The South Beach Adventure Begins

So… at the advice of my doctor, I am starting an adventure this week.  And by “adventure”, I mean “diet”.

I know that it might seem odd that I am actually a little excited about this new venture, but I am.  I am beginning Phase 1 of the South Beach Diet this week.  This should be the hardest part of the whole thing, since I am not allowed to have any grains or fruits for (at least) the next 2 weeks.  After that, I will be able to enjoy whole grains and such in moderation.  It is really all about making realistic changes in my diet (ones that I will actually stick with) – and I’m pretty sure that I can do that.

Of course… since I’m hyper-aware of what I’m eating (and NOT eating) right now… I have this song stuck in my head…  ;)

An Ode to UNCO

(To be sung to the tune of “Ode to Joy”)

UNCO, UNCO, we adore thee, UN-Conference that we do love;
UNiCOrns, they gather ’round thee, as rain pours from up above.
As we tweet, we crash the servers; we praise God for each smartphone;
Sharing with online observers, seeds of faith that could be sown!

At the typical church conference, famous “experts” lead the way;
But, at UNCO, we’re the rock stars – every person has a say!
Drawing from the wealth of knowledge found within those gathered here,
We hold open-space discussions, live-streamed so that all can hear.

While at UNCO, blessed UNCO, creativity abounds!
Friends and colleagues join together, praising God with joyful sounds.
Breakfast, prayer, and brainstorm sessions, small groups, time to think and share,
Dinner, worship, slight digressions, we place bids on UNCO flair.

Fellows, join the happy chorus, which the UNiCOrns began;
Robot LOVE is smiling at us – every woman, child and man!
Join new ministries created – such as #H2O4All;
Follow fearless, bold risk-takers – join us! UNiCOrns stand tall!

A Response to Those Who Think They Know Me

Yesterday, a friend drew my attention to the “I Choose This Day” materials that have been put forth by the Presbyterian Lay Committee.  I read through all of the materials that are available online, and I am once again saddened that lines are being drawn and walls are being constructed.  And I am especially saddened that accusations are being made about the faith (or lack thereof, according to some) of fellow Christians (or unbelieving non-Christians, according to some).

One of the resources provided by the Presbyterian Lay Committee is a monograph entitled “Can Two Faiths Embrace One Future?”.  Since no portion of the publication is allowed to be reproduced in any way without permission from the publisher, I will simply provide the link here so that you can read the monograph for yourself.  This being said, I would like to address several points that are made in this publication, as they assume to “know” all sorts of things about people like me…when, in fact, I don’t think they really do.

In “Can Two Faiths Embrace One Future?”, the Presbyterian Lay Committee claims that our denomination (the PCUSA) is actually made up of two separate faiths.  They draw this conclusion from how they see Presbyterians answering particular theological questions regarding the following: the identity of the Christ, the authority of Scripture, and the authority of Christ and Scripture in the construction of Christian ethics.  This is not the first time that lines have been drawn or judgments made about the suspected non-Christianity of those Presbyterians who disagree with the Presbyterian Lay Committee, and I’m sadly convinced that it will not be the last.  But I do not appreciate people accusing me and others of not being faithful Christians simply because we do not talk about God in the same way or take stands on the same theological issues in the same ways… Let me be more specific:

1.  I believe, wholeheartedly, in the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Simply put, I stand by the vow I made at my ordination and by the faith I declare practically every Sunday in the recitation of each and every word of the Apostles’ Creed.  I believe Christ when he says to Thomas “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  I believe Christ when he says “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”  I also believe Christ when he says “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  And I believe that, despite our best efforts, we who are the created will never know the mind of God — and to claim that we can (or do) know the mind of God makes us guilty of idolatry.

2.  To quote one of the vows that I took at my ordination, I “accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word” to me.  As I have stated before on this blog, I do my utmost to read Scripture in ways that are faithful to our denomination’s statements from 1982 & 1983: Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture and Biblical Authority and Interpretation.

3.  I am guided and led by Christ and by the Holy Spirit as God speaks through the Living Word of Scripture in everything that I do.  Likewise, I am guided by the confessions of our church.  To paraphrase another of the vows I took at my ordination (and have renewed at each installation), I seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love my neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world – and I do this to fulfill my promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church.  On many issues, the conclusions that I stand beside and those the Presbyterian Lay Committee stand beside are seemingly at odds with one another.  Like our brothers and sisters of the Early Church, there are issues of which we are not all of one mind.  But, while the Presbyterian Lay Committee seems to say that our differences cannot be tolerated and we cannot be the church together, I believe that God calls us to serve together as the Body of Christ despite our differences.  In fact, I believe that God commands us to do this as a living witness to the grace that we have been given by Christ Jesus.

In their publication, the Presbyterian Lay Committee makes a reference to our Book of Order.  Specifically, they refer to one sentence out of the section on “The Historic Principles of Church Order“, and they relate it to a passage from 1 Kings 18.  The sentence they use is the second sentence of this passage:

“That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it (G-1.0304).”

I stand by what is written here in our Book of Order.  But I have to wonder why the Presbyterian Lay Committee seems so eager to dismiss what is said in the very next few sentences in the Book of Order (presented here, emphasis mine):

“That, while under the conviction of the above principle we think it necessary to make effectual provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other (G-1.0305).”

It is easy to walk away from one another.  It is easy to point fingers.  It is easy to make assumptions.  But, loving one another — especially when that means loving those we perceive as our enemies — is hard.  But, regardless of the level of difficulty, God calls us (commands us, really) to love one another.  We are called to recognize and accept that we have been made one in Christ Jesus — like it or not.  Personally, I like it.  I am forever thankful that Christ has seen fit to bring us together through the call of his Spirit and the power of his sacrifice on the cross.  I regret that there are those in the church who believe that we must be separate because of our differences.  I pray that we might be empowered by God to seek reconciliation — that we may be a more faithful witness to the forgiving love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ together.

Sheep, Goats, and the Return of Christ – A Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46

How many of you have ever seen a Where’s Waldo book?  In these books, there are overly detailed illustrations – so there is a lot to take in.  And somewhere in the picture is a little guy in blue jeans and a red and white striped shirt and hat named Waldo.  It is the job of the reader to find Waldo – wherever he may be.

In the parable that we heard this morning in our reading from Matthew’s gospel, the Son of Man gathers all of the people of all the earth together, in the same way that a shepherd gathers its flock of both sheep and goats.  The Son of Man – the king – separates the sheep and the goats, and then addresses each group.  And what do we discover?  It turns out that the people have all been playing a giant game of Where’s Waldo, and they didn’t even know it!  The king has been in disguise – hiding in surprising places, waiting and wanting to be found.

So the king turns to the ones on his right hand and says, “Come on!  The kingdom is yours, for you fed me when I was hungry, you gave me something to drink when you saw that I was thirsty, you welcomed me like a friend, you gave me clothes to wear, you cared for me when I was sick, and you even visited me when I was in prison!  Thank you!”  But the people on the Lord’s right hand say, “When did we do any of those things for you?”  And the king answers them, “Whenever you welcomed the least of these – since they are all part of my family – you welcomed me!”

Then the king turns to the ones on his left hand and says, “How sad that you have chosen to be separated from me!  You cursed yourselves, for you gave me no food when I was hungry, you gave me nothing to drink when I was thirsty, you treated me like a stranger, you gave me nothing to wear, you avoided me when I was sick, and you paid no attention to me when I was in prison!”  But the people on the Lord’s left hand say, “When did we ever see you in need?”  And the king answers them, “Whenever you refused to welcome the least of these – since they are all part of my family – you refused to welcome me!”

Like little children, the ones who were put on the right hand of the king had seen the world as being full of possibilities – not problems.  They didn’t know that the king was wandering about, incognito… and it turns out that didn’t matter!  Apparently, they treated the people they met like royalty no matter who they were or what their circumstances were.  No one was ever seen as being “beneath” them.  And, as a result of that attitude, they discovered – much to their surprise – that they had served the king and his family!

But, like well-meaning adults, the ones who were put on the left hand of the king had seen the world as full of problems.  They didn’t know that the king was wandering about, incognito, either… but maybe it would have changed their attitude if they had known!  Apparently, they treated royalty like royalty…but only when it looked and acted like royalty.  They avoided certain kinds of people, thinking and acting as if only certain people were worth their attention and care; some people were “beneath” them.  And, as a result of that attitude, they discovered – much to their surprise – that they had neglected and rejected the king and his family!

I wonder how many of us read this parable and try to come up with a formula that will ensure that we, ourselves, will be named as a “sheep” one day.  But, searching for a magic formula that ensures that we will find the right people to serve – searching for a formula that ensures that we will discover the King of Kings and serve him, and make sure that we don’t waste our time serving anyone else – is “goat” behavior!  The Lord doesn’t want us to think about all of this as some sort of problem that needs to be solved.  The Lord wants us to see the possibilities that exist.  Life isn’t supposed to be a game where we try to figure out who is who – that isn’t our job!  No, we are called to live life in ways that recognize and honor the possibilities that each person we encounter could potentially be the King in disguise.  The Lord wants us to see and realize that the King of Kings could be anyone we meet.

So… what do we do?  Well, instead of searching for a formula to ensure our being more like the “sheep” than the “goats”, what if we searched for the possibilities?  What if we celebrated the possibility that each person we meet in this life could be Jesus – the King of Kings and Lord of Lords – in disguise?  What if we acted on the possibility that everyone who comes into our lives looking to be welcomed and cared for and loved is actually Jesus?  What would happen if we started treated everyone like royalty, believing that any or all of them could be members of the family of God?

You may have heard that the Rapture was supposed happen yesterday.  You also may have noticed that, well… it didn’t happen.  I’m not going to get into any of the theological reasons why or why not there is or is not a “Rapture” to believe in… We’ll save that for another time… But, let’s consider all of the people who believed wholeheartedly that Jesus was coming back yesterday.  Many of these people spent fortunes to spread the word that the judgment day would be happening this weekend.  Now that it hasn’t happened, can we imagine how they must feel?  It is easy to poke fun – and, many of us have.  But, mocking these people…well…it doesn’t do anything to further the Kingdom of God, does it?

The events of May 21st that were proclaimed by Harold Camping and others didn’t come to pass, it’s true.  But…that doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t among us now.  I can hear Jesus say: I have returned … in the form of the poor, the stranger, the sick, and the suffering.  How you react is your Final Judgment.  Good luck.

I believe that this is our challenge: to put away the false notion that there are some people in this world who are “problems” and therefore unworthy of our care and hospitality.  We need to do away with that notion, and instead embrace the possibilities that God has created.  In this great big jumble of a creation, we know that the Son of God is somewhere among us.  How will we recognize him?  We probably won’t – and that’s part of the fun.  The possibilities of who or where Jesus might be are endless – and so are the ways in which we can serve.  Where will you see Christ today?  How will you welcome the Lord this week?  Sisters and brothers, the possibilities are endless, and the choice is ours.  Let us go forth, embracing the possibilities, to love and serve the Lord!  Amen.

Shaping the Community – A Sermon on Acts 2:42-47

We have talked about the Christian Practice of “Shaping Communities” some before. Larry Rasmussen (in the book, Practicing our Faith) says that “the shaping of communities is the practice by which we agree to be reliable personally and organizationally.” Each and every person has been given different gifts to be shared. Each person is different from the other, so it is vital that the community be shaped in such a way that every person has a place that honors and values the God-given gifts that each one has. And that is what the practice of shaping communities is all about. This practice forces us to answer some pretty important questions about how the community is structured. Who is allowed in, and who is left out? Who gets to speak, and who is told to remain silent? Who is allowed to serve, and who is not? Who is invited to the table, and who is told to stay away? The ways that we answer these questions determine the kind of community that we shape.

Our scripture lesson today gives us a glimpse at some of the ways that the early church sought to answer some of these same questions. It gives us some insight into how the early church sought to shape its community. And what we find in scripture is a group of people who come together, share meals with each other, provide for each others’ needs, and worship together.

This sounds a lot like our community. We come together. We share meals with one another. We help to provide for each others’ needs. And – obviously – we take time to worship together. So, I guess that’s it…right? I mean, our community does what it is supposed to do, right? So we must have this “shaping communities” thing down…

Well, before we get too comfortable with ourselves, maybe we should dig a bit deeper into the scripture lesson. Just who are these people who are coming together to form a community? They are a pretty diverse group, really. There are both Jews and Gentiles in this newly-formed community of believers. These are not people that first century society would expect to see come together and share anything other than, perhaps, a few choice words. These are different people with different understandings of how God is at work in the world. They have different customs and different rituals. And yet, they had all committed to follow Jesus the Christ. The Holy Spirit had come to them – Jews and Gentiles alike.

It is these people – these radically different people – who come together. It is these people with their different customs that share meals together. It is these people with their different theological understandings who provide for each others’ needs. It is these people with their different backgrounds and different rituals who come together to worship. Is it any wonder, then, that the author of the book of Acts describes these actions as “wonders and signs” that were being done by the apostles?! Surely, the Spirit of God was at work in bringing these very different people together to share meals and fellowship with one another!

That was then. This is now. How are we shaping our communities today? How is this church community being shaped? How is the Presbyterian Church being shaped?

I have had the joy of working with several boy scouts and girl scouts over the years when they work to complete the God and Me program. Among the many lessons they learn in that program, they get to explore the many ways in which God speaks to us. God speaks to us in and through the scriptures. God speaks to us through prayers. God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit, speaking to our hearts and minds. And God speaks to us through other people. God speaks to us through other people.

This is a very important lesson for all of us. God speaks to us through other people. It is a lesson that I think the people of the early church must have embraced. Think of it this way: when we purposefully exclude someone, we exclude that which God wants to say to us through that person. Let me just let that sink in a bit… When we purposefully exclude someone, we exclude that which God wants to say to us through that person. Unfortunately, we tend to exclude more often than we include in the church. It is easy for us to listen for God’s voice in the voices of those people who are just like us. We are comfortable hearing those messages. But we struggle to be open to the voices of people who aren’t like us. Maybe it is because we are afraid of what God may want to say to us through people who make us uncomfortable. Maybe we doubt that God could have anything valuable to teach us through people that we think are unworthy. But still, the fact remains that whenever we exclude someone, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn what God wants to say to us and our community through that person.

The people of the early church didn’t always see eye-to-eye on everything. But they recognized that it was important to come together despite their differences. It was important for them to provide for each other, even though they didn’t always agree. It was important to lay their differences aside and break bread together.

In worship this morning, we are going to break bread and share a meal together. We shape our community around this table. This is where we gather to practice together. This is where we are called to listen. Around this table we are called to practice mutual respect for one another. Around this table, we are called to humble ourselves. No one has a better seat than his or her neighbor at this table. Here, at this table to which Jesus has called us, we gather – despite our differences. We gather to break bread together. For, although we are different, we share the same bread. Although we are different, we share the same gift of grace. Although we are different, this community shares the same promises of love and hope through our Lord, Jesus Christ.

How will we work with the Spirit of God to shape this community? How will the God-given gifts of the people be shared? How will we honor and celebrate the ways in which God has created us to be different? How will we seek to listen for God’s Word to us through the voices of others? Let us come to the table, and let us practice and learn together.

In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and Sustainer of us all. Amen.

A Message From The Moderator

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A New Day For The PCUSA

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had (finally) approved changes in ordination standards! We are another step closer to genuine equality in the church! Praise God!!!

Maybe now we will begin to truly believe that God’s gift of grace that is made known to us in our baptism is truly sufficient…because, baby…we were born this way…

On The Threshold Of Equality

In 2008, I served as a commissioner to the 218th General Assembly of the PC(USA). I worked with the Church Orders and Ministry Committee, which was the committee that considered amendments regarding G-6.0106b. That year, the General Assembly passed the amendment that became known as “Amendment 08-B”. While it was being considered in committee, it was known as “Item 05-09″. This proposed amendment would have changed the language of G-6.0106b in the PC(USA)’s Book of Order, moving us closer to real equality in the church.

I moved for its approval in committee (and voted for its approval on the floor of the Assembly), so I was really disappointed when it was not ratified by enough presbyteries to pass.

Many of us in the PC(USA) have been fighting to get the language of G-6.0106b either changed or removed from our Book of Order for years now — ever since it was added to the Book of Order in the mid 1990s. Many of us wondered if/when that day would ever come.

Well…that day is finally here!!! Most are now saying that Tuesday, May 10, 2011, will be the day that the language of G-6.0106b is finally changed so that it will bring us one step closer to full equality in the PC(USA).

I will be reflecting on this action in the next several days and weeks. Many people will be excited and happy about the voting results (like me!) — but, others will not… In the meantime, I share these words that I wrote back in 2008:

We are called to trust God in the process – really trusting that God is the one who is in charge. God calls us through scripture to live together, work together, pray together, worship together, and witness together.

I pray that we will seek to live out our calling to live as brothers and sisters in Christ, so that our willingness to look past our differences and declare together that Jesus Christ is Lord can bear witness to the amazing power of the love and grace of God!

Jesus said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35 (NRSV)

When Does Love Win?

>I just finished watching President Obama tell the nation about the death of Osama bin Laden. I must admit that I have mixed emotions about this “achievement”. On the one hand, I feel some relief knowing that a known murderer and terrorist has been eliminated. This is the guy who orchestrated the tragic events of 9-11. This is the guy who regularly celebrated the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Let’s face it — even if he had been captured alive, he would have faced the death penalty for his multitude of crimes. So, knowing that he has been brought to justice is welcome news.

On the other hand, I find myself somewhat uncomfortable with rejoicing over the death of someone — even the death of such a sick, violent, twisted individual as Osama bin Laden. It doesn’t sit well with me to cheer when there are acts of violence. While I understand many consider his death to be “justice”, I can’t help but see it more as vengeance. And as much as I wish that Osama’s death would somehow mean that terrorism is now “done”, I know that just isn’t the case. So, I am hesitant to celebrate…

Now…before the President spoke, the news broke — both online and on the various television news channels. There was a ridiculous amount of speculation on Twitter. But the speculation about what the President was going to talk about didn’t bother me. The “leak” of the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed didn’t really upset me all that much, either. What really bothered me was the words of hate and disdain that were being tossed about between political parties and their supporters…

Please. Someone help me understand how throwing insults is helpful. Someone help me understand how calling people or groups names adds anything positive. Someone help me understand how pointing fingers at people or groups we don’t like or agree with is ever going to get us anywhere. Someone, please, help me understand how violent, hurtful words answer God’s call to love one another.

Is This what peace looks like? Is THIS what unity looks like? When does love win? When do we dare to truly embrace the command to love our enemies? When do we finally decide to follow the command to bless those who curse us and pray for those who persecute us?

We aren’t always going to agree on how things should be done. We aren’t likely to agree on who should (or shouldn’t) get the credit for things that happen in the world. And God knows that we aren’t all going to agree on which people to vote for or which news channels to watch. But I pray that maybe — just maybe — we who call ourselves Christian might figure out a way to agree on the importance of showing respect to one another — even when (and maybe, most importantly) we disagree so passionately about other things. If we can find that way… If we can dare to respect one another… If we can refrain from the temptations of violence and vengeance…then maybe…love can win…

Our Heyday Is Yet To Come

>One of the scripture lessons that is often read on Easter Sunday – part of the “Easter Vigil” liturgy – is a lengthy passage from Exodus (Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21). In this scripture, we read about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. We all know this scene – Cecil B. DeMille and Charles Heston made it famous. With Pharaoh’s army close on their heels, the Israelites come to the banks of the Red Sea, where it looks as though they will surely be recaptured. But, God instructs Moses to stretch out his hand over the sea – and, when he does, the water is driven back by a heaven-sent wind so that the people can cross the sea on dry land.

It is a great story. But, we might wonder… why it is part of the liturgy for Easter Sunday? I think that – along with the Resurrection stories that we read in the Gospels – this passage from Exodus could possibly be one of the best scriptures to read on Easter Sunday. Like the accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection, the story of the crossing of the Red Sea is a salvation story. These scriptures tell us about God’s desire to save – even when doing so may appear to be impossible. These stories offer dynamic testimony of how God always makes a way when (it seems that) there is no way.

These stories about the Exodus and Jesus’ Resurrection invite us to make a dramatic shift in our thinking. Conventional thinking would suggest that huge bodies of water are always impossible to cross on foot. Conventional thinking would suggest that death is always the end of the story. But when we shift our thinking – when we put on new, Spirit-tinted glasses and we tune in to see what God sees – then we discover that there are more possibilities than we originally thought. Suddenly, there are dry paths made in the midst of the waves. Suddenly, stones are rolled away and new life springs forth where there once was only death.

Without the shift in our thinking – when we are reluctant to wear those Spirit-tinted glasses – we end up slipping into the murky land of “Should-a/Would-a/Could-a”. The Israelites were there for a while, asking Moses why they had left Egypt only to die in the wilderness – faced with the obstacle of crossing the Red Sea, they were quick to abandon hope and suggest that they were better off as slaves in captivity! “We should-a stayed in Egypt! We would-a never faced this kind of hardship there! We could-a been safe – even as slaves.”

Without Spirit-tinted glasses (offered to us through the promise of God-provided salvation), we – like the Israelites – slip into the belief that our heyday is behind us! We might be tempted to look back to the “Church of Yesteryear” and pine for “the good-ol’ days”. But, God (thankfully) didn’t finish working in and with the Church 30, 50, or 70 years ago – if God had finished back then, we’d still be dealing with issues of institutionalized segregation and sexism in the Church!

Thank the Lord that God is still acting! God is still moving! God is still at work! God – through the Word – encourages us to put on a new vision and recognize this fact: because God is at work, our heyday is yet to come.

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