Confronting the “Disses”

How do we humans deal with the major “disses” of life? I mean the disagreeable and disgruntled, discord, disagreement, disease, distortion, and on and on. I offer you my observations from 40 years in ministry and 66 years of life. They are particularly important in our world and most urgently for me, the Presbyterian Church (USA). If we do not get a handle on this, disaster awaits us.

The most basic way to deal with difference and disagreement is through hostility. We must resist it, if not eradicate it. We approach the opposition as evil and unclean. We see this today most prominently in the way political parties deal with one another. Party leadership declares that the people must not only defeat the opposition, they must crush it. Dominance is the goal because the opposition is portrayed as bankrupt in morals, spirituality, intelligence, or ideas. We who live in the Southern part of the United States live with this kind of division on a daily basis. The Democratic Party has been virtually eliminated as a part of the decision making process. In many of these states, Democrats hold no statewide elected offices. These are one party states. In the religious culture a fundamentalism of Christianity expressed most prominently through dispensationalism and Arminianism dominates. Those who hold contrary views are vulnerable to attack, ridicule, and rejection as un-Christian. The minority is no better. They attack the dominant culture with demeaning terms and intellectual discredit. Hostility to difference means that the opposition must be rendered impotent.

The second way we deal with difference is through tolerance. We tolerate the existence of the other and no longer seek its destruction. Instead we keep it at a distance. We don’t want to be made unclean by associating with it. The pollution system of the Pharisees took this approach by declaring certain physical conditions as evidence of spiritual corruption. These people were kept out of the temple, and in the case of lepers, confined to colonies of infected people. Today this takes the form of an unwillingness to engage the other in real conversation or dialogue for fear of being stained as impure. Our truth is absolute, so what is the purpose of talking about it? We have no real interest in the other because they have nothing to contribute to our life, so we refuse to have anything to do with them.

Acceptance is the third way we handle disagreement. We will keep a relationship going through common interests, work, church, social organization, or family, but we realize that certain subjects are off limits. We aren’t going to change the other’s mind, so we avoid dealing with them on certain subjects. We prefer associating with like-minded people, rather than the disagreeable ones. We can’t really carry on a civil conversation, so we “agree to disagree.” A part of another’s life is cut off from us and ours from them. We may love the person, but we grieve for lack of agreement on important subjects like religion, politics, or social movements. I believe it was Reinhold Niebuhr who advised preachers to avoid certain subjects: the edibility of Jonah, the virginity of Mary, the furniture of heaven, or the temperature of hell. We accept the presence and inevitability of difference and disagreement, even fractures in the Body of Christ, even though we may admit this is not God’s will for the crown of creation.

I am dismayed by those who seem to accept the fractures in church and society as inevitable consequences of human sin. Aren’t we called to resist the inevitable consequences of evil and love the good (Romans 12)? I believe that God wants human beings to live in harmonious relationships that appreciate the unique, special, and critical contribution of everyone to this broken world. Appreciation
is the fourth way we can deal with difference. This is by far the hardest. Paul calls Christian disciples to this kind of life in 1 Corinthians 12-13. All parts of the body need to work well together to be an effective and faithful witness for Christ. A philosophy professor at the University of Oklahoma used to tell us that if we are just alike, one of us is redundant. Diversity and variety is the way of creation. Working together in appreciative relationship is the secret to a God blessed life. Accepting disagreement as the norm condemns us to alienation, division, war, and destruction. It cycles us back to domination over the other. Appreciation leads us to learn from the other, to engage the other in appreciative inquiry. One of my wedding services includes some advice from a marriage counselor in which he says that a married couple needs to “listen to each other … listen to understand rather than listening to argue.”

When I moved to Graham more than 10 years ago, I heard about this very popular and successful minister at the Assembly of God church. People told me that I needed to get to know him. I saw him as a competitor, so I avoided any contact with him. He resigned a few years ago to begin a family ministry in Graham. One day he and his wife showed up in our sanctuary for worship. I thought this was curious, but he and his wife were so affirming after worship, I invited the two of them to lunch the next week. This has led to a new friendship with two people I not only greatly admire, but give thanks to God for their remarkable spirit and ministry.

This needs to happen all over the PCUSA and our country. I believe the church must take the lead in creating a new spirit of appreciation for one another. In the Broadway musical rendition of Huckleberry Finn, The Big River, Huck and Jim sing, “I see the same stars through my window … but we are worlds apart. … Two worlds together are better than one.” That’s what I’m talking about. I know it can happen. Let’s do it.

ART Isn’t Easy

In Stephen Sondheim’s marvelous musical, “Sunday in the Park with George,” the artist Georges Seurat sings, Art isn’t easy. He then details what he means. The struggle, suffering, and pain of producing great art take an unimaginable amount of work, commitment, and dedication. Those who appreciate art cannot realize this struggle in the way artists can. We can, however, relate it to other parts of our life, such as creating and maintaining relationships.

Relationships survive through the artistic efforts of the people involved. There are no formulas or cookbooks that guarantee a magnificent outcome. It is all art. We start with a canvas, some clay or bronze, or balls of thread, and begin mixing colors, textures, shapes, and contrasts until the art emerges. We take two or more people and go about the same process of trial, error, and starting over. The key is never giving up. We commit to the relationship and the process of nurturing and maintaining it.

I have thought of God as the great artist ever since I read a children’s book that presented God in that way. This image of God speaks to me, sparks my imagination, and informs my theology. God interacts with the creation in the way an artist does with her art. Jeremiah uses the image of a potter to declare God’s relationship with Israel. The chosen people have become a cracked pot, so God must begin again to perfect the crown of creation. The spinning clay is out of control until the skilled potter produces the desired shape. God’s people are out of control, so God will provide a new shape to their existence. They will no longer be defined as a nation state, but now as a servant people. God will not give up on them, but through forgiveness and renewal, God will create them anew.

My call to stand for Moderator of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) comes out of this exact dynamic. I refuse to give up on the PCUSA and the people and congregations who make it what it is, has been, and will be. I won’t believe God has given up on us either. This undying and eternal commitment is what makes me so sad about the efforts of congregations to leave the PCUSA. They have given up on us and are hell bent on breaking covenant with us. It seems to me to be an example of unredeemed human sin run amuck as righteousness and godliness. It tells the world that God’s commitment to God’s creation is limited and dependent on human behavior. I simply don’t read that in scripture.

I call on those of us who remain to create new relationships of ART – Appreciation, Respect, Trust. Doing this will honor God’s desire for creation, and it will demonstrate to the world the truth of the Reign of God. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul goes to great lengths to counter the Corinthian tendency to divide into competing groups. He uses the image of a body with different parts, each having a specific and unique function to the whole. Taking away any part damages the whole body. He is demonstrating God’s characteristic of appreciating the beauty of each part of creation. As an eye, I will quite likely not appreciate the contribution of the ear to my health. I don’t understand the functioning of the ear, so how can I? Paul’s answer is that we appreciate it because God created it and blessed it. Appreciation has been the missing element in the PCUSA for more than a generation.

Lack of appreciation for the other contributes greatly to our disagreements in the church and society. We treat the other who disagrees with us as an enemy, adversary, opponent, or unclean demon instead of another part of the body that has a unique function. Think of the gall bladder or thyroid gland. The gall bladder has such an unsavory filtering function that it would turn the stomach of anyone who had to deal with it. And the thyroid gland is so tiny as to seem insignificant to the functioning of the body. We can even get along without either of them with the help of modern medicine. Some are approaching the churches who wish to leave our denomination with the same disdain. They are not needed, so we won’t be disturbed when they leave. Instead, I have chosen to appreciate my brothers and sisters who come at the experience of faith so differently from me. I consider their contribution, which I do not understand, as invaluable to the healthy functioning of the body.

Gaining appreciation for others is at the heart of Christian love. After showing the Corinthians how futile it is for the eye to say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” or the head to the feet, “I have no need of you,” he tells them about agape love, the kind of love God exhibits for us. It is a love that exhibits in word and deed an appreciation for the other.

ART isn’t easy. And ART is essential. Create new works of ART with me in our PCUSA and in our world, and we will serve God faithfully.

Flower Recognition

Last year at this time Texas was suffering one of the worst droughts in history. Couple that with 50-60 mph wind, and we were ripe for disaster. It came in the form of frightening and destructive fires. I live in a town north of one of the most beautiful and dramatic areas of North Texas, Possum Kingdom Lake. There were several fires that surrounded the lake and threatened our town. We could see the fire jump from treetop to treetop on the other side of the Brazos River near where we live. We were ready to evacuate if the call came, because if the fire jumped the Brazos, there was nothing to stop it from coming straight for us. We felt terrorized.

That was then, this is now. North Texas has enjoyed one of the wettest winters in some time. Lake Graham is full, and so are the stock tanks. We are enjoying a bumper crop of Texas wildflowers, especially bluebonnets. There are few sights in nature as gorgeous as a thick stand of bluebonnets. The Texas wildflowers are a natural treasure, and they are exceptionally beautiful this year.

If the wildflowers are growing rapidly and thick, so is the grass. It’s growing so fast that we could easily mow twice a week. The problem with my mowing is that I don’t seem to be able to distinguish between grass, weed, and flower. If it’s green, tall, and in the middle of the yard, it’s fair game. So, how do I determine what is grass or flower? If my wife gets upset, I’ve mowed a flower. That’s the only sure way to know.

My dilemma reminds me of the field hand who noticed some very noxious weeds growing among the wheat. He went to the owner of the land and reported the problem. He wanted to know if he should get out the Roundup or weeding hoe and take care of those poisonous weeds growing along with the wheat. The owner told him to let everything grow together until the harvest, and then they would be able to separate one from the other. Christians will recognize this as one of Jesus’ parables, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.

Parables are not fables or morality tales. They don’t make a point as much as invite dialogue about life and the faith that makes life something more than a tale told by an idiot. One of the takeaways from this parable for me is how we deal with the offensive in our midst, whether it’s person, idea, behavior, or attitude. The owner counsels patience so that the good is not destroyed in our attempt to eliminate the evil. In particular when we are dealing with judgments against one of God’s people, we need to be careful about excluding that which God will ultimately include. If we attempt to root out the weed, we may end up cutting down a perfectly gorgeous wildflower that has yet to go to seed. God will be upset.

People are so quick to judge each other before we even know the other. We act on impressions, reputation, association, looks, manner, and any other host of incomplete pieces of information. In so doing, we may miss one of God’s incomparably beautiful creations.

I remember a plane ride I took several years ago. The plane was full, and I was wondering who would sit next to me. Then I noticed this rather unruly looking fellow careening down the aisle, and I just knew he was my seat mate. His shirt was wrinkled and nearly out of his trousers. His hair looked like it hadn’t been combed in a week. He wore thick glasses, and had a seemingly deranged look about him. As we arrived at DFW airport, I started our first conversation. It seems he was a scientist working in one of the high-tech industries in Austin, TX. And his grandmother was Lillian Hellman, a prize winning playwright. He was a very bright guy, and I missed the opportunity for a really terrific conversation because I made a judgment too quickly.

Drought, wildfires, and evil threaten all of us from time to time. Patience, taking the long view, and trusting in God’s providence are our only hope. Acting rashly and aggressively may cause us to miss the new thing God is doing. Hope is not wishing God will make a particular thing happen, but it is knowing that whatever happens is God’s wish. God bless you!

The Divine Westminster

I look forward each year to the telecast of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show from Madison Square Garden. I love seeing the wonderful variety of dogs that God created and human beings manipulated into “man’s best friend.” My favorite judging groups are herding, working, and sporting. These are dogs with a particular purpose. They aren’t just pretty show dogs and supreme examples of their type, they actually work. Some aid in hunting, some work animals, and others pull carts or work in search and rescue, therapy, or as assistance dogs. Did you know that dogs are better at detecting cancer through their spectacular sense of smell than many of the diagnostic tests doctors use? They are amazing animals that we are a long way from fully understanding.

Growing up I had little contact with working dogs. We had pets, usually mixed breed companion dogs. Then Sally came into our life. Sally is an Australian Cattle Dog, commonly called a “heeler.” These dogs work cattle by nipping at their back feet, thus their name. We think she was about a year old when she found us. She was a stray that my wife saw running franticly around the pastures and fields around our house. It took my wife a few days to get Sally to come to her. She was very cautious and afraid. She had just had a litter of pups because she was still lactating, and perhaps that’s why she was so frantic. We fed her and invited her into our family.

Sally is happiest when she is working. She doesn’t play. We have tried to play with her, and she looks at us as though we’ve lost our minds. She wants to work. One day a man was moving a herd of cattle down the road in front of our house, and my wife noticed it. He was moving them with his Lincoln Continental, so my wife asked if he would like some help. He agreed, and my wife began to herd them in her truck. Sally was with her in the front seat and became very excited. So, my wife let her out and told her to bring up some strays that had wandered into a neighboring yard. Sally did exactly what she was supposed to do. We had never trained her or worked with her. It is her nature. Work is her play. You should see her “smile” when she is moving our horses along. She is fulfilling her purpose.

People could learn a lot from these working dogs. We have difficulty with purpose in our life. We wander aimlessly searching for something we cannot name. St. Augustine calls it our effort to fill the God-sized hole in our soul. People yearn for purpose in their lives, and when they don’t get it, all hell breaks loose. The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us what our human purpose is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (answer to question one, “What is the chief end of man?”). God created human beings, the man and the woman, for love and joy. We are to glorify God by loving God and one another. This leads us to ecstatic joy. That’s our purpose. So why do we reject it so?

The easy answer is “sin” or the power of the “principalities and powers” of this world. We reject our God-given purpose because of powers outside ourselves, things over which we have no control and, thus, no responsibility. I imagine that the reader is like me and can make up spectacularly convoluted excuses for my actions, beliefs, attitudes, habits, and compulsions. God’s love in Christ frees us from our sin and the influence of the principalities and powers and points us to a better way, the way of Christ. Loving God and neighbor is our purpose, and it leads to unexplainable joy in our lives. Like Sally, we “smile” when we are fulfilling our purpose, the one God gave us.

God gave us the Church to provide the basic training and ongoing nurture and accountability for our purpose in life. We work with our dogs to prepare them to follow our commands and so fulfill their purpose. They may have the herding instinct, but we have to shape it according to our human needs. God does that with human beings through the church. We have to learn what it means to love God and neighbor. It may be different from time to time, era to era, as God needs us to express our love. God gave us the church to teach us compassion, generosity, forgiveness, discipline, and support as some of the ways God calls us to love one another, including our own self. When we quit interacting with people in these ways, we divide the world into “us versus them” categories and reject God’s purpose for us. It breaks my heart when people in churches stop loving one another and the community in which they live. When we insist on exercising power, control, and purity in our relationships, we deny God’s purpose, and people reject us. Some churches are simply unfriendly, unaccepting, and rejecting of new people and ideas. No wonder they don’t grow. Other churches embrace new people with love and affection and encourage them to contribute in new ways. They grow. They grow because they are fulfilling God’s purpose for the church to be a provisional experience of the Reign of God.

If there is anything else I’ve learned from our dogs (We also have a terrier mix, but that’s another story.), it is unconditional love. You should see their joy as they greet me when I come home at night. Is it love? Are dogs capable of love? They sure act in loving ways. Let us take our cue from them. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love comes from God.”

Safety Net? Really?

So Mitt Romney thinks the poor have a safety net? That certainly isn’t my experience. A sieve maybe with really big holes to fall through, but hardly a safety net. I wonder what he means. Is he talking about aid to orphaned or abandoned children, Social Security and Medicare for the elderly, SSI for the disabled, food stamps, Medicaid for those living in poverty, shelters for the homeless, soup kitchens for the hungry, or free clinics, to name a few? Who are these “poor” anyway? Is he referring to welfare queens, lazy bums, drug addicts, and criminals? It could be that he “misspoke,” as he claimed later. That’s possible. His mind could have fallen behind his mouth in his attempt to focus on the middle class and creating jobs. It could have been a Freudian slip or just plain ignorance. He is after all born in privilege. He parlayed that advantage into earning untold millions, so that now he is a very wealthy man. Maybe he simply hasn’t associated with the poor, so he has only stereotypes to guide him. I wonder. I wonder about many people and their attitudes toward the poor. After all Jesus did say, “The poor you have with you always, but you will not always have me.”

I am blessed to be the pastor of a Presbyterian church that has some extraordinarily generous members who regularly contribute thousands of dollars to a pastor’s fund that I get to administer. We give $10,000 to $20,000 a year in direct aid to people in our community who need help with utility bills, medicine, food, lodging, medical and dental care, and any number of other urgent needs. Two other churches in our community have similar resources available to help people who are in crisis. The church I serve and the other two also provide a hot, free and nutritious meal once a month to anyone in the community who wants to come. We all offer free transportation to our churches for anyone who can’t get there on their own. This means that in three weeks out of every month, the people in our community can eat for free as guests of one of these three churches. We pay for it out of contributions from members and a $500 contribution from our Presbytery.

I mention this, not to point to our good work, but to let anyone reading this know that I deal with the poor Mitt Romney mentions nearly every day. This is what I know about them. Many of them work. They work at nursing homes, as aides at the hospital, for the city and county, for fast food establishments, construction companies, oil field service companies, and any other of a host of jobs. They come to the churches when they have unexpected medical bills, lose their jobs, have a vehicle break down, or have some other crisis that their meager income can’t accommodate. We help them because that’s the kind of community I live in, and that’s what the disciples of Jesus do.

Other people who come to our Friendship Meals are the mentally and physically disabled. Some have mental illness, while others were born with disabilities. They are quite simply unemployable except at the most menial jobs, and those would put them in the category of the working poor. The elderly come, and they live on such meager pensions or Social Security allowances that they have a very difficult time making ends meet. We also have the lonely come. All in all, it is a community of people on the fringes of society, who are Mitt Romney’s poor in microcosm.

I’m not sure people understand what it means to be poor unless they’ve been there themselves. There is such desperation in people who don’t know if they’ll eat that day, or they can’t get needed medical care, or who simply can’t pay their bills. Some try to “game” the system, but we quickly eliminate them from getting help, at least for a while. The people I see and help are barely getting by. Anyone who thinks the poor are living well should experience the people I and the other churches help. They have very little and feel extremely vulnerable. They need so much more help than we can fill by paying a utility bill or getting them some groceries. The safety net is a fiction. At best it allows people to get by in the best of times. It makes no provision for crisis. Mitt Romney’s poor are human beings, and I find it reprehensible that they are being used as a political football. I think our Lord would be appalled.

Tebow and the New Christians

One of the major stories of this year’s National Football League season was Tim Tebow. After beginning the year with one win and five losses, the fans demanded a quarterback change. They wanted Tebow to get a chance. The coaches and management of the Denver Broncos were not so sure that would be a good idea. How could changing one player make a difference in their team’s performance? After all, Tebow was not exactly a prototype NFL quarterback. The surprise occurred when Tebow took the Broncos on a winning streak that included several dramatic comeback wins. The game between the Broncos and the New England Patriots was a much anticipated match between the reigning best quarterback in football, Tom Brady, and this surprising phenomenon of Tim Tebow. It was one of the most watched NFL games ever.

Tebow became a story because he demonstrated real leadership abilities of encouragement, inspiration, and performance in key situations. He also became a story because of his unabashed and unapologetic demonstrations of his faith. His one knee prayer posture has even produced a new word for the English lexicon – “Tebowing.” He began each press conference by acknowledging his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Fans and the media didn’t exactly know how to react to all of this. Some ridiculed him, while others copied his public display of faith. The media were more curious than anything, as they looked for chinks in his pietistic armor.

Tebow made a lot of people uncomfortable. The NFL establishment was challenged by his unconventional and effective way of playing the position of quarterback. He didn’t fit the mold, so they were suspicious of how he and a rookie quarterback, Cam Newton, might change the game itself. Going against conventional wisdom always produces a backlash of resentment and suspicion. If the NFL was uncomfortable with Tebow’s way of playing quarterback, many in the public, including many Christians, were threatened by his strong messages of faith. The conventional wisdom of our culture is that faith is something that should be private and internalized. By his words and actions, Tebow challenged that idea. He was very willing to proclaim his faith and to wear it on his sleeve or under his eyes.

To our detriment mainline Christians have been reluctant to engage each other, let alone non-believers, in conversations about our faith. I have been reluctant, even as a minister, because I don’t want to be perceived as fanatical or judgmental about others. Some in the Christian community use our faith as a wedge issue to create groups that are saved, elite, and special, while condemning others to lower class status or eternal torment. We Christians are not served well by proclamations from Christian leaders that “God doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews” and messages like that. So, we in the mainline churches keep quiet about our faith for fear of being included with those who offend us with their message of exclusion, division, and judgment.

By not talking about our faith, however, we relinquish our ability to offer an alternative message. Tebow has given the Christian community a tremendous opportunity to engage people in some significant conversations about what it means to be Christian. Rather than criticize him, we should thank him and take advantage of the opportunity to show people a loving, accepting, generous, and hopeful Christian faith in word and deed.

People are suspicious of Christians these days, because they don’t see much different about us than the un-churched part of the population. We are as polarized, divided, and contentious as the Congress of the United States. This is not a good thing. It undercuts our message. Instead of people saying, “See these Christians, how they love each other,” as people said about the early Christians, people look at Christians today and say, “See these Christians, how they love to fight each other.” Until we adopt a more biblical way of relating to one another, people will not take us seriously. They will be rightly suspicious and see our faith as having no significance for their life.

Growing churches are characterized by a level of peace and contentment. People are drawn to churches that are demonstrating the love of Christ in word and deed. They build people up with encouragement and hope. They aren’t places where people are fighting about the color of the carpet in the sanctuary, whether to have guitars in worship, and which shrubs to plant in the garden. Growing churches have a sense of purpose about them. They invite people to join in the movement of respect and appreciation. They are looking for ways to relieve and eliminate human suffering. These are the new Christians who have escaped “The Fight” and live the faith in transformative ways. They are leading a new generation of believers with encouragement, inspiration and performance in key situations. Thank you, Tim Tebow.