Grace, or how to be offended

A dear relative was visiting and we had some discussion of our relative churches and what is going on there.  Her church has been searching for a new head pastor for some time.  Unlike my denomination, they have to be tried out and voted in by the congregation.  It can be a long drawn out process.  She is tearing her hair out, because as a long time member, she takes pride in being part of her denomination and what they believe.  But those who are running things now, seem determined to camoflage denominational ties.  In fact, in the contemporary service, they seem completely unwilling to even teach the bible at all, for fear that they might offend someone.

I couldn’t help but wonder what the former pastor would think, who was there somewhere around 30 years ago, when I attended for several years.  He really had a passion for the bible, teaching both an in depth class, for which one could get college credit for a bible survey course.  At the same time, he had an ongoing project to teach through the entire bible on the congregational level as well.  The place was quite well attended at that time.  We all felt well fed, and pledged our money to build the current church, spread out in order to accommodate hoped for schools.  The expansion with a health club and senior housing never quite came to fruition, but it seemed wise at the time.  And now, they think they can regrow the church, by avoiding offending anyone?  What kind of christians would they have, who are completely ignorant of the bible?

For that matter, isn’t the gospel offensive?  I mean really, didn’t Jesus offend people right and left, especially those who claimed to have the correct behavior down pat?  The gospel is all about grace and grace is offensive.  I mean, look at every major religion in the world, don’t they teach that there is a right way to live and a wrong way to live, and the right way is how you get to God or Nirvana or whatever the goal is?  Surely we have to work our way into God’s good graces, right?

Then along comes this man, who hangs around with smelly fishermen, and prostitutes and tax collectors (all of whom were considered to be cheats at the time).  This man has the audacity to call the religious folk of the time, the ones who had the rules down pat, all sorts of names, like whitewashed tombs.  He said they laid heavy burdens on people and refused to lift a finger to actually help them.    I’ve encountered a few religious leaders like that in my time.  You know the type, all about the rules and when you think you have a handle on what they want, they go out of their way to make you feel guilty about something you have no control over.  Or they tell you you are prideful, because you think you are doing okay, instead of wallowing in shame.  If you think you have a gift for X, they will tell you that is certainly not your place, go do Y, which you know you stink at.  Or maybe it’s that X was only for back then, not now.

So we have Jesus, and he comes and says stuff about setting people free and he heals everyone who asks, even if their problem involves spiritual oppression.  I’m talking demons here.  He made no excuses, just got rid of them.  He was lifting the burdens people carried right and left.  And his teachings were completely outrageous, you know, always talking about how your righteousness must somehow exceed that of those religious leaders who have it all put together.  No it is all a matter of the heart.  All who heard him must have despaired, because no one could be that good.  Even his disciples called him on it.

What was his answer?  He said “I am the way, the truth, and the light.  No one comes to the Father but through me.”  How offensive is that?  It was offensive enough to those religious leaders.  They were determined to get rid of him.  Elsewhere, we are told that it is offensive to those who are perishing, because they can’t accept that there is no way they can earn their way into heaven, maybe.  So if your congregation finds the bible offensive, are they actually saved?

Grace itself is offensive.  Think about it.  If salvation is a free gift, and there is no way to earn our way into heaven, why anyone could get in.  Prostitutes, gang bangers, those whose minds are drug addled, rapists, murderers, sexual deviants of all sorts.  They could just come to Jesus and say they believe, and he would let them in?  Isn’t heaven supposed to be for holy people?  Shouldn’t they have to prove they have changed, or something, before he lets them in?  Well, surely there is something called the fruit of repentance, evidence that God is transforming an individual, but it is a response, not how one gets on the path to heaven.  Grace is offensive.

Jesus did say something about his being a rock of offense that many people will stumble over.  Then there was something about those who aren’t offended being blessed.  Being blessed is a good thing, but never being allowed to stub ones toe on that rock seems far more offensive to me than having to actually deal with it.  May we be willing to offend someone, if it will set them free!

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Reconciliation or parting ways?

Sometimes I wonder why life in a community of faith is so hard.  You’d think, since we are all following Jesus to the best of our abilities, that reconciliation would come more easily.  And yet it seems that instead of listening carefully and trying to help one another along, there is always someone trying to argue that their way of looking at things is best. In fact, if you disagree with this person, they think something is wrong with you.  When this person is in charge, it can be really awful.

About a decade or so ago, we went through a series of pastoral changes.  In the end, we had a senior pastor and two assistants, all of whom were giving long time church members a hard time about their beliefs.  Now there were some who stayed, figuring they could wait this out.  No pastor stays forever, at least not in our denomination.  We are a somewhat conservative leaning church, within a denomination that is mostly liberal.  In this case, from what I heard, these liberal pastors were actually telling our members that they could not believe what they believed, even though they were long time members in good standing.  Many of these people were our teachers and they were “invited” to leave the church!

I found this incredible, not only because I knew many of these folks and had never had a problem with how they taught.  But in my understanding, we are a denomination that welcomes independent thinking.  The audacity of these people, sent to serve us, to then come and try to remake our body into something it never was, was astonishing to me.  No doubt, had I had a run in with them, I would have been left speechless.  But on reflection, which works best for me, I realized that, first of all, they were acting as if it were their church, when the church is the people.  Second of all, it is possible to wait them out, as sooner or later they move on.

As it happens, the worst of the worst were followed by a humble pastor, who had a ministry of reconciliation.  I remember him coming and arranging to meet not just with the movers and shakers on the committees, but in small groups with all who remained, because of course people had left in droves.  He asked questions I don’t recall ever hearing from a new pastor.   I’m sure I don’t recall all of them, but they were like this:  What style of worship service would you prefer?  What makes this church tick?  Who are the important people in this church, not necessarily paid staff, who make things happen here.  Why are they important?  How do they help to make this church what it is?

I remember discussing worship styles for some time.  At one point I said something to the effect that we were told that there had to be a contemporary service.  His calm response was that they are not here, you are.  I want to know what you want.  At the time we requested a blended worship style and that became our style while he was there for his short tenure.  I think he was my model for a shepherd pastor, instead of the usual CEO type.

I recall being so amazed at his very quiet impact that I wished, on some level that I had the ability to bring about reconciliation.  So I bought a book about it and soon found myself over my head.  There was simply too much to take in, and people being human, often their hearts are hardened toward whoever they are against.  Often it is nearly impossible to get them to listen to one another with respect, let alone be willing to actually love one another.

And yet, since God has called me to healing ministry, as I understand it, I think reconciliation is part of it.   So, it seems every time we get someone new on staff, I’m having to put out fires.  I hear complaints and urge people to give the new person a chance.  At God’s prompting, sometimes I remind us all, myself included, that complaining about it is only becoming part of the problem, not the solution.  In one situation I had the ear of the person people were upset about and was able to do something akin to shuttle diplomacy, reminding one to talk to him, and him to be receptive to what they had to say.

But let me tell you, when I am part of the offended group, it’s harder.  Recently there was someone on the music staff that was driving us all crazy.  I was praying that our members wouldn’t start walking, which could force that particular group to disband.  Fortunately, that person left of their own accord, and the replacement is actually fun to be around.  I don’t know why, but sometimes it seems that our homegrown talent is better than those we bring in from outside.  I keep thinking we should have a positive effect on those we bring in, but it isn’t always evident.

Now there is yet another problem person.  I am again connected, so I can’t act as an impartial observer.  I don’t have more than a casual connection to this person, so I can neither give insight to their actions, nor suggest that they may need to be more flexible  and really listen carefully to the concerns.  Again it is someone who was brought in from outside, not someone who emerged from our local community.  I suspect that they have no clue to what makes our church tick, and am concerned because families are again leaving the church.  Oddly enough, it is several years into this person’s time with us.  It would make more sense if the issues came up at first, but perhaps he was on his best behavior at first, and now has let his guard down?

I really don’t know, but I think I should be able to do something to fix things.  But I do not know what to do.  I see this person as having a hardened position too far to the right of our rather accepting church.  All I can do is pray for wisdom, for God to show me something that will make a difference, but so far I’ve gotten nothing.

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I usually mange to forget all about funerals, or memorial services, which are far more common here.  But this one I needed to attend.  And another friend was in charge and gave me extra reminders.  So I went to the service to remember Joanne, who has made appearances in my life ever since I was a baby.

Joanne was a real character and part of that was she was not a quiet presence in a room.  She was loud and flamboyant.  She started life with two strikes against her, you might say.  I don’t know if they were congenital or due to some birth trauma, but she had a hip problem that caused one leg to be notably shorter than the other, so she had to wear a heavy built up shoe on that foot.  She was also legally blind, the kind of kid who can see something, but even with the strongest coke bottle glasses, she couldn’t see like everyone else.  She also had difficulties with her hearing, at least in later life.  I’m not sure exactly when that one started.  It might explain why she always seemed to talk louder than was necessary.  At any rate, she lived with a good deal of pain, but she never seemed to let it stop her.

On the other hand, she was quite intelligent and did well in school, where her vision did not hinder her too much.  She played the piano and had a wonderful contralto voice.  Most of those who attended her service had sung in choirs with her.  Though her vision was impaired, she would take her music home and decipher it slowly, then commit the whole thing to memory so that she could keep up with the others in choir and sing solos as well.  She composed music, though most did not get transcribed into standard notation.  Even in her last years, she was talking about borrowing an electronic keyboard, to record some new music.

Many decades ago, the schools did not really know how to deal with a vision impaired child with a pronounced limp.  So, as one of the attendees informed us, Joanne was bounced around in school a bit as a young child.  She was actually sent away to a boarding school for a while, but came back because they kept feeding her food she was allergic to.  When she returned, she went to the public schools and just had to cope as well as she was able.  There were no services, and whether she was given extra time on things like tests, to try to decipher the written parts, was completely up to the individual teachers.  Sometimes, she was punished if she brought home bad grades, as if simply being intelligent could make up for slow visual processing.  Needless to say, she was not included in the in-crowd of the time either.

But Joanne was a survivor.  I did not know her well during my younger years, but was told that she enjoyed the occasional church or choir outing.  On those occasions, she was known to tell ghost stories, or pull pranks on others.  Once she showed up in costume and sang an operatic aria.  After her parents were gone, she managed alone in a 3 bedroom house, for many years.  She gathered together a hodgepodge of people willing to run errands, do laundry (once she was no longer able to do that herself), carry our the garbage, and bring in groceries.

Now one person at her service described her as accepting of her lot in life.  I did not see her that way.  Maybe it was because my mother was one of the people she would discuss her faith with.  She believed in God, but sometimes questioned His love for her, especially as her vision deteriorated to the point where she was completely blind, despite all that doctors could do for her.  From things my mother told me, and also things she said during the years when I would do grocery runs for her, I saw her as being something like the biblical Jacob, wrestling with God.  It is certainly nice to think of her finally being free of her physical limitations and in the presence of God.

Joanne was a picky eater, in a very unique way.  Those who shopped for her had to learn which things she liked.  First of all, she ate no poultry at all.  So you had to read labels and make sure there was no turkey or chicken included in her frozen meals.  In addition, unlike many older people, she liked things spicy.  She ordered spicy salad dressing, mexicorn, hot chili, and loved it when I stumbled upon some jalapeno bagels. Other than that, she could hardly survive without her daily dose of citrus fruits.  I have to wonder if she thought all the institutional food in her last couple of years was actually killing her.  When someone bought her the wrong thing, she would pass it on to the next provider she thought could use it.  Usually that was me and there were times I passed things on in turn to one food collection drive or another, at least if it was non-perishable.

Joanne was a real character, and I was honored to know her.

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Vernon left us much too young.  I met a lot of people in my junior college choir.  Many of them were dedicated christians.  It was kind of a shock to me when I got to the university and found singers who were only rarely people of faith.  There, most of the singers were handpicked for the school, though anyone could try out for the concert choir.  I suspect there was often a bit of ego involved.  But in junior college, most of us were singing for the glory of God and our own love of music.

Now Vernon was a big black guy, with the world’s most disarming smile.  I truly believe he hadn’t an enemy in the world, because he could charm them right into being his friend.    Everyone liked Vernon.  Besides being in choir, he also led the cheerleading squad, though I didn’t attend the games, so I never saw him in action.  I was told he was high energy, and constantly in motion.  Outside of school, he had his own band, where he played piano and sang.  They did gospel performances all over town.  Mostly they performed in churches, but I spotted a picture of him at the fair a couple of years ago, from back in the 70s.

I wouldn’t say that I was one of his close friends particularly.  But I did work downtown during my 20’s.  At that time, Vernon was playing gigs at the Padre hotel, and I  ran into him a few times.  The first time I just threw my arms around him and gave him a big hug.  He was the kind of guy that made you feel like that.  I didn’t think that playing in a bar was really the right kind of job for him, but he was also directing a choir wherever he went to church, so it didn’t concern me too much.  We were twenty-somethings, working lousy jobs, trying to make ends meet and hoping to find our ways to something better, more suited to us.

After a while, he disappeared, or perhaps I stopped seeing him because my job moved me away from downtown.  I’m not sure, but when I ran across him next, he was living in North Carolina.  He was called Elder, and ran the music program where he went to church.  And he had written a song that was picked for a special performance in Washington D.C.  I thought, wow!  I really know a celebrity, or at least I knew him way back when.  I sent a congratulatory e-mail, which didn’t rate a reply.

And now, just 4 years later, he’s gone.  The world has lost a talented musician.  It has also lost someone who spread love wherever he went.  He was one who truly demonstrated the love that Christians were once known for showing to the world.  He will surely be missed!

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A Different Kind of Lenten Fasting

We are about a week from the start of Lent this year.  Now, traditionally we would all be thinking and discussing what we should give up for Lent.  I’m not from a faith tradition that actually gives up food every friday, though that is one option.  Most of the time we pick something, like chocolate, or tv, or even facebook to forego during Lent.  It’s meant to help us focus on Jesus, as we are reminded of His sacrifice every time we make our own small sacrifice.  But this year our church is having small bible study groups for Lent, so we should be giving up a given amount of time each week, and hopefully spending more time in the Bible.

Now we have had classes before, and this is a little different.  But the topics themselves are pretty basic, at least for someone like me who has done a lot of bible reading, and in depth study for decades.  I’m also already part of two or three small groups at church, so I see this as yet another thing aimed more at those who aren’t part of the 10 percent of those who go to classes, lead worship, contribute food for potlucks, etc.  I will be part of a group, mainly because one is being held on our side of town that will fit into our schedule.  But I started thinking, maybe I should have some sort of fast anyway.

So, I was trying to decide whether to skip a meal or two on fridays, or to give up chocolate, which is actually quite difficult for me.  A verse, more of a fragment, popped into my head and forced me to dig through the concordance of my study bible until I found it.  It’s quite famous actually, from Isaiah 58.  The snatch I remembered started with loosening the bonds of the oppressed.  Of course, in context, there is a lot more, including a condemnation of those who exploit their workers, are quarrelsome or violent, then expect God to hear them simply because they are fasting.

Okay, I’m not sure what to do with that part.  I don’t have a business, so I don’t see how any of it applies.  If you do, you might want to look at how you treat your employees.  Perhaps a fast from saying whatever pops into your head might be appropriate.  But I was led to the next part, the part that was famous for being motivation for the civil rights movement, and for activist priests in South American dictatorships.  Somehow though, I don’t think I’m being called to start some movement against injustice.

How about untying the cords of a yoke, setting the oppressed free and breaking said yoke?  I know the picture here is of a draft animal, and unhitching them from the plow or whatever.  But setting the oppressed free obviously refers to people.  I’m not at all sure I know who the oppressed are here.  I know the verses typically have been used to justify setting large groups of people free from oppressive regimes.  There is no shortage of oppressive regimes around the world, but I don’t think God is calling me to go to North Korea or the Middle East for the Lenten season.  Either place could be something to pray over.

Perhaps though, that is the macro interpretation of the verses.  I’m looking for the micro interpretation.  What on earth can I do to set the oppressed free during this Lenten season?  I do have a bit of experience with being freed from oppression myself, in a spiritual sense.  Might this mean, I need to be prepared, should the Lord bring someone along who actually needs deliverance?  It’s possible, though pretty rare in my experience.  Somehow, I suspect God has something else in mind.

I think for now, I will just keep looking at those verses.  I will try to keep my spiritual ears open for whatever the Lord brings my way.  I do think that there are areas in all our lives, where we are bound up, whether by habit, by addictions, by memories that we thought were long dead and buried.  It’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea. I think Lent would be a wonderful time to get free from something that may be tangling up our feet and making life more difficult.

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The Violent Ones

I had not expected to blog about violence at all.  There are plenty of voices out there, in the aftermath of any school shooting, or theater shooting, or terrorist act, or what have you.  Oh, I admit to a comment or two to my facebook friends, but really, what do I have to contribute?  I think semi-automatic weapons probably should be better controlled, as they seem to have no use in hunting or the like.  I’d like to see a major overhaul in how we treat the mentally ill, at least those who scare everyone around them, even their own parents.  And I have never cared for all the violence found in movies and video games, though I admit I was unsuccessful at keeping my own son away from it.  Of course, he pointed out that he was quite capable of distinguishing the game from reality.

None of these positions are big news, and I don’t feel like I know enough to make specific suggestions either.  Last week there was a shooting all of 45 miles away from where I live.  In an interesting twist on all the rhetoric one hears, it proved to be less newsworthy, because the young man in question had access to only a shotgun.  He had to stop to reload after two shots and at that time was talked into putting down the gun by two courageous adults in charge.  That is still not really a reason to post anything though.  Others more knowledgeable than I am have already thrown those things into the conversation.

I have to admit, I don’t really understand violence.  I guess self control was drilled into me from a very young age.  I don’t understand how one can get past childhood without learning that you simply don’t physically harm others, ever, for any reason.  Understand, I’m not justifying bullying.  It was rampant when I was growing up and it caused me much suffering, but taking revenge in a physically violent fashion was simply not allowed.  So when I hear of things like school shootings, I’ve always thought those involved must have been seriously unhinged mentally.  Usually, for those who survive, that becomes the defense- innocent by reason of insanity.

It’s a reason, though not very comforting, because we don’t seem to have any cure for this form of insanity.  They lock these people up after the fact, but it seems like there are always more, like some sort of virus infecting society.  I wish there were some cure that could be applied, but the only one I know involves individuals choosing to follow Jesus.  It’s not something that could be done by inoculation or something like that.  Now if Jesus were here, He would know what to do.  I mean, he took a guy, as crazy and violent as they come and cast a bunch of demons out and gave the guy some clothes and he was healed, just like that!  But then he turned around and let the Jewish leaders and the Romans do violence to Him, even the ultimate violence, which brings us back where we started.

I don’t know what to do, do you?  Imagine my surprise then, when I looked at a friend’s website and he was talking as if you didn’t have to be crazy to commit violence and it could be fixed.  It was all about anger and how people let it take control of them, but with the right tools they wouldn’t have to be angry all the time any more.  Well, he didn’t give away any of the tools on the website, because it’s his job and I guess he would go broke if he did.  But it is certainly hopeful to think that someone actually knows how to teach people the self control they somehow missed when they were growing up.  I wish him great success!

Here’s something else though, and maybe it’s a part of that anger management therapy, I don’t know.  I have found forgiveness to be an absolutely amazing answer to anger.  Like most people, I get angry on occasion, most often when someone hurts my feelings, intentional or not.  God doesn’t let me hang onto that anger and the desire for revenge for very long though.  He keeps saying I have to give it to Him and forgive them.  You and I both know, He tends to offer them mercy instead of holding their feet to the fire. But I find that almost invariably, there is stuff going on with them that I would have no way of knowing.  God knows though, and when I let go of the anger and forgive them, somehow I get healed.  If they do as well, maybe that’s the one thing we can do to counteract all this violence.  What do you think?

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Love the least of these

I often feel frustrated with those who seem to assume we all have interactions with those we would call the least of these, those who are not fine upstanding middle class white people.  I often wonder whether they would even feel welcome in our church.  These are, after all, the people that Jesus hung around with the most.  He healed their diseases, forgave their sins, fed them, preached to them, called some as disciples, advocated for them.  Most of our denominations began by welcoming them.  And yet somehow, after several generations, we seem to forget that we were once the unacceptable.

Sitting at my computer, or behind the wheel waiting to pick up my kids after school, I seldom meet these people.  Some say they wouldn’t be comfortable in our mostly middle class church.  But a few come and sometimes even return, like Robert, who appears homeless when he appears with a shopping cart or bags of belongings, but he really isn’t homeless, though I’m sure he’s poor.

Yesterday, I met someone new.  I came into the fellowship hall and found a man, with sun-darkened skin, sleeping at our usual table.  I didn’t get his name, but I did talk with him a bit when he woke up.  I imagine he came in to escape the unseasonably cold weather we have been having.  Being an introvert, I really couldn’t figure out what to say, beyond good morning.  But he began talking, admitting that he got very messed up on drugs, but now he loves reading the bible.  He was concerned that a wall hanging nearby skipped parts of the relevant verses.  He was right, and quite obviously has read his bible a lot.

I was just a bit on guard when he brought up reading the bible.  We have had people visit us who had very strange ideas about the bible, so such conversations can be awkward.  But he at least listened when I gave a quick explanation of why I don’t think all parts of the bible can be taken literally.  I was aiming at historic, cultural and literary context, but was not at all sure I got my point across.

It was actually just a small conversation, as I had to run off to my class after just a few minutes.  My aim though, was to somehow communicate to him that he had as much right to be there as anyone and to put him at ease.  I suppose some would have gone farther, inviting him to class or something, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that.  I just didn’t want him to say that he came to church and everyone avoided him and no one would talk to him.

We often say that we are a hospital for sinners, not a refuge for saints.  But I hear from those on some of the boards that some of those running things really wouldn’t want us to be overrun with those people.  I think Jesus wants us constantly welcoming people that the world would reject, don’t you?

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