Friday, July 30, 2010

The Unnecessary Pastor: Opinions on the Idea & the Book by Marva Dawn & Eugene Peterson

I recently finished a book called The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call by Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson. I am not impressed at all by the book. I like the idea of a unnecessary, but useful pastor. However, I don't think either author brought the idea to fruition. Nowhere in the text does either author call for pastors to eliminate the parts of their job that feed the idea that pastors are necessary, i.e., the pastor preaching every Sunday, the pastor being the only person called to pastoral roles, the pastor being the main leader/servant, the pastor being the only person who is a pastor, despite the priesthood of all believers.

Peterson mostly defines "unnecessary" by giving a few snapshots of how he pictures the ideal pastor who does much of the things current pastors do, but with a much-needed unloading of baggage. Unfortunately, Peterson foresees that baggage unloaded by the giving up power mostly in word, not in reality--a sort of meaningless, but spiritual "giving to God."

Dawn spends much of her time talking about whatever catches her eye while she sits at the computer writing, with an occasional reference to being unnecessary. She has a good ability for analysis, which she displays in reading Ephesians. She definitely did her homework, although she cannot resist dipping into social commentary of the "the thing wrong with the world/church today is [blank] and it wasn't that way when I was young or when the church started." I'm unfamiliar with the rest of her corpus, but if she puts all of her analytical powers into one bit of social commentary in one full book, then that book would be a powerful tome.

It took me a while to warm up to her, but I am appreciating more and more of her writing and her style. I've heard her speak and she speaks the way she writes. I wish more people would give up the idea of formal and write in diction people actually use. To me, her conversational style comes across as cheesy at times. Of course, I am incredibly cheesy and I haven't sold any books, so perhaps I could learn a few lessons from Ms. Dawn. I appreciate her wide approach to the topic, I just don't always make the connections she makes.

While reading this book, I did a lot of thinking. I am trying hard to appreciate the book, but it is hard to appreciate when I don't approach scripture the way either of the authors do and their spirituality is too much like a spirituality I left years ago (whether that is "traditional," I don't know, but it is "traditional" from my perspective). Most of my appreciation for the book is nostalgia. In a different life, I could have loved a lot in this book.

One day, my mind wandered as much as Dawn's does. I started trying to think of concrete reasons for my general displeasure in reading the book--which is not the same as saying the book has faults, hopefully I have not harshly criticized, but rather emphasized reasons why it isn't my cup of tea. I made some of the observations I put in writing above, thinking more about the idea of an unnecessary, but useful pastor.

I decided I could be a pastor someday, if I were an unnecessary one. Like Peterson, I see "unnecessary" as my ideal concept of the pastoral role, but not one I can define as much as Peterson. In my ideal, pastor shouldn't really be the same thing in every community. From the outset, my idea of church differs from Peterson and Dawn who are parts of denominations whose churches are rigidly structured to be very similar. I like similarities, but I want more differences, especially when it comes to worship, organization, and, most of all, community.

And I'm not talking music style. I'm thinking more of the dissolution of sermons and singing as the staple of church services. I want to replace weekly sermons with discussions and occasional sermons. I want to replace singing with various art expression and appreciation and with fellowship, not a 15-minute coffee break between Sunday school and the "worship service." I think worship is best expressed through loving what God loves. The first thing on the list of things God loves is not "himself," it's us and the rest of God's creation.

In this setting, the pastor becomes "less necessary," because the pastor doesn't speak every week. An unnecessary pastor wouldn't even facilitate discussion weekly. Perhaps not even often. A pastor--notice "a," not "the"--could give educated, biblical and/or theological perspectives on the discussion. Another pastor could be involved for more counseling and group process purposes. Another for administrative purposes, namely, organizing outreach and putting theology and the fruit of discussions into action, into social action, not marketing for members and "souls."

We are all ministers, right? So, maybe pastors are necessary, because without pastors, that is, all of us, there is no church. Of course, I'm talking ideal body, which we don't have. However, I do not think the current concept of pastor is necessary, not even Dawn & Peterson's idea of an "unnecessary pastor," an idea that stops too early.

If I ever become a pastor, it will be the type that everyone is, which is necessary. The unnecessary part would be having the title and calling everyone else something other than pastor. And I see those sorts of "unnecessities" as burdens to leave at the cross.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why I'm (Not) Emerging/Emergent, But Support the Movement

I have been really excited about emergent/emerging Christian communities. Some people tell me a difference exists between "emergent" and "emerging," while others use the terms interchangeably. I don't know if a difference exists between the two and, frankly, I don't think I care all that much. I'm not trying to offend anyone's attempt to create an us/them binary, to put massive groups of people into a box, or to understand with good intentions other people by committing the aforementioned crimes; I just don't currently see an importance in the distinction due to my ignorance of it.

In case you missed it, I opened the last paragraph with "I have been." Those three words could imply continuance with the past or a breaking with the past, either, "I have been and still am," or, "I have been but am not longer." I am looking for a little bit of both connotations.

I am still really excited about emergent/emerging Christian communities and the conversations surrounding them. They are doing wonderful things and making some changes I enthusiastically support. Down with hierarchy, up with co-servanthood. Down with marketing and flattery, up with relationships. Down with isolation, up with intentional living communities. Down with monostructure, up with variety.

Did you notice I just said "they." It seems nearly impossible to analyze and communicate without creating us/them binaries, or, worse, I/them or I/it binaries.

I do not associate myself with any emergent/emerging Christian movement or group any more than I associate myself with any Christian denominational movement or entity. I am just as much Presbyterian as I am emergent as I am Protestant as I am Christian heretic as I am Christian apostate as I am Christian liberal or postliberal or postmodern or post-postmodern as I am Christian deconstructionist and process Christian and agnostic.

Alongside all those other words I just listed, "emergent" and "emerging" are labels promoting identity. Identities build walls. Identities build those us/them binaries. Derrida suggests working towards identification, not identity, a slight and genius play on words.

Identity is one thing; identification isn't one thing. Identity settles for conformity; identification is a dynamic, exciting, frightening, never-settling process. It doesn't involve getting rid of all our lovely identifiers like "emergent," "emerging," and "Christian." We keep those words and recognize they have no denotation and contradictory connotations--they are words, intrinsically meaninglessness words that continually take shape in conversation.

We use these words only when appropriate, not all the time. I'm never always emergent/emerging. Instead, I can identify with an idea or practice I associate with others who self-describe them and this idea or practice within an emergent/emerging movement. Alongside my emergent/emerging leanings, I have a tendency to find myself in Presbyterian (PC-USA) and Baptist circles, although I still have a preference for some theology I have always associated with Advent Christian circles.

With all this identification, I am never placed in a box, because no one will expect me to be the (nonexistent) definition of emergent, emerging, Christian, Protestant, evangelical, Presbyterian, or even "Presbymergent."

I include you in this identification, too. Whether you accept it or not, I don't think you have an identity, as much as I might sinfully judge you to have a few (I often try to put you in a box. Sorry.). With the process of identification, us/them shatters to I/Thou, to, more simply, "We." We are a community. We have commonalities and differences. I am different from and the same as you. We are never completely opposite, because on some level I am not me and you are not you, because we are both we.

I just took some notes on a book I read this winter: An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, edited by Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones, with chapters by Brian McLaren and Samir Selmanovic.

I've read books by Brain McLaren. He talks about Christians having "a generous orthodoxy," which attempts to maintain the idea of right belief within what he calls wide margins. Really, he is just promoting one orthodoxy to replace other, previous, "narrower" orthodoxies. He doesn't skirt around the many problems orthodoxy has as an identifier and creator of oppressive us/them binaries. Although saying great things about emergent/emerging, in A Generous Orthodoxy, McLaren simply and unfortunately touts another orthodoxy.

I haven't read any books by Samir Selmanovic, but I met him and listened to a presentation he made called "Learning to Love the Other in God, Self, and Society." Whereas McLaren wants to create a Christian community that accepts more people as "us," Selmanovic seems more concerned about becoming yourself, which you can only do in community with the Other. Selmanovic acknowledges the unavoidability of us/them and instead of creating a larger "us," like McLaren, he decides to engage with as many "Thous" as he can in order to be himself. In that presentation, Selmanovic spent more time on I/Thou than us/them.

Both of these men were present at the "Transform" conference I attended in Washington, DC this past April. So was Peter Rollins of Ireland. I don't think Rollins had a version of emerging/emergent like the other two. I think Rollins could even care less about being called Christian. Instead, he wanted to lose himself in order to find himself, to give up identity for the process of identification that could one day be resurrected with Christ. (You might call Rollins a fan of deconstruction.)

All three of these men were at the same conference, in some way associating with the emergent/emerging identifier. McLaren touts that label frequently. I know little of how often Selmanovic uses it, but I know he engages with an interfaith community. Rollins is often associated with Christianity and emergent/emerging, but he apparently spends a lot of time pointing out the deconstruction in those terms.

And yet, they were all enjoying each other's community. I love that part of the emerging/emergent movement. But I resist large parts of the emergent/emerging movement that are obsessed with being emergent/emerging. I don't like oppressive binaries and I saw those binaries hailed at Transform as many had a general distaste for education, certain ways of reading the Bible, and the institutionalized churches. Yes, many based this distaste on hurt, but hurt transformed into an oppressive us/them binary is not deconstruction, but rather entering into the alterity that hurt you and pushing that hurt back on those who hurt you.

I associate with much of what emergent/emerging people are doing--experimenting with faith and trying to get closer to God based on individual communities, not finding one way for everyone to do it in different situations.

And I associate with the tendency to not associate, which is why I have been and continue to be excited about the emerging/emergent church and why I am not now nor will ever be an emergent/emerging Christian, although I hope to be involved in such a definition-defying community one day, either an existent one or one I start.

Perhaps I am part of one or more right now.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I am a Tree, Rooted in the Sea: Tattoo #3

"I am a tree, rooted in the sea."

Some day, I would like that line to be in a larger poem. For now, that line is the poem.

The line came to me and captured my attention a while ago. It started as "a tree rooted in the sea," until I realized I liked the imagery so much because I am such a tree.

Trees are holy. In Genesis 2, the trees represent gifts of God like life and knowledge. They represent memory and covenant when Abraham plants a tree at Beersheba (Gen 21:33). They are altars. In the ancient and modern worlds, they provide so many gifts, essential and luxurious--heat, shelter, food, paper, furniture, beauty, healing.

In Revelation, a river flows from God's throne when heaven and earth become one. On either side of this river grows trees whose leaves provide healing for the nations (22:2). God gives trees at the beginning in the garden and at the end in the city.

Many trees live cyclical lives, going through seasons of virility and seasons of death, but they keep reaching for the impossible, reaching skyward. They never make it and they always make it, for the sky is always just a little bit higher. Even in death, a tree either becomes a tree again by returning to that which made it grow or it reaches skyward once again through fire, turning into air and ash, entering into more trees and eventually becoming the sky. I have a tree tattooed on my arm, reminding me to reach for the impossible, grasp it, and continue reaching.

Roots are not a biblical metaphor to my knowledge, but they are an apt image for faith, family, and life in general. I have family roots, geographical roots, and spiritual roots. My roots keep me connected, but they do not keep me in one place. Jay McDaniel calls this having roots and wings--having a permanent connection to things of the past, but not being stuck in the past. I call it being rooted in the sublime, ubiquitous, interconnected, permeating sea.

That which gives me life, which moves in and out of me also moves in and out of you. Our roots may never touch, but we are one and the same. The ocean is but a liquid ruach, a fluid pneuma.

I can stand firm against the tempestuous torrents and waves, because of my roots, and I can move with currents, because my roots are not set in something solid. Rogue waves, tsunamis, hurricanes, blizzards--none of these are meant to be weathered alone. Trees standing together withstand more, each in a different spot, but all in proximity.

The deeper my roots become, the farther I can travel and I can go nearly anywhere, since waters cover most of the earth. The stronger my faith is, the more I can do with it, the more I can look back and move forward, to new places on a journey, not on a path. Paths are not worn on the sea. You can only blaze your own trail and no one can follow it exactly. The ways are infinite, the destinations endless.

The tree tattooed on my arm is fashioned after the Tree of Gondor logo featured in the movie The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. This tree grows and flowers only when its king is in the land. At the beginning of the movie, it is barren in a state of winter, because the city is ruled by a steward. The tree cannot reach its full potential until it is saved along with its people by its king.

The steward is a man who lost his way. The king has been go so long, he usurps the king's role. He is supposed to act in the stead of the king, not as the king, a fine distinction. Whereas he is supposed to care for what is the king's, he acts as if everything is his own and he cares for it like a lost man. His sons are treated like possessions, not people belonging to the king. His kingdom is nearly lost for selfishness and pride. Hope is lost and he kills himself, assuming his king can save neither him nor the kingdom. He sees no future and would destroy all that is the king's, if not for the king's return, foreshadowed in the movie by the tree reaching skyward and blossoming, tapping into its potential.

I had to get the tree tattoo this summer in West Virginia, because my internship title is "eco-steward." I was also fortunate to work with a great tattoo artist who is the stepson of another eco-steward's supervisor. Certainly I was a steward before and I will be a steward after, but this summer and this place rekindled my passion for being a steward of God's world, rooted, but not contained in the Bible. I have gone through virile and dormant states in my relation to God's world and now I am growing, connecting myself to this world in order to connect myself to God.

I am switching again to a vegetarian diet (except for local, responsibly fed and treated animals and locally hunted/fished meats), I am purchasing fairly traded products, I am supporting more local foods, and buying products that produce less waste (for example, cereal in a bag, not a box and a bag, or oatmeal in a recyclable, cardboard cylinder). I have already grown past the beauty of my previous relationship with God and the earth. And the love triangle is already benefitting me, too, as I am losing fat, gaining muscle, saving money, and having a great time doing it.

One side of the tree on my arm has leaves, although it is not clear whether the leaves are falling or growing. The other side is under the stars, perhaps reaching for those stars, tapping into its potential in early spring, or in a dormant state of winter. The tree resists classification of which side is spring, which is fall, which is taken care of by a good steward, which is blessed by God, a conflation aided by a lack of color. The image is cyclical, a fortuitous deconstructive that I did not plan, but rather discovered.

The tattoo is a black outline with dark waves, ominously sublime and representative of the greater sea. Under the waves are visible roots, reaching down as much as the branches reach up. My new tattoo is but a portrait of myself, for I am a tree, rooted in the sea.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Serving in God's Kitchen

Preached @ Fayetteville Presbyterian Church on 11 July 2010.
Text: Matthew 6:24-34

"You see," says Martin Luther when writing about this morning's text, "[Jesus] is making the birds our schoolmasters and teachers. [...] the little flowers in the field, which cattle trample and eat, are to become our theologians and masters and to embarrass us still further."

The birds and flowers are teaching us lessons. They serve God, not money. Likewise, Jesus says we should serve God and not worry about needing money for food, drink, clothing, or the future.

That's a hard lesson. Completely counter-cultural.

One Saturday night working at a men's homeless shelter, I watched a man carefully clear off one of the tables. This man was always particular about things, so I wasn't surprised to see him cleaning. After clearing the table of clutter and crumbs, he meticulously laid a towel over the table so he could iron his "church clothes." The church he attended on Sundays gave him the impression he needed to worry about what he would wear if he were to be accepted.

Church isn't the only place where we are taught to worry about our clothing. Social groups, restaurants, and places of employment all have a standard of dress and if you don't think about that standard, you'll be ostracized with varying degrees of severity.

"Is not life more than clothing? [...] Observe how the lilies of the field grow." They don't force flowers in other countries to prepare their blossoms. They don't have jobs. They don't scrutinize each other if their blossom isn't the right color or if they spent their money on something more practical than a tie.

Consider the lilies, learn theology from them. "If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will God not much more clothe you?"

Consider the birds. Jesus says they are fed by God. They don't till and keep the earth like God told people to do in Genesis. They simply fly around and eat the food in what Luther calls "God's kitchen." They neither store nor hoard food in refrigerators and cupboards. So, why don't we all become Mother Hubbards with nothing in our cupboards?

Consider the birds and the lilies. How many species have gone extinct? How many sea creatures will die from oil in the Gulf of Mexico? Animals go extinct while God supposedly feeds them and we don't help as we wreak havoc on God's kitchen. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is only one example of how we are pests in God's kitchen. We drive more than we need, creating the demand for the oil, we use too much electricity, we consume too much, we waste, we conserve too little.

Because of our luxuries and sins, the earth and the people in it are suffering. That homeless man I mentioned is Christian and he doesn't serve money--he doesn't have any money. And yet, he still has good reason to worry about good and clothing.

"Do not worry then, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear for clothing?' [...] God knows that you need all these things."

Jesus' words aren't as comforting to me as they once were. The headline in my Bible calls this section "the cure for anxiety." My anxiety isn't cured. But, I am motivated and inspired.

Jesus was no ignoramus. He knew about the poor, the hungry, and the naked when he gave the Sermon on the Mount. He is right about God clothing and feeding creation and Luther's metaphor is apt. Creation is like God's kitchen and we're serving in it. We just aren't perfect servers.

This part of Matthew anticipates chapter 25, where Jesus paints a picture of judgment. Jesus says, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. ... just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (25:35-36, 40).

God clothes and feeds creation through us, God's stewards. A steward is a person who cares for someone else's property. The first time we encounter the English word "steward" in the Bible is in Genesis where it translates what literally says "the one who is over the house" (43:16). Even in English, the word is a compound of two Old English words meaning literally ward, or person in charge of a house. Stewards never owns the things they are over, rather, they run the place and take care of it for the owner, the ruler, or the monarch--in our case, God.

We are the stewards of God's creation. We are the body of Christ and the presence of God on earth, it is our calling to take care of things, to ensure people don't have to worry about what to eat, what to drink, or what to wear. And when we do so, we are directly serving Christ. We are how God feeds the birds and clothes the fields. And Jesus motivates and inspires us to do a good job, making sure all animals are fed, all lands are clothed, and all people are taken care of even better than the animals and the land.

I listened to a presentation by an up-and-coming author Michael Yankoski, author of Under the Overpass. He told a story about a trip he took to help a village in Africa. He asked his contact in the town what their project was going to be. Yankoski was fully ready to start digging a well, building a school house, or some other big construction enterprise. The man told him, "This year, I would like every one in the village to own two shirts."

Consider the lilies.

Many organizations are focused on providing proper clothing to the poor of the world. Compassion International and World Vision support impoverished children and their families. These two companies are even founded on Christian principles. They are part of God's means of clothing people.

Tom's Shoes is another company making a great effort. Every pair of shoes purchased from Tom's buys two pairs of shoes: one for the consumer and another for those without proper footwear in other countries. Personally, I think most of Tom's shoes are quite ugly, but we can either suffer for fashion or let others suffer without shoes.

I hope you don't think I'm telling you how to live out your faith. That undertaking is not now nor will it ever be my place. I am giving examples of what other people doing and ways you might be able to get involved. And I am quite serious about these possibilities. In your bulletin, there is a "sermon companion" with information I am mentioning. And honestly, I don't own any Tom's shoes. I don't need new shoes and I'm not going to buy shoes if I don't need them. But when adding to our wardrobes, it could be healthy to think about contributing to someone else's. Consider the lilies.

While preparing this sermon, in the very early stages, I considered the birds and the lilies and God inspired me to make a change in my life. I want to share this change with you. I decided I will no longer support coffee and tea that is not fairly traded, which means the farmers and laborers receive fair wages for their products. This is a hard change for me. I probably drink more coffee and tea than I should. When traveling, I've enjoyed stopping at the Go-Mart in town and getting a cup of coffee for some 79¢ in my mug. That's cheap.

Fairly traded products are not cheap and are not limited to coffee and tea. They have cocoa, chocolate, flour, sugar. This box of tea Bigelow tea cost $3 for 20 bags of tea. This fairly traded canister of tea cost $6 for 22 bags. Each bag only costs about 13 extra cents, which really isn't that much.

Jesus started this part of the sermon saying how we can't serve God and money. So let's start using our money for Godly purposes. If I don't pay the price, other people do. Church, I do not feel like I am serving in God's kitchen when other people pay the price for my luxuries, especially when they pay with their quality of life.

I visited the General Assembly Mission Council's website. Did you know the Presbyterian Church has an official position on fairly traded products? They voted on it in 2001 and recommend them. On the website, I read these words: "The majority of the world's population lives in poverty. According to the United Nations Development Program, more than 19,000 children in Africa (and more than 30,000 people worldwide) die each day due to poverty and causes related to international debt." My cheap coffee is one of the benefits of those deaths. It isn't the direct cause, but it is a large influence.

Those numbers aren't meant to make anyone feel guilty. The statistics break my heart, but they do not make me feel guilty. Instead, they inspire me. They inspired me to start serving in God's kitchen by taking care of everything in it and being a more faithful steward. We can all make small changes daily to help these people.

By purchasing fairly traded products, we can help these families get out of poverty. The website says, "Fair trade shares the bounty of the coffee trade with those who grow the crop, helping them build a better future for themselves and their communities. Through fair trade, farmers earn a fairer share of income, have access to services that are otherwise unavailable and gain long-term trading partners they can trust." The Presbyterian Church even co-sponsors a project with "Equal Exchange," a fair trade company. The project is called the "Presbyterian Coffee Project." When churches, social groups, and individuals use fairly traded projects, they are Christ's body serving up justice in this world by defeating poverty.

The General Assembly's website goes so far as saying, "Fair trade is good news." Those are strong words, since "good news" is the definition of the word "gospel." Fair trade does sound like the gospel, like the good news Jesus proclaimed in Luke 4:18-19, where he reads these words of Isaiah: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord."

Consider the birds, church. Consider the lilies, friends.

The earth and all that is in it--animal, vegetable, mineral--are ours to care for. Caring for the earth and animals does not mean we can no longer use natural resources, swat mosquitoes, and eat animals. Rather, it means we need to do all these things responsibly. We could think before we use natural resources, we might stop killing anything needlessly, and perhaps we could know a little bit more about our food, like where it comes from, what effect it has on the earth, and what God would think about our food. Paul said whether you eat or drink, do everything as unto the Lord. Eating and drinking can be quite ethical or quite unethical. There is a lot to think about with your family, a lot to discuss with your siblings in God, a lot to learn with your neighbors.

Consider the birds. Consider the lilies. Let us join together, become better servants in God's kitchen, stewards of creation.



Let us depart the sanctity of this place and enter the sanctity of God's world. Consider the birds and consider the lilies, church, and put your thoughts into action for the sake of the earth, the animals, and all people.

In the name of God the parent,
God the Christ,
and God the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Love Always Falls Through the Cracks: A Sermon on Matthew 15:21-28

Preached @ Fayetteville Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, WV June 6, 2010

I want to tell you a story about my mum. She is a darling woman and so precious. We've always had a special relationship, my mum and I. She knew I would never be the one to stay close to home and take over the family business, but she loved me nonetheless, hesitatingly awaiting the day when I would leave her and get married.

But something happened and my mum began to fear I would leave her sooner than expected and it wouldn't be to get married, but rather to die. It started slowly. One day I tried standing up from a seated position and I just plopped right back down in my sweat. My muscles ached from straining. I was a little confused. When I talked to my mom about it, we decided it must be growing pains, like my older brother had when he was my age. He had some knee problems when he was growing up and the doctor said his body was just having some problems catching up with how fast he was growing.

This sort of thing began to happen more often. Then I began losing weight. And I wasn't working to lose it. I lost so much weight that my uncle thought I might be anorexic.

One morning I couldn't get out of bed. I could move, but just not enough to pick myself up. I called to my parents who rushed to help me. It was pretty embarrassing. I couldn't even get out of bed to use the bathroom. My parents had to take me. As the day went on, I got worse. Whereas I could move when I woke up, by mid afternoon I could no longer move my legs or feet and my arms and hands were getting weaker by the hour. You could almost tell the time of day by how many fingers I had the strength to straighten.

Breathing became hard. My speech became slurred. My heart was racing.

Mum was scared. Dad wanted to get the local doctor. Ever the logical Greek, he assumed the doctor could figure things out. I had been to the doctor earlier that week and he thought I might have some rare disease called thyrotoxic periodic paralysis. My mother was skeptical. She had never fully bought into Greco-Roman philosophy and medicine like Dad had. She was still true to her Canaanite roots and all its mysticism. She thought something else was at foot, something beyond the physical realm.

She asked Dad not to go to the doctor. She tried to whisper in the other room so I couldn't hear her, but whatever was going on with my body wasn't effecting my ability to hear. To this day, I remember exactly what she said. She said every word with care, as if they were the most important words she would ever speak. "Dougie," that's my dad's name. "Dougie, please don't go, not to the doctor. I hear there is a man in town, a man who can heal people ... a man who can," and the next bit she said sotto voce, "who can exorcise demons." And then she began to sound rushed, as if my father was leaving. "Please, Dougie, oh please, go to him. He'll be able to help our daughter."

All I heard before my mother came back to me was her tears. She looked torn when she entered the room again, torn between trusting her husband, trusting her intuition, and fearing for my life. She looked at me through her tears and I watched her countenance change to something I didn't understand at the time. She closed her teary eyes and moved her lips as if she was speaking, but no sounds came from her mouth. Then I lost consciousness.

Everything else that transpired I know only through the words of others. Mom opened her eyes when I let out a blood-curtling scream. She looked and I was wreathing and wrenching on the floor. My back arched up from the ground and I spewed blood from my mouth. I started to make noises she couldn't comprehend. She swears they sounded like words, as if I were speaking a language neither she nor I knew.

She had to take all of our clean drinking water to put out the fire we had going for supper, because I had rolled through it. Her tears stopped and she gained a strength beyond herself. Throwing herself upon me, she screamed for help, a scream heard by the neighbors.

Three of the neighbors came by, all of them brothers in their late twenties. They came in and were immediately dumbstruck. Mom yelled to them with authority, telling them to take hold of me and bind me. I bit one of them and to this day he crudely jokes that I should wear a muzzle. These guys were never the friendliest. They never listen to women, but I guess a mother in duress carries an authority that subverts patriarchy.

Once I was bound, she commanded the oldest brother to tend to the youngest brother's wound. And then she ran off, faster than any chariot those brothers had ever seen. My mother did not care that it would likely be dark when she was returning, which was a dangerous time for anyone to be out, let alone a woman. She did not care what people would think about a married woman running through town at that time of day, even though she was running to another man.

You might have heard of this man to whom she was running, he has quite the reputation. Mostly you hear good things about him, well, good and strange things, but he is certainly not beyond reproach in many a persons' eyes.

He was a Israelite man in his thirties, a sort of teacher in their culture, a rabbi. His name was Yeshua, or Jesus as you all call him. Apparently he wandered around a lot and people followed him. Some of them he asked to follow him. Others he sent away. He is said to make the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the mute to speak, and the lame to walk. He healed many maladies and exorcised demons.

Most people said he had great compassion, which is not something I would ever expect of an Israelite. My people used to live in his land until his people came in and committed heinous acts of genocide, leaving barely any of us left. My family is one of the few Canaanite families remaining in the area. To imagine, my mother going to this man. His people hated ours! And I heard this man spent a lot of time with less-than-reputable people: tax collectors, beggars, lepers, and prostitutes. What might he do to my mother?

My mother found him and while she was still a ways away, she cried out with a strange confidence, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David, my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed!" I barely believe she had enough wind to yell and still be polite enough to call this man "Lord." And she didn't beat around the bush at all, she wanted him to know she knew who he was, so she called upon his ancestry, calling him a son of David, an Israelite.

Despite his reputation, this man was not so compassionate and ready to help my mother. He said nothing to her! She repeated herself as she got closer and he continued ignoring her. She said it again, lowering her voice when she was a polite distance from him. He remained silent, as if she were imploring one of our human-made idols. My mother had come so far and she believed he could and would help. Had it been me there, I would have wondered if this character only had compassion on his own people or if he was waiting for some sort of "advance," either monetary or sexual, before he would respond. Lots of miracle workers are only out for money and favors.

My mother says none of these thoughts crossed her mind. She remained hopeful and repeated herself, her voice never breaking with tears: "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David, my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed."

The men around him began to stir. They could no longer stand my mother to be in their midst. To them she was nothing but a sweaty, mad, terribly annoying Canaanite woman. Those dolts. One of them had the gall to say, "Jesus, please. Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us."

So he did: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Although he said no, my mother wasn't ready to give up. She rose and boldly got in front of him to bow before him. "Lord, help me!"

Perhaps he misunderstood my mother. She was still begging for mercy. She says her voice wreaked of desperation, but I wonder if he thought she was commanding him [in v. 22 her imperative is aorist active, in v. 25 it is present active, emphasizing the need]. Whatever he thought, his answer was far from polite: "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs" [the Greek here is the diminutive form of dog, perhaps meaning "puppy"].

My father was none to happy when mother told him that part of the story. Jesus had completely dismissed her and rudely. He may have used the cutesy, diminutive word for dog, but a female dog is a female dog, puppy or not.

Any normal woman's spirit would have been broken. Certainly any sane person, woman or not would have given up and gone home, tail between her legs. Perhaps my father had come back with the doctor. He would worry about my mother. Maybe he would be mad. Maybe the doctor could heal me. Maybe the doctor had already healed me. Was I even still alive? Were those pesky neighbors still keeping watch over me? All kinds of thoughts could have been going through her head, beating her hopes to a pulp.

Not my mum. She was not broken. She admits she was confused, but her love for her daughter created an unbreakable faith. She continued hoping she could change his mind, hoping she could convince him that all people deserve mercy, not just Israelites. Without missing a beat, my mother replied, "Yes, Lord; but even the little dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters' table."

I wish I could have seen his face. I can only imagine it was shock. He had sat around like one of our deaf idols as she prayed to him. But he could sit deaf no longer when her persistence began to annoy him and his friends. So he made that snide remark about my mother, hoping she would go away and seek some other miracle worker. Little did he know, my mother wasn't seeking out some miracle worker, she was seeking out the wisdom and power of the God of Israel.

Even though we were Canaanites, we heard those rumors about Jesus that circulated about him being a messiah and a man of God. We knew some of Israel's stories, especially since they had killed so many of our ancestors. We knew their God made a covenant with a man named Abraham and that covenant was not only to bless Abraham, but to make Abraham and his descendants a blessing to all nations. Now, certainly some of his descendants weren't much of a blessing to us, but my mother knew this Jesus could redeem their mistakes and be a blessing, if he were, indeed, a man of God and savior to his people.

She wasn't part of God's Israel and Jesus said he was only sent to Isael. But for what purpose? ln that moment she was confident that Israel was chosen in order to bless everyone. First the blessing would go to Israel and next to the Gentile, even the Canaanite, even if she had to call herself a female dog eating Israel's small, leftover blessings.

I don't know what his face looked like, but she convinced him. "O lady," he said, "your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish." He didn't ask her to become part of Israel. He didn't tell her she needed to born again. He didn't command her to leave her family and follow him. He didn't tell her to sell her possessions and give the money to the poor. He didn't even examine her faith, but he admired it. "Your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish." Before my mother could thank him or exchange other pleasantries like names and what-not, my mother sprang to her feet with joy and grace. She sprinted home even faster than she had run away.

When I came to, I saw those three men standing in the corner of our house, cowering. I hurt all over. My arm was broken, my nose was bleeding, and my legs were badly burnt, among other atrocious pains. I tried to move when I realized I was all tied up. I began to panic. Why was I tied up and what had those three brothers done to me. Where were my parents? What was happening?

I was struggling to free myself when my mother ran up to me and kissed me. She ran her hands through my dirty, tangled hair and whispered, "It's OK, my love. It's all over."

I began to cry. I still didn't know exactly what was going on, but I knew I could move again. My breathing and heart beat normalized as fear left my body. Mom was untying me and the three bothers scuttled away hurriedly, although they still deny how cowardly they acted throughout the whole event.

My mother freed me. With her hands she untied the ropes that bound me, but it was her faith that healed me--her faith, her hope, her love, that man Jesus, and his God.

I don't know where I would be today if my mum had not convinced Jesus to break bread and give her some crumbs. Ever since then, no one in my family has ever been quiet around inequality and oppression, no matter how different someone might be from us and no matter how much we might disagree with their ideology or disapprove of their actions. We know all blessings are meant to be shared. Miraculously, no matter how many times we share this bread Jesus broke for us, it never runs out, whether we enthusiastically share large pieces or reluctantly allow crumbs to fall onto the ground.

Love always falls through the cracks, sustaining every despised or oppressed person until all are sustained with the same food, and brought up to share at the same table, none of them as dogs, all of them as children of God.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Unspoken Words, Unheard Voices: A Sermon on Genesis 19:17-26

Preached @ Fayetteville Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, WV July 4, 2010

Let's work our imaginations this morning. Let's imagine ourselves as Lot.

Three strangers come into town. Being Christian, we offer them hospitality, right? We couldn't wait for them to waltz into church before being friendly with them. We always go out of our way to see new people in town and invite them into our home, the same home that houses our two young daughters. Right?

Not this guy. I've got all sorts of wicked good excuses. I'm an introvert. I'm "busy." I've got a family to attend to. Besides, look at those new people. They don't have enough tattoos and piercings for me to be friendly with them. I know their type, they will judge me as some crazy, drugged-up lunatic. Plus, I must protect my family from these people I have never met, these people who could be the most wonderful people in the world, but are probably part of that small section of our population that does terrible things to people.

But, the main character of this story acts differently, so let's continue pretending.

We meet these people in town. We insist they come into our home, at least for tea. Once in our home, we feed them a full meal and prepare a place for them to sleep. They praise us for our hospitality, to which we reply, "Oh really, it is nothing. Please, do tell me more about your journey. I am highly interested."

Then we hear a ruckus outside. On our way to peek out the window, because, let's face it, who in here would not want to know what was going on outside? It is a small town we live in, after all. Just before we can lift up one of the slats in the blinds, we hear a loud, pounding knock on the door. We jump a little and go to the door and the demanding, urgent knock.

We only intend to open the door a crack, but we can't stop from swinging the door open wide when we see so many people outside. It is truly flabbergasting. The fourth of July parade was earlier. The fireworks have long been over. What is everyone doing at our door at this time of night?

As if the whole situation isn't unbelievable enough, the event moves beyond the absurd. The person who knocked at the door, obviously the group's spokesperson, says, and I kid you not, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so we can rape them."

We stand with mouth agape. We blink a few times. The men don't go away when we open our eyes again. They are real. This really is happening.

We step outside, shutting the door behind us. We think we might be able to reason with these people. Perhaps we can expose their sins to them with an offer they will obviously have to refuse. "Look, everyone," we say, "you cannot honestly want to rape the men in my home. It is wrong! Besides, I have two young, virgin daughters," which is a lie, because our daughters are married. "I'll bring out the girls and you can have your way with them."

This cunning offer will surely make the mob realize their sins. Since they will not want to rape their neighbors, they will realize how wrong rape is even to strangers.

But the people begin to scoff: "You aren't originally from the area. Sure, you've been here a while, but you are still a newbie in our eyes. Who are you to condemn us?" Because of what they presume as haughtiness, they declare they will treat us worse than the men who just came into town that day.

The three men violently open the door, drag us inside, and shut it quickly behind them. These men repaid our hospitality by saving our lives, even though we never expected anything in return.

The night's events get heavier and heavier. The men tell us they are messengers from God and they are going to destroy the city because of the peoples' sins. Afterwards, we somehow manage to get to sleep, perhaps hoping we will wake up and realize the whole day had been a nightmare.

No such luck. In the morning, the men rush into our bedroom and tell us, our spouse, and our daughters and their husbands to flee immediately. If we don't leave right away, we will be destroyed with the city. Unlike the future exodus out of Egypt, no lamb's blood will save anyone from the destruction. Rain falls on the just and the unjust, whether it is water or fire.

We rub our eyes and slowly sit up in bed. We nod while yawning. What time is it, exactly? Can't they destroy the city at a better hour? Do they know how long it takes those two girls to get ready in the morning? Even their husbands want to take a good amount of time giving their hair that "just got out of bed look." And really, no one in the household had proper time to pack. Can the Lord's imminent judgment wait a few hours or, better yet, a few days?

The men grab us like they grabbed us last night at the door. They rush with us, our spouse, and our daughters out the door, all of us in our pajamas. The girls' husbands refused to leave. The men hurry us all to the city limits and yell, "Run for your lives! Neither look back nor stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the distant hills or you, too, will be destroyed."

Not this guy.

We put on our cunning, again. We know these men like us and we haven't fully woken up. We try to make a concession in a not-too whiny tone. "Thanks for saving my life and all, but the hills? Really? I just got up. You didn't give me time to have breakfast, use the bathroom, put on my good running shoes, or, most importantly, have my morning coffee. As you can see, I don't work well without my morning coffee. If I have to run to the hills to be safe, I might as well go to the Cathedral Café and have my coffee while I watch the city burn to the ground around me. I won't be able to make it safety. Listen. You see that place in the valley? It's really small. Why can't I just go there? It is so insignificant and, best of all, it is close."

"Fine," one of the men replies. "Go there and be safe. I'll wait until you arrive. Now go!"

We're pretty special, ain't we. God saved us from judgment and let us disobey after a small concession. And all because we didn't want to go all the way to the hills. Now we can take our sweet time, because God won't do anything until we arrive.

So we're on our way to this little city in the valley, a city the three men did not want us to go to, because they were going to destroy it. On our way, our spouse looks back towards Sodom and Gomorrah, which the men told us not to do at the same time they told us not to stop in the valley. We were given special privileges, but our spouse turns into a pillar of salt.

Weird, huh? We whine and everything is OK. Our spouse catches a glimpse to the place we long called home and were asked to flee from at a moment's notice and--BAM!--pillar of salt. Yes, she disobeyed, but so did we.

The spouse didn't ask like we did. Perhaps God wanted to be asked, not just disobeyed. Who knows? Regardless, our spouse's legacy lives on forever in the words of Jesus in Luke 17:32: "Remember Lot's Wife." The idea is, if you are not ready to leave at a moment's notice, you might never be able to leave. The message is a good one and I will not try to deny its applicability. However, Jesus' taciturn reference to Lot's Wife allows us to give other interpretations to stand side by side with the traditional one. All we have to do is listen to the unspoken words, the unheard voices.

Now, let's imagine we are Lot's Wife.

We look back to Sodom and Gomorrah, a place that became home for us, our spouse, and our daughters. We might have looked back because we wanted one last glimpse before it was destroyed. Perhaps we forgot a precious family heirloom since we didn't have any time to pack. Maybe we wondered if our sons-in-law changed their minds and decided to follow. We had grown quite fond of those boys.

Granted, it wasn't paradise, but it was home. And really, not everyone in town wanted to rape those three men. There a number of young children too young to know what sexual relations were, let alone desire them. A few of the town elders could barely move and were so kind and full of wisdom. ... And remember that time when our youngest daughter was sick and Jane and Joe Neighbor brought the doctor over so we could stay at her side? We didn't even have to ask. Surely they weren't part of that crowd.

Many of people in town did some rotten things, sure. Heck, you and I have done some rotten things, but love is not beyond our capability. We make mistakes, but we do good things, too. If God could extend grace to Lot, despite his sins, why can't God excuse a few more people in the valley around Sodom and Gomorrah? If God isn't going to start the ruckus until we arrive in Zoar, maybe we can go save a few babies or at least plead with those three men for the lives of innocent children. Yes, let's go back and plead with those men like Moses in the future will plead with God for the lives of the Israelites. We turn to go back and turn into to a pillar of salt trying preserve lives.

Lot's Wife is a silent, nameless character in this story. She looks back towards other silent, nameless characters who, according to the story, die at the command of a merciful God. And yes, the God of the Old Testament is a merciful, loving God. Grace and love are written throughout this whole book, not just the parts about Jesus.

And Jesus wants us to remember Lot's Wife and her turning back and turning to into salt. When I imagine myself as Lot's Wife, I imagine her turning towards unspoken words and unheard voices when told to flee at a moment's notice. No, it isn't written in the story, but it helps me learn a godly lesson, a lesson God wants us to hear in the unspoken words and unspoken voices. Lot's Wife wanted to preserve the life of the young and the good who would experience God's judgment because of a heinously sinful majority. And God granted her wish like God granted Lot's wish. Lot was allowed to go to Zoar and Lot's Wife was turned into the salt of the earth, the kind of salt that preserves life and quality of life for God's good purposes. Years later, Jesus remembers her by telling people to be the salt of the earth and never to lose their saltiness.

Unlike her husband, Lot's Wife would not reach freedom in the small town of Zoar, because some freedoms are too expensive for everyone to experience. She thought a freedom borne on the back of oppression is not a freedom worth having. Maybe she isn't right--but maybe she is. When we remember Lot's Wife, we are left to consider each freedom we have and wonder if we'll go to Zoar or turn back and turn to salt for the sake of others.

Is it good to have the choice of multiple coffees when the workers who grow and pick the coffee beans cannot support their families? Is it good to have the freedom of style when so many of our clothes are made overseas in sweatshops? Is it good to have the freedom to eat out of season vegetables if it means we still buy berries from California and Florida when our neighbors are selling berries on Saturday mornings at the Farmer's Market for their own livelihood? Is it good to have the freedom of diet when the environmental impact of some of our foods goes beyond our wildest imaginations, when the grain used to feed cows alone could end starvation?

These are just some things with which I struggle when I remember Lot's Wife. I don't think we're all supposed to struggle with the same things, so don't think I am telling you to struggle with my issues. But neither can I say you shouldn't struggle with these same issues. I simply present them for consideration.

I am glad for freedoms, but I fear God is calling me to leave some of these freedoms without looking back. I fear God wants me to turn into a pillar of salt, preserving the lives of the innocent who suffer for the sins of some of my freedoms.

I fear that God wants me to be like Jesus Christ, especially the part of Jesus in which Lot's Wife lives on. She has not yet lost her saltiness. She lives on as the Mother Theresas of the world who cannot bare to live a life of luxury when others suffer because of those luxuries. She is the Martin Luther King Jr.s who seek racial and economic equality. She is remembered in the Harvey Milks, the Mahatma Gandhis, the Dorothy Days, the you, the me.

She lived on in Jesus, who reminded people of her great legacy as a woman who could not leave at a moment's notice. Like all of us, there was a part of her that sought to preserve her own life, but there was also a great part of her that listened for the unspoken words and the unheard voices of the silenced and the oppressed. And she preserved their memory, too.

Thanks be to God.



As we leave the sanctity of this place, let us remember the sanctity of the places to which we go. And let us go with God, considering God's ways and what and how God wants us to preserve as we remember Lot's Wife.

In the name of God the parent,
God the Christ,
and God the Holy Spirit.

Monday, July 5, 2010

"God Bless America" & Commandment No. 3

Commandment Number 3: "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain."

In my church rearing, this commandment always meant using any name of God as a sort of cuss word. "Jesus Christ that hurt!" The ever-popular "goddammit." Or "oh my god," which is now better known simply as "omg." Sometimes I even felt bad about the circumlocutions. "Oh my goodness!" "Dang-nabbit." Or "Gees!"

I still use the circumlocutions. I never understood them as such, though. They were simply words I heard "good Christian people" use and so I learned to use them as well.

I also learned to appreciate the phrase, "God bless America." I even played the song on my saxophone as a "special music" for one holiday--either Independence Day or Memorial Day. I arranged it as part of a medley, if my memory serves me correctly.

This year I preached on Independence Day and I made no references to the USA. When we sang a nationalist hymn at the end of the service, I hummed most of it. I don't think current US-nationalism has a place in the church. Worse, I think "God bless America" uses the name of the LORD the God in vain.

This phrase promotes the USA at the expense of other countries. Asking God to bless America is tantamount to asking God not to bless other countries when we are at war. In times of war, shouldn't we ask God to protect the sanctity of life? I don't care about winning any wars, I care about justice and love prevailing.

In times of peace, "God bless America" is a request for blessings of finances, health, and safety ... for the middle and upper classes of the US. When does "God bless America" ever include the poor? If it did, patriotism wouldn't be expressed in so much capitalist consumerism. When does "God bless America" ever include Mexicans who are quite technically a part of America (alongside the rest of North and South America)? If it did, patriotism wouldn't go hand-in-hand with efforts against immigration and their oppression, whether the persons are "legal" or not.

Why would God ever be involved in these sorts of blessings? God blesses a person or a nation in order that all persons and nations might be blessed through the person or nation originally receiving that blessing. God blessed Abraham to bless all peoples. God blessed Israel to bless all nations. God saved Jesus to save all peoples. God saves Christians to save all peoples.

"God bless America" is a vanity, asking for ungodly blessings and blessings that only add to the hubris of nationalism. The phrase as used today is quite unfitting for Independence Day, too. Independence Day is about justice and resisting tyranny.

The colonists did not believe Paul's words in Romans 13, where Paul says all leaders must be obeyed, are appointed by God, and only punish evil. The colonists did not obey their leader because he was oppressing the innocent alongside the evil (let's face it, many of the colonists did some terrible, terrible things, mostly in the name of God and Christianity). On Independence Day, we are supposed to remember the importance of freedom and the need to resist tyranny, fighting for the liberty of all.

One of the tyrannies against which the colonists fought was economical. The poor colonists were paying for the livelihood of the rich.

"God bless America."

Another tyranny was religious. Many of the colonies were founded for religious freedom, because different religious ideas were suppressed in Britain at the time.

"God bless America."

God bless the people of all nations. For it is this earth that I love. And may I never force this blessing upon those who believe in another deity or no deity.