Thursday, September 30, 2010

LIVES BUILT ON PAST MURDERS

A prayer of Stanley Hauerwas in his "Prayers Plainly Spoken"

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas makes this note before the following prayer: "I wrote this prayer during the celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus's 'discovery' of America."

Dear God,
our lives are made possible
by the murders of the past--
civilization is built on slaughters.
Acknowledging our debt to killers
frightens and depresses us.
We fear judging, so we say,
"That's in the past."
We fear to judge because
in so judging we are judged.
Help us, however, to
learn to say no, to say,
"Sinners though we are,
that was wrong and is wrong."
May we do so with love.
Amen

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

10 CRITICAL CHRISTIAN PRACTICES


Essential practices that I think, more than any others, shape our spirituality

In no particular order:
  1. Be still.  It’s also called centering down.  It’s linked to solitude and silence and is the heart of contemplative prayer.  For me, this is what makes prayer possible. It’s only when I am still that I can begin to listen and hear the “still, small Voice” that is not my own or any other’s.
  1. Fear not.  A lot of fear-based activity is passed off as faith-based.  Parker Palmer puts it succinctly: “We have fears, but we don’t have to become our fears.”  Think about the many times in the Old and New Testaments we hear this imperative.  What fears are driving you?  Name each let them go in light of grace.
  1. Forgive.  “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”  “Forgive us our sins/debts/trespasses as we forgive…”  Forgiven of insurmountable debt, we are called to forgive relatively lesser offenses.  Commit to it and you will find grace assisting you.  Recall, also, that you live as a forgiven person.
  1. Repent.  Related to confession, repentance goes beyond it.  It is an existential turning of heart and mind.  It should be continuous.  Every time we realize another aspect of our lives that remains unyielded to the way of grace, repentance is appropriate.  “To turn, turn will be our delight, ‘til by turning, turning we come ‘round right.”
  1. Make room.  Hospitality shapes and defines us as much as anything else.  Go out of your way wherever you are.  Welcome strangers as Christ.  Not just nice strangers who seem like us.  Not just occasionally, but routinely.  Not to convert, but to serve and learn from.
  1. Gather together.  “Do not forsake assembling together.”  “Where two or more are gathered together in my name…”  Community may not be found in assemblies smaller or larger, but the Spirit certainly will not have an opportunity to melt and meld hearts otherwise.
  1. Attend to the Word.  We find our story reflected in the stories of the Scriptures.  Take the Bible literally, though not literalistically.  It’s not magic.  It’s not about rules.  It reveals a relationship and a way and a future.  Turn to it often as a wise and faithful friend.
  1. Tell the truth.  Bearing false witness—from little white lies to legal perjury—poisons relationships, shatters trust and cheapens life.  Of course, one doesn’t have to speak a word to misrepresent what’s real and right.  Truth short-circuits the endless rationalizations and self-justifications that consume psychic energy and sabotage what grace makes possible.  Truth-telling sets things right.
  1. Love.  Be merciful.  Choose compassion over judgments.  Regard others with unconditional love.  Since we are loved infinitely, we can find a way to love our neighbor as ourselves and love our enemies, too.  If we get everything else right but this, says Paul, we’re missing the point.
  1. Serve.  Jesus “came not to be served but to serve.”  This is not so much a position as it is an action.  Disregard yourself.  Where there’s a need, pitch in.  When someone’s hurting, help.  Make a difference.  Lay down your life.  A South American poet writes, “Whoever gives of himself grows.”

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

BRINK OF AUTUMN

LEAF CHANGE. So early do schools start in Indiana, late September feels like we are deep into the season instead of at autumn's onset. I love the spirituality of fall, which is what I try to describe in this poem. Change is occurring, ready or not. Better to turn and face its in-gathering and soul-baring possibilities. Autumn invites us to an experience of grace. Live it to the full. 

On the brink of autumn,
a hint of chill in the air,
the sun’s setting sooner,
in a few days we’ll be there

where green turns to golden
and reapers harvest the yield,
where dry leaves are falling
and flocking fowl arc the fields.

Then we’ll don our jackets
and brace ourselves for the wind
that rustles through branches
and billows our souls again.

Do not shrink back from fall;
embrace this gilded season
as a grace that descends;
a gift to all from heaven.

It’s time for returning,
for in-bringing and burning,
for heart walks in deep woods,
for distilling, discerning.

What’s muddled becomes clear
and all chaff is left exposed
as autumn’s sun glows bright
and a harvest moon shines cold.

We may shed pretenses
and travel a lighter way
our hearts as crisp as leaves
that lift and then sail away.

As we are being turned,
turn—facing all the changes,
the falling, the cooling,
and the encroaching darkness.

Lean into the season
lest it overtake your way.
let your soul be opened;
relish its gift this fall day.

Monday, September 27, 2010

RIDICULOUS WORLD

A prayer of Stanley Hauerwas in his book, “Prayers Plainly Spoken”

“Holy One of Israel, who called Abraham and Sarah out of Ur, who called us, your church, out of the nations, save us from self-righteousness.  You have made us different so that our difference might save the world.  But too often our differences tempt us to ridicule because the world, after all, is ridiculous.  Never let us forget that we too are the world, and so also ridiculous.  Shape the judgments of our neighbors and our own foolish judgments by your love, so that we might be together saved—that is, be a people that continue the journey out of Ur.  Amen.”

Sunday, September 26, 2010

CONVENTIONAL MIDDLE


The notion of a serene middle ground is, to me, quite dangerous

When I wrote the following poem, I was thinking that I don’t want to come to the end of my life having protected myself, insulated myself, isolated myself from the real hopeful and painful world.  I'm convinced that the most dangerous spiritual and cultural place in America is “the conventional middle.”  It only seems like middle ground.  It only appears to be safe.  It is, in fact, a place of tepid compromises based on suspicions, fears, and herd mentality.  So, hang appearances.  Shake loose illusions and creature comforts.  The invitation—the challenge—is to move to the edge of faith and discipleship and the fullness of living today.

The conventional middle
resists change.
It is a safe place
for now.
It counts on eventualities
and references everything
by how it may impact
me.
It fears more than
it believes.
It surrounds itself with
symbols of assurance
and mistakes dutifulness
for obedience
and pleasantness
for joy.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

CONDESCEND


“Condescend to the
weaknesses and infirmities
of your fellow creatures,
cover their frailties,
love their excellencies,
encourage their virtues, 
relieve their wants,
rejoice in their prosperities,
compassionate their distress,
receive their friendship,
overlook their unkindness,
forgive their malice,
be a servant of servants,
and condescend to do the
lowest offices to the
lowest of mankind."

-- William Law

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

LEAST OF OUR TASKS


Our daily work in the world offered to God is sacred

I read from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's Divine Milieu: "The closeness of our union with Him is in fact determined by the exact fulfillment of the least of our tasks... God, in all that is most living and incarnate in Him, is not far away from us, altogether apart from the world we see, touch, hear, smell, and taste about us. Rather, He awaits us every instant in our action, in the work of the moment."

Teilhard continues: "There is a sense in which He is at the tip of my pen, my spade, my brush, my needle--of my heart and of my thought. By pressing the stroke, the line, or the stitch, on which I am engaged to its ultimate natural finish, I shall lay hold of that last end toward which my innermost will tends."

And I pray:

God, You who are great and beyond my imagination,
Yet so near as to breathe with me,
move in me, work through me,
I acknowledge Your steadfast love for me
in all my doings.

You do not ask me to set aside
my daily struggles for the community
in order to worship You,
to be formed spiritually.
But, lest I lose my bearings, I ask
for eyes and heart to see this daily work
more and more as Your holy activity,
announcing, bit by bit, Your kingdom.

Let my fits of religiosity fall by the way side
if they sidetrack or diminish what is most daily.
Instead, let all formal or focused worship of You
be my expression of thanksgiving and intentionality,
of conscious openness to Word, Sacrament,
and fellowship,
set among days and dailyness of co-laboring
with You in Your vineyard.

Teach me how to live in the world
and to love my life here,
all the while worshipping You alone.

Let me not fear the most tedious and
trivial things of the day as
interferences with Your purposes.
Let me live them as challenges, opportunities,
as means of grace,
for the spiritual formation of my soul
and the movement toward Your fullness,
even for the completion of the world.

Amen.

Monday, September 20, 2010

AS CLOSE AS WE WILL EVER GET TO GOD

"What we have most in common
is not religion but humanity.
Christianity teaches us that
encountering another human being
is as close to God as we may ever get--
in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing--
which is where God's Beloved has
promised to show up. Paradoxically,
the point is not to see Him.  The point
is to see the person standing right
in front of us, who has no substitute,
who can never be replaced, whose
heart holds things for which there is
no language, whose life is
an unsolved mystery."
                       -- Barbara Brown Taylor

Saturday, September 11, 2010

LETTER TO MY FOUR CHILDREN AFTER 9/11


Written on Friday, September 14, 2001

Abby, Jared, Molly, and Sam:

I want to tell you my feelings and responses to the World Trade Center tragedy, the terrorism that caused it, and our nation’s responses.  So much has happened so quickly, things too big for rational minds and hearts to handle alone and in so short a time.

This is the most grave and awesome thing that has occurred in my lifetime.  Nothing compares to it.  It stretches my senses and challenges what I believe about humanity, evil, good, God, hope, our nation, and the world.  It tests my faith and causes me to search my heart.  Someday you will better understand what I am trying to express.

In one sense, the scenes and replays on TV are distant.  They seem like an unreal video game.  Our family was not harmed, our community was not attacked; we know no one whose life was taken in New York City or Washington, D.C.  The events occurred in other parts of our country and it appears that we are safe.

In another sense, this tragedy comes very close to home.  It makes many Americans feel vulnerable to terrorism here in our own land.  Because of it, a lot of safety and security measures will begin.  And, because of it, the United States may likely take military action intended to prevent it from happening again.

I have felt fragile since the tragedy, many times this week at the point of tears.  I tell myself it is over, that it is distant, and that we need to get on with our normal lives.  But I have this lump in my throat and pain in my heart.  I hurt for those people who lost loved ones and friends.  It is so sad and so senseless.

I am also feeling anger about the tragedy.  I feel anger at the terrorists and people who provide a place for them to plan and train for their destructive schemes.  Anger is a natural and powerful emotion at such terrible acts that snuff out life—whether one or many.  Anger, however, need not be vented as aggression or rage or destruction.

It may sound strange, but at the same time I am also feeling love for the terrorists.  For all their meanness and despicable actions, I believe they are still children of God.  My faith leads me to this feeling.  These must be desperately hurting and angry people to have done something like this.  Perhaps it is their own outrage at their own losses, or the loss of people whom they love, that has driven and twisted them.

I do not know why they did this, or why they hate as they do.  But I believe that God loves them as God loves each of us.  And I know that the Scriptures speak of a Spirit of love that overcomes hate and makes possible a love for one’s enemies.  Romans 12:17-21 challenges me: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Do not take revenge…but leave room for God’s wrath.  On the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

You have seen and heard President Bush and our national leaders call for war against terrorism and vow to retaliate against these terrorists and the governments that harbor them.  I have very mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, to act to prevent further acts of terrorism on our soil seems reasonable.  So does seeking out and bringing the perpetrators of this crime to justice.  On the other hand, to lash out broadly in vengeance with the destruction of lives is contrary to my sense of the Scriptures and of Christianity.  And I have reminded myself this week that I am a Christian first and an American second.

I do not believe war is justified simply because leaders call for it or because such a crime has been committed.  There are other strong but peaceful ways to see justice prevail.  “Seek peace and pursue it” is the prevailing guidance of the Scriptures.  Perhaps there are rare situations in which peaceful methods cannot bring resolution to international conflicts.  But most often peaceful measures—including sincerely seeking to understand our enemies’ pain and changing our own agitating behaviors—are not given a fair chance.

I am also feeling somewhat afraid in the wake of the tragedies in New York City and Washington, D.C.  Fear, too, is a natural response to such attacks.  But I am taking my fear to God in prayer.  I am reminding myself of the constant call of the Word of God: “Do not be afraid.  I am with you.  I will never leave you or forsake you.”  I have found comfort and hope in Psalm 46 this week.  Also in hymns like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  In your times of fear, I hope you will find these helpful to you, too.

I just wanted you to know my feelings and responses to this tragedy.  It is sometimes hard to talk about these things and our feelings about them, but it is important to me to try to convey my feelings and thoughts to you.  I do so because I love you very much.  I hope for the very best for you and for your futures.

Love,

Dad

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

CHASING SAINTS

I've stopped putting heroes and saints on pedestals

I am tired of chasing saints,
Hinging my significance on
   internalizing theirs,
Consulting their writings for
   self validation,
Wanting to travel to where they are
   said to have trod,
Mimicking their outward actions,
   postures and attitudes,
Creating auras around sinners who
   struggle just like me.

From the pedestal upon which
   I have frozen them,
These statues glance down to say
   it was never to be this way.

I listened to one who sought out
   Mother Teresa in Calcutta.
Her pride at possessing her blessing,
   and my envy of it,
Told me that we both had it
   quite wrong.

One more seminar attended,
   one more book on my shelf,
Another privileged encounter
   leaves me groping emptily.

How soon the glow fades and I
   feel as shallow as I did
After standing in line for hours
   to get Neil Diamond concert tickets.

Less and less do I chase saints out of
   history or into hiding.
Better to appreciate their witness from
   a respectful distance,
To think of them as fellow companions,
   as friends on a common journey,
Or as gracious hosts at the end of
   a day-long trek.

Not people on a pedestal, or heroes to worship,
   saints have simply gone before
Or presently stand in a different place,
   offering notes and markings for the journey.

Chasing saints ends when I recognize that
   I, too, am a saint:
Sinful and broken like they,
   and just as redeemed and empowered
To follow the Master, exploring grace and
   transcendent love
Until we no longer reflect ourselves
   but Him who calls us forward.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

WHEN IT COMES DOWN TO BURNING A KORAN

For the record and in the hope of prodding some of my fellow Christians to speak out...

First off, I refute the words and intentions of the Florida pastor of a Christian church who is promising to burn the Koran on September 11.  As a Christian clergy, this man's words and perspective offend and embarrass me.  Much of what I have learned as a theology student and pastor regarding the treatment of people of other faiths runs counter to what this man is saying and intending.  We are only Christian as we speak and act Christianly.  It seems to me that while Terry Jones may be simply reflecting predictable applications of Fundamentalist Christianity, he is not reflecting authentic Christianity.

Second, the eerie silence of evangelicals in the face of this man's posturing and rhetoric is unnerving to me.  To date, I have heard next to nothing in response (I will add links to statements at the bottom of this post as I learn of them). To my knowledge, my own denominational leaders have made no public statement in response.  If they have, I'd like to know and have a link so I can share some important news. [9/11/10 update: note a link to Free Methodist Bishop David Kendall's blog post on 9/11/10 at the end of this post]  This silence is concerning particularly because Christian missionaries working in predominantly Muslim countries are at a rising risk for reprisals (a) if this Florida pastor carries through with what he intends and (b) if people of Muslim faith around the world do not hear an overwhelming refutation of this pastor's words and actions.

Third, while this news item, along with news swirling around the issue of the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York City, are not of the churches' or Christians' own making, per se, the implications for Christianity in America and around the world are more than insignificant.  The inflammatory nature of the two issues calls for a resounding condemnation of religious bigotry and affirmation of authentic Christian perspective--regardless of people and parishioners' opinions regarding them.  To remain silent at this point, it seems to me, is to give tacit approval of hatred and bigotry and misapplication of the Bible and Christian doctrine.

Fourth, I wonder how much uncertainty or tenuousness regarding Christian relationship to the Muslim faith--along with outright bigotry against Islam--has contributed to the lack of leadership and guidance among American Christian leaders in the face of the NYC issue and now the threat of Koran burning?  I know many Christians who do not think Islam is at all a valid faith and suspect people of Muslim faith of being violent.  Why are Christian pastors and leaders not giving forthright guidance to parishioners regarding relationship to Islam and other faiths? Perhaps because we know so little of the Islamic faith, have so few neighborly relationships with Muslims, and, for all our claims of religious tolerance, harbor our own Fundamentalist-borne notions about our faith in relationship to others.


So, personal reticence or ministry preoccupations or ignorance or lack of courage and foresight in American conservative Christian leadership failed to frame issues around the Islamic community center near Ground Zero or give guidance to pastors and parishioners.   The source of the fire was not extinguished; a line was not dug around it to limit and rob it of fuel.  Voices of leadership have been--and still are--eerily silent.  Now, it comes down to the brink of a conflagration of violence and hatred with a Fundamentalist pastor leading people in what he's dubbed "International Burn a Koran Day" on September 11.


Why not speak out?  It may not be too late.  Why not write to the Florida pastor to encourage him to stop it?  Write  to info@doveworld.org.  Speak the truth in love.  Or, why not get on plane and fly down to Gainesville, Florida to stand in prayerful protest against this man's actions on Saturday?  With the lives of Christian missionaries and the witness of the church around the world on the line, is anything really more important this weekend?

Links to evangelicals who have spoken out against the words and intentions of Pastor Terry Jones:


Statement by the National Association of Evangelicals (Sept 8): http://www.nae.net/news-and-events/483-the-gospel-of-jesus-christ-is-good-news

A summary of statements from some evangelical leaders (July 30): http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/julyweb-only/40.51.0.html

National Council of Churches statement (Sept 9):  http://www.ncccusa.org/news/100909nineelevenletter.html

Free Methodist Bishop David Kendall (Sept 11):  http://fmcna.typepad.com/david_kendall/2010/09/why-followers-of-jesus-could-never-burn-the-quran.html


Monday, September 6, 2010

5 TRAITS OF ETHICAL LEADERS

Robert K. Greenleaf shunned a code and instead articulated traits that would guide people in ethical leadership

Whether or not you’ve read it, you’ve no doubt heard of Servant Leadership, the book and approach to leading articulated by Robert K. Greenleaf that has shaped some of the best practices in the for-profit, nonprofit and public sectors.  True leaders are those who lead by serving and empowering others, Greenleaf taught.  Leaders sense their stewardship and commit to growing people and building community.  They are people who “seek to seek,” not just seek to find.  “The search is the thing,” he said, “only then is something likely to happen.


I recently came across an article by Anne T. Fraker that described Greenleaf’s approach to ethics among managers and leaders.  At the heart of this approach is Greenleaf’s conviction that a leader and manager accepts a high level of personal responsibility.  One is “to think, speak, and act as if he or she is personally accountable to all who may be affected by his/her thoughts, words, and deeds.”  Wow!  But, instead of detailing a code of ethics, Greenleaf notes five traits that guide leaders to soundly ethical behavior and practices.

1.       Strength.  To Greenleaf, this is “the ability to see enough choices of aims, to choose the right aim and to pursue that aim responsibly over a long period of time.” Fraker says that he believed that “making the right choices must include individual judgments tested by one’s one frame of reference for life’s meaning and by traditional ethical and moral values.”  This strength is not something that comes through corporate ladder climbing, but in personal search and development.  In Greenleaf’s way of thinking “strength” is very different from the “strong man, strong arm” machismo-oriented approaches of leadership.  Greenleaf is pointing to depth and breadth, consideration and reflection, and the soundness, conviction and readiness that come from such contemplation.  This, to me, is the most critical of all other traits and one that seems to be too-quickly passed over by many would-be leaders who control lots of power and destinies.

2.      Openness to knowledge.  Fraker notes that Greenleaf taught three ways of openness to knowledge: “take reference from the available formal knowledge,” cultivate one’s “own resources of intuitive knowledge,” and contribute what one can to “the general pool of management knowledge.”

3.      Foresight.  A manager and leader “must see future events that will involve him or her before other people see them,” said Greenleaf.  Digest this: “Serious ethical compromises are often attributable to yesterday’s failure to see today and take the right action yesterday.”  Foresight, according to Greenleaf, “is the central ethic of leadership.”

4.      Entheos.  Beyond mere enthusiasm, entheos is “the essence, the power actuating one who is inspired.”  This is what develops strength in a person.  Greenleaf considered entheos a sustaining force.  Entheos supports “venturesome, risk-taking action,” prods the conscience to keep open to knowledge, is an influence to keeping the future in the present, and is a vital link between one’s religious beliefs and one’s workday actions.  Greenleaf considered status, social, material and family success all invalid measures of growth via entheos.  Instead, he named dissatisfaction with the status quo, centering down, broadening of responsibilities, a “growing sense of purpose--an overriding purpose--in all that is undertaken.”

5.      Sense of purpose combined with the ability to laugh.  Balancing the very serious trait of purpose is the readiness to laugh and have fun.  “One can cultivate purpose to the point of having a glimpse of the ultimate and still remain connected with people and events IF one has humor, if one can laugh with all people at all stages of their journeys.”  “Purpose and laughter are twins that must not separate,” he said, “Each is empty without the other.  Together, they are the impregnable fortress of strength.”

It seems to me that all of these are necessary and that if you take Greenleaf seriously, you can’t pick and choose two or three of these.  They belong together.  And they assume one is already rooted in traditional ethical and moral values and engaged in a search for life’s ultimate meanings.  These are critical caveats to consider.  It would be much easier just to follow a “do’s and don’t’s” code.  But the capacity for creative good unleashed in what Greenleaf describes is worth the risk of cultivating traits and living forwardly as leaders who embody high ethics.

The Greenleaf quotes are from Anne T. Fraker’s chapter “Robert K. Greenleaf and Business Ethics: There Is No Code” in Reflections on Leadership: How Robert K. Greenleaf’s Theory of Servant-Leadership Influenced Today’s Top Management Thinkers, 1995, John Wiley & Sons.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

IDEOLOGICAL IDOLS

Can we fill our minds with so much ideological babble that we cannot hear with a heart of faith?

I wrote the following bit thinking of some folks I have served as pastor whose minds were so shaped by listening to Rush Limbaugh hour upon hour every day that his perspectives seemed to be the filter through which they saw and heard everything, even the Gospel.  They would challenge me when I shared parts of the Bible that didn't meet their litmus test.  So much for a Christ-shaped conscience.  But Dittoheads are not the only ones at risk.  Ideologies of every sort and intensity vie for our minds and our hearts.  Beware.
  
Political ideologies absorbed
via radio, TV and idle conversation
all week long
feed my frustrations,
fuel my suspicions,
form  my thinking,
mock my carelessness,
flag my rights,
name my enemies,
demand that my self interest
be central and satisfied
in the name of God,
for the good of Country
and the preservation of
Freedom itself.

Is this the Way
I have chosen?
Is it the Truth
I have embraced?
Is this the Life
I am promised?

What’s that beneath the noise:
a still, small Voice?

Without vigilance
and careful discernment
amid clashing kingdoms,
I may unwittingly impose
a once-rejected idol’s imprint
over Christ’s image
on my heart.