Friday, March 25, 2011

What Gets God Pissed Off?

Well...let me just begin with a caveat (and a big one at that). I don't know what gets God pissed off. But I have a personal history with this question. On the second Sunday at my first appointment, Asbury United Methodist Church in Evansville, Indiana in the year 1985 - I quoted, during my sermon, from Alice Walker's book "The Color Purple" - where it says "God gets pissed off if you walk by the color purple in a field and don't admire it..." (not sure that's an exact quote, but it is as I recall it). All hell (so to speak) broke loose. They called a meeting of the Pastor-Parish Committee meeting for that very evening. I talked to my mom that afternoon and her exact words to me were "Mike, I didn't raise you to be that stupid." Point taken. I went and apologized to the members of the Pastor-Parish Committee for being young and stupid. They were gracious. But wary. But that's another story for another time.

Lately the Christian blogosphere (and a few places in the secular blogosphere) have been alive with a debate about heaven and hell (as in most cases the argument spends most of its time on the hell side of the debate - as if the debate itself wasn't a good example). The new Rob Bell book has stirred the pot most recently - but it's a hot topic nonetheless. And by a "hot topic" - I mean a hot topic in North America. My friends in Africa and Latin America have been telling me that it's not a topic of much conversation at all where they are. Hmmm. I thought that was interesting. I actually thought it would be much more of a "hot" topic there - guess I was wrong.

So, I got to thinking what did I know about what Jesus had to say about what we today call Hell - since I was 20 years old I've been reading through the Bible every year so I should have a good grasp of that right? It did take a little digging for me this afternoon to find all the references to hell in the Gospels. Seems like Matthew wanted to make sure that anytime Jesus ever said something about it that he got it covered - because Matthew's accounts touch on it twice as much as the rest of the Gospels combined!

The best known of those passages (by "best known" - I mean the ones that appear to be most widely known, anecdotally) have to do with wealth and poverty. There is the story of the sheep and the goats that can be found in Matthew 25. There is the story of Lazarus and Dives in Luke 16. There is the story of the wedding banquet in Matthew 23.

There are of course the very famous references which appear in a couple of the Gospels to taking off a hand, a foot, and plucking out an eye (so as to keep one from hell). Unfortunately I knew a young man in my last parish who took those passages so literally that he sawed off his own hand in his garage. But those passages are not as much in the public conversation (at least not the ones I'm around). I have been struck by what I have noticed as a lack of conversation at all about poverty and wealth when talking about these subjects (okay, I agree we don't talk about money at all in the church really anyway - or when we do it's more about giving to the church).

And it got me thinking that I'm hard pressed to remember any time in the Bible where God says, "you folks are being way too hard on rich people." In fact God's judgment against Israel is often around how they treat the poor. And this seems to be a somewhat common topic in the Gospels and in Paul's letters to the churches as well.

And we United Methodists certainly remember that commitments around responses of justice and charity, often around poverty, were central to Wesley's Methodist renewal movement in the Anglican Church.

I met yesterday afternoon with Terri and Katina and Duane and Lisa to talk together about what we will spend our time with this summer around Broadway. What a wonderful discussion. They talked about all the things they have been learning about their neighbors and we talked and dreamed together about how to name the abundance in the lives of their neighbors, how to bless and celebrate that abundance, and how to multiply it by joining it to abundance that it hasn't yet recognized. It's not perfect - far from it...but gosh I'm glad to be spending my time talking with my parishioners about what God is doing in the life of the world and not spending it sitting around trying to figure out how God is going to handle all the heaven and hell business. Seems like another debate for a group of rich folks to have. I wonder how God feels about that? About missing the abundance around us because of where we end up spending our time? I guess I'll find out one day.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

I Can't Fix It

What a glorious day. Good worship this morning. Great sermon by Rachel at the 8:30 and 10:45. Good, good, good conversations with many folks today. Some I made some mistakes in (but the only way to have avoided that was not to have them in the first place).

We had a meeting today that went very well. Marc did a great job in getting our governing council (called Diakonia - rather than the Administrative Board) off to a good start.

There was a lot of energy in the room. And Marc did an excellent job of channeling it in a positive direction. But there was something striking to me...I often say "go where the Holy Spirit is" (how do you tell? -- It's where the energy is...) - but today all the talk was about church growth - and I realized that this was coming out of anxiety. Not an irrational anxiety...but anxiety nonetheless. We all want to solve it and fix it. And me as much as anyone else. But anxiety is not the same as energy - and it is, I'm afraid, the opposite of the Holy Spirit (who surely is always saying to us "fear not"). So - how do we face our anxiety and fear and move on? I don't know. I can beat myself up plenty about that too.

I was talking with a friend about it this evening and he sent me this little youtube video - only 2 minutes and 23 seconds - of Parker Palmer which helped me. And that sent me back to a Mary Oliver poem I read this afternoon. And I'll share it here.

Another Everyday Poem

Every day
I consider
the lilies--
how they are dressed--

and the ravens--
how they are fed--
and how each of these
is a miracle

of Lord-love
and of sorrow--
for the lilies
in their bright dresses

cannot last
but wrinkle fast
and fall,
and the little ravens

in their windy nest
rise up
in such pleasure
at the sight

of fresh meat
that makes their lives sweet--
and what a puzzle it is
that such brevity--

the lavish clothes,
the ruddy food--
makes the world
so full, so good.

After reading this poem I thought some more (and it seemed an appropriate thing to do during Lent) about how it is that we, in the church, seemed to be just as scared about dying as the rest of the world - while we have a story that could set us free from that fear - or at least free from being overwhelmed by it.

And then I realized the extent to which that fear often binds me. I want to fix things and when I can't I beat myself up pretty well about it. But I forget that it's not mine to fix and as Samuel Wells reminds me - I don't write the last act of this story. God does. And thank God for that.

I think the next time I feel that fear coming up and on around me I will stop us for a moment and tell the Emmaus story...and then share a little bread and wine. I've got to keep that stuff closer at hand.

And so should our denomination. I feel like so much of what we are facing as a denomination is our fear of dying - it's why we argue about so much that counts for so little. Such fear Walt Wangerin says -- "a saw-toothed tool of the devil." Amen. Mary Oliver sees the world through resurrected eyes. I'm going to give that a try myself.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Cherished Diversities

A couple of weeks ago I had a big thrill. A friend of mine invited me to dinner, and the third party at our meal was Walter Brueggemann. What a delight. A genuine delight. I loved his sense of humor. I don't know - when I usually think of the Hebrew Scriptures - "Humor" is not the first word that jumps to mind (though perhaps it should). He laughed, we laughed, loud and long and often. We told stories and reveled in the mysteries and joys of life in the world, life in the Church, and life in the seminary.

I've been thinking on that evening as I've been reading, for Lent, "Prayers for a Privileged People." A couple of days this week, my friend and colleague De'Amon Harges (the Roving Listener), talked with a group of clergy (mostly younger clergy) from around the state who were gathered at Wabash College. We were asked to talk with them about the Church and it's mission and ministry in the world. I kept thinking of my evening with Walter and his little book of prayers.

Over the past week or so (okay, I'm sure it's been much longer than that) I've been meditating on the ways in which we in United Methodism in specific, and mainline protestantism in general, in this country, can get so distracted from the main thing (or even the main things) to which Jesus is attempting to draw the attention of his disciples. I wonder how it is that when I am so often around my colleagues there is so little conversation, except in the most surface and uninvolved and dispassionate way, about those around us who "the world looks down on and despises and thinks of as nothing" (in the words of Paul in the first chapter of I Corinthians). Oh...someone may offer a word in praise of a feeding ministry or a tutoring program - they may talk about housing the homeless...but if asked to name even one of the persons about whom they are speaking - nary a name arises out of their lips. And then I re-read the preface to Brueggemann's little book where he talks about how "our privilege tends to work against openheartedness." That helped me. Yes. That made some sense to me.

And then it especially came together this afternoon while talking with the poet, Mari Evans - in the midst of our neighborhood -- which even in the last 24 hours I have heard referred to as a "bad" neighborhood - as a place that people look down on - in fear and bigotry. Yes, yes, yes. Sometimes - perhaps too often -- our privilege works against openheartedness. But I had never thought of it that way before. And Mari ended our time together - talking poetry, faith and reminding me of an essay in her little book "Clarity as Concept" - in which she longs for and looks forward to the day when we celebrate our "CHERISHED DIVERSITIES" (caps are mine). What a lovely term.

While that day may not yet be here - we can celebrate it on Sunday morning, sure enough. While that day may not yet be here - I can celebrate that in my conversations with others. While that day may yet not be here - I can find a way to see and know and celebrate those cherished diversities. I may find ways to cherish them actively. I can too often get bogged down in what I view to be the blindness of so many in our denomination -- a blindness that frustrates and angers me (an anger for which I'm grateful and view as a gift of God) - but that can turn me away from celebration, rather than fuel a joyful expression of those cherished diversities.

So - I am grateful today for Walter Brueggemann and Mari Evans...teachers, poets, joyful guides to this life. Thank you.