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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

communication and community

In this election cycle I am reminded of a post I wrote five years ago at the time of the NC Amendment One vote. I re-post it in hopes that it will encourage, challenge, and embolden those who read it and desire the best for our community and country.  

The North Carolina Amendment One vote has been on my mind and heart. My heart goes out to all who are personally grieving the outcome of the vote. I have a particular grief as well, a grief over our apparent inability or unwillingness to engage each other productively and compassionately. This was (and still is) nowhere more apparent than online, particularly on Facebook and in comments of various articles and sites. Now before you dismiss this as one more pitch for civility, here’s what I see as the grievous issue: we are fighting a war with each other and we ALL are losing!

Neither “side” on the amendment issue was exempt from this. Even the word “sides” indicates only two tribes: for or against, with the other as the enemy. My Facebook wall was plastered with descriptions of a “war on marriage” and “hateful bigots” and the like. And tragically, these were not only friends of mine, but friends of each other. It’s so easy to post a sentence, label, or ‘like’ something and not have in mind the 100, 200, or 1000 friends it goes out to. I understand that we have strong opinions and feelings, but is that really what we think of each other? What is grievous to me is that we’ve lost the sense of compassion toward the other. Particularly in the last week leading up to the vote, just about every post I saw was some form of bullying (on both sides) – brute exertions of power and force to generate a desired outcome.

“If you don’t vote ____, then you are against God!” (saw that on both sides)
“If you don’t vote ____, then you are against families!” (also saw that on both sides)
“If you don’t vote ____, I don’t ever want to speak or see you again!” (again, both sides)

And this goes out to… all our friends?

I’m not saying that strong opinion or feeling is wrong; it’s not. And I’m not saying that those who lost this vote should not be grieved or even angry; that’s human and natural. What I am saying is that if anger, force, bullying rhetoric, and political enemies are all we can muster, then it’s not going to get better for anybody. If this vote was “tyranny by the majority,” then the opposite vote in another year will be the same in the other direction.

There is a better way. It is simply this: listening and understanding the other deepens community, and that is of benefit to everyone.

I did not post my position on Facebook. What I did do was sit down with the 7-8 people who asked me what I thought and listen, ask questions, and reflect together. I’d like to think they then did the same with 7-8 friends. Some of us agreed; some of us differed; each of us learned and grew in the context of friendship and respect. 

I’ll also go so far as to say that in the context of that kind of conversation, one can actually express far more of one’s deeply held beliefs and opinions than in the kind of salvos I saw regularly on Facebook and other online forums, because if you see me coming already declaring you the enemy, you are either going to fight or run. It turns out that there are a number of complex questions that we need to wrestle with as a society. That’s not going to happen in a tweet or status message. It might happen if we sit down to listen and understand. That doesn’t require you to change your mind or your vote, but it sure helps you put yourself in the other’s shoes, and that is what builds community and a common society.

If you want to know how I voted, let me buy you a cup of coffee.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Round-Up

2015 has been a full and different kind of year. Last year at this time I wrote about finishing renovations, new patterns of exercise and recreation, and looking forward to being fully staffed at church. For both myself and the congregation, 2015 felt like a 'recovery' year from a pretty exhausting 2014. Though that language seems to fit a personal workout rather than the overall experience of a community, it seems apt nonetheless. And where I anticipated being fully staffed early in the year, it was fall before we had new staff in place. (And they are wonderful!)

So as I look back on the year, I see myself leaning back into core ministries of preaching and leading worship, struggling (a bit) to maintain weight and exercise routines, and only rediscovering time and space for recreation and music late in the Fall. So what follows are some highlights of this past year.

Sermon Series: I don't always preach in series, but when I do, I often enjoy the cumulative effect of building on a theme or digging deep into a topic. We had several this year; here are the indices:

  • Holy Habits: the Law as Teacher: patterns and practices God established that still cultivate and develop a healthy spiritual life
  • Tested with Us and for Us: on the benefits of Jesus' humanity to identify with us
  • What is the Good News: a basic look at several aspects of the Christian message
  • Teach Us to Pray (The Lord's Prayer): our longest series by far, we looked at scriptures to understand (and pray) each phrase of the Lord's Prayer
  • Welcome Wanderers: working through Ephesians 2 to see how extraordinary is the gracious welcome offered through Jesus Christ
  • Psalm 24: a three-week study on Psalm 24 that really covers the whole biblical story
  • Advent: a look at the hope, love, joy, and peace of God w/personal testimony
Individual Sermons: three sermons that stood out as "most downloaded" as well as meaningful to me. It is interesting to me that two of them came from our 'number' series early in the year and that the three represent a nice range of interests (spiritual struggle, spiritual discipline, spiritual health).
  1. "40: Waiting on God" (Psalm 37:1-7a, Acts 7:20-36) - three stories of having to wait on God
  2. "10: Tithing" (Deuteronomy 14:22-29; Matthew 23:23-26) - this was the first time I had preached on tithing not during the "stewardship season" of the church; it was a profound text for me to work through
  3. "Fit for What?" (Hebrews 12:1-11) - what does spiritual health look like? and how do we get started?
Testimonies: this was a year of meaningful testimonies shared in and with the church; some are included below; I started to note "this is amazing!" next to them, but they are all amazing and really significant testimonies of God's goodness!
  • Cynthia Roberts (audio link, 7 min) - responding to the question "Where have you seen or experienced the Good News of Christ?"
  • Marty McKenzie (audio link, 5 min) - responding to the question "How have you experienced the HOPE of God?"; Marty shares personal loss and struggle and how hope in God has sustained her
  • Karen Katibah (audio link, 6 min) -  responding to the question "How have you experienced the JOY of Jesus Christ?"; Karen, a senior in college, shares about the uncertainties of graduating from college and the joy she has discovered in following God's leading
  • Cynthia Roberts (audio link, 4 min) - responding to the question "How have you experienced the PEACE of God?"; Cynthia shares about the loss of her mother and God's peace
Music: one of the goals/habits I cultivated in 2014 was trying to regularly write or record music; I called this "Sundays for Singing," trying to post something each Sunday. I certainly didn't generate a post weekly, but it did get the wheels turning again. Here are a few unpolished examples:
  • "Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul" - a worship song by Kevin Twit (Indelible Grace) to a text by Anne Steele; wonderful words for those struggling in this world
  • "Hail the Day that Christ Arose" - an encouraging song by Steve and Vikki Cook (adapted from a Wesley hymn text) about the benefits of Christ's resurrection
I was also excited for my friend, John Duncan, to get a life-long dream up and running in Beathaven. It brings the opportunity of professional interaction, review, and submission of ideas to amateur musicians. I was pleased that John used several of my instrumental tracks (here's one example) in setting up the site and interacting with him around the Beathaven service has spurred some enjoyable musical creativity.
    Health/Fitness - Just a few benchmarks to mark (for myself) where I am. Still running and walking regularly, though I've put some weight back on this year. (here are last year's data also shown +- below). Everything is a little shorter and slower, but still a significant amount of work. Big goals ahead for 2016!
    • Jan-Dec: approx. +5 lbs ...but still down 25 from pre-2013
    • 279 (-61) workouts in 213 (-40) hours
    • 155,000 (-49k) total calories burned
    • 502 (-153) mi. running + 400 (-71) mi. walking = 902 (-224) total miles
    • Longest Run: 10.1 mi. [did this 2x, but no 13.1 runs this year]
    • Fastest Runs:
      • 1mi: 7:59 min/mi
      • 5k: 10:09 min/mi
      • 5mi: 10:07 min/mi
      • 9mi: 11:35 min/mi
      • 10mi: 12:18 min/mi

    Tuesday, December 01, 2015

    refugees, faith, and freedom

    I worked on this post off-and-on for two weeks and was still holding it, thinking I could improve it. And, I wanted to link to numerous articles I had read that I thought were helpful. But, instead, it has just sat in the draft folder for too long. So, I'm posting and will come back and add to it, if so led. I'd rather do that then not ever post it at all. (1.1.15)

    Thanksgiving week, 2015

    Particularly since the acts of terror and loss of life in Paris, the question of how the U.S. will respond to Syrian (and other) refugees in days to come. Rather than speak quickly, I have read widely and pondered deeply because the question of how to respond is interwoven with compassion, faith, religion, politics, nationalism, fear, and many other factors. No one person or article can address the question fully; sadly, many have not addressed the question meaningfully at all, but have added to the problem by circulating false information and (intentionally or not) fanning the flames of fear.

    After pondering whether and what to add to the fray, I want to focus on one particular part of a response and then link to some of the articles and commentary I have found most helpful (and accurate).

    As a Christian and pastor, my first response has to do with faith and the teachings of Jesus, that kind of response has been handled well by others.

    Thought, Speech, and Action

    One meme I continue to see online goes something like this: "If you had a bowl of 1000 smarties and you knew 10 of them were poison, would you eat any of them?" One more accurate and thoughtful response points out that the actually percentage of refugees who have proven to be terrorists is more like .005% AND if you knew that each smartie you didn't eat meant the death of a woman or child, then yes, you sure would take the risk. Another outright lie suggests that "most of the refugees would be 20-something Muslim men of fighting age." Not only is that completely distorted and untrue, but it crystallized for me a point that I have not seen addressed well or at all: that is the distinction between thought, speech, and action.

    In this country, THOUGHTS are our own (at least legally!). We may try to shape and sway them through media and marketing, but at the end of the day you can't read someone's mind and you can't make them think something they don't want to. We also have written into our founding documents that SPEECH is free and protected. There are some limits on that, like shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater, but broadly speaking, free speech is protected and guarded, even when it cuts against deeply held public values. Where we draw the line on stepping "out of bounds" is with ACTIONS. If you break the law (and are caught), you are arrested; there are consequences. That is true of running traffic lights as well as it is of committing treason.

    So, you can think all day long about driving 100 mph on your local Main Street. You can make speeches and publish blogs about your belief that driving fast is okay (as long as no one is hurt). You may run into trouble if your "speech" starts to cross the line into threatening others... that's the gray part. But you will certainly be arrested and punished if you head out to Main Street and put the pedal to the metal.

    I know there are some exceptions to all that, but ponder the refugees for a moment. Are we really ready to say that all should be kept out of the country because some might have thoughts many of us don't agree with? Is that our standard for justice, much less for compassion?

    "But, there are surely some refugees that might harm us!" you say. Well illegal action or definitive intent to commit illegal action needs to be the line, I respond. Think about some other implications otherwise of that "one in a bowl of smarties" meme.

    • I read in the news that some percentage of young black men are in gangs and commit violent crimes. Does that mean we should enact laws against ALL young black men for thought, speech, or for a certain statistical profile?  
    • I read in the news that some percentage of school shootings are by young white men who (often) identify or are described as fundamentalist Christian and/or white supremacists. Does that mean we should enact laws against ALL young white men? against fundamentalist Christians? against white supremacists per se?
    • I read in the news that some percentage of Catholic and evangelical Christians so strongly believe abortion to be sin (and morally equivalent to murder) that some commit criminal acts. Does this mean we should enact laws against all Catholics and evangelicals? against all who identify as pro-life? 
    • I read in the news that some Christians (and Muslims and other religious groups) teach and preach that homosexual sex is a 'sin' and should be considered legally as hate speech. Does this mean that doing so should be a jailable offense?
    It's one thing to be part of the "in-group" and decide that the person you disagree with should be penalized for a different belief. But if you do that based on thought or speech (or only on statistical data!), you are crossing a line that needs to be carefully examined before "they come for you."

    I believe one of the great strengths of our democratic republic is the freedom of thought and speech we have written into the fabric of our society. We forget it sometimes, to our great detriment and moral loss. (Japanese internment, McCarthyism, etc., etc...)  So, in addition to the many other good reasons to welcome men, women, and children who are fleeing horrific torture and death, let us not forget the very freedoms we cherish  as we wrestle with protecting the freedoms we cherish.

    Thursday, October 29, 2015


    I was recently quoted in an article by Jodi Craiglow entitled, "Is there hope for PCUSA evangelicals today?"  I thought I would bump my old article to the top of my blogs in case anyone wants to read the quote in its fuller context.

    In mid-January 2012, Moderator Cynthia Bolbach and a group of other ruling and teaching elders posted a video entitled, "Hope for the PC(USA)."  They invited others in the church to share with the church why we believe "this to be the beginning, not the end, of what God has planned for us."  What follows is my answer to that invitation...

    I have great hope and conviction that God is alive and well and at work in this world in which we live. That was just confirmed in person as I sat at the corner coffee shop and had a conversation with the manager who has become a friend, who shared some of her own personal burdens, the help she gains from her recent faith, and her desire to follow God's leading in her work and life. That she had no church background or desire to know God did not stop God from pursuing and finding her. Thankfully. Mercifully. Gloriously!

    I have great hope that God is alive and well and at work in the part of the Church called the PCUSA. I see it as I share stories with friends across the presbytery and across the country. For instance, I see it in my good friend's church - a "transformation church" that has struggled to cling to life, battled the prospect of change, and embodies new life in Christ. Despite struggle and tears, even accusations and opposition, I have heard and seen the Gospel of Jesus Christ SHINE through her and those remaining to become God's church in their neighborhood. I see our presbytery responding to a vision of becoming less about institutional maintenance (survival?!) and more about asking what God is already doing through the congregations of our presbytery. Despite resistance to change, guarding of territory, and fear of the unknown, I have seen the Spirit stir and move in and among our presbytery.

    I am not ignorant or indifferent to the challenges before us. John Vest's "Pathos" post was piercingly truthful about the ways we fail and fall short. But my hope is not pinned to institutional "success," human merit, or theological position. Honestly, I have been disappointed by people all across the theological spectrum; I have also been greatly encouraged, challenged, and witnessed to by people all across the theological spectrum. People are people... and they sure aren't God. My hope comes from a conviction that God's ability to move, work, help, and save is not dependent on human success or faithfulness. That doesn't let us off the hook in terms of faithfulness or obedience, but it sure keeps me from becoming hopeless.

    Finally, I have great hope because of my own congregation and ministry. And lest that seem obvious or self-promoting, that hope comes precisely because of my own keen awareness of my limitations and failures. One of the ways I describe our congregation is "ordinary people; extraordinary God" - and I mean every bit of that. There is nothing I would deem good or bad, faithful or unfaithful, Jesus-centered or wayward as Hell, in the denomination that I don't also encounter in my own congregation and my own life. And God keeps showing up, stirring us up, calling us back, cleaning us up, and sending us out under the Word, sealed in the Spirit, and following the Son.

    Thankfully. Mercifully. Gloriously!

    Wednesday, September 23, 2015

    ::SCOTLAND ROUND-UP:: [repost]


    A trip to Scotland in summer of 2014 was enjoyable and wonderful in and of itself; it also occasioned significant reflection, as demonstrated in a number of blog posts. Here is an index of those posts.

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