Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord! (More Reflections of Advent)

"Then they said to him, 'Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?' He said, 'I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord!'"
                                                                       (John 1: 22-23)

John the Baptist. I love this guy. He's got to be one of my favorite New Testament characters. He's the ultimate radical priest--totally out of the mainstream. I see Jay Bakker and Shane Claiborne following in his footsteps. John's the kind of a guy who doesn't need a church building or an organization. He's out there with the people, talking to the disenfranchised, the confused, the wounded. He's in the bars and the shopping centers and the free clinics. Yes, he dresses a little funky and he enjoys a weird (if totally organic) diet, but he's in touch with what people need to hear, and he's not afraid to tell it like it is.

I love John, who always makes an appearance in the Revised Common Lectionary around the second or third Sundays in Advent, for his wonderful eccentricity. I respect his humility ("The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals." Mark 1:7), and I just really dig his intensity ("You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!" Luke 3:7-8)

I've got to confess that there are times when I feel like getting intense and shouting at the crowds: "Hey! Listen! You sorry, lazy-assed excuses for Christians! WAKE UP!! GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER!!!"

(But I'm usually a little more subdued. I can't help it. I'm Lutheran.)

An esteemed colleague of mine recently compared John the Baptist to a 12-step program. We are a sick, tired, and addicted culture, and the first thing we need to do is admit that we have a problem. John calls us to repentance, a word which, in its original Greek, simply means a change of mind. You see, our culture has turned Christmas, originally the observance of the birth of a child born in poverty, into an orgy of excess--partying and spending like an addict binging on crack. As if lavishness and wrecklessness can somehow feed our spiritual hunger. But John calls us to a change of heart and mind. He calls us to an admission that what we're doing doesn't work, and will ultimately lead us back to emptiness.

We cannot have Christ, John tells us, until we are ready to receive him. We need to prepare for his coming. An alcoholic may win the lottery, but he'll just piss away the fortune without thought or gratitude and wind up as broken as before. We simply can't receive a blessing unless we know it's a blessing--and know how to accept and respect it.

If I could play John the Baptist this Advent, I would call my fellow citizens to repentance like this: I would challenge us to embrace the truth that we are all our brothers' keepers. Our indiviudal liberties are only of value if they can be used to promote peace and security for others. Otherwise, our freedom is only an excuse for our selfishness.

I would want to call the Church to repentance, too. I would challenge our image of God. Can we wash away the idea of God as either distant, punishing judge or cosmic ATM machine, and embrace the God who is Emanuel--God with us? Can we see our God in the faces of others around us? Can we learn to love God in this way? And can we accept and hold on to a conviction that true religion will not be understood by how we think of God, but by how we relate to each other?

If we are not ready to love the crying baby on the bus, or in the grocery store, or in the next pew over, how can we love the baby in the manger?

God bless you, my friend. Thank you for your visit.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Apocalypse Cometh (Reflections on Advent)

Chris Gleaseon was a forty-year-old triathlete from New York state who came to Philadelphia last Sunday to run in the Philadelphia Marathon. A quarter of a mile from the finish line of this punishing race, Chris collapsed. He was rushed to hospital, where he was pronounced dead some time later. He left a wife and two children.

The sudden death of this virtuous and talented athlete, attorney, husband, and father--knocked down in the very heart of his active and productive years--might cause some to question the justice or mercy of God. Indeed, some internet chat sites have, I'm told, already pondered the divine implications of this unexpected and emotionally crushing tragedy. How could a just God do such a thing? How could anyone believe in or worship such a monstrous deity?

I don't know if there's any answer to those questions. I certainly feel for Mr. Gleaseon's family, and I will include them in my prayers. What I do know, however, is that moments of tribulation such as this have a way of getting us to ask ultimate questions. The shocking upheavals we experience can destroy our faith or deepen it.

It has always vexed me slightly that the lectionary passages for the First Sunday of Advent deal with an apocalypse--a vision of the end times involving death, cataclysm, and tribulation. This year's gospel reading comes from the thirteenth chapter of Mark (Mark 13:24-37 to be exact) in which Jesus' disciples, arriving in Jerusalem for the Passover, marvel at the grandeur of the great Temple. Jesus warns them that the days  are approaching when these stones will crumble, and everything will be thrown into chaos. The time will come--and without warning--when the world will go dark (no light from sun or moon) and confusion will reign (the very fixed stars in the heaven, believed to give order and guidance, will fall). This could be a description of any horrific event from a natural disaster to a war to the sudden death of a husband and father.

The Day of Tribulation doesn't have to be an end-of-the-world scenario, but it will be the end of someone's world--at least as they understand it. Personally, I have no time for the faulty and ridiculous "End Times" theology of Hal Lindsay, Herold Camping, and the other Left Behind heretics (FYI: For a wonderful debunking of this moronic doctrine which has, unfortunately, captured the imagination of so many American Christians, I recommend you read Barbara Rossing's 2004 book The Rapture Exposed from Westview Press). Rather, I believe the Day of Tribulation is inescapably part of everyone's life.

"Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." (Mark 13: 30-31)

Indeed, every generation seems to face a Day of Tribulation. The Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assasination of John Kennedy, Viet Nam, 9/11. All of them days of great darkness, confusion, and uncertainty. In a single moment reality is changed, beliefs are shattered, a world vanishes. Everything is disturbed--everything, but the presence of Jesus Christ for those who will see him.

"Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come." (Mark 13:33)

It is easy to be spiritually sleepy when all is going according to plan. Sometimes I feel that we Americans have been very good at creating a particularly drowsy form of Christianity, one which is formulaic and rote: Confess yourself to be a sinner. Confess Jesus as Lord who died for your sins. Go to Heaven when you die. One, two, three. Simple. Now you can doze off spiritually, knowing you've got all the answers.

"And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake." (Mark 13:37)

Before the Day of Tribulation comes, before the crisis strikes, NOW is the time to seek God.

And who is this God we seek? Not some cosmic Santa Clause who sits off at a distance and hands out random blessings and punishments. Not even a God who exists; rather the God who IS existance. Not a God who loves, but the God who IS love. With us, in us, all around us. Who is this Jesus? Not just a man who suffered and died centuries ago, but the God who entered into OUR suffering, who is alive and real in the friends who stand with us in our tribulation, in the acts of charity we give and receive, in the sympathetic smiles, and the listening ears. The one whose words outlast the centuries. Who is this Holy Spirit? Not some feel-good feeling, but God at work in us, our ability to know, to understand, to use our natural talents and our wisdom. What is this Heaven? Not some distant place beyond death, but a place of eternal life in the presence of God with whom we are living right now.

Keep awake. God is here.

May the hope of Advent be a blessing to you. Thank you so very much for reading.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Loving God & Eternal Punishment (Reflections on the Feast of Christ the King)

"And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
                                                                                          Matthew 25:46

Kind of a bummer this "eternal punishment" business, don't you think? I mean, haven't you ever asked the question, "If God or Jesus or whoever is so loving, how could they send anyone to hell?" I find some insight into that question in the assigned gospel lesson for the Feast of Christus Rex--Christ the King, which is the New Year's Eve, if you will, of the Christian liturgical calendar. But first, allow me a bit of self-indulgence:
I just really love old Christian artwork--especially that which adorns old churches and cathedrals. The above is from an altarpiece by the 15th century Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck depicting Christ wearing a crown. Classy, isn't it?

Also, I'm kind of a history buff, so I feel inclined to tell you that the Feast of Christ the King is the newest feastival to enter the Christian liturgical calendar. In fact, it's actually less than one hundred years old. Roman Catholics began to celebrate the last Sunday in the liturgical year as Christ the King in 1925 when it was instituted by Pope Pius XI. After the horror of the First World War, when new technologies allowed death to come falling from the sky from airplanes, from under the sea via submarines, on the breeze in the form of poison gas, and whistling through the air as automatic weapons' fire; when a generation of young men were slaughtered in the most grizzly and wasteful ways possible; after the world saw what kings, czars, and kaisers were capable of doing, it was time to look for better leadership. The wise Pope Pius, seeing in the rising Benito Mussolini yet another false messiah, encouraged the faithful to look to Jesus Christ alone.

Okay. Got that out of my system. Now back to the original subject.

The appointed gospel lesson for Christ the King is Matthew 25: 31-46, in which Jesus describes the coming kingdom of heaven by saying that the Son of Man, when he comes in glory, will separate the peoples just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Now, being a city fellow, I'm not that much aquainted with the art of shepherding; however, a glance at some referrence material is enlightening.

Sheep, representing the righteous folks in this parable, tend to be gentle. They gather together in groups for mutual protection. They have an uncanny ability to recognize faces--those of humans or other sheep--and can form relationships. They are rarely violent, and even the rams do not participate in combat unless they are of relatively equal strength to their opponant. Sheep don't pick on smaller sheep.

Goats, on the other hand, come armed. They have horns which stick up to impale enemies. They are fiercely individualistic, and will knock down any barrier that seeks to contain them. They are vastly more likely than are sheep to attack a human, and are aggressive with each other. They have a voracious and indiscriminate appetite, and, although they can be domesticated, will easily revert back to the wild.

In Jesus' parable, the "sheep" people give of themselves in acts of mercy and compassion for others--feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and those in prison. Jesus tells his followers that when they have done such an act of charity for "the least of these," they have also done it for him.

The individualistic "goat" people, by contrast, mistreat the poor and marginalized by ignoring them. It is this lack of pity which, according to Jesus, earns them their punishment.

I certainly do not believe that true faith in Jesus has anything to do with subscribing to Church doctrines. I believe that a follower of Christ the King is one who is in daily dialog with Jesus, asking, "Lord, what would you have me do?"

The answer will always be, "Love one another in mercy, sympathy, and compassion, as I have loved you."

The old saying goes, "Virtue is its own reward." I believe the opposite is also true: Iniquity is its own punishment.

What paradise is there for the "goats" of this world? Can there be any true joy in aggression? I don't think so. We can't kill our way out of global terrorism. We can't penalize or jail away crime and violence created by poverty and want. We can't build a wall high enough to keep out the needy, nor can we horde enough wealth to stave off our own illness and death. Fighting the battle to see ourselves as superior and others as less will be an endless fight leading only to frustration.

Jesus does not need to "send" anyone to hell. There are plenty of people--angry, aggressive, rapacious, unfeeling and uncaring--who are living in hell while they are alive. A hell of their own making.

The sheep of the parable seek the highest virtues of mercy and compassion--not in order to be recognized, but because these virtues are to be cherished for their own sake. To their own surprise the sheep discover that where love is present, so is Jesus. And where Jesus is, there is the kingdom of heaven.

God's blessings to you, my friends. (And to my Russian friend, zdravstvujtye, and my most sincere spasiba!)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On the Penn State Sexual Abuse Scandal

This post is a departure from my usual articles on Christian apologetics or reflections on the weekly lectionary. I am writing it as my reaction to the the child sexual abuse scandal that is currently being reported on the Penn State campus in State College, PA.

Some months ago I attended a Christian writers' conference on the campus of Philadelphia Biblical University. During a lunch break, I found myself sitting on a bench in the University's quad, reading a Somerset Maugham novel, eating a sandwich, and generally enjoying the sunshine and minding my own business. Suddenly, I was approached by an energetic lady with a fudgesicle and a thick Georgia accent. She asked if she could sit with me, and, after I offered her a napkin for the melting fudgesicle, introduced herself as Angela Williams.

"The Lord told me to come and talk to you," she said.

I was a bit surprised by this intelligence, but I was certainly willing to hear what Ms. Williams--and the Lord--wanted me to know. She explained that she is the founder of an organization called VOICE Today which provides advocacy for victims of childhood sexual abuse. She inquired if I had ever known a victim of such abuse--which I have--and explained that, in this country appoximately one out of four girls and one out of six boys will be sexually abused or molested in some way before their eighteenth birthday. Ms. Williams asked if I had ever preached on this subject, and I sheepishly had to confess that I had only done so once, and that had been many years ago.

"I hope," she said, "I can encourage you to face this evil with courage and boldness." After the disclosures this past week of the abuse at Penn State, I realized it was time to bring up the subject with my congregation, and to have a frank and mature discussion with my young confirmation students about the dangers they may face.

For the record, I applaud the actions taken by the Penn State Baord of Trustees this past week. Just as there is some small relief in knowing that the alleged vicitmizer, Jerry Sandusky, will be brought to trial, the dismissal of those who had silent knowledge of Sandusky's alleged misdeeds is also a blow for justice. Child abuse is a crime, and the reputaion of any institution is always of secondary importance to the safety of children. The message sent by Penn Sate's Board of Trustees is that NO ONE--not even the venerable Joe Paterno--should ever turn his or her back on the welfare of a child.

To use an oft-quoted saying attributed to the 18th Century Irsih philosopher Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." The inaction of Paterno, Athletic Director Tim Curley, University President Graham Spanier, and others--if they did, indeed, have knowledge of child abuse--is every bit as heinous in its way as the abuse itself. Such inaction must never be tolerated.

In the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel, we read the story of the rape of Tamar (chapter 13). She is a young girl, who, like so many other victims of sexual abuse, was vicitmized by someone she knew and trusted. She was assaulted by a member of her own family, a brother, who should have been protecting her. Although the crime is reported to her father, King David, the king elects to do nothing about it (verse 21). This inaction brings more pain, ruin, death, and destruction to David's house. I am convinced that this story, supposedly three thousand years old, is just as vital and true today as ever. There is no excuse for ignoring sexual abuse. Consequences will follow, as my Roman brethren have learned through the legacy of cover-up and denial that continues to scar a denomination representing half of the Christians on the planet.

So what do we do?

First: Start talking about the issue. In schools, at home, in church, anywhere.
Second: Teach children about safe touch.
Third: Train adults to look for signs of abuse and the correct response to make when they suspect a child has been abused.
Fourth: All institutions involving children should make their policies clear. Failure to report means dismissal--even if you are the greatest coach in the history of college football, you are not above this policy.

Finally, I would recommend that you check out Angela Williams' organization at It's time.

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Spiritual Cowards (Reflections on Pentecost 22)

"...but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away"
                                                                             Matthew 25: 29b

One of my old high school teachers used to say, "I prefer honest arrogance to false modesty." I'm not sure I agree with him as I'm pretty put off by any arrogance--be it honest or false. Nevertheless, I've got to admit I'm fascinated--in much the same way people are fascinated by political tyrants and seriel killers--with that monument to American arrogance, greed, and self-importance known to the world as Donald Trump.

Yup. I'll admit it: One of my guilty pleasures is watching NBC-TV's The Apprentice, the reality show hit in which young business men and women attempt to convince the pompous Obama "birther" that they deserve a position in his mega-million dollar real estate corporation. It all comes down to which contestant proves to Mr. Trump that they can make him the most money. Those who dare big can win big, and those who are timid get the sack.

Jesus' parable in Matthew 25: 14-30 reminds me of an episode of The Apprentice. A rapacious robber baron goes on a journey, leaving three servants, in whom he has various degrees of confidence, in charge of his estate. Servant #1 is given what would be the equivalent in today's money of about 1.7 million American dollars. Servant #2, presumably a less capable man, is entrusted with just shy of a million bucks. Servant #3 gets just over 300 grand of the boss' loot.

The first two servants invest their holdings, and each manages to double their money. Poor old #3, a pusillanimous wuss, is more afraid of losing the boss' dough than he is eager to make a killing. He knows the boss can be an angry jerk, and he's terrified he'll screw up. So what does he do? He digs a hole and hides the money until the boss gets back.

When the chief returns, he praises the first two servants for their wise investments and promises them raises and bonuses. The third guy, however, gets a royal chewing out. The boss demands to know why this guy didn't even bother putting the money in the bank to earn interest (This suggestion was, technically speaking, a violation of the Jewish law of the day. Nevertheless, it was totally in keeping with boss' greedy bottom-line philosophy). When the poor slob can't answer, the boss tells him, "You're fired!"

Now, just forget for a moment that this story involves money. There are plenty of smiling TV evangelists who will tell you that God wants you to live your best life and be prosperous financially. Yada yada yada. What if you're just a middle-class stiff like the rest of us?

What if this story could be about our spiritual wealth? Let's consider that our Lord has left us in charge of our intellects and our ability to  love each other and to find meaning in life. Let's take inventory of the people who surround us, our natural talents, our health, and the time we're alotted on the planet. Just what are we supposed to do with these things?

Allegorically, I recoil against casting Almighty God in the Donald Trump role--that of the ruthless boss. Nevertheless, the cold truth is that one day we will each have to account for our time and the way we used what we have been given. And if our fear has been greater than our desire--spiritually or otherwise--we will be that much the poorer.

Sometimes I sense a great spiritual cowardice. When I first came to Philadelphia some seventeen years ago, there were about 60 congregations of my denomination within the city limits. Today, there are little more than 40--most of which have a weekly worship attendance of fewer than 100 people. I've seen congregations hoarding vast financial assests, terrified to spend a nickle, because the congregation fears closing more than they desire to share the Gospel. These churches close anyway.

I wonder just what it is that we fear? Are we afraid to admit our own unbelief, so, out of cultural politeness we maintain a nominal but spiritless Christianity? Are we afraid to engage each other in matters of faith because we fear admitting that we know less than we "should?" Do we fear that pursuing a life of righteousness, virtue, and transcendence would make us less interesting people than we currently imagine ourselves to be?

I don't want to be a loser in my life. I want to know at the end of my days that I've invested my love, my intellect, my compassion, my curiosity, and--yes--even my meagre financial resources in the service of God. If I don't question, if I don't reach out to others, if I don't risk myself, I will certainly end up with nothing.

Thank you for reading. Leave me a comment, will you? It's good to know you've been here

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sainthood for Amy Winehouse (Reflections on the Feast of All Souls)

Most popular music I just don't get. I was raised in the era of classic rock. Growing up, I'd hear my dad's 1960 vintage RCA record player crooning 1940's pop standards, show tunes, and a little classical music. So I had no idea who Amy Winehouse was. I just knew her as a current pop diva whose outrageous lifestyle and substance abuse made her the butt of late-night talk show hosts' jokes. Then she drank herself to death last July, and the jokes weren't funny any more.

But I was listening to NPR a few weeks ago, and I caught a snatch of Amy and Tony Bennett singing that great old Johnny Green song, "Body and Soul." They sounded swell together--slow and nostalgic like a lingering dance in a smokey nightclub. So, on a whim, I took myself down to the Barnes & Noble and sampled Amy's Back to Black CD.


This London-born girl, whose native dialect made her speech almost unintelligible to American ears, sang kind of like Billie Holiday. She had a throaty, bluesy sound, and I thought to myself as I listened to the track samples, "This kid's really good."

And then I thought: Twenty-seven years old. Damn. How sad. How very, very sad.

You see, I have this really stupid, romantic, sentimental spot for doomed artists and poets. In the years I've spent in parish ministry, I've often been called to stand at the graves of gifted, lovely people: beautiful souls full of talent and love and promise, who, for one reason or another, just couldn't seem to get it together. Alcoholics, addicts, the family screw-ups, the ones who couldn't catch a break. They frustrate the hell out of the rest of us, but they have such God-given spirit that we always forgive them. And they break our hearts when we lose them.

So they're not famous like Amy Winehouse. They don't have to be. They were special to us, and that's all that matters.

This is being written on the November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls. In the Lutheran liturgical calendar, the significance of this feast is combined with that of the Feast of All Saints (November 1st) because we teach that sainthood is not dependent on canonization by the Church. Indeed, a saint is nothing more than a sinner who is made whole through God's grace. In that way, we are all saints.

I've also come to believe over the years that every human life is an epic. We all know the dizzy joys and crushing lows. We all pay the price for being human. And we are all beloved by God. It's only a question of whether  we realize it or not.

The other morning I sat at a table at my local bakery, enjoying a bagel and coffee, and thinking about my All Saints Sunday homily. For some reason I remembered that corny old gospel song, "His Eye is On the Sparrow." It's a referrence to Matthew 10:28:

"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father."

Son of a gun if--just at that very moment--a sparrow didn't kamikaze into the window directly in front of my table. BOOM! and then fell to the sidewalk with a thud. Now, I'm not really that into birds, but I found myself feeling very sorry for this little creature as he fluttered, stunned on the pavement. He had landed upside down and struggled to right himself. I didn't know what to do. I wondered if I should go outside and scoop him up and take him to the animal hospital. While I sat there, some guy left the bakery, saw the dazed critter on the pavement, and tore off a piece of his bagel for the bird.

No fall goes unnoticed. No life is insignificant. And God's mercy and compassion are for everyone.

Now, as the days get shorter, darker, and colder--before the cultural insanity of what Americans call "The Holidays" swallows us up--I think it's right that we remember those who have fallen. Not just those who fell in battle or specific national tragedies like Columbine or Katrina, but all of the souls--the saints--who mattered to us. Let's make time to mourn them, miss them, remember them. Let's think of how much they mattered, and maybe we'll realize how much we  matter.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
                                                                        Matthew 5: 3-4

Blessed are you, my saintly friend. Thank you for reading.