A Man Without A Church

Devotional:

Psalm 82.3-4

Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

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I have shared on a number of occasions that one of my favorite writers is the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I was introduced to his novels and short stories when I was in middle school and quickly read through everything he published. I know that it can sound strange to hear that Vonnegut is one of the favorite writers of a pastor since he basically loathed organized religion and spoke avidly of his own humanism. To quote, “We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.” 

And yet, some of Vonnegut’s thoughts on the church speak, to me, a better truth than is often heard in the church. In his writing and speaking he could both critique and admire the church in a way that is instructive and ultimately productive. 

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Vonnegut died in 2007 two weeks before he was scheduled to speak in his home town of Indianapolis for an event celebrating his life and achievements. The speech he wrote for that event was the last thing he wrote before he died and it contains a lot of his more memorable contributions to the literary ethos. However, there is something in the speech that does appear anywhere else in Vonnegut’s corpus, to my knowledge:

“I got a letter a while back from a man who had been a captive in the American penal system since he was sixteen years old. He is now forty-two, and about to get out. He asked me what he should do. I told him: ‘Join a church.’ And now please note that I have raised my right hand. And that means I am not kidding, that whatever I say next I believe to be true. So here goes: The most spiritually splendid American phenomenon of my lifetime wasn’t our contribution to the defeat of the Nazis, in which I played such a large part, or Ronald Regan’s overthrow of Godless Communism, in Russia at least. The most spiritually splendid American phenomenon of my lifetime is how African-American citizens have maintained their dignity and self-respect, despite their having been treated by white Americans, both in and out of government, and simply because of their skin color, as though they were contemptible and loathsome, and even diseased. Their churches helped them do that.”

These words, in fact some of the last words from Vonnegut, are all the more striking when considering the fact that he hailed from Indiana which, when he was a kid, contained the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, and was the last state to have a lynching of a African-American citizen north of the Mason-Dixon Line. 

At its best, the church has been the place in which justice was given to the weak and orphaned and where the rights of the lowly were maintained. The church has, at times, rescued the weak and needy by delivering them from the hand of the wicked.

But, at its worst, the church has been the place where injustice has rained down like waters, where the marginalized have been further marginalized. 

It was not that long ago, all things considered, when African-Americans were forced to sit in the balconies of churches rather than with everyone else. It was not that long ago that Martin Luther King Jr. declared 11am on Sunday mornings to be the most racially segregated moment of the week. The prejudices of the past are still very present here in the present.

Vonnegut often described himself “a man without a country.” But reading his last bit of writing makes me wonder if he was actually “a man without a church.”

For if the church is not the place where justice is present, where the rights of the lowly are maintained, and the weak and needy are delivered, then what in the world are we doing?

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Our Independence Day

Psalm 30.4

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. 

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I was 8 years old when the movie Independence Day was released in theaters. At the time it was all anyone could talk about – the special effects, the story-telling, Will Smith saving the world. And yet, the thing I remember most about seeing the movie back in 1996 was Bill Pullman’s rallying speech as the President and his now infamous line: “Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

I know for a fact that I, along with every young person in the theater, lifted my fist into the air in patriotic solidarity.

In a few days, Americans across the country will bring out all the red, white, and blue that we can muster and we will fill the sky with fireworks. We will be celebrating our declared independence from the monarch of Britain which inevitably led to the Revolutionary War and the  foundation of the United States of America.

The 4th of July is always a spectacle to behold because it encapsulates so much of what America stands for: freedom, fireworks, and food!

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And behind all of the three-color-coded outfits, the backyard barbecues, and the displays of pyrotechnical achievements, the 4th is all about strength. It’s all about displaying and rejoicing in our strength in the realms of economy, military, and even freedom itself.

However, on the 4th of July, while many of us will be out in the community celebrating America’s independence, it is important for Christians to remember that our truest independence came long before George Washington and the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence.

Out truest freedom comes from Jesus.

Can we get all dressed up in red, white, and blue this week? Of course – though we should remember and recognize that there is a slippery slope between patriotism and nationalism that often results in xenophobia and violence.

Can we support our military? Or course – though we cannot forget or ignore how America is an imperial power that often uses violence indiscriminately and disproportionately through the world.

Can we kick back and enjoy the fireworks? Or course – though we cannot let them blind us to the injustices that our taking place within, and right on, our borders.

The 4th of July is not the independence day for Christians. It certainly marks the beginning of a new kind of freedom for a nationstate, but the real independence day for Christians took places 2,000 years ago on the cross.

The 4th of July, therefore, does not really belong to Christians. We can participate and enjoy the day as much as everyone else but we do so know that our hopes and dreams have been formed by the Lord, not by a document declaring our freedom from monarchy.

What we experience across the country as we mark a new year in the life of the nation is fun and full of power, but it will never ever compare to the grace of Jesus Christ made manifest in the bread and wine of communion and in the water of baptism.

Americans might bleed red, white, and blue, but Jesus bled for us so that we wouldn’t have to.

The 4th of July is not our independence day. In fact, if it is anything, it is our dependence day. It is our dependence day because it shows how much faith and hope we put in things made by human hands which, to use the psalmist words, can come and go like the wind. 

We can absolutely enjoy the 4th of July and rejoice in our celebrations, but if what we do this week is more compelling and life-giving that the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ then we have a problem.

In Jesus Christ we discover the end of all sacrifices, particularly those demanded by countries of their citizens.

In Jesus Christ we meet the one in whom we live and move such that we can rejoice in the presence of the other without hatred, fear, or even bitterness.

In Jesus Christ we find the incarnate Lord whose resurrection from the dead brought forth a light into this world that outshines all fireworks.

Freed For Slavery

Devotional:

Galatians 5.1a

For freedom Christ has set us free.

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“No one in the church is going to tell me who I’m allowed to love.” 

I heard the off-hand comment from a stranger in the convention center during the recent Virginia Annual Conference of the UMC. I only needed to take a look at his shirt, covered in rainbows, to get an idea of what he meant with his words. There were a lot of people like him this year, walking around making their thoughts/opinions/theologies known with clothing, words, and with particular votes. 

A friend of mine described it as the “height of tribalism” in the UMC in which we are all constantly trying to make sure everyone else knows how we feel about everything.

Or, to put it another way, we want everyone to know whose side we are on.

It was also during the recent Annual Conference that I happened upon what appeared to be the end of a fight. Two women, of similar ages, were vehemently arguing with one another in the middle of a hallway with lots of finger pointing and eye-rolling. I started walking toward them preparing myself to separate them or, at the very least, try to mediate but then one of the women said to the other. “You’re free to have your opinion, but so am I, and you’re wrong.” And with that she promptly turned around and walked away. 

“For freedom Christ has set us free,” says St. Paul. And we love our freedom. We love being able to say, do, and believe just about whatever we want without anyone interfering. We spend a lot of time talking about freedom whether its in the cultural ethos, Sunday worship, or in national holidays.

Freedom is who we are.

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And yet, freedom implies that we have been freed from something and for something.

In the US we talk about being freed from tyranny, or being freed from oppressive rules about religious observance or non-observance. And all of that is true. But that’s not necessarily the same kind of freedom that’s at the heart of the gospel. 

Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” And in the next verse he continues his thought in a way that most of us would rather ignore: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

In the church today, we are so often obsessed with freedom that we forget that we’ve been freed from sin and death in order that we might become slaves to one another. And, at times, we are onboard with this theological project so long as we can be slaves to the people we like, or the people we agree with, and the people who look like us.

But what about the other people?

What about the people whose shirts, and bumper stickers, and votes go against our own?

Can we walk away from them or are we chained to them through the love of Christ?

Back To The Bible

Psalm 97.7

All worshippers of images are put to shame, those who make their boast in worthless idols; all gods down down before the Lord. 

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Every once in a while Christians get hooked on what we might call “going back to the Bible” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; who wouldn’t want the people of their church to start reaching out to the last, least, lost, and little?

And yet, not all biblical ideas are equal. 

For instance, there is a a fad currently going around to begin having a biblical diet. Those who adhere to it follow Genesis 1.29 in which humans are told they are allowed to eat herbs and their seeds as well as fruits, nuts, grains, and legumes. 

Others try to incorporate biblical ideas into their life by not wearing clothing with more than one fabric, or by making sure that women do not wear make-up, or any other number of biblical rules/laws.

Perhaps one of the strangest biblical ideas as of recent that has come back into vogue is Noah’s Ark. 

On July 7th, 2016 Ark Encounter was opened to the public. It is a biblically themed adventure park in Northern Kentucky and is centered around a large representation of Noah’s Ark based on the proportions as outlined in the book of Genesis. For just under $50 you can enter the ark and see it from the inside (for another $25 you can enter the museum that describes and displays “biblical history”). 

The Ark was in the news recently for reasons that can only be described as ironic.

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After experiencing slightly above average rain fall, a barrier next to the park’s access road failed in response to a small mudslide, and now the park is suing its insurance company for the repairs.

Apparently, the replica of Noah’s Ark can’t handle a little rain.

The psalmist warns that those who worship and boast in idols shall be put to shame. We finite and fallible creatures can’t seem to shake our desire to create things in our own image, and most of the time for a profit. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to explore “the most authentic full-size replica of Noah’s Ark in the world.” However, we can certainly call into question whether the creation of such a theme park was done to turn a profit, or to educate those who call themselves Christians about God’s willingness to never again destroy the world as was done so long ago. 

Going back to the Bible is a good thing. For whenever we open our Bibles we are invited into a strange new world in which we discover more about who we are and whose we are. We can stand with Noah looking out over the flood waters waiting for the dove to return. We can imagine the warmth of the flame from the burning bush with Moses hearing his call from God. We can picture the cross standing empty to the sky knowing that the tomb is empty.

It’s all right there in the Bible – we don’t have to go to a theme park to find it. 

On Being Nice

Devotional:

Luke 19.39-40

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” 

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was murdered 74 years ago today.

Many Christians know of his life and work, particularly his outspoken preaching against the nationalistic leanings of Germany that led to the rise and power of Adolf Hitler. Many Christians know that he was arrested for his work and was executed one month before the surrender of Nazi Germany. And because Christians know of his harrowing bravery and conviction his life is often displayed as this quasi unattainable example.

The challenges faced by Bonhoeffer are very different from those faced by Christians today. The primary conflict upon which Bonhoeffer worked was against Hitler and the Nazis. It’s hard to imagine such a profoundly clear example of evil. It was dangerous to speak against the status quo in his home country, so dangerous that it got him killed, but as a Christian Bonhoeffer had little choice but to say and do what he said and did.

Today we live in a very different world and we are unsure who our enemy is, or even if we have one. 

Everything is far more complicated.

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During Bonhoeffer’s life, part of the problem stemmed from the church’s desire to be everywhere which led to it being nowhere. It stretched itself so thin and became so common place that it no longer stood for anything. Moreover, the desire for the church to be everywhere led the church in Germany to turn into the world without the world looking more like the church.

Which is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the only German pastors who spoke out against what was happening – the church was so intricately tied together with the nation-state in which it found itself that the two largely became one.

In August of 1933, 12 years before his death, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his grandmother. In it he opined that the church was changing so rapidly that it could no longer be reconciled with Christianity. He then suggested to her that “we must make up our minds to take entirely new paths and follow where they lead. The issue is really Germanism or Christianity, and the sooner the conflict comes out in the open, the better. The greatest danger of all would be in trying to conceal this.”

When the crowds cheered for Jesus during his entry in Jerusalem the Pharisees begged him to quiet them down. To which Jesus memorably replied, “Even if they were silenced, the stones would shout out.” 

At the heart of Christianity is a willingness to speak, and in particular to speak about Jesus. 

So too, in Bonhoeffer’s life he reminded those who follow Jesus again and again that the preaching of Christ and the celebration of his crucifixion and resurrection makes possible lives that can point out and identify the the lies that threaten our lives.

One of the greatest temptations in Christianity today (particularly in America) is the desire to appear nice. We avoid saying anything of real consequence out of fear that too many feathers will be ruffled – such that we are stretching ourselves so thin that we’re no longer know what we stand for. 

So perhaps as we prepare to follow Jesus’ on his way into Jerusalem, it is good for us to be reminded that Jesus wasn’t killed for being nice, and neither was Bonhoeffer. 

Nothing New

Devotional:

Isaiah 43.19

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 

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On Saturday morning I will meet with a small group of people to baptize the daughter of one of my oldest friends. It will be its own worship service with scripture and prayer, song and sermon, and sacrament and silence. The occasion has been in the works for quite a long time and I count myself blessed for being invited into the midst of it.

As I hold that precious baby girl in my arms on Saturday, I know that I will have to hold back the emotions that will undoubtedly well up within me and I will be immediately transported back to a year and a half ago when I stood in a very different place, but doing a very similar thing, when I married that girl’s parents together. It’s no accident that the movements and vows of baptism are intricately tied together with the covenant and celebration of marriage. And for me to know that I was there, and will be there, for these two holy events is nothing short of a miracle.

And yet, for all the newness of the occasion(s), I am reminded that God really doesn’t do anything new. At least, not in the way we think about it. Sure, there will be a newish child, she will enter a new period in her life, her parents will (have to) come to grips with the fact that their daughter will be baptized into the resurrection and death of Jesus. 

But that’s not actually new.

All that truly matters has already happened, once and for all, by the Lamb slain before the foundation of the cosmos. The baptized, and those who gather with her, might be unable to believe this or even faintly grasp it, but it doesn’t really matter. 

Baptism isn’t about what we do. It’s not about what we believe. It’s not even really about the person being baptized.

It’s about what has been done for us.

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In baptism, we affirm that through the water, and through the work of Christ, that we’ve already been forgiven for the sins we’ve committed. The thing done for us also conveys the forgiveness of the sins we’re committing right now. And it even forgives us for a whole lifetime of sins to come!

To me, baptisms have to be one of the strangest and most beautiful things we do within the work of the church because they powerfully proclaim the gift of grace and all of its unmerited qualities. We currently live in a world so consumed by what we consume that we fool ourselves into believing that all the stuff we’re doing earns us something – both tangible and intangible. 

And yet God, in all of God’s wondrous knowledge, chose to make a way where there was no way, chose to do the one last new thing, through the person of Christ in whose baptism we share.

And, best of all, it’s true whether we perceive it or not. 

Dis/grace

Devotional: 

Joshua 5.9

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. 

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Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.

Or do the saying goes.

The Israelites have wandered and wandered and they finally make it to the Promised Land. An entire generation has passed and even Moses himself is buried in the ground before God’s people make it to the land of milk and honey. Joshua, ever mindful of faithful leadership, marks the place of their transition from the past into a new future, and the Lord said, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.”

Not when the horse and the rider where overwhelmed by the rushing waters of the sea.

Not when the plagues rained down upon the Egyptians.

Not when Moses struck the rock in the wilderness and brought forth water.

The stone of disgrace is rolled away only when they finally make it to where they were going.

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And even in this powerful moment of newness, they are reminded of what took place back in Egypt. This is a reoccurring theme in the biblical witness, not just what happened in Egypt, but reminding God’s people what God did for them. 

We are tied to our histories whether we like it or not.

And in this moment God says, you are bound to your history, but you are not defined by it; today I roll away the disgrace.

Ten years before the Civil War took place in the US the Methodist Church split over differing theologies about slavery. Many/Most of the Methodist churches in the north believed that it was ungodly to maintain the institution of slavery where many/most of the Methodist churches in the south believe that slavery was instituted by God. 

The Methodist Church did not come back together until the 1930s.

That is part of the history of Methodism, a history that many of us would rather ignore or forget. Particularly in the state of Virginia, there are a good number of churches that were around when the split took place and they proudly display which version of the church they chose to identify with. 

We are bound to that history, but we are not defined by it. God is still pushing us into new places with new ideas and new theologies. Some of our Moseses will be buried in the past and new Joshuas will have to stand to lead us into places unknown. 

But we cannot forget who we were, otherwise we are doomed to return.