Monday, March 24, 2014

The "No Label" Challenge

Yesterday, if you were following the lectionary, you very likely heard the story of "The Woman at the Well."  Its one of my very favorite stories because it is so challenging when we compare how Jesus reacts to this woman, who by every religious, social, and cultural standard would be considered "beneath" Him.

If you want to hear my sermon, feel free to clickity click HERE.

In this one story, Jesus refuses to apply the same kinds of labels that we might have applied to the woman - "immoral," "slut," "sinner."  He doesn't look down on her because she is the kind of woman that has to draw water at noon, during the heat of the day, so that she won't have to interact with the other people of her village, and hear them snicker behind her back.  He doesn't sneer at her for being a "Samaritan," and therefore racially and religiously "impure."

In fact, Jesus' very presence there, the fact he chooses to pass through Samaria, rather than walk around as many "good" Jews would have makes Him bold.  The fact it is He who initiates the entire conversation, going out of His way to interact with the woman makes Him - well, it makes Him Jesus!  The kind of man who cares less about his reputation than offering healing to a hurting soul.  The kind of man who takes people the same way God does - one at a time.  The kind of man that refuses to label.

Jesus, if He walked the earth today, would never use the words "liberal" or "conservative."  I don't think He would have much of a stomach for "Republicans" or "Democrats."  I doubt very seriously He would care much whether we are "Americans" or not.  Jesus would refuse to use the labels that we use every day to divide ourselves.  He would refuse to treat a person as simply another member of a group.  He would refuse dehumanize by calling someone a label, rather than calling them by their name.

At the end of the sermon, I challenged our church members to take the "No Labels" Challenge.  Will you join us?  Will you try to go 1 day, or 1 week without using any labels.  When you engage someone in conversation, can you speak with them without lumping individuals into nameless groups?

I think we will all be amazed at what happens when we take people one at a time, the people who met Jesus certainly were!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

You Break it You Buy It

Max and Ruby is a sweet little cartoon on Nick Jr. that my son Evan absolutely loves.  Max and Ruby are rabbits, Ruby being the older sister, and Max being the precocious younger brother who is always getting himself into, and out of (by sheer grace and serendipity) big messes.  One episode in particular, Max wants a new T-shirt with a dragon on it, but Ruby has been sent with Max and $5 to be sure that he buys, not a new dragon shirt, but a new pair of overalls.  (Max and Ruby's parents are never around, but Grandma pops in and out to save the day at the end of each episode.)

To make a long story short, Max tries on a Dragon shirt and then is handed a free sample of ice cream, which he promptly spills on his shirt.  This of course means he has to buy the shirt, because, well one thing we all learn and agree to early in life is the old adage, "you break it, you buy it."

Recently in West Virginia and closer to home in Eden, NC, there have been massive spills into rivers which feed local water supplies.  People have been forced to use bottled water, and even now, there is uncertainty about the lasting environmental impact of each of these industrial accidents.

The companies involved should have to pay ever penny for clean-up, every penny for prevention of future disasters, and every penny for any other side effect of community damage, environmental damage, crop loss, hunting/fishing loss, etc.  You break it you buy it.

If anything should unite us as citizens, it should be this very simple principle.

This should be something conservatives demand because if the companies involved are not made to pay, then it proves that government must act to create justice in the marketplace and society.

Liberals should be furious that the regulatory system in place is so lax and limp-wristed that it allowed these preventable disasters in the first place.

Most of all, from my perspective, churches should unite as caretakers of the garden God has given us.  We should unite as people pursuing justice and fairness.  We should unite as people standing up for communities where we live and work and play. 

Now, all of that being said, let's see how it plays out.  Let's see if Duke Power is forced to clean up their mess.  Let's see how the people and the government hold the ironically named "Freedom Industries" accountable for spilling chemicals into a water supply that serves 300,000 people.

"You break it you buy it" should be a universal rule, but I have a feeling that in this era where business interests have managed to politicized environmental watchcare and safety regulations, that neither of these companies end up holding the full bill.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

God's Artwork and the "T" Word

I am preaching through the book of Ephesians right now, in a series called "Dear Ephesus,"  (a little nod to the Christian music scene for those of you who get it).  Sunday, we came to one of my top 5 favorite things written ever, in all of human writing.

"we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." 
  - Ephesians 2:10

Let me show you what it looks like in Greek:  αὐτοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν ποίημα, κτισθέντες ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ ἐπὶ ἔργοις ἀγαθοῖς οἷς προητοίμασεν ὁ θεὸς ἵνα ἐν αὐτοῖς περιπατήσωμεν.

That word that I highlighted is "poema."  We are God's "poema," his artwork. 

If you want to hear the sermon, click here. 

Look around you.  Wherever you are sitting right now, if there are people in the room with you, those people are God's Artwork.  Not God's mass produced, cheap Chinese knockoffs, or His poorly assembled production specimens, or his created out of boredom tinkerings - all around you are works of art, created by the same God who painted the night sky and dug the grand canyon.  (yes, I know physical and geological forces did that, but who do you think set those forces in motion?  but I digress...)

Now, lets talk about Richard Sherman.  After making a game clinching play in the closing seconds of the biggest game of his life, Richard Sherman, who plays Cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks was put in front of a camera and asked questions by a sideline reporter.  The results went instantly viral.  Twitter exploded.  Sports writers rejoiced and talk radio guys hit the "autopilot" button on their shows.

Then the "T" word started getting thrown around. 

I don't know when it happened, but I have become really sensitive to the word "thug."  

I should say upfront that I may not be the best messenger here.  After all, I will never be called a thug.  I have been called "carrot top," "Opie," and many other ginger slurs.  I've been called arrogant and aloof, and probably a number of other things by men and women boys and girls.  I've probably been called all sorts of things behind my back, and I can honestly say I've earned every one of them!  But I'll never be called a "thug."

I remember during the Trayvon Martin case hearing the "T" word often.  Now Richard Sherman.  Trayvon was a 17 year old kid, who was just killed by a grown man who has since (shockingly!) turned out to be not such a good person himself.  Richard Sherman graduated 2nd in his High School class, and then graduated from Stanford University with a 4.0 GPA.  

He also happens to hail from Compton, and wears dreads, and talks a lot of smack, and plays a very violent emotional game.  So when placed in front of a camera and a mic, with adrenaline pumping he spouted off about an opponent, and bragged about himself.  

It was a terrible interview.  Call him selfish for not talking about his teammates.  Call him emotionally immature.  Call him arrogant.  But please, please lets stop calling people the "T" word.

Why?  Because I think that word is loaded with all kinds of meaning - urban, black, scary, criminal, violent - isn't that what people really mean when they say "thug?"  OK, sometimes white people are called thug, but its usually urban whites who don't dress and act "white."

Like I said, maybe I'm the wrong messenger here because nobody will ever think a 180 pound red-head with no athletic ability and no style at all - whether urban or not - would be a "thug."  Maybe this is a subject I should just keep quiet about.  

Then again, maybe I need to do what I challenged our church to do Sunday, and be a part of taking down barriers that divide us.

Every time I hear the "T" word, I cringe.  I wonder if the person really wants to say other words, but can't because we've successfully eliminated those words from public discourse.  So "thug" becomes the go-to word for people casting judgment on somebody that looks and talks in a way that is "other" than them.

In the end, I think what hurts me the most is that the person using the "T" word is so often Christian, and has no idea that the person they are heaping that label on is a fellow work of art.  Please, everybody, keep that in mind from today going forward.  When you see someone who comes from a background that you may never understand, who has been faced with challenges you will never face, and who may be different from you in every way - please remember that that person is God's artwork too.  

I don't know about you, but I don't want to be the art critic slamming the paintings and poetry of God.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Wow, its been a while!

Its not that I haven't had anything to say, its just that during Christmas there are only so many thoughts a person can have, and so many extra sermons to do!  Plus basketball season pretty much eats up my life from November through February.  Anyway, excuses aside, I thought I would put my newsletter article up here today, just so you guys would know I'm still among the living.

Elementary My Dear!

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal and a bottle of wine they lay down for the night, and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend awake.
   "Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."
   Watson replied, "I see millions and millions of stars."  
   "What does that tell you?" Holmes questioned.
   Watson pondered for a minute. "Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?"
   Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke. "Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent." 

   I confess that I love a good debate.  I love trying to find a brain busting problem and picking into it until I come to a solution that satisfies me.  I love politics because it is an ongoing debate about complex issues, carried forth by men and women who try to make those very complex issues seem so simply solved.  I love theology.  All of that being said, I get lost sometimes in the difficult, in the argument, or in the details, and forget the very simple, elementary fact that is staring me in the face.  Paul puts it well:

   I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,  may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,  and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 
Ephesians 3:17,18

   In order to be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God,” I don’t need to be the smartest kid in class.  I don’t have to be the most dynamic speaker, the coolest kid school, or have 3 Ph. Ds. 
   To be the most Godly person I can be, and therefore to be human in the way God created me to be, I need to dive into His love. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

World War Z?

I just realized I've been awfully quiet on this blog for a while.  There are a variety of reasons, for my absence, like the start of basketball practice, which means less "free" time, and less time for my brain to process things that aren't either sermons or adjustments to a zone defense.  Perhaps the real reason is the feeling that I haven't had anything worthwhile to flesh out in the blogosphere. 

So, today I'm going to talk about zombies.  No, not "The Walking Dead," although my wife and I can't get over the fact that last night they spent a whole show with The Governor being... nice?

No, I want to talk about World War Z.  I haven't seen the movie, so you'll get no spoilers here, but I am currently reading the book, and I have found it to be a great way to tell a story.  If you don't know, World War Z, by Max Brooks, is subtitled "an oral history of the Zombie war," and that is exactly what it is.  It is a collection of personal accounts, many of them only loosely related to one another, that build a larger story in the reader's mind about this world-changing zombie outbreak.  Each person telling their story is different.  There are a few doctors, and so of course their stories sound much different than the guy who was a smuggler whose story sounds much different from the guy who was a member of the CIA.  Each person sees the same world and the same larger global story and the same outbreak in a different, always personal, way.

The accumulation of those stories builds the larger story, which is the "Oral History of The Zombie War."

For some reason this morning I can't get that idea out of my head.  My mind is still swirling from Sunday, looking forward to our first real basketball game tonight, preparing for Advent sermons, and trying to think of ways we as a church can serve a couple of local families for Christmas while also trying to do something globally for the people in the Philippines.  It is processing an article about women ministers and another about the silence of pastors in states where millions are being denied access to medicaid because of politics, and what adjustments I'm going to make tonight if we can't find a way to slide our feet on the help side on defense and we get into foul trouble.  Bubbling around in all of that stew is this "aha!" thought about World War Z.

The Church, Christianity, and our mission as messengers of Jesus comes down to the same basic truth - we are a collection of very personal stories, bound together to make a larger story.

It has always been that way, which is why when Paul write to Ephesus he has something different to say than when he write to Corinth - each church is a different story in the larger story.

It is why for the alcoholic, one drink IS a sin, while for others it may not be.  Different stories in the story.

It is why when someone says "we just want to do things like the New Testament church did them!" I always say, "Great, which one?!?"  Each church was, and is, a different story in the story.

It is why there are conservatives and liberals and Episcopalians and Baptists and modern mega-churches and small little country churches and everything in between.

We are all a story in God's story.  Now, some of you may be saying, "well thank you captain obvious!"  Sadly, though, for many this isn't obvious, and so we spend a great deal of time firing off at each other, telling other believers that their version of the story isn't as valid as our version!  We tear each other apart, trying to "defend the faith," not realizing that in doing so we are contributing to the disappearance of belief in our society.  We're like the people who survive the zombies only to become our own worst enemies by fighting within our own camp!

For some, what I've said here will be no big deal.  Some will label me "just another post-modern who doesn't believe in right and wrong."  Some will just daydream about zombies.

My hope is that there are a few, who will find the courage to tell their own story, even if it doesn't sound like every other story.  My hope is that some will stop criticizing the stories of others just because they don't sound like your own.  My hope is that we can all add our stories to His story, and see the beauty in how they come together.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What Can I Do?

I admit, I get myself wrapped up in partisan debates more often that I should.  Not that I think pastors are supposed to sit on the sidelines during contentious times, quite the opposite, but I sometimes get caught up in the conflict spiral rather than being able to stand outside of it and speak truth from God's power to worldly power.  We just completed our study of Walter Brueggemann's "Truth Speaks to Power," and I was convicted by Elisha, who was able to essentially reveal the futility of our political positioning by demonstrating the true power of God, expressed both in the miraculous wonders he performed, but also in the fact that much of his life was aimed at making life better for those who were suffering under the reign of Ahab.

So, what can we do when our country is divided, our government is shut down, and our "leaders" won't lead?

Go be nice to somebody.  People aren't caricatures, they are individuals created in God's image.  Go find somebody and be nice.

Have a conversation.  You know that you have a friend or two from the "other side."  Have a conversation with them and remind yourself that people are more important than the ideas they hold.

Read a book.  I'm rereading one of my favorites, "Lamb," by Christopher Moore.  Sometimes escaping from this world is the answer.

Go outside.  Its early fall, and here in North Carolina the weather is perfect.  Enjoy it!

Give.  WIC benefits ran out this week in NC.  The food closet our church works with is running out of food because, even though few people realize it, most charities rely heavily on TFAP and other Federal programs for their food.  (23 out of 24 bags of food given in our nation come from Federal programs.)

Contextualize.  Read some international news and see how many people are facing war and famine and poverty - then be thankful our biggest wounds are self-inflicted, and can therefore be fixed.

Worship.  I know some who read my rants aren't believers, but most are, and to you I say worship.  Remind yourselves how big God is, and how His bigness is expressed primarily in the beautiful, abounding love He has for each and every human being that he has handcrafted - then go respond with that same love.

Speak.  You have a voice, let it be heard.  Call your representatives.  Write a hand written letter to your Senator.  Go be part of a rally.  Speak, and don't forget to listen.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Broken Clock

Next to my side of the bed, on the nightstand, there is a clock radio.  Actually, not just a clock radio, but a clock/radio/alarm/cassette player!  I know that isn't unusual.  In fact, I would bet most of you have one in your bedroom as well.  What makes mine unusual is that it fails at its core purpose.

The alarm works, as does the radio.  I'm not sure about the cassette player, since I don't actually own any cassettes, and Evan likes to shove random things into the cassette deck.  Truth is though, none of those things matter.

You see, my clock doesn't keep proper time.

What kind of engineering failure has to occur for a digital clock to not keep proper time?  I reset it 2 weeks ago because it had gotten 10 minutes fast, and as of this morning, it has already gained 4 minutes on the rest of the world.  That's right, either my clock is broken, or somehow it is inside a time flux which allows it to pass a few seconds into the future each night!  Maybe Doc and Marty McFly can help me out?

I'm reminded of Paul's words:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
- 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

What good is an alarm when the time isn't right?  What good is a church when the heart isn't right?

We can play great worship songs, preach earth shaking sermons, and have the best coffee at our welcome center, but if we don't love the people who come through our doors, we're just part of the noise machine.

We can be politically active, socially active, and even missionally active, but if we don't see every person as God sees them, through eyes of love, then all we're doing is serving ourselves.

We can baptize 1000, build a mega-sized building, and have our books published, but if we don't hurt with the people that God hurts for, we're just creating another scorecard to measure ourselves by the world's standards.

We gain nothing.  We are nothing.

Without love, we're a broken clock, and unlike a stopped clock, a broken clock isn't even right twice a day.  Its useless.