Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Oops! My Bad!

“…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” -  Luke 18:14b (NRSV)
 Have you noticed that we, as a society, have moved from, “I’m sorry,” to “Oops! My bad” ?  Here’s what I mean.  Imagine we’re in a crowded restaurant and I’m carrying some drinks and bump into you and spill some on you, staining your shirt.  The “I’m sorry” folks stop, apologize, and offer to help repair the situation.  The “Oops!  My bad” folks offer that quote over their shoulder while walking on as if it hadn't happened.  Remorse and responsibility are lost arts.
          While on a 9 month leave from pastoral ministry, I worked in the claims center for a major property insurance company…I was ‘on your side.’  I listened to people describe car accidents for 40 hours a week.  If you want to hear people totally without remorse, speak with someone who’s just been in an accident.  Even when it is their fault, it isn’t.
          Psychologist  and Hope College professor David Meyer’s research shows one of the interesting causes of our collective lack of remorse is that we all think we’re above average.  Like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, all our children and their parents, of course, are above average.  In his research, he surveyed over 100 managers in a major corporation.  Included in that survey was one question:  “Compared to the other managers in this corporation, in what performance percentile would you rate yourself?”  Nearly all rated themselves in the 90th percentile.  He got the same response from a pool of college professors.  Highly educated people who understand how percentiles work could not imagine that they’d be anything other than the best or nearly so (Intuition: Its Powers and Perils, Yale University Press, 2002).
          I have a friend who has a healthy understanding of who he really is.  He’s a successful financial planner for a major brokerage firm.  But, if you ask him about his college career, he’ll tell you honestly: “I graduated in the part of the class that made the upper 50% possible.”
          I think that’s the kind of humility Jesus is talking about in Luke 18.  Two men go to Temple to pray – a Pharisee (Cheers!  He’s the good guy!) and a tax collector (grumble, grumble).   True to form, the Pharisee thanks God for not making him like those in the bottom half of the class…those who are below average in behavior and citizenship, especially that tax collector.  Jesus knew that most people hearing this think they, too, are in the top half of the class when it comes to behavior and citizenship and will identify with the Pharisee.
          But, then there’s this tax collector (grumble, grumble) who says simply: “Be merciful to me a sinner.”  No boasting.  No excuses.  No comparisons. 
          The Pharisee is saying to God: “Hey, if I did do anything wrong… Oops!  My bad!  At least I’m not as bad has him," and continues on in self-delusion.  On the other hand, the tax collector simply confesses, “I've sinned.  I’m sorry. I need mercy.”  Jesus’ conclusion challenges our assumptions about performance of righteousness trumping humility.  It’s not about perfect performance, it’s about humility.  Boasting of our righteousness in comparison to others’ perceived lack of same misses the point.  Jesus insists that unless we are more aware of our secret faults than we are of our accomplishments, we move further from God.  Because, it is our unrepentant, unresolved secret faults and their corrosive effect on our self-esteem that will, someday, swallow us up.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Cost of Discipleship

My prayer life has been largely shaped by the Bishop who ordained me - twice (I'm of an age that when I entered the ordained ministry in the United Methodist tradition, candidates were first ordained as Deacons, then as Elders; this is no longer the practice).  Bishop Rueben Job has edited three guides to prayer that have provided persistent shape and discipline to my prayer life for over 20 years.

The 2nd week in Lent is centered around the theme "the cost of discipleship" in two of the three books.  This theme always reminds me of Bishop Job because it is at the core of his faith and was a guiding principle in his leadership of the Iowa Annual Conference.  On this subject, he writes:
"Salvation is free, but the cost of discipleship is enormous.  I try to hide from the truth, but when I read the Gospels and seek to live in communion with God, I discover both parts of the statement are dead-center truth...In offering ourselves as fully as we can, we discover the cost of discipleship.  For to bind ourselves to Jesus Christ requires that we try to walk with him into the sorrows and suffering of the world.  Being bound to Jesus Christ, we see barriers broken down and we are led to places we have never seen before.  Having offered ourselves to Jesus Christ, we may expect to become the eyes, ears, voice and hands of Jesus Christ in the world and in the church.  The cost of salvation?  It is completely free and without cost.  The cost of discipleship?  Only our lives - nothing more and nothing less" (Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, p. 135-136). 
Bishop Job confesses his response to this truth is to hide. My confession is that I struggle hard to reverse this principle upon which a Gospel of Grace rests.  I become a theological contortionist in an effort to convince myself salvation has a cost that I can somehow earn, while further twisting myself into the notion that discipleship is voluntary - it's cost borne by the 'leftovers' of my time, energy and money.  However, once bound to the grace of Jesus Christ and yoked with brothers and sisters in service to a broken world, such contortion of the Gospel is both sinful and delusional...and each year at this time Rueben's soft, yet firm, voice reminds me with the same gravity of the words he spoke when laying hands on my head: "Take authority as an elder in the Church to preach the Word of God..."

But, here's the kicker (you knew one was coming)...it's been my observation that the longer we (laity and clergy) are involved in our churches and the structures they create...the longer our lists of offices held and boards served upon become...the greater the temptation to either hide or try that soteriological backflip of justification by works.

When it seems this temptation is about to win out, it happens...I encounter someone whose love for Jesus and passion for discovering more about their faith is so pure they hear the message of grace providing free salvation followed by a discipleship that demands nothing less than all they are as good news...which, of course, it is.  If it hasn't yet happened to you this Lent, my prayer for you is that, like me, God will bless your Lenten journey with a fellow traveler whose passion and faith are so sincere that our attempts to justify ourselves while defining the limits of our discipleship are revealed for what they are...mere selfishness.

"Salvation is free, but the cost of discipleship is enormous."

Pastor Jon

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Where Is God?

After the December 26, 2004 tsunami that struck Indonesia, there was an outbreak of cable news reports featuring folks who claimed to be able to answer a common question in times of unimaginable tragedy and suffering: Where is God?  Quickly followed by: Why does God allow such things to happen?  Fueled by the rather superficial and inadequate answers provided by some of these television theologians, the "contemporary atheist" movement's message gained traction in the ensuing years.  Led by folks like Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet and others, the movement produced more than a few books, blogs, articles and interviews, many of which argued the faith communities' inadequate theodicy (the question of evil and the nature of God) only proved the meaninglessness of the existence of God.  As we move further away from the heart-rending images of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear tragedy in Japan, it is, again, a matter of time before images of disaster will be sprinkled with another round of answers as to the nature of God and whether or not God causes or allows such events.

Contemporary cultural Christianity - the kind that sells in Christian bookstores and whose ideas are ideally sized for sound bytes and bumper stickers - has, in recent years, discovered a talisman in the form of Jeremiah 29:11.
"For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope" (NRSV). 
Cultural/popular Christianity has opted to take this key verse out of context and interpret it as a kind of blessing against suffering for the faithful.  Thus, the response to any tragedy so easily becomes some sort of explanation concerning a lack of faith among those who life plans obviously don't include welfare or hope, but, instead, harm.

Several summers ago, a youth in the church I was serving came back from a gathering with the message that Jeremiah 29:11 means her faith will ensure an earthly future of success, joy and hope.  Because I knew this youth to be a person with an ability to think critically, I wanted to help her discover the true depth of this verse.  We read together Jeremiah 29:10.
"For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon's seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place" (NRSV).
These words were spoken to a people about to face some serious suffering. These words were spoken to a people, some of whom would not live the 70 years to see the promise fulfilled. These words, when combined with the following verses do speak of success, joy and hope - but not immediate; and not in the form of a guarantee against some suffering in the meantime.

As a Christian, my definitions of 'success, joy and hope' must be deeper and more significant than the culture which surrounds me.  When I look to my television, success is in the form of what I can buy, joy is the amount of leisure I can afford and hope is my credit card limit.  When I look to Jesus, I see success in the form of being with the broken and rejected.  When I pick up my cross, I experience joy in having in me the same mind that was in Christ when he emptied himself in serving others.   When I walk through Lent and Holy Week, I am reminded that hope and resurrection include suffering. Sadly, these definitions do not lend themselves to bumper stickers or snappy book titles.

Twenty-five years ago, Ellie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his book, Night.  At the time he received this honor, I was attending Boston University where Wiesel was a professor and experienced hearing him relate some of the events in the book.  Night is a semi-autobiographical account of his experience in a death camp during World War II.  In it, he describes a tragic episode where some boys were hung while the men prisoners were forced to watch as punishment for a minor offense committed by one of the prisoners.  Because the lads were so light and the method of hanging so cruel, the men witnessed the slow strangulation of the lads.  Wiesel tells of one man who stood whispering, "Where is God?" over and over as the boys slowly died.  When the man stopped whispering his question, another man whispered, "Where is God?  God is right there on the gallows."

Can you see?  God is there in the shelters housing thousands still searching for loved ones swept away by the tsunami.  God is there handing out blankets.  God is there in those risking their lives to tame reactors on the verge of meltdown.  God is there as checks are written and online gifts for relief are given. God is there.

The question is not, "Where is God?"  The question is, "Shall we join a God who leaps into the midst of human suffering and brokenness with an immeasurable love?"

Pastor Jon

Note: One way to join our God who leaps into the midst of the suffering in Japan is by going to http://secure.gbgm-umc.org/donations/umcor/donate.cfm?code=3021317 and making a donation to the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Of "Dog People" and the Iditarod...

It’s that time again…time for some caffeinated dog-talk.  No typo here.  It’s Iditarod time in Alaska.  If you’re a “dog person,” no explanation is needed as to the allure of a 1,000+ mile race from the Mat-Su Valley, through the Alaska Range, to the Yukon, to the Bering Sea and, finally, to Nome.  If you’re not a “dog person,” no explanation for this trek is possible.  For example, only real “dog people” will understand why 60-year-old Rick Swenson, who broke his collar bone yesterday going down the zig-zag steps leading to ironically named Happy River, continued his 20th race today with only one good arm.

I am blessed to serve the only United Methodist Church whose property actually abuts the Iditarod race trail.  OK, it’s the trail they use for the ceremonial start in Anchorage where sponsors pay big dollars to ride in the sleds as cheering fans beg riders and mushers for souvenir dog booties.*   Nevertheless, it’s a chance to see these unbelievably ambitious dogs and their mushers up close and personal.  And, to see them before 7 to 10 days of weather and sleep deprivation take their toll.

Though this is only my fourth Iditarod I’ve witnessed here in Alaska, I already am captivated by the various stops along the trail.  From the famous Rohn Roadhouse, located in Rohn, AK, population 0, to Kaltag, population 234, home of the widow of one of the original Iditarod mushers who delivered life-saving diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925, each stop has a unique blend of Iditarod history mixed in with the unique personalities of those who live in these remote villages of just a few dozen families.

“Watching” the race in recent years is a testimony to the rapidly advancing world of technology.  Each sled is fitted with a GPS device linked to a website.  For a $20 donation to the Iditarod folks, you can “watch” the sleds progress through the Alaskan landscape thanks to Google maps.  You can also catch 60 second video interviews that the mushers give at various stops along the way.  If you’re one of the few “dog people” who don’t know about this, go to www.iditarod.com and check it out.  If you’re not a “dog person,” you can roll your eyes now.

So…excuse me for this brief and shallow reflection this week (as opposed to the longer, yet still shallow, reflections I offer most weeks).  But, the leaders are all bunched up at Nikolai and I’m wondering if Lance Mackey will again sneak out while competitors sleep as he did several years ago.  On to Nome…

Pastor Jon

*Those of you who read my Facebook page already know that I am married to the middle aged woman who yelled, “I love you!!” to 4-time champion Lance Mackey and got a dog booty for her efforts.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sensing Crisis and Opportunity

Several months ago I was walking our dog Scout on a wooded trail in Anchorage.  As this trail winds through the spruce and birch, there are several sharp turns that leave the hiker blind as to what lies just around the bend.  It was on one such sharp bend in the road that I looked up just in time to see the rear half of a bull moose about 8 feet in front of me.  I stopped dead in my tracks and suddenly realized why Scout – usually so ambitious on this trail – had  been so hesitant the last 30 feet or so.  His senses were already alert to the sounds and smells of the moose I was incapable of sensing.  Further, his inability to say, “Moose ahead, knucklehead!” left him with the option of applying his brakes and hoping his human would sense this sudden lack of enthusiasm as a signal of approaching crisis.

Well, we backed away and watched for a moment.  Moose will move only when they’re darn good and ready.  Judging by the enthusiasm with which the bull moose was tearing into the birch trees, this guy appeared to have just started his salad and was planning on staying in that spot for the main course.  Due to the narrow trail, just skirting around the backside of the moose was not an option.  So, not wanting to further alarm Scout (or myself), I said, “Well Scout, here’s an opportunity to explore these woods!”  So off through the undergrowth we went, making a large semi-circular detour around the moose.

For some reason, the memory of this fairly common Alaskan event has been churning in my heart and mind for the past several days.  The notion of being lost in thoughts and whatever is in your earbuds almost causing a collision with the business end of a 2,000 pound kicking machine; the idea that there are some around us who sense a crisis but whose signals we ignore; the reality that crisis in one path is an opportunity to create/explore another…these are all speaking to me as one who is leading a church in today’s culture.

Nearly every denomination – as well as many, many congregations – are facing a krisis – the Greek word meaning “moment of decision,” from which we get our word crisis.  What makes a crisis a crisis is the fact that we must make a decision.  During a financial crisis, we must decide what gets funded and what we eliminate.  During a political crisis, people must choose whom to follow, or, at the very least, which form of political fallout is most preferable.  I wonder if the crisis the church has encountered is more than the financial or political crises usually described by denominational judicatories.  I wonder if it isn’t, first and foremost, a spiritual crisis.

I’ll just speak for my own tribe (to use Leonard Sweet’s term for denomination): United Methodism.  We have been walking blithely and blindly along the same path for decades.  Our earbuds have been blaring traditional hymns and annual reruns of debates we’ve endured for more than 30 years.  And now, without so much as a warning, the trail seems to have taken a sharp turn and the 2000 pound moose in the way presents itself in the form of financial and political crises, a postmodern culture whose language we seem to be able to understand or speak, and a population whose collective opinion of church institutions and their leadership is just above that of politicians.

Sadly, the ‘Scouts’ of the world have been trying to get our attention for awhile shouting, “Spiritual moose ahead, knucklehead!”   But, continuing our walk and pace have over-ridden both our willingness and ability to pay attention to their ‘braking’ behaviors.  Whatever hesitation unchurched individuals in our communities have toward our institutional churches must express more about their spirituality than ours has been our theory of operation.

Folks, it’s time to see the opportunity to create new trails.  They will not look or feel like the ones on which we’ve been walking for so long.  We will be clearing some brush and dealing with the prickly spines of devil’s club.  Some of these trails are already being blazed: micro-churches, online ministries, monastic movements, entrepreneurial ministries…  Or, we could just stand and look at the back end of that moose, I guess.