Sunday, October 29, 2017

Say what we mean to say

So a few weeks ago I was slumming about social media, when a video link came across one feed or another. I must have been overly bored or overly curious, because I clicked.

(If you're easily triggered about things like booze, don't watch. You've been warned.)

(Still, you've been warned.)

The video that came along was visually clever, but musically about as predictable as possible. The slow build over repetitive guitars, the rather vague lyrics, the rather thin wastrel voice ... it's a worship song! And it is, of a sort.

Directness in our music is a valuable thing. There's value in naming who and what we sing about early and often. I hope that is so obvious that it didn't really need saying.

What might need saying is that such directness is also useful, even needful, when our designated 'worship' is over.

We suffer, I think, from an unwillingness or inability to speak directly. We get fumble-mouthed, or we count on others -- better speakers than we, or more informed, or something -- to do the speaking for us. Whether it is from fear of seeming "too political" or simply fear of not being able to back up what we say, we shrink back.

Well, if "politics" is at root the basic mechanisms by which human beings get things done or not, it is inevitable for the church to be "political" unless it locks itself up tight in the sanctuary and never sticks its head out. And for the backing it up part, I'm pretty sure your pastor would love to help with that.

For this Reformation Sunday I had the silly epiphany that the word "Protestant" invariably contains the word "protest" if you actually spell it right. You'd be hard-pressed to know that if your only clue about mainline Protestantism was its public behavior, or that would have been the case in an awful lot of places before Charlottesville. Even so, in other venues the fellow clergy of those hardy souls haven't picked up that torch so much. With a few notable exceptions in high places, the mainline can be awfully muted.

That helps nothing.

This is one of those sermons I preach mostly because I need to hear it; if it's useful to anyone else, good.

So, mainliners (especially the painfully introverted ones), how do we speak up and speak clearly?

So, anybody wanna go nail some theses to the door?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Leave Main Street USA behind

You may not know that my wife is a fairly serious addict of Walt Disney World. Yes, she'll also generally want to see Disney movies and other stuff but Disney World is her place of bliss. I don't share that enthusiasm, but I try to go along with it because marriage. (My one complaint is that I think we should visit Disneyland at least once, which she has no desire to do.)

Admittedly I use those trips (outside of one, for Epcot's Food & Wine festival in the fall, which I use for different purposes than does she. Usually I'm mentally deconstructing the place, trying to shake out clues to the culture that made that spot so ridiculously popular. While this works to varying degrees in the different parks, it's never more rewarding (or depressing) than in the flagship park, the Magic Kingdom.

While virtually anything in that park is ripe for such rumination, it's entirely possible that ther is no more fertile ground for it than the very entrance to the park, once you get past the ticket booths and gates (and security): the Town Square and Main Street USA.

It's the site of parades every day (at least when the park doesn't get closed by hurricanes). Behind the somewhat gaudy nineteenth-century-ish veneer, it's all about what a Main Street is frequently about: selling stuff -- in this case Disney merchandise, naturally, with some food thrown in.  It's generally crowded and noisy and extremely white (in terms of the Main Street it portrays).

It's fairly public knowledge, I think, that Main Street USA is Walt Disney's attempt to recreate (in an idealized fashion to be sure, as memory tends to do) the Main Street of his hometown in Missouri. Walt did not include one for obvious reasons, but I have to wonder what church or churches were on that "real" Main Street when he was growing up. It would be interesting to know, I think to have a clue about just what churches were busily fitting themselves into the culture, personal and commercial, exemplified by that Main Street.

May I suggest that, for some segments of the church today, that Main Street USA is a pretty good representation of the problem of some of our mainline churches and denominations?

Nostalgia can be deadly, you know. The more we yearn for what is past, the more we choke off whatever future is out there for us. And yet so much of the mainline -- from the folks in the pews to the folks running things on higher levels -- are profoundly hung up on (a) preserving what little "Main Street" real estate we have left, holding on desperately to the last little shreds of influence we have (or think we have) in Mainstream America, or (b) desperately trying to get back. For every visionary you see in a pulpit or an office or a classroom trying to urge the church forward, there is at least one desperately trying to get back to Walt's Eden, between the millinery shop and the ice cream parlor.

But that's not the place for the body of Christ to be, and it never was. The poor and the oppressed may be on Main Street in your town, but they're decidedly not on Main Street USA. And (painful as it is to say sometimes) where they are is where the body of Christ needs to be.

Even this mainline guy (UCC, right?) falls for the seduction of Main Street USA... *sigh*

Time to relocate. Put out the FOR SALE sign and look for a place closer to the need. It's not without pain (I'm not above a good chili dog at Casey's Corner), but Main Street USA is not our home, and we don't need to get caught up in trying to hold on to what should never have been ours. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Year of Matthew 10:34

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daugher-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. 
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 
Those who find their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 10:34-39

(Reminder: evangelicals, you were told way back at the beginning of this blog re-reboot that this blog was not for you.)

I'm not sure how much this kind of thing gets beyond what might be called "church Twitter," but if you note much of that you are probably aware of the release of the "Nashville Statement" earlier this week. (Google it; I have no intention of propagating it further than it has already spread.)

The statement has already been torn apart in multiple fashions. Its attempt to situate an anti-LGBTQ+ screed in the church's historical belief is punctured here by some historians; other groups have offered point-by-point rebuttals like the Denver Statement (spearheaded by mainline-ish quasi-celebrity pastor Nadia Bolz Weber); pastors have noted its odd lack of scriptural foundation (no reference to the "six verses" or "seven verses" in particular); petitions have been signed and so forth and so on. It made for an active week on "church Twitter."

In short, many far more skilled and informed pastors and scholars and writers and other folk have debunked the content of the statement to a degree I cannot hope to match much less exceed. Go read. Inform yourself.

My intent here, on the other hand, is to argue that at least one part of the "Nashville Statement" should absolutely be taken seriously.

Article 10 of said statement is for some the most brash part of the statement, claiming as it does that "it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faith and witness," and that the issuing speakers "deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christian [sic] should agree to disagree." In short, you cannot disagree with the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (the issuing group behind the manifesto) and be a Christian, according to the CBMW. Its president, Denny Burk (who seems awfully famous for reasons I cannot fathom), flat-out calls Article 10 a "line in the sand." It is meant to exclude.

OK, fine, I'm not part of your group.

As I have noted, this blog is addressed to my fellow dying mainliners, that twig of the church that others like either to belitte or ignore. The likes of the CBMW are certainly not under my authority to any degree. I, however, am not under their authority either, and frankly their orders do not apply to me. Trying to do my job and fulfill my call in the corner of the church I now occupy is enough challenge for me. I care about those persons, particularly those LGBTQ+ persons who are yet again being dragged through the slime by some particularly hateful pastors, who are directly harmed by the statement. The persons who issue such statements are irrelevant to me and have no place in my thought or theology, outside of the occasional sermon about those who get hung up on "statutes and ordinances."

Other mainliners do not share my indifference. The whole reason "church Twitter" gets all riled up is precisely because such hardcore evangelicals cannot resist rising to the bait when groups like this bleat out statements like this. Personally, my blood pressure couldn't take such regular "engagement" in such disputes, but it's not my place to judge them either.

What I do have to go on about, and be a little bit of a jerk about, is the degree to which mainliners tend to get fluttery about this to the detriment of being about our business of serving and following.

We have a lot to do: welcome to the unwelcome; care for those for whom nobody cares; proclamation of the gospel without bullying; non-stupid worship; presenting our bodies as living offerings and being transformed by the renewing of our minds and such work as that. We'd also be well-advised to get on with welcoming and loving those who are targeted by these occasional blasts from the would-be popes of evangelicaldom. Instead, we have this bad habit of getting obsessed with the ones doing the blasting.

I so wish we would grasp the truth of Matthew 10:34.

At the risk of trumpeting my own sermon, it's not about seeking to cause division. It is, however, also not about avoiding division, about being so cowed by those who come bringing the sword that we forsake our call to follow and serve. It emphatically is not about engaging in some kind of "let's not offend anybody" straddling that does nothing but shield the bullies.

It is about living in the light, living in Christ, living as if Jesus were going to show up tomorrow (after all, He just might), which only happens by living in love. If that means the sword comes, then the sword comes.

Cutting to the chase for us mainline types: our call as a people of God, as followers of Christ, is not enhanced by getting into these pitched battles with these militant forces of fundamentalism. It's not our call to fight that war.

Maybe our call is to be the medics, the ones who are called to extend ourselves out into the battlefield to gather up the wounded, to bring them in to safety and welcome them and care for them and even join with them in doing Christ's work in God's world.

Can we please get on with it?

Maybe we're called to be stretcher bearers in the church wars?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Preaching the sermons we hate

So I hated my sermon this morning.

Not because it was bad sermon, I don't think. Not saying it was Best Sermon Ever, but my guess is it "worked," whatever that means for a sermon. It's even possible it worked too well.

I'm semi-using the lectionary at the moment, so this week I was a week ahead in an ongoing march through Paul's epistle to the Romans. As a result, today's sermon came out of Romans 12:9-21. (For what it's worth, I've been a week ahead for a couple of weeks, and will be for one more, in order to avoid missing Romans 13 when I'm on vacation in a couple of weeks.)

So Romans 12, the first portion of which supplied last week's sermon, is a profoundly rich chapter by any accounting. The first two verses in particular are among the best ever, and what follows from them does so in striking and powerful form. (If you ask me my favorite verse of scripture it could vary from day to day, but Romans 12:2 is always a good candidate.)

The second lectionary chunk of Romans 12 presents one immediate difficulty for preaching; you really could extract about twenty different sermon topics from it without trying too hard. Nonetheless, I did my prep work, muddled through Greek and hit the commentaries and read again and again and finally came to the conclusion that I had, more or less, a sermon. (Make of it what you will.)

By the time I preached it I hated it. Profoundly so.

Some of this scripture is quite beautiful, but some of it is awfully difficult to deal with. Paul wants to talk about how the Christ-follower, living as a living offering to God and transformed by the renewing of the mind, both lives in the body of Christ and in turn responds (as part of the body of Christ) to the larger world outside. Sometimes that means running up against evil, and Paul comes back to that idea in different ways throughout the chapter.

Some of them are easy to get behind or even to cheer. "Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good." Yeah! We can get behind that! (Never mind that we might not always be completely clear on what is evil sometimes, but there are some obvious things out there in the headlines and we can get behind hating that evil!) Woohoo!!

But "bless those who curse you; bless and do not curse them"... whaaa? 

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil"... oh, come on... .

"Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God"... but I want revenge now!!!

"No; 'if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads'." have got to be kidding me...and what does that "burning coals" business even mean???

Finally, "do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good." Again, what does that even mean?

Seriously, what does that even mean to "overcome evil with good"? What evidence exactly do we have that this kind of thinking won't get us killed (in a very literal physical sense these days)?

It's possible that the destructive effect of Hurricane Harvey is illustrating some of these verses for us. It's entirely possible that there are black or Hispanic or LGBTQ+ rescue workers pulling KKKers or neo-Nazis out of the floodwaters in Houston even as I type. They're preaching this scripture far better than I can do.

I don't want to do these things. I should be ashamed to admit it, but that doesn't make it any less true.

There's a lesson, of course. Even as the mainline tries to be faithful and admittedly not die in the process, we don't get to ignore the stuff we'd rather ignore. We're still obligated to preach the tough scriptures and feed those who would just as soon see us go down the drain (and they are out there). If anything, we're probably more obligated to do so, seeing as we know what it is to be endangered by our own hubris and blindness, lest others fall.

Our churches may not worship scripture the way some (*ahem*) Christian traditions do, but we don't get to dismiss it when it becomes difficult. I still need to confront all those unpleasant instructions in Romans 12, not to mention the much-abused first seven verses of Romans 13, famously used to justify a nuclear strike on North Korea just a few weeks ago (remember that?). Far from being a "political" move such is mandatory as precisely a theological imperative in the wake of Robert Jeffress's claims. I can't avoid confronting that (even though the lectionary tries to let me off the hook by leaving those seven verses out of the prescribed reading). It would be no less than dereliction of duty.

Sometimes we are charged to confront other corners of the church, and sometimes we have to proclaim the stuff that we don't even like. Just because I might hate the sermons that result doen't let me avoid preaching them.

Who's rescuing who in the wake of this?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

From mainline to front line

I have seen more than one tweet or Facebook comment in the last twenty-four hours suggesting that for those who wondered how they would have acted or reacted in the era of the civil rights movement, well, you're finding out now.

To be sure there's some truth to that. It might be slightly more accurate to say that if you haven't yet, you will soon.

I say that only in the sense that such realization might be forced on you in a way it has not necessarily been yet. You may not live anywhere near Charlottesville, Virginia, but don't be under any illusions that your town is necessarily immune from such white supremacist violence.

So I've been looking at my own town of residence with an eye towards what might incite the nation's white supremacists and Nazis and violent racists of whatever stripe to show up here.

I've never lived in Charlottesville, but in my time in Richmond I ended up making a lot of visits, some of them for work or internship reasons. Gainesville is not that much like Charlottesville. The vibe and culture are quite different. The point here is not to prefer one or the other (and neither of them will ever hold a candle to Lawrence, Kansas, to me anyway), simply to note that they are very different towns.

The universities housed in those towns are also quite different. They both claim a role as the "flagship" universities of their states, but otherwise they work in very different ways. UVa can be much more of a "snob school" than UF can get away with being, due to varying regulations and attachments that require them to take students that wouldn't get into UVa. Partly as a result, UF is larger. In fact, it is (blank)ing huge. I had no idea when I moved here how large it had become. It's like a freakin' educational Death Star.

But the two towns and universities housed in them have a few slight similarities. Both Charlottesville and Gainesville (as do many university towns) sit in pronounced contrast to the parts of their states immediately surrounding them in terms of educational level as well as social and political attitudes. But other than that, there really isn't anything in Gainesville that should set off the firestorm that happened in Charlottesville, right? No renamed park or removed statue...

Oh. Forgot about "Old Joe."

That's a statue that currently stands on the grounds of the local county administration building, placed  in 1904, and now a source of disagreement. The most recent move by the local county authorities has been to offer it to an area United Daughters of the Confederacy group (the organization that originally placed the statue) who would then be responsible for its removal from public property (supposedly it might be moved to an area with a number of graves of Confederate soldiers).

For the moment this resolution seems to have held sway. But who knows? What if some copycat bunch of hooded sheets decides to cause trouble when the time for removal arrives? So, it's not impossible for something to happen.

And if it does I have no choice to be on the front line.

That's part of the call for the mainline right now. If we're really going to live up to the gospel we claim, we have to been there when the likes of this weekend's marauders in Charlottesville show up in our towns seeking to commit racial terrorism under the guise of "free speech." We have to stand with those being terrorized, even (dare I say especially) if it's risky. We cannot pretend that racists and those hated and hunted by racists are somehow equally at fault.

Furthermore, we have to take our cues from the ones hated and hunted by those racists, the people of color who face this threat basically for waking up in the morning. It's not our job to come in and save the day; it's our job to be there with the ones who are under threat.

A lot of mainline pastors, including some old seminary classmates and friends, did this beautifully this weekend in Charlottesville. Singing "This Little Light of Mine." Praying and singing and worshiping God. Together. And then standing in the way of the racists.

Not every individual is physically capable of that kind of literal standing on the front line. But the mainline really has to, individually but even more collectively, be there with the ones who really do know what persecution is. Otherwise we might as well just go ahead and die off like all those evangelicals keep saying we're gonna do.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A requiem for Brother Snooty

While the unnervingly usual tumult of life-or-death headlines washed over the nation and world last week, we here in Florida were ... caught up in those headlines pretty much like everybody else.

Floridians were also, however, caught up in the death of a manatee.

Specifically, the death of a manatee called Snooty garnered attention across a large swath of the state, leading to the kind of impromptu memorials normally reserved for athletes killed young or other such human tragedies.

The first-above link largely captures the Snooty story. Written by Craig Pittman of the Tampa Bay Times, a noted chronicler of Florida weirdness, it covers the life story of a manatee who lived to an unfathomable age for manatees in captivity, and died in a sad and stupid accident the day after his birthday. In between, from birth in captivity on a boat in Miami to years as a feature attraction at a museum in Bradenton, Snooty achieved the peculiar kind of legendary status that sits at the intersection of overly human-oriented animals, the ever-present desire of humans to escape their own rottenness and pettiness in a way that cute animals can provide, and the above-noted Florida weirdness.

There is inherently something sad about such a story, given that Snooty was born, lived, and died in what can only sanely be described as captivity, and that virtually all non-natural causes of manatee death are human-related; we are in a sense their worst enemies. In nature, manatees are all too frequently maimed by boats, whether large or small. Another human-created threat to manatees comes from the spoilage or destruction of their natural habitats (even the red tide that can kill manatees is frequently linked to runoff from human activities). Those manatees that are on display (a telling phrase) in places such as The Seas at Disney World's Epcot theme park and Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park (my two go-to manatee viewing spots) are frequently manatees in rehabilitation before a hoped-for return to the wild; in some cases the extensive damage the creatures have suffered mean they'll never be able to be released. Snooty's case -- actually born on a boat after his mother had been critically injured -- meant he most likely never would have had a chance in the wild. There was little for Snooty to be other than a feature attraction; that he did so and was so beloved (so to speak) as such is both heartwarming and tragic.

In many ways it is only as an object of this peculiar variety of pity that manatees have much of a chance in Florida. Manatee lives in the wild aren't particularly interesting; Discovery Channel is never going to create Manatee Week. They swim, coming to surface every twenty minutes or so to breathe (they are mammals), and otherwise munch contentedly on green vegetation in shallow waters. (Manatees in captivity or rehabilitation are usually seen munching on lettuce, which is I suppose close enough.) Because their particular food is found in shallow waters and they have to surface frequently, manatees will pretty much always be vulnerable to boat traffic. Beyond that, manatees don't really do anything exciting to garner human attention. Mind you, a manatee life actually sounds pretty enticing to me; find a way to work in books and music and I could go for it, but for too many people manatees are just big stupid "sea cows" who oughta get out of the way.

That manatees like Snooty or his wild compatriots actually hold so much fascination for as many people as they do (myself included) almost feels like a form of self-indictment.

Not Snooty; a manatee in rehab at Epcot.

It's almost as if we know better. The manatee's ultra-simple lifestyle, extreme vulnerability to us humans, and frequent captive status are a full-fledged three-strikes-and-out on us humans and our relationship to manatees and pretty much all of creation, if we're ever honest about it. They're not useful or exciting to us; they get in the way of our recreations. Even Snooty, bless his aquatic heart, first got his "in" with humans by being able to learn some simple tricks on command, not because of his essential manatee-ness or creatureliness. 

Even I'm guilty of using manatees in writing this blog post, in order to make a point (there is one, and here it comes). The human relationship to creation, Snooty included, is something that the church has failed monstrously. We have gotten all riled up by horrible translations of Genesis and indulged our thirst for "dominion" by despoiling creation on a regular and continuing basis. Seas are filling up with plastic, water is horribly abused, we've screwed up the climate royally, and the things we do in search of fossil fuels are grotesque. And church folk pretend these things aren't happening, or worse say horrible things about how we owe the oil industry our gratitude (I actually heard this with my own two ears, at a presbytery meeting no less) and our money. We use "natural resources" without any connection to the nature of which we are a created part.

So, mainline, maybe this is a humility we could learn to practice? 

When even the Apostle Paul chimes in from scripture about all creation "groaning in labor pains" (Romans 8, lightly alluded to in my sermon today!), we probably ought to learn that we really are in this together with all of God's creation. We suffer when God's creation suffers, and God's creation certainly suffers from our doings. Our fates are inseparable; maybe we could learn to live accordingly.

But that of course requires us to step away from the whole dominion thing, being boss of nature or conquering or turning real live creation into "nature...on a leash." 

And maybe, if we learned the humility of being part of creation, we might also learn the humility of being part of humanity. Maybe we'd also learn to be among God's children rather than always fancying ourselves God's favorites or (even worse) indispensible to God in a way that others simply aren't. Even where we are now we haven't truly shed a lot of the arrogance of our cultural-influence peak, which doesn't help us going forward with any kind of genuine Christ-like witness. 

Maybe in our chastened state of shrinkage and decreased relevancy we in the mainline could learn that humility, OK? It won't do Snooty any good. But perhaps we might be a little less in need of the likes of Snooty to remind ourselves of our place in creation.

This is Snooty, (apparently) a few days before his final birthday.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Court Prophets Revel in Their "Unprecedented" Royal Access

JERUSALEM (ARNS*) -- Squeezed in among two dozen other prophets in residence at the royal court, Hananiah added his hand to the other reaching to pray for King Zedekiah of Judah.

The royal prayer session is just one example of the access the court of Zedekiah and his key aides have given to a cadre of prophets, from evening-long dinners to all day meetings.

"This is unlike anything we've experienced in our career in prophecy -- unprecedented access, unprecedented solicitation of viewpoints and opinions," said Hananiah.

Previous kings had granted access to prophets across the spectrum, although not always positively -- the death of the prophet Uriah son of Shemaiah at the hands of King Jehoiakim comes to mind -- but Zedekiah's court has been particularly given over to those prophets of the party of Hananiah.

Observers suggest that the cadre of court prophets gives Zedekiah a "seal of approval" among an important constituency in Judah, a significant support for a king whose situation is shaky at best. The court prophets also offer Zedekiah protection against non-conformist prophets such as Jeremiah, an agitating presence across multiple royal courts. Hananiah's spectacular attack against Jeremiah, in which he took the prophet's wooden yoke and broke it in front of the king, was reported to have been received with great favor by Zedekiah and Hananiah's fellow court prophets.

"I'm sure that the king would be happy if Jeremiah had been elimiated with Uriah years ago, although fortunately that didn't happen somehow thanks to the protection of Ahikam son of Shaphan. But to be able to put that pest in his place shows just how much the king values our prophetic utterances in support of the kingdom and of the king," Hananiah is reported to have said. "We do the job of supporting the king when fake prophets like Jeremiah won't, and the king favors us accordingly. It's the best situation we've ever known."

Clearly Zedekiah enjoys the support of the so-called court prophets; after the latest such meeting he referred to the court prophets as "my kind of people," and he was reported to have laughed uproariously at Hananiah's breaking of Jeremiah's yoke.

While prophets such as Jeremiah have not gone away, their number is far fewer and their safety is not guaranteed. Hananiah's star rose with his prophecy of the end of Babylon's power and the return of exiled people and stolen artifacts, against which Jeremiah had spoken (leading to the yoke-breaking incident). The direct attack of one prophet against another is seen as a sign of just how much favor the court party of prophets has with the relatively new king.

Jeremiah, the non-court prophet, responded to a request for comment for this story with a lengthy prophetic statement about wooden and iron yokes. Hananiah the unofficial leader of the court prophet party, was also asked for further comment but was unable to reply due to illness.

An artist's depiction of the incident in which Hananiah broke Jeremiah's yoke (video cameras were not allowed at the session).

Note: the original article being parodied is here; a quick browse of Jeremiah 26-28 is also recommended.

*ARNS = Ancient Religion News Service

(If you still need a mainline "moral of the story" at this point...don't be like Hananiah. Even Billy Graham came to regret how much he let Richard Nixon use him.)