Friday, June 14, 2013

Yard Sales and Christian Maturity

Yard Sales and Maturity

The annual tradition in our development is a large yard sale on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Normally, my family does not participate. This year, however, I made an offer to my son.


The offer was this, “If you gather together some of your toys and books that you don’t use any more and put them out for sale, you can keep all the money you earn.”


All my son heard was, “Keep all the money.” Soon, he had a vision of raising hundreds of dollars. The work involved in the event was not part of his vision.


He soon discovered that he had to carry his items to the table in the driveway; staff the table for 3 hours, and carry the items he did not sell back into the house.


He learned that commitment and work are necessary.


We call this growth a move toward maturity.


As Christians, we grow in maturity of discipleship.



Faith and Doubt

The early church father, Hilary, believed that God's answer to Moses, at the burning bush, was the starting point for the conversation about the Holy Trinity. God answers, "I am who I am." God’s answer shows us that in seeking to know and understand God, we discover that God is "prior to our thinking." (Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought)


"A God prior to our own thinking is a God that stretches us. We must allow the reality of God to stretch our thoughts so that we become worthy of the God we seek, befitting God, rather than imposing on God arbitrary standards of our own making. " (Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought)


In Psalm 8, we hear, O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, what are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them? Yet you have made them little less than divine; with glory and honor you crown them.


In expressing the wonder, power, and glory of God, we immediately create a problem for ourselves. God is mindful of humans. If so, then why did so many die during the tornadoes in Oklahoma?


In expressing the great capacity of humanity given them by God, we immediately create a problem for ourselves. Humans have the capacity to rule over the works of creation. If so, then why could they not keep themselves safe during the 250 mph winds of an E-4 tornado?


As soon as we assert our faith, we encounter a reason to doubt. "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief." (Mark 9:24)


In describing the poet R. S. Thomas, John McEllhenney writes that the poet had an "uneroding belief in the existence of God" and "ongoing doubts about the presence, justice, and goodness of God."


He continues, "For belief needs doubt to temper it, to make it more flexible, to enable it to bear up under Shakespeare's whips and scorns of time. Many believers deny their doubts, using noisy assertions of rock solid faith to drown out the insistent voices of uncertainty...For concealed doubts are like untreated diseases: They fester and sap strength until, when a major blow comes, the person has no spiritual resources left to withstand it." (John McEllhenney)


For some, faith is purely about obedience. While this can lead to believers that are confident, clear, and certain, there is a shadow side. M. Scott Peck, in People of the Lie, describes the problem of the shadow side.


The shadow side of obedience requires perfection. This is an impossibility. While those who are mature can acknowledge their imperfection, those less mature cannot. Thus, they must explain away their flaws by blaming others. (Peck, People of the Lie)


For some, faith is purely about love. While this can lead to believers that are compassionate, socially conscious, and helpful, there is a shadow side. Peck also describes the shadow side of faith thought solely as love.


He describes one of his patients named Charlene. She espoused the fundamental doctrine of the love of humankind and saw herself proceeding through the world spreading gifts and gentle kindness wherever she walked, but in that life of love, she excluded the reality of other people. She would resist challenge, Peck writes, "her demand was that I love her regardless of how she behaved. She did not want to be healed, she wanted to be loved." (Peck, People of the Lie)


A faith that is not tempered with doubt can be destructive. Doubt can lead to growth. Doubt can lead us to Christian maturity.


How do we become mature Christians?


Teddy Roosevelt. "If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn't sit down for a month."


In the Gospel of John, the Holy Spirit takes center stage and prepares the disciples for life after Jesus ascends into heaven. One of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to bring about the truth among the disciples.


The truth ends the "Yeah, but..." moments in our lives when we are challenged. It ends the self-justification. It ends the excuses. Truth makes life impossible, and truth sets life right.


J├╝rgen Moltmann, in In the End—the Beginning: the life of hope, writes, "...for Christian hope is the power of resurrection from life's failures and defeats.


It is the power of life's rebirth out of the shadows of death.


It is the power for the new beginning at the point where guilt has made life impossible.


The Christian hope is all these things because it is spirit from the Spirit of the resurrection of the betrayed, maltreated, and forsaken Christ.


Through his divine raising from the dead, Christ's hope-less end became his true beginning.


If we remember that, we shall not give ourselves up, but shall expect that in every end a new beginning lies hidden.


Yet we shall only become capable of new beginnings if we are prepared to let go of the things that torment us, and the things we lack.


Through Christ, that new beginning finds us.”


We grow in our Christian maturity through death and resurrection.



How Do I Recognize Maturity?


Jim Wallis recently stated, "The best conservative idea is personal responsibility. The best liberal idea is social responsibility. Both are needed for the common good."


C.S. Lewis develops this thought further, "If there were such a thing as a Christian society in existence and you or I visited it, I think we should come away with a curious impression. We should feel that its economic life was very socialistic and, in that sense 'advanced', but that its family life and its code of manners were rather old fashioned--perhaps even ceremonious and aristocratic. Each of us would like bits of it, but I am afraid very few of us would like the whole thing...You will find this again and again about anything that is rally Christian; everyone is attracted by bits of it and wants to pick out those bits and leave the rest." (Mere Christianity)


Maturity is the capacity to move in the direction of accepting all of Christ's teaching, not just the one's that serve our purpose.


M. Scott Peck, in A World Waiting To Be Born writes, “The more conscious you become,

the more healthy and ‘saved’ and civil you are, the more it will hurt.


You will become ever-more aware of the aging process inexorably working within you, more aware of your own sins and psychopathology.


You will also become more aware of the psychopathology of others and the games they play—as well as the sorrows and burdens they bear.


And finally you will become ever-more conscious of the sins and evils of society.


The good news is that simultaneously—paradoxically—you will experience more joy.


Families, churches, businesses, and governments become sick by refusing to face painful realities. If they allow themselves to become conscious of their painful issues, however, then they can work on organizational healing and grow into painful but joyful maturity.”

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Well Intentioned Roommate

A Well Intentioned Roommate

Suppose I have a roommate who cares deeply about me. He notices that I have been working long hours, have been under great stress, and look very tired. In my fatigue, I complain one night that I don't even have time to pay my bills. Later that evening, when I have fallen asleep, my roommate pulls together my bills, goes to my online account, and pays all my bills. The only roommate has never been good at math and my account is now overdrawn.


In the morning, when I wake up, my roommate shows me that my bills are paid. My shock quickly turns to horror as I realize that my account is overdrawn. I respond, "You have overdrawn my account!"


Ashamed, he lashes out, "I was only trying to help! Next time, do it yourself!"



What we have here is a case of a person taking responsibility for something he does not have the authority to do and for which he is not held accountable. This is my definition of chaos--taking responsibility for something for which a person is not held accountable.  In our lives, some of our relationships are in chaos.



Every relationship has a purpose. One is a spouse, a parent, a child, a sibling, a friend, a neighbor, a student, a citizen, an employee, a doctor, teacher, plumber. Every relationship is defined by at least one purpose. At times, relationships can have multiple purposes--i.e., my neighbor may also be my friend.


What Makes a Healthy Relationship?

Authority--This is the power that others have given a person to act in a certain role in a relationship. For example, my congregation has authorized me to serve in the office of Senior Pastor.


Responsibility--These are the tasks that are expected to be performed as part of the relationship. For example, the tasks a parent is expected perform include: provide for shelter, food, safety, nurturing environment, discipline.


Accountability--One is held accountable for performing the tasks and for the quality of the performance. A good neighbor honors property lines and maintains his property. If not, there may be legal repercussions.


What about Feelings?

With a healthy relationship, a person experiences a variety of positive emotions. There is empowerment, acceptance, collegiality, affirmation, affection. Psychologists will tell you, "Feelings follow." That is, when we shape a relationship based on authority, responsibility, and accountability, the positive feelings will follow.


When Feelings Take the Driver's Seat

In our highly emotional times, we can fall into the trap of desiring the positive emotions first, without fulfilling the obligations of the relationship. We want to be affirmed, no matter how we act. When this happens, our relationships become troubled and broken.


Right Relationships

One definition of the religious word "righteous" is "fulfilling the obligations of one's relationship."(Achtemeir) God is righteous and God makes righteous those who have faith. People of faith have been set free to have healthy relationships. Dare we fall into the trap that Paul mentions in Romans 8: 15? "For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption." Right relationships are healthy relationships.



1. Love can be considered as more than a feeling and more than a concept. Love is primary an action. The action of love is the act of engaging in a relationship in ways that are healthy. Love is the action of living out healthy relationships. Should we start with love as an emotion and apply that to a relationship, the relationship is in an immediate strangle hold. Based purely on a positive emotion like wanting to feel loved, a relationship allows no room for accountability and challenge. Liking can become the key determining factor for what is right or wrong. A leader may refrain from holding an employee accountable for poor performance out of fear of not being liked. An employee may reject challenge that can lead to growth by interpreting the challenge with the conclusion, "She does not like me."


2. M. Scott Peck, in People of the Lie, describes what happens to a group of people when one person is chosen as a leader. The others will instantly start to regress. How is it that a leader can lead, without the regression and immaturity of those in the group? I believe a leader can promote maturity by clearly defining the relationships; by giving authority to each group member to act in certain capacities based on that persons interests and skills; by being sure that the person has a clear understanding of their responsibilities and tasks to be performed; and by holding the person accountable for performing the task wit excellence.


3. Peck also describes human relationships as lateral. This is helpful in understanding that people are set APART for a purpose, not set ABOVE for a purpose.


4. The use of titles helps sustain healthy relationships. This may lead the reader to conclude that I am promoting an archaic way of life. The use of titles, such as Mr., Mrs. Miss, Ms., Dr., Professor, Pastor, Mother, Father, the Honorable serves the purpose of defining the relationship. I insist that members of my congregation use the title Pastor with me. This is not about being heavy handed, power, or control. I believe the use of the title brings clarity to the relationship between pastor and parishioner. Each time a person refers to me as Pastor, I am reminded of the covenant I have made to care for the spiritual well-being of the people in the parish.


5. In groups, among staffs, or within leadership circles, clearly defining the relationships can keep the focus on the organization’s mission. The leader of the group does not make all the decisions, but performs the following roles:

            -Keeps the mission and vision in front of the group;

            -Keeps the clarity of roles in place by defining the responsibilities;

            -Has oversight for keeping a good decision making process in place;

            -Holds each  person in the organization accountable for performance

Friday, January 25, 2013

Integrity, Dignity, and Aristocrats--Dignity

Integrity, Dignity, and Aristocrats
A Sermon Series on Economy

In this year of westward expansion of thought--what we are calling pioneering--not only are we looking at the capacity for opposites to come together for good, but also taking a radical approach to concepts. A radical approach looks at the root (the literal meaning of the word radical is "root", thus the word radish) of a word and concept, how the word has been used, and the outcome of that usage. I want to apply the radical approach to the word dignity.

"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." This is the slogan of a publication out of the University of Virginia called The Hedgehog Review. In the review, Michael Zuckart unpacks the word dignity.

The Latin root of the word dignity, dignities, means distinction, special merit. Most times, the concept was applied to aristocracy. An aristocrat carries him or herself with an air of distinction. Zuckart writes that dignity is an aristocratic notion, not a democratic one.

Foundational to our nation are the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Frequently, Zuckart writes, the right to property is added to the list. American citizens will consent to a government that exists to protect these rights their its laws. The laws of a government that protect these rights are what Zuckart calls "negative laws." Negative laws are laws that make any action that impedes upon the rights of another as illegal. For example, I am not breaking the laws of the nation unless I take your life, or impede your life in such a way that you cannot survive.

Starting at the end of World War 2, after seeing horrific violations of the integrity of others in Germany, international documents were drafted in which the word dignity started to appear. With the use of the word dignity, also came the mention that there were certain goods that were to be mandated for all people, such as social security, holidays, time for rest.

Zuckart states that mandating goods--that which is perceived to be good, is not the customary negative law as mentioned above, but are positive laws. It becomes the mandate of the government to provide that which is good or good for a person.

The use of the word dignity brings the government into the central role of  authority in human life. We have seen a shift from an economically driven country to a government driven country since the Great Depression. Government has been placed at the center of authority without any parallel institution to challenges its assumptions. We lose sight of the reality that the decisions a government makes will be a functional decision, supported by a majority of people, that may or may not be moral.

There is no common definition of what makes something good. We, at this time in the history of our nation, do not have a common set of criteria to determine what is good. Personally, I think this is at the root of our national divide. The foundational rights are in place, yet the definitions of the criteria for good are as diverse as the ideologies espousing them.

This is where the notion of aristocracy connected with dignity returns. It was Marie Antoinette, when confronted with the hunger of her subjects, who stated, "Let them eat cake." The trap of aristocracy is to draw the conclusion, "If people would just like me, and do what I do, and follow my lead, they would be better off."

This may be the end result of the use of the word dignity, and the reason why I believe that the use of the word integrity is better for our conversation on economy. Integrity, among other things, indicates that I know where I stop and your start, where my needs come to an end and where your needs start. Integrity challenges me to refrain from violating our integrity and calls me to be responsible to challenge and possibly restrain those who would violate the integrity of those who cannot defend themselves. Integrity calls me to clearly define myself, and to be in the world a presence that strives to honor the integrity of others.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Integrity, Dignity, and Aristocrats

Integrity, Dignity, and Aristocrats
A Sermon Series on Economy


We are in a year of pioneering for our congregation. Part of our "heading west" is in the ways we think. In a culture highly divided, we contend as a congregation that the opposites need to stand in tension with each other. Out of the tension, a new thought may be imagined that is a blessing to humanity and creation. Joel Hunter, in his book A New Kind of Conservative, speaks about Salt--also known as sodium chloride. Sodium, by itself is highly harmful to people. Likewise is Chlorine. Brought together, one has a staple of human life and creation.

In the conversation on economy, I want to bring into tension two ideas from Scripture--Hearing and obeying God's commands and Seeing and being in the presence of God. Walter Brueggeman speaks of these two loving responses to a God who engages Israel in his book An Unsettling God. I borrow heavily from Brueggeman below and mark the next paragraphs with quotation marks to indicate that.

"God has initiated a relationship with God's people. There is an imperative dimension to that relationship. God's people are to order their lives in ways that are appropriate to that relationship. The appropriate response is to resonate with the will, purpose, desire, hope, and intention of God. Two appropriate responses are to listen to God and to see God.

This response includes an obligation to listen to God and do justice, as shown in Deuteronomy 10: 17-20. Listening to God is to attend to the needs of those who are too weak to protect themselves. Wealth and social resources are to be managed and deployed for the enhancement of those who are the weakest. See Proverbs 14:31 and 17:5. The weakest are entitled to such treatment for no other reason than that they are part of the community.

This response also includes an invitation to see God and to be holy. In Exodus 24: 3, 7, not only does Israel hear the commands of God, but in 24: 10-11, they see and behold God. So, God's people not only listen to God and do justice, but are to be in the presence of God, see God, and submit to the overwhelming nature of God. This is based on the concept that it is possible to host God, as we read in the Tabernacle and Temple traditions. This hosting of God is done with great care, costly investment, and scrupulous attention to detail. The investment is a purity or holiness code in which God's people engage to avoid defilement and vulgarity.

So, God's people practice justice for the sake of community and order life in such a way that one is qualified to be in communion with God. This creates a setting of opposites. To be with the weakest is many times to be with the unclean, thus violating the purity codes. To be pure and follow the holiness code, one is removed from those who are weakest and not able to engage in acts of justice.

We do not choose one over the other, but allow them to live in tension with one another. Integrity is the outcome of the two opposites living in tension with each other. To have integrity is to be whole, complete, coherent, innocent, unimpaired, and sound. It is to will one thing, living a life that is undivided, unified in loyalty and intention.

One with integrity practices justice with the weakest and lives with passion the disciplines of holiness. See Pslm 25:21 and 26: 1, 11-12. Every aspect of life--personal, public, cultic, economic--shows complete devotion to God." (Brueggeman, An Unsettling God)

This quality of integrity is what is believers bring to life and conversation about any issue that they face. It is my belief that the conversation on economics is best shaped by rooting it in the need to have integrity oneself and to honor the integrity of others.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

What then Should We Do? Answering a Question with a Question.

What then should we do? Answering a question with a question.


In a previous blog, I laid my Christian belief over top of the emotions which are a normal and faithful reaction to the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Then, I spoke of my Christian belief as a radical (in the sense of getting at the root of the issue) approach to thinking about the shooting.


By laying my belief in God over my emotions and starting my thinking from my faith, I have a truth/authority/axiom that has the capacity to restore wholeness to human life. This truth re-integrates humanity and restores humans to their fullest capacity for good. This truth re-integrates humanity and restores humans through a promise of a time when all is set right. Until that time, while we wait, we believe.


Do you believe? In the story of the death of Lazarus in the Gospel of John, we read that Lazarus has died and has been buried for 4 days when Jesus arrives in Bethany. Immediately, Jesus is confronted by Martha, the sister of Lazarus. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!" Jesus does not answer her accusation by explaining why Lazarus had to die. Instead, he asks a question, "Do you believe?"


As we confront the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, Do you believe that Christ was born for this?


As we find the shock, and fear, and horror well up within us, Do you believe that the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus Christ?


In the face of death, when parents should not have to see their own children die, Do you believe that "nails and spears shall pierce Jesus through, the cross that is borne for me and you.?"


In this Advent and Christmastide, commonly we hear sections of Handel's Messiah. Indeed, it is the more popular of large works for Christmas. But, J. S. Bach was a better theologian. Listen to closing text of his Christmas Oratorio, sung to the musical theme that is used for the Lenten\Good Friday hymn, "O Sacred Head Now Wounded."



9. (62.) Aria T

 Now, you arrogant enemies, you may tremble;

 what kind of fear can you arouse in me?

 My treasure, my sanctuary is here with me.

   You may seem still so horrible,

   threatening to defeat me once and for all,

   yet see! My Savior lives here.



11. (64.) Chorale

 Now you are well avenged

 upon the horde of your enemies,

 since Christ has pulverized

 what was contrary to you.

 Death, devil, sin and hell

 are weakened once and for all;

 the place of the human race

 is next to God.