“Infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” – Pastor’s Report for 2014

“Infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” – Pastor’s Report for 2014

J. Barrett Lee:

My annual Pastor’s Report to North Presbyterian Church

Originally posted on North Presbyterian Church:

Wow, it has been quite an eventful year at North!

2014 was our first full calendar year together as pastor & congregation. We faced many challenges & opportunities, overcoming obstacles with faith in God, “whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

Family

In the life of my family, it has been a delight to really start to put down roots and become part of the Kalamazoo community. Our daughter started kindergarten this year at El Sol Elementary School. We have become invested in the fabric of the Vine neighborhood, where we live. We saw God’s hand at work there when a condemned former crack house on our street was finally razed by the city. Neighborhood residents then joined forces to transform the empty lot into a community garden. Through this common cause, residents on the block have come to know and care…

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Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did (Reblog)

Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did (Reblog)

Originally posted on North Presbyterian Church:

Reblogged from Daily Kos:

At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn’t that he “marched” or gave a great speech.

My father told me with a sort of cold fury, “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”

Please let this sink in and and take my word and the word of my late father on this. If you are a white person who has always lived in the U.S. and never under a brutal dictatorship, you probably don’t know what my father was talking about.

But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.

He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south.

Click here to read the full article

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(Reblog) I am Not Charlie: a Christian response to the killings in Paris

This is a reblog of an article by my seminary professor, Bob Ekblad:

I was deeply troubled by news of this week’s killings of journalists at Charlie Hebdo, France’s beloved satirical newspaper, by two French Muslim brothers of Algerian descent, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi. I’ve been haunted by footage I saw of these gunmen’s shooting of a police officer in cold blood on a Parisian street where our good friends live and where we regularly stay. The killing of four hostages in the Jewish kosher grocery store by another jihadist activist, followed by the French police’s shooting of all three gunmen, has made this a traumatic week for France and the world.

Should we be surprised by these killings? Offense, resentment, and shame carried by many young Muslim men and others on the margins today incite rage. In this case, the rage is directed against the dishonoring gaze and mocking words of journalism that appears to consider nothing sacred, except free speech.

Click here to read the full article on Bob’s blog

(Reblog) Review of Lupton’s Toxic Charity

Review of Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton

Ryan P. Cumming of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has written a top-notch critical review of this book that has recently been making waves in the non-profit sector of our community. The book is quite popular and those who love it accept its conclusions as gospel truth. Cummings does an excellent job in his short review of pointing out the book’s finer points while also not glossing over its major flaws.

Most other reviewers speak admiringly of the author and his statements. The few negative reviews tend to emphasize the reviewer’s pet issues (i.e. social justice, evangelism, etc.) while ignoring the substance of the book itself. This is the first critical review I’ve seen that treats the substance of the book fairly:

I won’t dignify his words with the verb “argues” because Lupton doesn’t argue his points; he simply states them.  I would be concerned that statements like this, when coupled with his criticisms of charity, would motivate more people to avoid service work in the first place than to engage in the community development he suggests…

…The difficulty here is not his rejection or support of foreign aid or welfare.  There are arguments to be made on both sides of the debate.  The problem is that the only apparent research Lupton draws on is Dambisa Moyo’s controversial 2009 book Dead Aid.  Outside of this, Lupton appears to draw on his own experience, which I admit is extensive, but this does not make for a well-defended argument.   And this is vitally necessary when making statements about both the poor and government’s relationship to them that are far from self-evident.

Click here to read Cumming’s full review at elca.org

Level Up

super-mario-bros-pc-game-_imagenGrande1I am very much a product of my generation (the 1980s). I’m right on the tail-end of Generation X, not quite a Millennial.

The generation right before mine (my parents) was the first TV generation. They grew up watching television, instead of listening to the radio or reading books aloud. I remember my grandparents being scandalized by television: they thought Elvis Presley’s hip-gyrations were obscene (I’m thankful they didn’t live to see Miley Cyrus’ twerking).

The generation after mine (my kids) is the online generation. They don’t remember a time when the internet didn’t exist. Their experience of watching TV is totally different from mine as a kid. They never have to look at a TV guide or be home at a certain time to catch their favorite show, but my three-year-old already knows the difference between Netflix and Hulu (and has very strong opinions about which one is better).

My generation, on the other hand, is the Nintendo generation. We grew up slamming plastic cartridges into consoles and sitting almost motionless in front of screens for hours at a time, while our thumbs flew over the controllers at the speed of light. When Mom thought we’d had enough, she would send us outside to play in the fresh air (at which point we would simply run down the street to play Nintendo at a friend’s house).

When you grow up as part of the Nintendo generation, there are certain concepts that you just kind of instinctively understand in the marrow of your bones. Video games have shaped the way we look at reality. One such concept is the idea of ‘leveling up’ or ‘going up to the next level’.

In the Nintendo world, when a player completes a challenge (i.e. solves a puzzle, defeats an enemy, completes an obstacle course, etc.), she or he then moves on to the next challenge/puzzle/enemy, which is inevitably more difficult than all the previous ones. This is what we mean by ‘leveling up’ or ‘going to the next level.’ When you’ve successfully completed all the levels in a given program, then you can say that you ‘beat the game’.

[Notice that I didn’t say ‘win’. Nobody ever really ‘wins’ a video game because there’s no lasting reward. After all that effort: hours of stress and focus, all you really get is the bragging rights to say to your friends, ‘I beat that game.’]

Now, I want you to keep this idea of ‘levels’ and ‘leveling up’ in your mind as we turn to look at our gospel text from this morning…

Once again, we meet John the Baptist, who we previously encountered in our readings during the season of Advent. John is kind of an odd duck. John is a prophet (more like a monk, actually): he lives a simple, celibate life out in the desert, preaches to anyone who will listen, criticizes the culture around him, and invites people to take part in this cleansing ritual called ‘baptism’.

People would come to hear him preach and anyone who felt moved by what he had to say could come forward to be baptized. Their participation in this ritual washing was a sign that they wanted to commit themselves to the kind of ideals that John was talking about.

John represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ from the civil religion of his culture. For most of the people around him, being Jewish was just part of being an Israelite: it was the religion of their culture. John wanted people to take their faith seriously. He thought faith should be a decision that affected the way they lived.

John called his fellow Jews back to the roots of their faith. He wasn’t impressed by their appeals to cultural pedigree. He said to them:

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

John was a reformer, just like the prophets Elijah and Jeremiah before him (in the Old Testament) and Martin Luther and John Calvin after him (in the Protestant Reformation).

Jesus, on the other hand, represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ that was entirely different from John’s. While John preached a message of conversion (i.e. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance”), Jesus preached a gospel of grace and inclusion.

Jesus’ ministry was one of acceptance toward those who were rejected and despised by polite, religious society. It was the “tax collectors and sinners” who Jesus chose to befriend. In the case of Zacchaeus, Matthew Levi, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears: Jesus’ modus operandi seems to be “forgiveness first, then repentance”. Jesus dared to assert that salvation begins, not with human effort toward moral goodness, but with the sovereign grace of God reaching out to embrace sinners.

This message certainly scandalized the Pharisees and Sadducees, who eventually conspired to have Jesus killed, but it also confused John the Baptist himself. Sometime after John was imprisoned and Jesus’ ministry got started, John sent a message to Jesus, wondering whether he really was the promised Messiah they had been waiting for. John had expected a powerful moral leader who would “baptize with fire” and carry “his winnowing fork in his hand… to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

John thought that Jesus’ ministry would look much like his own, but bolder and more effective on a large scale. What he saw instead was a gentle Messiah, a “Prince of Peace” who revealed the heart of God to the world as Love.

Just as John had represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ from the Jewish civil religion of the first century, so Jesus represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ from the message of conversion to the gospel of grace. Jesus’ message includes John’s (just as John’s message included the Torah and traditions of the Jewish elders), but went far beyond it. The Gospel of Christ is ‘the next level’ in the religious development of Judaism, which started with God’s covenant with Abraham, continued through Moses and the prophets, and concluded with John the Baptist.

When I look around at our society today, I give thanks for the many preachers like John the Baptist who call the people of our own culture to take their faith more seriously. Like John before them, these fiery preachers rail loudly against immorality and preach a message of conversion. You can hear their message pretty much anytime you tune the TV or radio to some religious programming.

These preachers are obviously having an effect (just like John): their parishioners talk about their conversion like a “line in the sand” that separates their old life from the new. People testify about overcoming various addictions and compulsions, leaving behind lives of crime and vice, rising above challenges and limitations… all thanks to their newfound faith. Make no mistake: this is a good thing and we should thank God for it. These people have ‘leveled up’ in their understanding of God, their commitment to faith, and in their overall quality of life. John’s message makes a difference.

However, I think it would be a mistake to think that the Christian journey ends with conversion. Conversion is only a beginning. There is another kind of ‘leveling up’ for those who continue to journey with Jesus and discover in the Scriptures and the Sacraments just how deep and wide God’s love really is.

Do we dare to believe that the love of God would still embrace us, even if we had never turned ourselves around or listened to John’s message of conversion? Can we picture ourselves as the sinners who Jesus loves unconditionally, before we even have an opportunity to confess or repent? Is it possible that we really are “saved by grace alone” as the Protestant reformers so boldly declared in the 16th century?

These are big questions that have the capacity to shake the Church to its very foundations, just as it shook the religious establishment in the time of John and Jesus.

The most amazing thing about the gospel of Jesus is that you ‘level up’, not by becoming a better Christian, but by being a really bad one. It is not our spiritual success, but our failure that reveals the deepest heart of God to us.

The moment when we truly see the face of God in Jesus is that moment when we collapse at his feet, dressed only in the filthy, tattered rags of our own self-righteousness. Salvation comes to us when the saint within us is finally killed off by our inner sinner’s failure to live up to impossible moral and spiritual standards. Those are the moments when Jesus comes to us, picks us up, and carries us to the next level of spiritual growth.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only system I know where you succeed by failing. I have heard it said that all religion is humanity reaching out to God, but the gospel is God reaching out to humanity. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, a Christian from the second century, said it this way: “In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God became human so that humanity might become divine.”

This morning, as we welcome several new members into our church community (two of whom are being baptized), I want to invite you to reflect again on the meaning of this sacrament:

God accepts us, claims us, saves us, cleanses us, and washes us clean in the waters of baptism. This happens long before any of us has the capacity to say or do anything to influence God’s opinion of us. The love of God in Christ is absolute, unconditional, and universal. I invite you to meditate on your own baptism today, whether you remember it or not: Imagine the water of grace surrounding you, washing you clean, and hear in your heart the voice from heaven speaking to you, just as it did to Jesus:

“You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

The Adoration of the Outsiders

Eliza_Codex_24_Ethiopian_Biblical_Manuscript_a

Ethiopian Biblical Manuscript. Public Domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

A few years ago, there was a big to-do about this book (and subsequent movie), The Da Vinci Code. I won’t get into the particulars of the plot, suffice to say that it provoked a lot of big, emotional reactions from people everywhere.

On the one hand, a lot of church-folks were offended by the ideas it presented, which didn’t exactly mesh with what we had learned as kids in Sunday School. On the other hand, a lot of folks from outside the church were really excited about the book because they thought it revealed a picture of Jesus that was bigger than the one presented by traditional Christianity.

I even had one friend who said, “I knew it! The Vatican has known about this stuff all along, they’ve just kept it hidden and locked up in some secret vault so that the rest of us won’t find out about it.”

Well, I don’t think I’d put much stock in that particular theory… or in the book’s ideas about the historical Jesus (The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction after all), but I do find the whole phenomenon extremely fascinating from a sociological point of view.

During the peak of the book’s popularity, Jesus Christ was once again on the cover of popular, secular magazines. Books were being written (and read) about him. For a brief cultural moment (and not for the first or the last time), everyone was talking about who Jesus is and what he means to the world. It was a really interesting thing to behold.

And here’s what stood out to me in that conversation:

People feel drawn to Jesus. They want to be connected to him somehow, even if they never darken the door of a church or call themselves Christians. Jesus means a lot to people. There are few, even in the non-religious world, who speak negatively about Jesus or the things he said and did. Most secular criticism is directed, not at Jesus himself, but at us Christians (and what we have done in his name).

In this morning’s gospel reading, we read about a group of people, the wise men, who also felt drawn to Jesus. Like the readers of The Da Vinci Code, these people came to encounter him from outside the bounds of conventional, orthodox, institutional religion.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”

To begin with, these wise men were not Jewish. The text of Matthew’s gospel simply says they were “from the east”, which probably means they came from Persia (the part of the world we now know as Iraq and Iran). They wouldn’t have known anything about the Bible or Jewish customs. They had probably never been to a synagogue service in their life.

So then, how did they come to be aware of this miraculous birth?

“For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

They were astrologers. They studied the stars and interpreted their movements as messages from heaven. We have astrologers today who do similar work, but most of it is for entertainment via 1-900 numbers. In the ancient world, astrology was generally accepted as a form of science. Kings and generals would have depended on the predictions of astrologers for guidance.

The message these particular astrologers were discerning from the stars was that something significant was happening in the Jewish homeland. A royal baby was being born. Matthew doesn’t say why, but something in these astrologers’ hearts was stirred enough that they felt compelled to go and pay their respects to the new baby.

So, they did what any reasonable person would do: bring gifts of congratulations to the royal palace in the capital city: Jerusalem. These wise men, Persian astrologers, felt drawn to Jesus, even though they had no idea where to go or what to do when they got there.

King Herod and the Jewish leaders, on the other hand, didn’t fare much better. Even though the astrologers had gotten a little turned around, at least they were aware that something important had happened. The astrologers’ arrival woke the Jewish leaders up to what they had forgotten or neglected in the midst of their own self-important agendas.

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.”

The astrologers’ questions sent the theologians and seminary professors scrambling for answers. As it turned out, the answer they were looking for was in a tiny, little, forgotten village:

“They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

The arrival of these outsiders and their questions woke the Jewish religious scholars up to those parts of their own country and their own faith that they had neglected for too long. At this point, Herod and the religious leaders have an opportunity before them. Their eyes have been opened to the Messiah’s birth. They now have the chance to step outside their own selfish, little worlds and become part of what God is doing on earth. Is that what they do?

“Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.”

Instead, there is a reactionary pushback against this news of the Messiah’s birth. The powerful ones are secretly plotting and scheming, not so that they can be part of what God is doing in the world, but so that they can keep their power and maintain their privileged positions in Israel. Those who have power want to keep it, even if that means going against the very essence of what defines them as a people. They would do anything, even kill the Messiah, to maintain their illusion of power and control.

Herod is so delusional, so drunk with power, that he even starts ordering these foreign wise men around like they were his own subjects or property:

“Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.””

The irony here is that he is the one who is dependent on them. He would have no knowledge of this situation if it wasn’t for their pagan, foreign practice of astrology. Yet the wise men are the ones who respond with open hearts and minds. They came to pay their respects because they felt drawn by the heavens. All these secret, back-door deals combined with biblical hermeneutics and seminary professors probably seemed pretty strange to them. In the end, it seems like they (rightfully) disregarded everything Herod and the religious scholars had just taught them:

“When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.”

Does the text say that the wise men set out to follow the biblical scholars theologically correct directions? Or does it say that they went back to following what they already knew?

The answer is the latter, of course. The wise men basically took the Bible and theological training and threw it out the window. They didn’t know about all that Jewish stuff, nor did they want to. They knew about stars. So, when they set out again (probably more confused than when they arrived), they went back to working with what they knew.

One might think that such pagan backsliding would lead the wise men down the path of sin and deception. Surely, they would be lost forever in the desert, never to find the newborn king.

But that’s not what happened. The text tells us that the star “stopped over the place where the child was.” Get this: by following what they knew, they ended up exactly where they were supposed to be.

They set out on this journey in search of Jesus, and lo and behold: they found him (in spite of the so-called ‘advice’ given by powerful figures and religious leaders). And what was their reaction when they found him?

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Their hearts were more open than the hearts of those who had spent their lives studying this stuff.

“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”

Despite their unorthodox methods and status as religious outsiders, the wise men ended up exactly where they were supposed to be: with Jesus. Their faith did not look anything like conventional Jewish faith, but it proved to be more real and more authentic than the faith of those people who were supposed to have all the answers.

I wonder whether the same thing might be true in the world today?

It seems to me, based on what I saw during The Da Vinci Code’s popularity, that there are a lot of people in this world who feel drawn to Jesus, but want nothing to do with the church or institutional Christianity. To be honest, I can’t blame them. We Christians have a lot to repent for when it comes to representing Jesus to the world. We have often attached his name to our own projects and agendas, but rarely have we acted in a way that is consistent with his Spirit. I think that is what it really means to “Take the Lord’s name in vain”: When we talk about him, but don’t act like him.

Meanwhile, those wise souls who are diligently searching for truth and love in Jesus are driven to look elsewhere because the church has done such a poor job of pointing the way to him. In those circumstances, I am not at all surprised that God is willing to reach out take hold of people’s hearts using things like astrology, science, philosophy, or other religions. I have met atheists who have a closer relationship with God than some Christians (even though the atheists would never use that name: God).

The good news in this is that God is willing to reach out to us human beings using any means necessary. As my seminary roommate was fond of saying, “God will broadcast on any antenna you put up.” Only God knows those hearts that truly seek after God. And, as Jesus himself promised: “Those who seek will find”… he never says they have to seek God in a particular way.

The challenge given to us then is this:

Are we open to what God is doing in the world? Are we open to the fact that God might show up in the least expected way, or in the least expected place? When we encounter others who might be seeking God in ways that seem foreign or unorthodox to us, do we have the faith to trust that God is working in their lives (as well as ours) to bring us all to that place where we can worship Jesus together?

Just like the wise men, these outsiders have precious gifts to bring to the table. Will we work with them and help them to open their treasure chests so that these gifts can be offered to Jesus and shared with the world?

God is inviting us Christians to open our hearts, minds, arms, and doors to those outsiders to the faith who bring unconventional gifts to the table and seek God in unorthodox ways. The question that God sets before us is not “Do we approve of them (or their strange methods)?” or even “Do we welcome/accept/tolerate them in our midst?”

The question is: “Will we travel to Bethlehem with them?”

Will we seek Jesus together as companions in life’s journey? Someone else’s journey might not look exactly like yours and that’s okay. Will we be open to the gifts that others bring to the table? Will we let those gifts challenge our structures of privilege and power? Will we let them change the way we think about church and “the way it’s always been” or the way we think it should be done?

These outsiders come to us, not because we have something they need, but because God has led them to us and called all of us to seek Christ together.

So then: Let’s get going.