Friday, January 28, 2011

My Day in Court

A few days before we moved from Pennsylvania I went to court. It was nothing serious. When we had our auto accident in December, the police officer gave me a traffic citation. The charge was “driving at a safe speed for the road conditions.” He meant “unsafe speed” but I took the words written on the ticket literally. I thought I was driving at a safe speed!

It was the day after a snowstorm and the road was all snow and ice. I was driving slowly down a country road when my tire caught the berm. The car began to skid and sheared off a utility pole, deploying our airbags and totaling our car. Thankfully we were unhurt.

The officer apologized for giving me a ticket, saying he “had to do it.” Being the ornery guy I am, I “had to” challenge it. I figured it was not my driving, but the unsafe road condition that was to blame.

So I had my day in District Court. The police officer didn’t show up. The judge said that since there wasn’t any evidence against me, he declared me “Not Guilty” and dismissed the $100 fine. Vindicated!

I knew I was not guilty. At least I think I was. To tell the truth I was not sure how fast I was going, even though I know I was traveling under the speed limit. Perhaps it was a little too fast for the road conditions … But I shouldn’t have been issued a ticket. My conscience is clear…. I think. In any case the judge has spoken, and that settles it.

One thing I didn’t tell you is that I have a friend who is a judge. Not the judge of my case; my judge friend is a friend of this judge. When I explained my situation to my friend, he shared his expertise. He did not “fix it.” I would not have asked him to do that, but it doesn’t hurt to have a judge on your side.

“Our Daily Bread” recently printed a story about Ffyona Campbell, who was famous as the first woman to walk around the world. But the truth was she cheated. She had broken the guidelines of the Guinness Book of World Records by riding in a truck a short distance during the trip. To clear her conscience, she confessed her deception and forfeited the right to be listed in the record book.

The apostle Paul says that all people have “the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, their thoughts sometimes accusing or else excusing them.” Whether or not people believe in God or a divine moral code, each person has an inner moral compass that tells them right from wrong.

All of us are accused by our conscience sometimes for doing wrong. That is judgment.The Christian gospel provides a way to clear our conscience and have us declared “not guilty.” That is the power of the gospel. It is the power of inner peace that comes from a clear record.

Only one man in history has ever claimed to have the authority to judge the world and also the ability to free the guilty. Jesus said that he came to save the world and was returning one day to judge the world.

Either he was mistaken, or the early church got it wrong when they quoted him, or it is true. Personally I believe him. In any case, it is always good to have the judge as a friend. What a friend we have in Jesus!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cold Weather Spirituality

It is cold up here in the mountains! On Sunday afternoon we arrived at our new home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and were welcomed by an overnight low of about 18 degrees below zero. Some reports put it at 24 below; others said it was only 14 below. I don’t know exactly how cold it was, but it was cold enough.

We opened the cabinet doors under the kitchen sink and kept the water dripping on all the faucets just to make sure that the pipes didn’t freeze. The last time we lived here, we practiced this ritual in the parsonage whenever the mercury dipped below zero. If we didn’t, we would be waterless in the morning. The joys of country living!

Cold does something to me emotionally. It makes me cautious. I am more careful about where and how I drive, just in case I get stranded in the cold. I am careful how long I stay outside, how far I walk, and what I wear. I have been on the phone with the propane company making sure that I have enough propane in the tank. It is not the type of weather to run out of heating fuel. I have some wood for the woodstove, just in case.

The cold makes me very aware of my vulnerability and mortality. It makes me more prayerful. I prayed while driving here from Pennsylvania as the auto thermometer read below zero for hour after hour. I prayed for others on the road. When we arrived in New Hampshire, I prayed a prayer of thanks. When I woke up the next morning and found my pipes intact and the furnace running, I prayed another prayer of gratitude.

The cold makes me feel my dependence on God. I realize that if I lived here a couple of hundred years ago – back when my church here was founded – then the cold could have killed me. So could a myriad of diseases that are treatable now. When transportation was horse and wagon and not heated automobile, one risked one’s life to travel.

You could say that the cold is good for my soul. It makes me very thankful to God. It makes me grateful for what I have. It makes me more appreciative of friends. The cold fosters community. People here find occasions to get together for meals and fellowship.  Cabin fever is a real malady up here. The cure is fellowship.

The cold also encourages fellowship with God. Not for everyone of course. It keeps many away from church rather than bringing them out. Many Yankees just hunker down at home and tough out the winter months. But the cold has the opposite effect on me. It melts my heart and softens my soul. It strengthens my spiritual bond with God and others.

Don’t get me wrong! I will be glad to see the spring come! I will be thanking God for the muddy roads. (Look for a blog on “mud season spirituality!”) But in the meantime I will practice the spiritual discipline of cold weather spirituality. They are predicting a low of 16 below zero this Sunday. Perfect worship weather!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Return of the Pastor

 After being a fulltime pastor for over thirty years, I took some time off to catch my breath and get my bearings. To tell the truth, I had gotten lost in the job.

Just yesterday I was telling my wife that I had given my heart to my last church, and somehow I lost my heart. The emotions swirling around the position of pastor, especially when denominational politics got involved, was more than I could take. I needed to step back for a while.

After 1½ years of true sabbatical, I am returning to fulltime ministry next month. I have already had a foretaste of it before I step foot on my parish turf. I am already a part of the joys and sorrows of my new congregation via telephone, Facebook, and email.

In his book, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile,” John Shelby Spong reflects on what it meant for him to go through the stages of professional Christian ministry – to be a university student, a seminary student, a pastor, and then a bishop. Regarding being a pastor he writes:

“One who has not walked in the shoes of the ordained pastor will never understand what it means to be wrapped in the images of antiquity, to be related to by others out of experience that you did not shape, to be loved and trusted far beyond any deserving on your part, and to be hated and feared beyond any cause to which you have contributed. People invest their lives in their designated spiritual leader, and the responsibility is awesome.”

Bishop Spong describes the experience of being a pastor well. It is a whirlwind of images and expectations over which the pastor has no control. It is certainly true that no one but a pastor can understand the pastor’s life … except the pastor’s spouse!

When you are a pastor you are not yourself. You are the projection of all the ideas and emotions that people have about clergy and church – both good and bad. Seldom do people really see you. They see who they think you are or who they want you to be. The danger is that you begin to see yourself the way that others see you.

In speaking about his role as a bishop, Spong goes on to say: “I discovered that I lived inside God-sized expectations that I could never fulfill, and simultaneously I recognized that no one else could deal with those realities but me….”

This reminds me of the plaque that a pastor got from his congregation for “Pastor Appreciation Month.” It read “Pastor: The reason that you mean so much to me is that when I look at you, it is Jesus whom I see.” After worship a little girl once shyly stared at me at the church steps and asked her mom, “Is that God?” Just for the record, I’m not God; I’m not even Jesus.

For more than a year, I have simply been me – sitting in a pew, preaching occasionally, writing a lot – enjoying being a husband, father, grandfather and friend. Soon I will be a pastor again. 

This time I will try to remember who I am. Not the reflection I see in the faces of my parishioners, but the reflection I see in the depths of prayer. Just a sinful man, a wounded healer, trying to fulfill his God-given ministry the best I can.

Friday, January 14, 2011

In the Crosshairs

The current national conversation about the Arizona shootings is getting bizarre. In a time when the country needs to be grieving and supporting those who grieve, the news media are on a witch-hunt. There is the assumption that someone must be to blame for this tragedy, and they are out to find him or her.

So they blame Sarah Palin! What? How does “targeting” a congressional district for an election victory have anything to do with a mass murder committed by a crazed gunman? I am not a Palin fan, but that is far-fetched by any standard.

Palin’s “blood libel” remark does not help anything; it amounts to accusing the media of anti-Semitism. Where did that come from? The fact that Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish makes this comment even more confusing.

Then the media blames the shooter’s family. They blame the lack of gun control laws in Arizona. They blame the mental health system. They blame the community college he was expelled from. The assumption is that someone must be at fault. Blame, blame, blame. Guilt, guilt, guilt.

As a Christian pastor I know something about guilt and blame. The history of Christianity is filled with it. I have seen preachers and churches manipulate people by guilt and blame. It doesn’t work; it just makes things worse.

The reality is that tragedies happen. People snap. Violence occurs. All the gun control laws and mental health evaluations in the world will not stop it. Some people are just crazy. Others are downright evil. Sin runs deep in the human heart.

We need to stop blaming others for everything that happens in this country. This goes for both right and left, Democrat and Republican. Shootings like this will happen.  Violence is instinctive to the human animal.

We are violent by nature and sinners by choice. Our animal nature and our spiritual nature collude to ensure that that there will always be acts of violence. Ever since Cain killed Abel, man has been killing man. It can’t be bred, educated or legislated out of human nature.

What can we do about it? First, let’s not overreact. Let’s tone down the rhetoric – from the left and the right. Such vitriol is verbal violence that can only lead to more violence. 

Second, preserve personal freedom at all cost. The gut reaction is to try to fix this situation somehow, and that fix is often assumed to be some form of new legislation or regulation. But the cure may be worse than the disease. Never give government the power to solve a problem when there is some other option; government intervention should be a last resort.

Third, let us examine ourselves. Why are we reacting the way we are to the shooting? What emotions does the crazed image of Jared Loughner evoke from the depths of our heart?

Let us examine our own anger, our own hatred, our own fears, and our own prejudices. Let the crosshairs settle onto our own soul.  Then we may learn what is causing us to blame others.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Huckleberry Jesus

You have likely heard about the new edition of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” After being banned from many school libraries, the classic is finally now becoming "sivilized." 127 years after first being published, Huck Finn is being edited for offensive language.

The revision is meant to eliminate certain unacceptable words, most notably the dreaded “N-word.” (I dare not even print it here, lest I be accused of insensitivity.) In spite of the fact that the racial slur is routinely used by African American youth and can be heard in music over the airwaves, it cannot be tolerated in American classrooms. The 219 uses of the “N-word” will now be changed to “slave.”

Huck’s Jim is not the only one getting an extreme makeover. Tom Sawyer’s “Injun Joe" is now "Indian Joe." (Why didn’t they go all the way and make him Native American Joe?) No longer is he a "half-breed;" he is now a "half-blood" (apparently so Harry Potter fans can understand it better.)

I am wondering if the Bible is next on the censors’ list. There is certainly much "hurtful" and "injurious” language and behavior in Scripture. On one occasion Jesus referred to Gentiles as dogs. On another occasion he accused Jews of being children of the devil.

In the Old Testament, God instructs the Hebrew armies to do what would be considered “war crimes” today. The Levitical laws of the Bible make the present–day enforcement of Islamic Sharia law look compassionate in comparison. The death penalty was routinely prescribed for what today would be considered personal preferences.

Any nation or regime that literally enforced the Torah would be instantly condemned for human rights violations. Mark Twain’s offenses against modern sensitivities pale in comparison to those of Holy Writ. Any of the so-called New Atheists can give you an exhaustive list of the moral offenses of Scripture and Scripture’s God.

I am not one to defend the morality of ancient Israelites of 3000 years ago or Christians of 2000 years ago. Nor do I feel the need to defend Biblical injunctions against their modern day critics. For the same reason I do not feel the need to defend the language of Mark Twain or censor American classics.

I do not have to like the vocabulary choices of Sam Clemens to appreciate his writings or the social message he was trying to convey. I do not have to advocate the death penalty for Sabbath-breakers or children who curse their parents to appreciate the principle behind the biblical laws.

Every work of literature is a product of its time. That is true of Christian scripture and American literature. Every author – whether 19th century or first century – is a reflection of the culture in which he lived. The key to understanding scripture or literature is to be able to hear the message without getting sidetracked by the cultural language in which the message is communicated.

After interpreting the Bible publicly for 35 years, I can tell the difference between the medium and the message. That is an art that is not practiced in schools today. Instead educators feel the need to rewrite literature to accommodate the feelings of the delicate American psyche.

How long will it be before the Bible is rewritten? Look in your local Christian bookstore soon for the New PC Testament (Illustrated). It has a Jesus sanitized of all references to hell and judgment, and the gospel without the gory violence of the cross. It omits the whole Book of Revelation altogether! What remains is a picture of Christ as a glassy-eyed Sage, mouthing inoffensive platitudes and pleasantries.

As it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, and whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Mystery of Grace

Here is another excerpt from Thomas Merton’s “Thoughts in Solitude” and some of my thoughts on his thoughts. He is writing on the subject of “contemplative souls” finding God in prayer.

“And how do they find Him? By technique? There is no technique for finding Him. They find Him by His will. And His will, bringing them grace within and arranging their lives exteriorly, carries them infallibly to the precise place in which they can find Him. Even they do not know how they got there, or what they are really doing.”

When I was a young believer, the first teaching I gave to my college campus fellowship was on the topic of prayer. Specifically it was how to have one’s prayers answered. I did a quick tour of the relevant New Testament scriptures on answered prayer (assisted mightily by R. A. Torrey’s book “How to Pray”) and presented a foolproof method for having one’s prayers heard and answered by the Almighty.

Nearly forty years later I realized that I was the one proven to be the fool. There is no foolproof technique for answered prayer… or anything else in the spiritual life. In her book Traveling Mercies Anne Lamott writes: "Here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ I concur.

As I sat in the oral surgeon’s chair this week, I had time to pray … both before and during the surgery. In fact I had been praying for days leading up that endodontical encounter. My only technique was “Help me, help me, help me.” It was sufficient. Now I pray “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

It is all a matter of grace. I do not know why God found me and called me, especially when so many others do not seem to experience that sense of grace. I do not know why God keeps ahold of me in spite of all my wanderings. I do not know why he continues to preserve me and use me.

My only answer is that there is no answer. There is no answer to all the great “Why” questions we ask of God. The questions that arise in our souls during difficult times - such as pain, evil, injustice, and healing or lack of it - have no theological or philosophical resolution this side of eternity. The only answer I know – and it is more than sufficient for me - is the mystery of God’s grace.

To quote Anne Lamott again: “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace - only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

Monday, January 3, 2011

Thoughts in Solitude

 I am reading through Thomas Merton's book "Thoughts in Solitude" and wanted to share this excerpt:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does, in fact, please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this
you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore, I will trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Thomas Merton painting by Victor Hammer

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Envelope Sermons

Yesterday I found myself scribbling ideas for a sermon series on the back of a #10 envelope. I haven’t done that in well over a year. The envelope contained a fund-raising letter (unopened) from my seminary alma mater, so it seemed appropriate.

I start my new position as pastor of the Federated Church of Sandwich, New Hampshire, on February 1. I have been pondering how to start the pastorate homiletically. What will I preach? An introductory sermon is appropriate for my first Sunday, but what about after that?

I think I will preach on questions raised by the Apostles' Creed. The Presbyterian church we have been attending this past year recites it regularly. Saying it out loud has got me thinking about what it says … and doesn’t say.

This oldest of Christianity’s theological summaries covers the basics of the Christian faith, without getting too enmeshed in theological details. It seems like a good place to start my stint as theologian-in-residence in a small New England village.

This is an unusual choice of sermon topic for me. I am not a creedal kind of guy. Baptists have historically avoided creeds. In fact when the Northern Baptists officially formed in 1907, they voted to make the entire New Testament their denominational statement of faith, instead of the proposed New Hampshire Confession of Faith.

For me it is more important to experience God than to recite theologically correct formulae about God. But I know it is also necessary to think rationally about God. Our thoughts are – at best – human approximations of the divine mystery. But it is important to try to put our intuitive knowledge of the divine into some kind of understandable language, as imprecise as that endeavor is.

The Apostles’ Creed was written to answer questions being posed by the Christians of the first two centuries. We have similar questions. What are our answers today? Do the historic Christian answers still ring true? The questions I hear people asking - and which I ponder myself - are questions such as these:

Is there a God? Is religion relevant today? Who was Jesus and why does he matter now? Is Christianity fundamentally different than other religions or essentially the same? Who or what is Spirit? Is the institutional church obsolete? Is the concept of sin useful any longer? What really happens to us when we die?

So far I have come up with seven sermon titles for this series, which I have tentatively entitled “Questions of Faith.” They include “Does God exist?” “The Ghost of God” and “Guilt-free Christianity.” All titles and topics are, of course, subject to change. I will just have to find a bigger envelope. This one is getting kind of full.