therapeutic moment; it is a historical moment. An affirmation of the Creator who knows all, the only path to the destination where I am heading someday. 
September 11 has always been meaningful for me.  On September 11, 1975 I fell asleep at the wheel of my Fiat 128, hit a bridge, and spent the next year recovering in hospitals (2.5 months) and physical therapy (9 months). In feverish pain I suffered through Luis Tiant’s near victory in the 1975 series. Knowing I was soon to live in Cambridge, MA, I felt obligated to support the home time. I was discouraged, to be sure. Seemed like God had abandoned me! Here I was going to seminary to serve Him, and pow, look were I landed! And then I remember that my delayed Harvard debut meant that I met my beloved wife, Karen, my life partner of 40 years (so far) and mother of my (our) four children. She is sleeping now, even as I write this blog.  I reach for her in prayer as I peer down into our bedroom window. Even for the hour or so I will be away from her, until she joins me for breakfast (and cooks it too, I might add!), I will miss her.
Yes, I digress  but let me end it by saying, continuing to say, that I am as young and hopeful and full of energy as I have ever me.  No, I have more energy, the way old Caleb looked at the high country and asked only to be granted the privilege to defeat God’s enemies (Joshua 14). I stand again, this morning, look! I see the sun rising . . . its rays are accentuated, not dissipated, by golden and red sugar maples autumn leaves. Brothers and sisters, the promise is as real and alive as ever. “The land on which your feet have walked will be your inheritance and that of your children forever, because you have followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly!” (vs. 9).
Let’s roll! Let us take back what is rightfully ours, what belongs to our God. The thistle and the vine, the hill and the flat lands, this is our land.  It is our time. Let us bow down together and thank almighty God that we have been so blessed to be alive, to see the coming of His glory! The vindication of His Word!

Racial Reconciliation: The Only Hope is the Church

Saturday, September 9th, 2017
     My old professor, Harvard University’s Dr. Robert Cole in his book The Spiritual Life of Children describes an interview he had with a young African-American child named Ruby Ridges.  This child was being accosted by angry segregationists as she walked to school. In the face of so much hatred, Cole wanted to know why she was smiling.
     “I was all alone,” she began, “and those people were screaming, and suddenly I saw God smiling, and I smiled.”
     Then she continued with these astonishing words: “A woman was standing there [near the school door], and she shouted at me, ‘Hey, you little —-, what you smiling at?'”
     “I looked right at her face, and I said, ‘at God.'”
     “Then she looked up at the sky, and then she looked at me, and she didn’t call me any more names.”
     In order for reconciliation to occur between races, there must be a profound and sincere acceptance of responsibility for our bad choices.  We must own our responsibility. How blind and judgmental we can be, we religious people!  At the same time, like Ruby Bridges, we must continue to believe racial reconciliation is possible.  To remain hopeful in the face of hopelessness.
     Jesus Christ is the Way and the Truth and the Life.  And He loves all children, red and yellow, black and white. Period.  I know that this seems simplistic and somewhat chauvinistic. There is no other way to eternal life or present happiness.  And I suppose that is the bottom line in my discussion of racism.  As early as 1976 John Perkins was saying the same thing–only the gospel can transform people (Romans 12:1). The goal was voiced by Martin Luther King, jr.: “. . . the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will sit down at the table of brotherhood together.”  This Christian ideal lost its spiritual moorings and the integration cure began to choke the life out of the very ideal of racial harmony it was intended to save.  I believe that the time has come for all Christians to integrate one another.  But to do so in the name of Jesus Christ and biblical veracity.
       Integration was a clear goal for the early church.  After all, the example of the cross drew all persons into hopeful relationship. Paul had no trouble defining his gospel and his life as `the message of the cross.’  On the contrary, he boldly declared that, though the cross seemed either foolishness or a stumbling block to the self-confident (i.e., modern humankind!) it is in fact the very essence of God’s wisdom and power (1 Cor. 1:18-25).49 The cross will be a stumbling block to the white supremist and the black nationalist.  But it will be the Christian’s Hope of Glory.  The world does not need a new religion–it needs Jesus Christ–crucified and resurrected.  And, at risk of sounding simplistic and redundant, as we make Jesus Christ Lord of our lives we will see our racial attitudes change.
      Don’t get me wrong.  What I am suggesting is truly revolutionary, or, as the theologian Walter Brueggemann suggests “subversive.” The church–our church–is called to a higher commitment.  A radical commitment.  The choice for Christ occupies first place, above parents, children, job, and, if necessary, life itself.  The gate leading to health and wholeness in our world is not reasonable size.  It is narrow.  In that sense, I am calling us all to a radical faith, a prophetic faith.  We are called to a major reclamation project of our views of atonement so completely presented in Scripture and in our Confessions.  And racism, after all, is a direct threat to the atonement.
    The challenge for the Church is to be different in a meaningful way.  To be in the world but not of it.  To lead America away from the self-destructive cliff to which racism has brought us.  The call to us all is to find our identity in Christ alone–not in color, creed, ethnicity or any other category. Again, though, I am convinced that racial reconciliation is coming for one very important reason:  men and women and the organizations that they represent are falling down on their knees and asking God to give them strength to change.  Faith in the Lordship of Jesus Christ–more than any other single factor–will bring peace.  This outspoken subservience to the Lordship of Christ, the open admission that peace will not come in any other way, makes the present moves to reconciliation to be more hopeful.  Nothing quite like this happened in earlier reconciliation attempts.
In William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished a white boy named Bayard is reflecting about his black friend Ringo: “. . . Ringo and I has been born in the same month and has both fed at the same breast and has slept together and eaten together for so long that Ringo called Granny ‘Granny’ just like I do, until maybe he isn’t a n—er               anymore or maybe I isn’t a white boy anymore, the two of us neither, not even people any more: the two supreme undefeated like two moths, two feathers riding above a hurricane.”
       The Church is called–somehow–to ride above a hurricane.  To be that peculiar people about whom we read in Scripture.  To find a unity that transcends the substantial barrier race represents.  This is no small feat, but one that the Church must undertake. And soon.  By showing American society the way out of racism the Church of Jesus Christ has a unique opportunity to reclaim Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “center of the city.”  Using Augustine’s City of God as a standard, the Church is called to be an efficacious model of reconciliation to a fragmented and broken community.   We are all on a journey–white, black, yellow, and red—whose ending is the City of God.
Finally, Christians are called by God to serve our culture even though our ultimate loyalty and hope is in the city of God. I believe, with all my heart, that the road to Christian revival must pass through the school of racial reconciliation.  There are several examples of racial reconciliation in our country today and I am truly encouraged. But there is much work that remains.  As I have intimated before, until the Church finds a way to bring racial reconciliation in a widespread way into its own camp, American society at large has no hope of doing the same. As we begin the 21st Century this reclamation project will be America’s most valuable gift to the world.
           The whole world waits with bated breath . . .