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.”

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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.

Super Bowl Leadership

Wow, what a Super Bowl XLVI! It was fun watching a great football game between two great teams and not rooting for either one. Since I had no dog in this fight, I could appreciate the game for what it was – a sport played at the highest level. I’ve heard some commentators call it the greatest Super Bowl ever.

One of the most intriguing parts of the game was the play of the quarterbacks, who are two of the greatest ever to play the game. They were leaders in the best sense of the word. Each played exceedingly well, and their play inspired their teammates to play their best. This causes me to reflect on what leadership means to Christians, especially as I position myself to be the moderator of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

My scripture is Philippians 2, the great Christ Hymn. In describing Jesus, Paul writes, “…though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” Jesus, the incarnation of God, did not exploit that power for personal gain. He was a servant, a slave. How different Jesus was when compared to other leaders of his day from Caesar to the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes and priests. I offer the following characteristics to you as examples of servant leadership.

First is vision and expectation. A coach offers a winning program. A politician describes solutions to problems. Christ offers the kingdom of God, and Paul presents the fruits of the Spirit. A leader evokes images of a fulfilled and fulfilling life. I offer a vision of the PCUSA that promises to move us past “The Fight” to embrace our primary mission: proclaiming the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ; calling all to faithful discipleship; and living as provisional examples of God’s heavenly realm. The key to fulfilling this vision is to live in a relationship with one another based, as Paul instructs, on “Christ and him crucified.” I offer a way to create new relationships in Christ.

Next, a leader sets an example. I love sports writers who equate leadership with a coach who yells, gets in the face of his players, and is a tough disciplinarian. Leaders in sports are the players who perform when the pressure is on and the game is on the line. Their example motivates and inspires their teammates. The best leaders are those who make everyone around them better. That was Jesus. His example makes us better because it inspires us even as he shows us how to live the kingdom life. One of the greatest compliments given me at the time of my endorsement by Palo Duro Presbytery was the observation that my life reflected the respect and appreciation for others that my message proclaims.

Leaders have an air of quiet confidence. In some places this is called a “non-anxious presence.” This was Jesus when he was being challenged by the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. This was Jesus when the storm raged around his boat, and the disciples were in a panic. This is the coach who reassures his players and encourages their best. This is not arrogance or cockiness. This is confidence. I am confident that the PCUSA is not on its last legs, but that God is creating new ways to be the church in the 21st Century. They are taking root everywhere for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Good leaders equip and teach. When I coached Little League baseball, I had a personal rule that I would not criticize a player if I could not teach a proper technique. I had to show a player how to do it right, or I would not criticize him. Jesus was constantly teaching. His life was a constant teachable moment. He was showing his disciples by example what it looks like to be a citizen of God’s kingdom. I draw on my experience of working in highly conflicted situations to bring about unity and purpose, and I offer it to the PCUSA at this time of great uncertainty. I pray that whoever is elected by the 220th GA commissioners will teach the rest of us how to live together in peace, unity, and purity.

Finally, a leader is more interested in his followers than himself. In his “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17, Jesus prays, “I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost…” Jesus demonstrated his love over and over. A good leader does the same. I have a track record of creating relationships of love, respect and appreciation across the theological and political spectrum within the church. Remember what grew the early church: “See those Christians, how they love one another.”

I end this addition to my blog with this thought that plays on perhaps the most memorable of the Super Bowl commercials. It’s half time in the PCUSA. I pray for leaders to emerge that will lead us back from our deficit to the remarkable mission and ministry that is our heritage.

 

Starting to Blog

I approach this new undertaking with both trepidation and excitement. I admit to being intimidated by the new media for communications and social networking. As a digital immigrant, I am learning not only a new language but a new way of thinking. At the same time I am excited about the possibilities for sharing my thoughts, ideas, experience and hopes with an expanded audience. As the pastor of a wonderful Presbyterian church in Graham, Texas, I get the privilege of sharing the Gospel each Sunday. I continue to be humbled that people actually listen to what I say. I know they listen because they respond with questions, affirmations and challenges. Now, I get to expand the number of people who will consider what I have to say. That’s exciting.

As I have been thinking about the word “blog,” I immediately recall a horror movie from the 1950s called “The Blob.” Those of us old enough to have seen the original, remember the plot. Space ooze has come to earth, and it begins to absorb anything it touches. Was it a metaphor for the Communist threat during the heightened fear of the Cold War, or the McCarthyism that arose to defeat this threat? Either way it was a threatening menace to the world.

Have blogs become a similar threat to sane discourse about the great issues of our day? Do they threaten to absorb rational thought into a gooey mess of opinions and misinformation? Are there too many blogs out there, and am I simply adding to the information overload that can leave us paralyzed? I remember someone once said about a very famous contemporary theologian that “he never had an unpublished thought.” My professor in seminary used to remark about the “publish or perish” mentality of academia that too many of the books being written had very little substance. We would all be better served by more restraint in publishing and more careful editing of what is published. Does that apply to blogs as well?

Still, a blog is a convenient way to communicate with a large number of people. As I present myself as a candidate to be the moderator of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I need to let commissioners know what I’m thinking and what they will get if they elect me. So, here goes my first, real, thought through, written and scary blog post. Would that it not become just another bad horror movie remake.