Thursday
Aug212014

Unrest

What is your only comfort?

We go to that line a lot. And it is, understandably so. As a pastor, I have an excessive desire to comfort folks. Even at times, detrimentally so, for myself and for them. As a person, I seek—at least yearn for, if not always seek in a full way—comfort, peace, that all might be copacetic.

But all is not copacetic. All is not peaceful. Certainly, comfort is illusive, comfort for many.

Which is why alongside receiving our only comfort in Christ, we need to also experience more of the tension. Maybe cry a bit more and get angry at the things we ought to get angry about.

That is why I was so moved by a prayer request in a recent article on Ferguson written by the Jeff Chu, incidentally an elder at Old First Church (RCA) in Brooklyn. He quotes the Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ, towards the end of the piece:

I asked Traci Blackmon what people of faith outside of Ferguson ought to pray for. “I want you to pray for justice. I want you to pray for reconciliation. I want you to pray for restoration,” she said. “But I don’t want you to pray for peace. We don’t need peace right now—we need unrest.”

We need unrest.

Do you feel unrest?

It is easy for those within a dominant group to miss the unrest that is so prevalent. Or to label it as other, outside of and distinct from themselves.

Growing up, racism was always overt. Or so it seemed. It was expressed, practiced, and shared often via language and the kinds of words that were used and attitudes displayed. In pleasant company it might be preceded with, “well, I’m not racist but…”

Some months into my first year of college my hometown made the national news. The President of the township’s Board of Trustees scheduled a meeting on Martin Luther King Day. Not a good move. The “stuff” hit the proverbial media fan however when he gave his reasoning. Martin Luther King Day in his estimation was a ``colored'' holiday.

``I apologize if I hurt anybody's feelings,'' he said and went on, ``none of us is colored. It's not going to affect us. Nobody colored comes to the meetings anyway.''

The man who said those words was a good man. But somehow saw King day as completely disconnected from himself.

When do I do that? When do you?

Many good folks also see Ferguson as completely disconnected from themselves.

A recent pew poll shows this:

The new national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Aug. 14-17 among 1,000 adults, finds that the public overall is divided over whether Brown’s shooting raises important issues about race or whether the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves: 44% think the case does raise important issues about race that require discussion, while 40% say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.

By about four-to-one (80% to 18%), African Americans say the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that merit discussion. By contrast, whites, by 47% to 37%, say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.

I’m on vacation right now, visiting friends in central Iowa. I’m seeking some rest, some comfort, some peace. But all that said, I need to feel some unrest too. And to pray that the unrest changes things. And me.

Thursday
Aug072014

Sinning and Running (not necessarily at the same time, but maybe)

I am always impressed when speaking with one of my many septuagenarian or octogenarian congregants and they share something about “working out” or “going to the gym.” I don’t mean to be ageist here but that is not something I automatically think of my friends in their seventies and eighties doing. Frankly, as an almost quadragenarian, it is something I hardly do. I do not go to the gym. Probably should…strength training, a little yoga, some cardio, it would all do me some good, as it does my older parishioners. If I do ever “work out” it’s usually running; but even that is generally done in fits and starts with a few months going well and then something happens and nada for a while. I suppose I’m currently in the “starts” phase. We’ll see how long that lasts.

The reason I have working out on my mind and relate it here—since you doubtless have little interest in my personal exercise habits—has to do with some reflections of late on sin. What could be more reformed that that! Specifically an exchange near the end of our recent Reformed Church General Synod made me wonder why we take sin so personally, while at the same time, not personally at all. Incidentally, while this involves the inner issues of my own denomination, I think the wonderment travels well beyond these particular familial and institutional parameters.

So, there I was in a closing meeting of a specific committee—precise details are really unimportant here—and a Christian brother shared a personal experience that he had had relating to his Lenten journey and sin. During Lent, he had chosen to “give up sin.” Sounds good to me! But some weeks into it, he found himself in an occasion where anger was his immediate response, and low and behold, he sinned. Again, the specific details are not relevant here. Suffice it to say, my Christian brother had chosen to give up sin, but then eventually something happened and he sinned.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over this last month and a half because in so many ways it emulates my own desire in running. I choose to start running. I run. Then something happens and I don’t run anymore.

Obviously, I simply need more discipline. With running, that is. Which I do. Which is also where this metaphor falls so incredibly short, at least as it relates to sin.

It seems, somehow, the notion of sinning, of discipline, of discipleship has all been warped into a paradigm that is similar to a New Year’s resolution—or more spiritually—a Lenten practice of fasting, of giving something up. Which is all well and good but lets be honest, how many people do you know who have given up something for Lent by the third week have made substitution a necessity, elated in Sundays not being officially Lent, or simply broken the fast before its time? Like those New Year’s resolutions that are just about forgotten by February, choosing to give up sin is well and good, but face it, if St. Paul had trouble with it, I doubt you and I will be so stellar.

Which is not to say we ought to keep on sinning. That’s hardly the point! But it is to point out we live in a country where everybody is dieting but nobody’s getting healthier. An exaggeration? Perhaps. The church too, though…

But some of us in the church have an approach to sin that seems to see it entirely as personal choices one makes. Stop sinning. Stop choosing to sin. Great! Ok! But sometimes sin isn’t just personal. Sometimes (all the time?) it’s built into the very structures, systems, and institutions that we are a part of, the powers and principalities, and a How To Manual our faith is not. It’s more complex and complicated than that.

I get why some of my Christian brothers and sisters spend a goodly amount of time worried about particular choices as it relates to sin and behavior. And while I may not agree with you all the time on what the specific sin is, I get where you’re coming from and generally am with you. But often I want to push back and share that we who speak of corporate, structural, institutional, and communal sins such as racism, sexism, and homophobia are not dismissing the personal. Rather, we see the personal as much implicated into the wider body of brokenness. And maybe even more.

And that oftentimes, breaking the power of sin is not simply about giving certain behaviors up and changing one’s habits. It also means engaging in the process of structural changes that include but go far beyond oneself.

Well, these have been my wonderments. Now, I’m off to run.

Thursday
Jul242014

Refuge

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. –Psalm 46:1

Last week my congregation, Trinity, had our annual Vacation Bible School. It’s a big deal here and something we do up right nicely. We’re a small little church and on any given Sunday we’d be happy to have a half dozen kids in Sunday School. But for one week each summer our entire building is transformed to what ever the theme is for the year—this year it was “weird animals” so there was a jungle motif—and children from all over the community—this year, just under 90—come to learn about Jesus and God’s love for them. This incidentally is no humble brag but an outright honest-to-goodness brag. I love how well my folks work together alongside a variety of partners and young people who return as volunteers once they’ve aged out to put this event on. I just wish we did other aspects of our church life, ministry, and mission as well…

A friend on facebook, a colleague whom I have IMMENSE respect for was ranting the other day generally about Vacation Bible Schools complaining that they are a huge volunteer hour sucker, are a sanctified competitive expression between neighboring churches, use shallow theology, and that parents use them as free babysitting. She added the caveat that her attitude was coming from a particularly heavily churched environment (one could read here suburban west Michigan); given a different population demographic and/or geographic location, perhaps these elements would be different (and her cantankerous disposition be abated). I get it and agree. We spend a lot of time and energy that I wonder if it could be used better. The theology can definitely be shallow and often needs tweaking. And certainly, parents do use us as free babysitting. One good we have going for us is we aren’t especially competitive in our locale with VBS as most of the churches don’t offer it. I too worry whether the fun of a week of VBS actually helps form young disciples or merely entertains. Are seeds being planted and faith being nourished? I hope so but I do wonder.

All that said I couldn’t help but be moved myself and have my own faith encouraged by that week working with the kids and volunteers at the Vacation Bible School. It was for me a refuge.

It was a rough week in the world, and I think particularly rough on children. It seems they need a refuge too. Kids playing soccer are being bombed on Gaza beaches. Kids are being shot out of the sky over Ukraine. Kids are running to bomb shelters in Israel. Kids are living in refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan fleeing civil war in Syria. Kids are escaping violence in Central America to be met by welcoming Tea Party members here in the US. Kids are escaping hardship and turmoil in Africa crossing the Mediterranean for a better life in Europe. Obviously, not just kids, but still. And this doesn’t even include the regular everyday issues of domestic violence, child abuse, human trafficking, etc. So in a world like that I think I needed VBS for myself. I needed to see kids learning about God and having fun, playing silly games and all. We all need a refuge.

Even with the constant barrage of media of despair and disaster it can still be easy to tune out, to think of it as “over there.” But over there is connected to over here. In the small talk moving between “Bible Adventure” and snacks a young attendee (he’s probably 10 or 11) was sharing with me about making friends here, and by here I mean in this country. He’s been here about three years coming from Egypt, his family escaping the violence and persecution that much of the Coptic community has experienced in the recent political upheaval. This has been a refuge.

In the middle of the week I had a funeral for another refugee. He and his wife were both from a little village in Yugoslavia but following the turmoil of World War II became refugees, first fleeing to Czechoslovakia, then to Austria, eventually through Germany, and finally here to the States. He was an old man and lived a long and good life.

Where am I going with this? No where in particular. I’m just grateful for refuge, grateful when the church can be a refuge, grateful for God as our refuge.

Thursday
Jul102014

Raspberries and Sowing

This has been a bumper harvest year for my black raspberries! They have done well in our little churchyard space each of the last six years since I planted them but are now finally established in just the right patch. Rooted in well, aided by supportive fencing for their brambles, provided a good amount of sun but not too much they have rewarded me with plump berries for breakfast for weeks now.

It is in the light of a prodigious supply of black raspberries that I ponder and prepare for this coming Sunday’s gospel text in the Revised Common Lectionary which includes the parable of the sower from Matthew 13:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

As is often cited, Jesus used the context of his environment and its agrarian culture to communicate to his people in a way that they could certainly relate: sowers and seeds, sheep and shepherds, figs, wheat, mustard seeds, etc. In our more contemporary season certain details are easily lost, or at the very least, nuances get sorely missed. This is true not simply because the vast majority of the world’s population now live in urban areas, but because even within the rural amongst us, the practices of agriculture itself have developed quite differently. For example I grew up farming and (albeit from a significant distance) still am involved with my family’s operation, but other than reseeding a few patches of lawn grass I can’t recall having ever really sowed as the sower in this passage does, going forth and broadcasting seeds by hand. Obviously, nowadays we have machinery great and small that does that, and it can even tie into global positioning systems and soil analysis to get planting percentages just right.

Which is not to say that people don’t still sow as the sower does, at least generally speaking, in particular wide areas around the globe. They certainly do. But it is not likely that many of the folks in my pews or around you are as intimately familiar with the imagery Jesus is using. Well, duh. Right? This is obvious. But is it? Is it obvious or am I/do we too easily miss what Jesus is getting at? (“Seeing and never perceiving” is left out of the lectionary this week but is located textually in between the parable and it’s explanation.)

On the one hand there is the beautiful absurdity that is so often present in Jesus’ parables. It is absurd that a sower would broadcast precious seeds so widely. That would be an utter waste. Sometimes, this parable is called the parable of the soils, because when it comes down to it in the explanation, it is the contrasting nature of the soil environments that is being noted. Why would a sower waste time and resources upon planting seeds in such harsh environments that they could never take hold? Well, she or he wouldn’t. But also true, the entire environment is rather harsh, or often can be. This is not a rip on the holy land especially, rather an obvious fact of life and farming that the crowds to whom Jesus is speaking would understand. Life can be/is difficult and is often/usually lived out of scarcity and survival. Thus, there is an absurdity interwoven into the story itself, a beautiful absurdity that somehow expresses who God is and God’s reign. It makes me think of the Monty Python line, “blessed are the cheesemakers.” There is truth inside that absurdity. I hope we don’t miss the absurdity.

On the other hand, it seems we also have to be cautious that this agrarian imagery can readily lead to a romanticism that equates much of the message to being quaint, not relatable and easily dismissed or worse, made into something more saccharine than substance, more sentimental than significant. “Oh, the good old days…” Thankful we’re done with them or wanting to return, neither particularly helpful or accurate.

Or I suppose we could also see this all as a Church growth strategy…

I apologize if this may seems more preachy than blogy. I’m wrestling with this for this upcoming Sunday as my congregation and I begin a week of Vacation Bible School, and as I began, in the light of a large harvest of black raspberries. So, what does all this mean?

I’m not entirely sure. But somehow those raspberries are impacting my view of the parable. If you know anything about raspberries, they’re tough. And tenacious. I’ve seen stems that have fallen on concrete root into the cracks. They also excel on the margins of changing environments, picture them for example where a woodlot and meadow meet. They are thorny and delicious. And are often “sown,” at least eventually, but the birds and other critters than eat them. What would Jesus say concerning the raspberry? I’ll continue to ponder. But for now, I’m off to eat them with yogurt.

Thursday
Jun262014

Tensions

There was tension in the atmosphere as General Synod approached, figuratively and literally, with a tornado warning during the delegates’ arrival that necessitated a short break in registration so that folks could be safely moved to lower realms within the buildings of Central College in Pella, Iowa. The storms of weather moved pass quickly but other tensions remained in the air as the opening session began the following day. Shortly after the meeting was called to session new business was brought to the floor to disinvite the minister who was selected as that week’s worship leader. The presiding officer ruled that business out of order (as he was the one to have invited her in the first place) and immediately his ruling was challenged, a vote was taken, and the reality of brokenness and disunity was palpably obvious in the nearly equally divided vote tally. Thus began the 201st Meeting of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America in June of 2007.

Seven years later, once again gathered on the campus of Central College in Pella, Iowa for the meeting of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America the storms were not present, but a certain tension remains.

There is much that could be shared about Synod and the wider church and the various tensions that enliven us—or sicken us, depending upon one’s view. I choose to see it as enlivening. I want to join Joseph in his account of the workings of God recorded in Genesis 50:20, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as God is doing today.” I choose to see the tensions as possibilities to bring about experiences of grace and reconciliation. I haven’t always viewed them as such…

There are particular images that for me have become emblematic of the church and the world in which we dwell. Seven years ago amidst the fraught climate of that particular General Synod meeting I encountered an old college friend and ministerial colleague. We had not kept up in the years following our college days but we were certainly aware of one another’s “presence” in the church. Over the years we had gradually moved in differing directions—in part theologically, more so in how we read scripture and our views social and political. We moved in different “camps” away from one another. (I hate using that word here, but it is accurately descriptive.) We had also grown decidedly discouraged by the direction we saw our beloved church, denomination, going. We were cynical and in good measure untrusting. Still, as is our history in the RCA, we had a relational connection. At one point during that meeting, standing in the back of Kuyper Fieldhouse during a rather dismal plenary session, we found ourselves with an arm around one another’s shoulders—you know, in that side-by-side buddy stance kind-of-way—and chatting about what we should do each believing that the church was apparently going to hell (although in opposite ways). Both being Reformed and having some sort of affection for our polity, we’d become Presbyterian (although obviously, of vastly different denominational affiliation!). It is not the image of this scene, however, of this “unity in our disunity” event that has made a lasting impression on me. Rather, it was the reaction of another friend and colleague walking by, glancing towards us, and reacting almost cartoonishly with a jaw-dropping gasp of surprise. The image of her reaction is what has stayed with me from a very challenging and discouraging synod meeting. And it gives me hope.

My old college friend and I have continued to move in opposite directions. He may just become a Presbyterian yet, or thus is the chatter around the interwebs. But not me. (No offence to the Presbyterians!) Which is not to say I’m no longer discouraged by things that happen in the RCA. I am. Even by our most recent General Synod. But it’s a measured discouragement, no longer brandished with cynicism. I’m also more hopeful. I see God doing something now and over the long haul. So I see my friend who gasped in surprise of two incredibly unlikely characters hanging out as a kind of admonishment on the church. Why should we be so surprised?

There is another image that harkens from the 2007 General Synod that looms largely in my mind. It involves an ecumenical address given to the Reformed Church delegates from a Christian Reformed Church’s representative. 2007 was the actual 150th anniversary of the CRC’s 1857 Secession and the CRC’s representative spoke not a little painfully of the brokenness that imparted to the church. What was plainly obvious however, was that the reason for division 150 years ago were no longer an issue and in hindsight, actually appeared comical. In the same light I wonder about our current tensions, how sadly comical they will appear to those who come after us.

This is not to take away from our current realities, but simply to see them through a different light.

Mary VandenBerg has written earlier on the growing unity between the CRC and RCA here on the Twelve. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, former RCA General Secretary, has also written about it here.

I don’t mean to come across as Pollyannaish. There are significant issues that certainly divide Christians, both between denominations and within them. And not just issues, but pain that has been experienced and that continues to be inflicted by and among sisters and brothers of one Lord, one faith, one baptism. These are real. But I believe precisely because the grace of Jesus Christ is also real that we can do better.