Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Morning After Prayers

An influence in my father's and grandfather's spiritual life was the pastor, professor, and theologian John Baillie. His classic book of daily prayers Diary of Private Prayer has guided the prayer life of many Presbyterians. It's a book of 31 days' worth of morning and evening prayer, one for every day of the month. The copy in my library is one that came to me from my father's library when he died.
This is the prayer for the morning of Day 9, updated for today's language:
Here I am, O God, with little power and less influence. But I'm lifting up heart and voice to you before whom all created things are as dust and vapor. You are hidden behind a curtain of what we can sense, incomparable in your greatness, mysterious in your power. Any yet here I speak with you as a child to parent, as friend to friend. If I could not so speak, then were I indeed without hope in the world. For it is little that I have power to do or to ordain. I am not here of my own will, nor of my own will shall I pass from this life. Of everything that will come to me this day, very little is of my own choosing. It is you, O Hidden One, who will appoint my lot and determine the bounds of my habitation.  It is you who has put power in my hands for some things and not for others. It is you who keeps the threads of this day's life and who alone knows what lies ahead of me.
But because you are my Divine Parent, I am not afraid. Because it is your own Spirit that stirs within my spirit, I know that all is well. What I desire for myself I cannot attain, but what you desire in me you can attain for me. The good that I try to get for myself, I can't get, but the Good that you will for me, you give me the power to do.
Dear Divine Parent, take this day's life into your own keeping. Control all my thoughts and feelings. Direct all my energies. Instruct my mind. Sustain my will. Take my hands and me them skillful to serve you. Take my feet and make them swift to do your bidding. Take my eyes and keep them fixed upon your deep beauty. Take my mouth and make it eloquent to tell of your love. Make this a day of obedience, a day of spiritual joy and peace. Make this day's work a small part of the work of the Kingdom of my Lord Jesus, in whose name these prayers are said.

OK, Ladies.  Time to put on our big girl pant suits
and go to work.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Approaching Thanksgiving

Walter Brueggemann published Prayers for a Privileged People in 2008. (Abingdon Press) I've admired him for a long time, for his ability to say important things with a few right words, prophet words. The collection is poetic prayers. Picking it up again this morning, I was drawn to the title "At Thanksgiving" and will quote it here in full. Maybe those algorithms that track important words (see my last post) will at lease give Walter Brueggemann a shout out.

Amid football,
family, and
too much food,
we pause quickly and without inconvenience
to remember and to thank.
We remember ancient pilgrims
who followed dreams of alabaster cities
and financial opportunity;
We remember hospitable first nation people
who welcomed them, and then lost their land;
We remember other family times
filled with joy and
filled with anxiety, and
old scars still powerful.
We thank yo for this U.S.venue of
justice and freedom,
and are aware of its flawed reality;
We thank you for our wealth and our safety,
and are aware of how close to poverty we are
and how under threat we live.

We gather our impulse for gratitude today,
grateful to you and to our ancestors,
grateful to you for our families,
our health,
our government,
our many possessions.

We gladly affirm that
"All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above,"
But we yield to none in a sense of self-sufficiency,
our weariness in needing to share,
our resentfulness of those who take and do not give.

Your generosity evokes our gratitude,
but your generosity overmatches our gratitude.
We are ready to thank,
but not overly so;
We remember our achievements,
our accomplishments,
our entitlements,
and our responsibilities
that slice away our yielding of ourselves to you.

Move through our half measure of thanks
and let us be, all through this day,
more risky in acknowledging
that we have nothing except what you give.

You have given so much--not least your only Son.
Gift us the gift of dazzlement and awe
that we may rejoice in our penultimate lives
and keep you ultimate all the day long,
relishing the wonder of your self-giving love.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


I opened a page of quotations from Richard Rohr, an acknowledged "guru" of mine and often read by devoted thinkers in my own congregation. His quotations are pithy and relevant to everyone who cares about the future of Christianity and the future of the world.
What struck me was at the bottom of the page. The website designer [Brainy Quotes] has chosen to incorporate a list of clickable links to other "related authors." The list includes: John C. Maxwell, Joel Osteen, Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, Charles Swindoll, Charles Stanley, Robert Schuller, and Dwight L. Moody.  None of these men bear the slightest relationship to Richard Rohr in outlook or sentiment. The only relationship I can think of is that all are readily quotable because of their large body of searchable text available on the internet and the fact that they are all self-identified white male Christian clergy.  The differences between Richard Rohr and the rest are vast and important.
I take it that the web designers don't have a clue.  Maybe they don't care. Promoting the site as "brainy" doesn't begin to capture the ham-handedness of an algorithm that throws all these authors into the same pot as "related."
My concern is that people have handed over their discrimination job to a vast "cloud" of algorithms that purport to do something about analysis and communication, but that really only magnify the poorly-informed biases of the algorithm writers. This is why I am dedicated to discrimination, that is, the ability to tell the difference between truth and lies. It does make a difference.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Culture is Killing Our Kids

Saw this on a publisher’s website, from youth minister and author Steve Ingraham, who recently sent this letter to the families in his congregation. All I can say is
Dear Parents,
We love your kids.
We love them enough to send you this letter.
Your youth are in a bad place. We have never seen a generation of teenagers who are more stressed, full of anxiety, depressed, suicidal, over-committed, over-medicated, over-worked and over-extracurriculared, and it is killing them, sometimes literally. We know you
want the best for them: the best grades, the best colleges, the best teams, performances, standardized scores, friend groups, etc. We all want the best for them. But they are not the best at everything, and they will never be the best at everything.
I was not, you were not, and they will not stand atop the podium in every area they compete. As I watch the Olympics I have thought a lot about what it takes to get to the Olympics, let alone what it takes to get to the top of that podium. It takes incredible amounts of raw talent, dedication, work, and single-mindedness about that discipline.
Unfortunately, we see many parents pushing these standards and unrealistic expectations in every area of their kids' lives. They cannot do it all; they cannot handle the stress and are being crushed under the weight of the expectation. Now, please hear me; this involves not just your expectations, this involves the expectations of their coaches, teachers, administrators, potential colleges-and the expectations of each other. Expectations are good; they cause us to rise above where we, alone, would usually strive. But they must be realistic expectations based on each student.
Your kids are probably not going to Harvard, and that is okay.
Your kids are probably not going to play a professional sport, and that is okay.
But your kids can be amazing, productive, courageous, and wonderful human beings who love, and have passions and dreams; should we really want more than that?
Our culture is moving to a place where parents are told that they are not allowed to be the ones who determine the limits and expectations of their kids.
When kids come home with 3+ hours of homework every night, you should not accept that; it is not reasonable.
When kids have to practice a sport all summer, every week, so that you cannot take a family vacation or send them on a mission trip because the coach threatens them that they will not play, that is not acceptable.
When you have to beg your kids to get off the computer or video game, or to see their phone, you should remember there should never be any begging involved.
You should set the priorities for your children; you are the ones who determine their schedules; you are the ones who are ultimately responsible for balance in their lives while they are under your roofs. This is not only your right, it is your calling and your responsibility as parents.
You are not powerless in ANY of these situations. Get enough parents together to talk to the administration about the amounts of homework.
Pull enough stars from the football team.
Disconnect their phones.
I guarantee you, that will bring all parties to the table.
Now, I am a youth minister. I have been in youth ministry for 16 years. It has not always been this way, trust me. Also, know that when I talk about a balanced life, I am not excluding their spirituality. There was an article written a few months back that compared youth ministry and church to an elective or extra-curricular. I think that is generous at best.
Most parents and students take electives and extra-curriculars much more seriously than they do regular involvement in a faith community.
Now, do not get me wrong; the lip service is there. "I want to be at youth group on Sunday night, but I have too much homework,"
"I wish my child could go on the mission trip, but he has football,"
"I really want them to be in church, but they just have too many things going on right now."
Let's stop playing the game.
If you really want them there, you can make it happen. If a student really wants to be at church or youth group, homework will not get in the way; it doesn't get in the way of basketball, show choir, or ACT prep classes.
Because we value those things, we love those things, and we are committed to those things.
I will argue you that we are over-investing in each of these things, and are under-investing in the long-term spirituality of our youth.
If it is a priority, them make it one; if not, that is okay, but do not make excuses about it. We will respect you a lot more if you do not apologize about your priorities and often try to make us feel bad that your student cannot find one hour a week to come to one of the ten things we offer.
Balance also means not creating kids who spend every waking moment at church. We are not asking you to have them there five times a week. They need other communities, activities, and things that balance their lives. Sports, academics, the arts, etc., are all wonderful things as long as they are balanced.
We want you and your student(s) to commit to one or two things a week that will feed them spiritually and give them the opportunity to engage in a community of faith, the way their faith calls them to. Youth group junkies are not what we are trying to create, and is not why this article is written.
Finally, we want to tell you that we know it is hard. We know these decisions are not easy and you have the enormous weight of cultural and societal expectation bearing down on you. But know this...
We as youth ministers and clergy are here to help you. To support you. To join with you as we push back against this culture of excess and strive to bring sanity back to our kids' and our families' lives. We want this-for us, for our communities, and for you. We want families and students and parents to have sabbath, not so you can refuel but so you can rest. We want balance, not so you can add church onto your list of to do's but so you can have time and bandwidth to live out your faith. We want this, not to make you feel guilty, but to help you reclaim your kids' lives, their schedules and your calendars.
Ultimately we want this because we love you, we see you suffering, and we want to help.
Let's do this together.
Steve Ingram

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

What's the Pastor Reading this Summer?

The summer of 2016 is an especially rich one for reading. Lot's of new books among religion publishers. I'm almost too overwhelmed to get any of them from the "to read" pile into the "done reading" pile.
But here are a few titles--
The Road to Character, by David Brooks. (Random House, 2015) I've wanted to get through this since a discussion about it from the NEXT Church conference in Atlanta last March. Brooks' columns in the New York Times are well-known. It was interesting to listen to him think through his own moral maturation in the light of well-known personalities he admires: labor activist Francis Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower (one of the presidents that may have actually been a Presbyterian), Dorothy Day, civil rights pioneers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, George Eliot (nee Mary Anne Evans), Augustine of Hippo (the one many call "saint'), and Samuel Johnson. Brooks is a master at capturing the big picture of cultural America and its movements. The deeply religious AND spiritual lives of each of these serve Brook's aim to trace the development of ethical personhood and plumb the depths of moral bankruptcy he sees in the current culture.
America's Original Sin, by Jim Wallis. (Brazos Press, 2016) Wallis' theses: Racism is a faith issue for Christians. Can this summer's events be any more clear? The book came out right in the middle of the resurgence of the topic in the political campaign. How can we afford to look the other way any more? Another book in the same topic has just been released and is the entry on the "to read" pile: The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2016) It takes its title from James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time. Ward has collected essays and poems about race from important voices of her generation.
The End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones. (Simon & Schuster, 2016). Jones is founder and CEO of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) that describes itself as a non-partisan research group for the examination of attitudes on the intersection of religion and public policy. The book came out to much fan fare.  It is a quick read, with lots of statistics and anecdotes that illustrate the author's thesis: White Christian America is dead, that is, the hegemony of Northern European-descended Protestants instrumental in the founding of the United States and its governance since then, in both public elected and private leadership, is gone, never to come back again. Surviving so far are two strains of Protestant Christians--evangelicals primarily in the South, and the mainline Protestants in the Northeast and upper Mid-West.  It remains to be seen if either of them will last the next twenty years.

You might think I have a bad case of the doldrums about the state of the American Christian church after reading all these downers, but not so.  Loving Jesus, by Mark Allan Powell (Augsburg Fortress, 2004), an older spiritual biography genre is a kinder, gentler look back on the aftermath of the "Jesus Movement" in the 1970's. Powell's life sets me smiling about the reason for it all.

Next on my reading list, Ruined (a memoir), by Ruth Everhart.  Just came out yesterday! Ruth is a talented writer and pastor in my local presbytery.  I can't wait to read her story.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

So why did I have to watch the Tony's to go to church on Sunday?

In my last post, pre-June 12 and the massacre in Orlando, I moaned about the world expecting preachers to...well...preach. So now I have to eat my words.  (That's a biblical reference, by the way.  Look it up. Ezekiel 3:3)

Sunday, June 12, was a tragedy. On Sunday morning, I didn't know the full effect of the events unfolding in Orlando. I felt like I didn't even have a "church" moment all day, until I heard Lin Manuel Miranda's sonnet acceptance speech at the Tony's:

My wife’s the reason anything gets done
She nudges me towards promise by degrees
She is a perfect symphony of one
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers,
remembrances that hope and love last longer (emphasis from the author)
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.

My heartfelt thanks to this Broadway preacher, who is doing a much better job than me in saying what needs to be said. Say it loud and proud.

Monday, June 6, 2016

I'm not an ISSUES Preacher

So the perils of another presidential election year are hard upon us, and preachers everywhere have hell to pay for the views we express from the pulpit.  It doesn't matter what your flavor of politics is, if you're a preacher who makes weekly sermons part of your practices, you can't escape. Someone is always after you for "your views" on whatever current social issues exist--climate change, same sex marriage, transgender rights, gun safety legislation, abortion, death penalty, not to mention a political candidate or two--while at the same time, reserving the right to excoriate you for whatever you happen to express.
I can't deny it. It's flattering to think that anyone cares, but I'm beginning to realize that "my views" are not what's at stake in sermon delivery. I am happy to give someone "my views" on current social issues, but not usually from the pulpit.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, is my understanding of the task of preaching. Offering your own words as "A Word from the Lord" is a humbling and awesome responsibility. The current state of world affairs is an amazingly fleeting state in the face of a cosmic-sized God. Anything I could say about/to/on behalf of such a God to the world is nearly impossible. In the apophatic tradition, I would better off saying nothing than to presume human words. And yet, it's something I must attempt, and something that all preachers in the prophetic sling must do, with care and humility. So every once in a while, it's called for. "God says...(thus and so)" Are we there yet? Maybe we're close, but I also realize that it's hubris to think that our own current times are so unique that no one in human history has ever faced such challenges. It's a kind of temporal narcissism. So I'm biding my time.
Secondly, I perceive my real calling, not to shape other people's thinking directly, but to show them that following the Jesus way is the way to live and the real way to the abundant life, in the way that God intends for human life. Jesus wanted to up-end the status quo, not by advocating for the overthrow of Rome, but by actually living and then dying, for a still more excellent way. I'm more interested in seeing people grow in spiritual maturity than I am in seeing them adopt a particular attitude vis-a-vis a current social issue.  I'm an advocate for answering a behavior question--what should we do/believe/think in this situation?--with the moral reasoning of someone who is maturing in love.  It's not exactly "what would Jesus do?" but it's close. Am I naive in assuming that growing in faith will lead one into faithful, and thereby God-like choices in life? Maybe so, but for me, it's the job of preaching to proclaim the good news and invite people to make it real in their own lives, and then encourage them to find a still more excellent way.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Those Wacky Atheists

I'd like to be sympathetic, really I would--with the impulse of avowed atheists to advocate for the separation of religion from government. Many people holding to all kinds of faiths also advocate for the wall between church and state in the United States. You don't need to be an atheist to believe it's a good idea. But I'm also distressed by the theocrats who use the argument: "if the atheists are for it, we should be agin' it." What's a thinking Christian to do?

The atheist position that bothers me the most is the one that says "religion" itself is an evil force, that it contributes more harm than good to life on earth, and that if we just eliminate "religion" human beings would be much better off.  This position is often associated with a view that civilization’s progress is related to a de-mythologizing process and religion is inherently superstitious. In order to make progress, societies have to follow a path that involves continual secularization and the removal of religion from public life. There are way too many problems with this line of reasoning to tackle here, but let me start with a few.
First of all what evidence does anyone have that “religion” is a simple phenomenon that can be eliminated from human social life?  Is there anywhere in the world a society that is “religionless?”  I think there is compelling evidence that religion cannot be excised, any more than “culture” can be eliminated or marginalized, or that there can be humans without language. (See my earlier posts about religion as the acquisition of spiritual language.) Religion is a particular characteristic of human life on planet earth that is part of every human community.  One can have an opinion about which of many particular “religions” may or may not contribute to human flourishing, but that is not the same thing as getting rid of religion in general.  In fact, atheism and secularism themselves fit most robust definitions of “religion.”  A “religion” is a set of shared cultural assumptions which may be adopted as a universalizing world view, and which give a moral and ethical direction to human life. Yes, atheism and secularism fit that definition, and can be just as dogmatic about their beliefs.  So let’s have a real discussion about religion in a multi-religious world, and not the nonsense about “getting rid of religion” in order to solve our human predicaments. I have a feeling that what atheists are arguing for is getting rid of any religion but theirs...something that should raise suspicions for any thinking person.

Secondly, the view that human progress involves a de-mythologizing or secularization process is a by-product of the Enlightenment in Western Europe, a fairly recent development in human philosophy. Does the claim of secularization as the only road to human fulfillment hold up?  Human progress, in the Enlightenment, was tied to the spread of education, economic opportunity, and free ideas.  However such “progressive” processes have given rise to not only Western-style democracy, but also the crushing effects of totalitarianism, such as in Nazi Germany and communist states, and the ruin and injustices of unchecked capitalism. “Getting rid of religion” was the aim of both the French revolutionists and the communist Soviet Union.  It’s not at all clear that secularization has given rise to unambiguously good results for civilization.
So when atheists claim to have the answer, thinking persons might ask them to rise to their own standards: prove it.