Saturday, December 31, 2022

Folk and Biblical Wisdom

What’s the difference between common folk wisdom and biblical wisdom? Some of the sayings below are from Scripture and some are not. 

While the phrases may sound the same, meanings are changed when placed in a context of an ongoing faith journey with God. 

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Waste not- want not.

A penny saved is a penny earned.

The race is not to the swift, but time and chance happen to us all.

Never say never.

It’s love that makes the world go round.

What goes around comes around.

Early to bed, early to rise makes one healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.

Salt and pepper are married.

When everyone walks out, a friend walks in.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Don’t cry over spilt milk.

The early bird gets the worm.

Red sky at night, sailors delight; red sky in morning, sailors to warning.

Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.

When I study, God speaks to me; when I pray, I speak to God.

God helps those who help themselves.

Don’t teach a pig to sing; it frustrates you plus it annoys the pig.

Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved.

It is never too late to have a good relationship with yourself.

It’s not the gift that counts- it’s the intention. 

The Lord loves a cheerful giver.

Silence is God’s first language.

A friend is someone with whom I may think aloud.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

All is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Laughter is the only respite from grief.

Don’t burn any bridges.

Better late than never.

Flattery will get you nowhere.

Pride goes before a fall.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Go eat your bread in gladness.

Not to decide is to decide.

Wisdom is the better part of valor. 

Patience is a virtue.

Kick a dog and it’ll bark.

Let sleeping dogs lie.

You can’t judge a book by its cover.

Beauty is only skin deep-

but ugliness goes all the way to the bone.

A live dog is better than a dead lion.

All you need is love.

The love you make is equal to the love you take.

Observe the ant, you lazy bones.

I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.

I never was what I used to be.

Wisdom is vindicated by her children.

Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword.

You reap what you sow.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

Love your enemies.

Make love not war.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Art of Biblical Paradox: Is God Loving or Punitive? (5)

Throughout Scripture, covenant with God is an act of God's initiation. It's a free and undeserved gift of God, celebrated in the Psalms with thanksgiving and rejoicing: We are God's people and the sheep of God's pasture. Psalm 100:3 There is no one good enough, strong enough, fast enough, or smart enough to first choose God. It is God who first chooses and sends us. John 15:15-16 

John's Gospel, the most unique of the Four Gospels, is the fruit of two full generations of church life. Its focus is not on the limited judgments of Christians or church leaders.* Only in John does Jesus make clear that judgment belongs to the Holy Spirit. It does not belong to any Christian or church, or,  amazingly, even to God or Jesus. **It is the Spirit giving the wisdom, discernment, and redirection to the disciples and consequently, God's people. We choose, with the Spirit’s help, to move toward what is promising or what is fruitless, what makes for consolation or desolation. 

This speaks to a forgotten theme in New Testament study and in the discipleship of Christians. It is about my communion with God when I am faithful or unfaithful. The Spirit is the One who walks beside me, step by step. The Spirit is comforter and counselor. As I grow in love, I can even lose all fear of punishment. (See I John 4: 16-19)  I choose my spiritual reality and state of mind, my actions or neglect of action. While God's love and grace are always present, I do not always choose to live in God's love and grace.***

God does not have a hidden agenda, does not devise trap doors so that we will lose our way. The witness of John is clear: while we don't choose the right, the Spirit is present to redirect and to encourage, not to punish. 

* See Matthew 18:16-18

**See John 8:15, 22; John 16:8-11

***Attributed to Julian of Norwich, 14th Century mystic and spiritual guide. She is credited as the first woman to write a book in the English language, Revelations of Divine Love. The second edition called the Longer text came decades later.


Thursday, December 22, 2022

The Art of Biblical Paradox: Is God Loving or Punitive? (4)

How can the God of the universe be loving but also a punisher? The question makes for challenging teaching and preaching. Yet, both themes are there as clearly as Exodus states: 20:5-6: "... for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments."

This passage incapsulates a paradox of Scripture. God is faithful to those who are faithful to God. God blesses those who bless God and God curses those who are unfaithful to God. God loves those who love God. Lest we relegate this theology to the Old Testament, the theme continues through much of the New Testament, and, to us, the church. 

Is God's patience really exhausted like ours? Is it our job to placate God so that God won't lose his temper? This is hard to teach and preach, and very difficult to hear among those who see the paradox. Those for whom love is a stranger or the word "love" is used as a cover for guilt, shame, or control. For example, God surely knows about those who are children of family violence, those of dysfunctional or alcoholic families, and victims sexual abuse. God knows about those with the stored trauma of life-threatening circumstances. Given this, how can people  really trust God, a Higher Power, who has an angry streak? 

It matters how we frame it. Really. The Lord's discipline is mentioned throughout the Old Testament and in the New Testament, several times in Hebrews: My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.’ (1) God reproves those whom God loves. (2) 

One of the sharp critiques of this view is in Job. Job's so-called friends enter the scene of Job's losses of house, business, home, family, health, etc. They all spout their views of why God is allowing Job, a faithful servant of God, to suffer such loss and grief. In the end, they repent of speaking wrongly for God, and are commanded to make sacrifices to ask for Job's prayers to forgive their folly. (3)

In Luke 11, Jesus makes the most direct and sharpest contrast between the love of human fathers and the love of the heavenly Father: "So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ (Luke 11:9-13)

It is a matter of emphasis, framed by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and his story. The good news of the incarnation is not that God is thinking up new ways to to harden and hurt us, but that God is with us, taking the blows that life dishes up. God is with us in the hell and heaven of human existence. God's living and loving presence- the Holy Spirit is given to us.  God chooses to dwell among us, literally, God pitches tent with us. (4) 

Life is really hard enough. The life of Jesus Christ invites me to transformation, which is a shop-worn term, often used without real content. The loss of ego, the false self, the non-enduring, changes me. That's inevitable the longer I live. I will lose my place, my status, career, health, friendships and family. All will happen, sometimes sooner than I expect. 

The question is, how can I reframe and relocate myself in the incarnation of God's love in Jesus Christ?  

1) Proverbs 3:11.

(2) Revelation 3:19

(3) See Job 42.

(4) John 1:14

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Biblical Art of Paradox: Does God Really Need a Rest? (3)

What's the point of Sabbath?

God is perfectly happy being God and doesn't need anything from us to make God happier. (1) Do you think  the Ten Commandments mention of God resting on the seventh day of creation is there to prove a point?  The texts which come to mind here are from Exodus and the Gospels.

The first is Exodus 20: 8-11: "Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it."

The second is John 5: 17-18: "But Jesus said, “My Father has never stopped working, and this is why I keep on working.” Now the leaders wanted to kill Jesus for two reasons. First, he had broken the law of the Sabbath. But even worse, he had said God was his Father, which made him equal with God." CEV

In Matthew 12 and Mark 2 the question is not about the importance of the sabbath, but, what kind of behavior is lawful. More importantly, who decides what is lawful or not? In both instances, it is Jesus who is Lord of the sabbath. He is the one authorized to overrule even Moses (Torah). Matthew has already dwarfed the primacy of Moses earlier (chapter 5), when Jesus says repeatedly, (6 times) "You have heard it said, but I tell you..."

The question of God's needing rest is not tangential when it comes to the Ancient Near East. The fertility gods were worshiped by the Canaanites because they were thought to provide fruitful land.  These gods hibernated during the winter and rose again in the beginning of the growing season. In an agrarian economy, having fertile land made it possible to settle and survive. The fertility god Baal,or Baalim mentioned throughout the Old Testament, is one such god of the land. 

There is the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. (2) Elijah baits the false prophets, challenging them to call down Baal to strike the would-be sacrifice with fire. Elijah gives them a very long time mockingly noting that Baal may be meditating or resting. When nothing happens and it's Yahweh's "turn," the sacrifice becomes a cinder. The false prophets meet a gruesome end. Yahweh is the one who "neither slumbers or sleeps." 

Here I am addressing the theology of sabbath, what it says about God as different from us. God is God, the ruler of heaven and earth, Lord of all the powers of the universe. God does not grow faint or weary. Regarding the sabbath, one can believe in its importance for all creation without God literally lying down and taking a nap. 

The institution of sabbath observance underlines the importance of all humankind and creation resting on the seventh day. It's about God giving us rest because we are not God.  Further, we can rest chiefly because God is always at work. While God's creatures need sabbath, God does not.

(1) I am indebted to the insights of Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, Westminster John Knox Press,     2007, especially p. 1-12.

(2) See I Kings 18.

(3) See Psalms 121:4.

The Biblical Art of Paradox: Prologue (1)

Scripture is a collection, a library of different kinds of literature from different people, languages, eras, and locales. It represents diverse writers who were influenced by a variety of forces within and outside their faith communities. 

The Bible as a whole develops themes, but their formation is not necessarily smooth and without  discontinuities. For example, differences and similarities exist between the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, the Bible is full of messy characters and families, unfaithfulness, and stories of violence, gore, and mature audience material.* 

What makes a writing Scripture or Canon is an agreement, a consensus of a particular faith community as it looks to past precedent and experience. The Canon of the different branches of Christianity is an example. There some books included in one branch not included in others, though the respective Canons of Orthodox, Anglo-Catholic, and Protestant agree on the vast majority of books. 

Just because a book is Canon does not wipe out the tensions within Scripture. Having faith does not require me to ignore paradox. Practically, muting the different voices makes for boredom. The gap between our knowing and doing, our best self and real self, our ideals and the Christian vision, is real. Teaching and preaching that pretends otherwise is a salt that has lost its flavor. **

Within the canonical books that all Christians share, there are tensions within the text of Scripture. The diversity of thought within the Scripture is a  reflection of differences in transmission from orality to written and edited. Minority voices are included but sometimes hard to find.

The four Gospels are an example of Scripture including multiple voices and how each tell the story of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, but do so very differently. There is room in the Christian Canon for the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and John, very different in content and style***

This diversity of thought can challenge the tendency we have to explain away paradoxes or differences by imposing a uniformity that isn't there. The objective of including all voices is not to diminish, but to allow another voice to inform and transform. Sitting with dissonances is not time wasted. It usually leads to more choice, open doors, and broader horizons. 

*See Judges 3-4.  Kings 21 tells the story of dogs licking up the blood of King Ahab, and eating (alive?) Queen Jezebel. Ezekiel 16 and 33 contain X-rated descriptions of Israel, Judah, and their enemies. Revelation features images of birds feasting on human carcasses, streets flooded with blood.

**Matthew 5:13 "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot."

***The word "synoptic" means to see as one. Mark, Matthew, and Luke are considered the Synoptics. Notably, Mark however, omits Jesus' birth and childhood found in Matthew and Luke.  

The Biblical Art of Paradox: A Faith Excursus (1)

Holy Scripture is the primary source of belief and practice, but it is not the only one.* My journey with Scripture is like metamorphic rock or mineral. Over time, the material is not destroyed (igneous), or continually settling (sedimentary), but by the forces of severe heat, pressure and movement, it is transformed.** Minerals are sifted out due to heat and pressure. 

Life has formed and shaped me but so has Scripture. Scripture teaches me new things about myself and  my relationships to God and others. This is serious, because hearing words as God's Word brings new life and possibilities and re-creation, often unexpected if not also unwelcome, by my biases.

My faith journey is not a straight line. The goal is not to make it one. But the jagged lines are not wasted time. I learn lessons that are unforgettable. The faith of my 12th or  or 52nd year has not entirely survived intact. How could it?

Deepening faith does not mean that I check my intellect at the door before studying Scripture. Or that I'm required to suspend asking questions. It does mean that I discover a more authentic faith to share with others. For me, growing faith includes doubt, acceptance of mystery, and, mostly, trust in God as the One and Only, who loves all unconditionally.  The end of faith? To know as I am known, to love as I am loved.

*In the United Methodist tradition, three other guides exist: Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Scripture being primary, it is interpreted, in part, through Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

**Geology has always fascinated me since hunting for rocks, minerals, and fossils in my youth. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Loving Enemies (2): Bad First Impressions

Our world is so quick to take offense. Making more friends than enemies is much harder work. When it comes to first impressions, I don't know what I don't know. Yet, I rely on my first impressions to form what could be lasting judgments based on scant evidence, maybe the first few seconds of a first meeting. I am full of hidden biases -hidden from me but not necessarily from others!*

At a two-week leadership camp, my class was challenged to reset a poor first impression we had within the last day or two. The instructor mentioned that one of the most difficult blocks to reconciliation was faulty first impressions. We were asked to start over with this person, choose to engage in a casual conversation, and to do it with a sincere, open mind. As I approached this person, I was, in reality, only risking my own false prejudgments. 

You could say I passed the assignment because our visit revealed a friendly, outgoing person who didn't know or care about my first impression. The exercise proved to me that, with an intentional action, I can let the wisdom of an open mind form my impressions of others, not hidden bias or emotional reactivity. Here are some ideas to consider in forming more friends and fewer enemies:

1. What is behind my impression of this person? Is it their different-ness? Or is it something they did non-verbally or the words they spoke?  

2. Review only the last day or two of your interactions. I can only only act on what is in the present. I cannot change the past.

3. Resetting a first impression is a choice to free MY mind- it is not about changing anyone else. The work needed takes place within. With honesty, engage in honest self-examination.

4. Refrain from grand gestures. DO resist the temptation to avoid this person based on your first impression. 

5. Ask God to reveal to you a pejorative label that keeps you in the rut of making enemies. With God's help, how can you throw away a harmful label?

*In Talking to Strangers, Malcom Gladwell provides a sharp critique of the assumptions we have and the judgments we make about strangers. Gladwell substantiates his premise that much more humility and restraint is needed in truly knowing a person we do not know. A notable example Gladwell gives: a computer can do a better job determining whether a perpetrator will repeat a crime than the judge, who relies on the first impression of looking the offender square in the eye. 

Friday, July 22, 2022

Being an Online Guest: Nashville's GracePoint

I like attending GracePoint's online worship. Here's a short list of what I appreciated in this worshipping community.
* My struggle to believe and fully trust God, are not judged as weak or inadequate; my experience is valued. 
* Preachers and topics are shown in weekly email. 
* The musical melodies are not familiar. It was refreshing to hear something new.  
* I am not asked to sing songs that I honestly cannot believe nor pretend that I do. 
* Everyone was worshipping online- not sure if this was due to the spike in Covid-19 variants. This gave the sense that we are all in this together.
* Beyond a simple, one- time registration, I could focus on the service
* The church partners with community needs in concrete acts of doing justice and loving mercy. 

This church is self-defined as "Progressive Christianity," and there's an absence of the classic creeds as well as the familiar hymns. There is a belief presented, for example, regarding what the Bible is and is not.  To be honest, what is stated is also a tradition, just not the one of contemporary Evangelical Christianity. 

While using the right and agreed upon words has always been central in Christian faith (for example, the Bible is the Word of God), what is understood by those words? What do they mean?  Asking question will take us beyond ascent. What is genuine faith if it is not an honest searching for the core beneath, even beyond the correct words and phrases. 


Thursday, July 21, 2022

Loving Enemies (1): Niceness Isn't Love

Enemy: one that is antagonistic to another, especially : one seeking to injure, overthrow, or confound an opponent.*

Being nice to everybody, especially with those whom I disagree, is not the measure of Christian discipleship. The law of love is, according to Jesus, measured by my treatment of my enemies. If growing in love is the point, it has to be more than being nice, whether it's returned or met with a scowl.

What is the taproot of this teaching of Jesus?Besides the honest declaration that I have enemies, the rule is a sharp restraint to my propensity for making and maintaining enemies.**

But there is even a deeper root of enemy- love that' forms the core of my discipleship: given the fact that real enemies do exist, i.e., those who plot, speak, or act in harmful ways, I am asked, required, taught, to love and pray for them. 

I will long remember the wisdom learned in a covenant group where we agreed to pray for our enemies daily. Praying for my enemies on a daily basis restrained me from harmful behaviors that would have certainly made a difficult situation worse. This practice helped me survive, ethically and spiritually, one of the more challenging seasons in my life and ministry. 

Inevitably, praying for my enemy is not magic; it's hard spiritual work. It's repentance from enacting harm and plotting self-vindication. From making a bad situation worse. Yet, I cannot think of a more non-violent way of resisting evil as a Christ-follower than to pray for my foes as well as my friends. 

Nice-ness pretends there are no enemies and shrivels in face of evil. Nice-ness also excuses me of my complicity in stoking the fires of hate and harm. What about the faith of Jesus Christ? In the end, while pleasantness is helpful to get along, nice-ness is not necessarily a mark of growing in love.   


**The word "restraint" is named as a work of the Holy Spirit in the classic baptismal prayer (UMC). The pastor prays to God, for the newly baptized infant, that, "by the restraining and renewing influence of the Holy Spirit, she may always be a true child of yours, serving you faithfully all the days of her life."

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

UMC Clergy Staff Pastors (2)

Originally designed for businesses as a tool for professional development, the 360 can be well-adapted for clergy assessment. Start with a reliable guide, such as What Is 360 Feedback by Mark Miller (2012). The 360 can be a very positive and productive experience for everyone involved. Here's why I like it.

1. Its goal is professional development, how one functions in their role. It complements evaluations based on numerical measurements. Those who are Strengthsfinder "Developers," take note!

2. Honesty and transparency is a requirement of all participants.  A true 360 assessment is done with the staff member's knowledge and participation. It is not hidden from them. 

4. This assessment is inclusive of a diversity of people and experiences as 360 implies.  The staff member is asked to nominate part of the group that will be chosen randomly, for the assessment.*

5. It's adaptable. The assessment- questionnaire is tailored to context; survey questions can easily relate  to the core values of the church. 

6. It's an effective use of time. There no meetings. The questionnaire is sent out and the responses are tabulated. After the full assessment is completed, staff member and supervisor(s) may meet to share their impressions. The raters responses can be blind (name withheld) to the staff person. 

7. It's an effective use of resources. Use the surveys already provided by your Annual Conference. The end of the year self and congregational assessments required by most Annual Conferences are required, but also, quickly forgotten. 

* Nominations can include at- large staff members, at large parishioners, work area team members, outside community members, and assigned supervisor(s). The staff supervisor coordinates the process, finally discussing the results with the staff member.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

UMC Clergy Staff Pastors (1)

Has the Associate Pastor's role changed meaningfully in the last twenty years? An observation offered by one District Superintendent was that the larger UMC's are looking for solid preachers and teachers more than talented equippers and organizers. If a Lead Pastor is looking for a gifted communicator, then the conventional wisdom is that a volunteer or lay staff is more cost effective to run the equipping ministry. 

That being said, Clergy serving as staff members are a present reality moving forward. The Discipline gives Elders access to the SPRC (staff parish relations committee).* Precious little about this leadership role, leaving to the Lead Pastor and Associate to define in concrete terms, what the functional relationship between you and the SPRC actually is and will be. 

The SPRC is under the direction of the Lead Pastor and your meetings with this group are under the Lead's direction and discretion. In light of this, I recommend staff clergy take some initiative in the interpretation, support, and evaluation of their work. Try to avoid the phenomenon of being left completely out of the discussion of your performance on the SPRC. 

1. Request an assigned member of the SPRC to meet with you, at least 8 times over the next year.  Their job is to pray for you, get to know you, and your job description, your ministry area's current goals, as well as intermediate and long-term objectives. 

2. Request an 8-10 minute in-person meeting with the SPRC, every 6-8 months. This would allow for a non-threatening way to share your hopes, dreams, and current efforts. They can ask questions, etc. Have your appearance be entered in the minutes of that meeting. 

3. If you come up empty with both #1 and #2, asking the Lead Pastor for an annual meeting with the SPRC is not out line, but perfectly acceptable. It's in the Discipline and further, it is good stewardship of this committee's time. If you still meet with resistance, keep a record by noting it and signing. 

4. Before, you act on any of the above, there's one caveat: has trust been well-established between you and the Lead? If not, work on this important area first. If more work needs to be done, see if a mini, face-to face meeting is possible. Take the initiative. Failing an in-person meeting, communicate your updates regularly. Let them know progress toward your stated goals. Too, invite them to check and recalibrate any existing goals. 

Functionally, staff clergy have extra levels of accountability: 1) Staff Supervisor 2) Lead or Senior Pastor 3) District Superintendent 4) Bishops. These forces all have their own particular stake in appointments and clergy staff positions. Not written is the hegemony of Senior Pastors. Although the word "church" is used in making appointments, in reality, it is not the church that determines whether or not an associate is invited or leaves. 

Consider this an encouragement to cultivate trust and honest communication at all levels by taking the initiative now. Your efforts may prove beneficial to you in the future. 

*The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (2016), Paragraphs 425-429.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

White, Mainline, Suburban: Doing Justice Ministry

If White, Suburban, Mainline, Protestant congregations are rarely asked to employ critical reflection, then there's no wonder why gaping holes exist in witness, ministry and mission. How does nice Sunday morning church-talk of neighbor love matter when it comes to mutual relationships and enduring action for justice with others?

White privilege, when confronted, not only exposes hidden bias, but also backlash. The object is not paralyzing guilt., but to listen to those who suffer the ongoing, generational and institutional effects of White supremacy. We are not aware of what we don't know or have never experienced. Entitlement is the belief that I have deserved blessings because I have earned them, not because I was born on third base. 

Dualism pits the material world against the spiritual realm. This does not come from Jesus' Hebraic faith, but rather, through Greek thought. God's creation of everything we can see (and beyond) is "good." All of us, male and female, are created in God's own image and "very good."  Because of that, we are capable of covenant with God and each other- including doing good. We are created for both love and justice.

Hyper-individualism infects every facet of life, including church. Our salvation, however, is tied to one another (Matthew 25: 13 ff, Luke 16: 19 ff). The Gospel is often presented just as the eternal life of my separate soul. More than that, faith and hope supports me in doing what is my power to do by joining with others, not by fixing others.

Conflict-avoidance is an overriding factor for leaders. Teaching and equipping for justice ministry will meet opposition and resistance. It probably will not be widely popular or add to your numerical measurements. It may be criticized as simplistic, idealistic, or of no effect. 

Ideas to consider?

1. Identify and invite allies in justice ministry. Start a group, a community, a self-sustaining cadre who will begin a holistic justice ministry. A small group made up of clergy and parishioners can create an enduring ministry from a simple spark. 

2. Educate. Engage the group in a study of justice throughout the Bible, especially, but not limited to, the Torah and Prophets, the teachings and ministry of Jesus Christ in the Gospels. Justice is shalom. Justice and mercy are two feet of the same faithful action. Education for peace and justice will include the whole of study, action, and reflection. 

3.Coalesce congregations or community groups with a similar vision Plan carefully. Study, reflect and go out into the field to discover. Take your team with you. Together, listen, learn from and work with, not for, others. 

4. Many churches have a grant committee that provides limited funding to projects that are deemed worthy by church peers. Grants have limited funds and durations, whereas justice ministry invites us to form relationships that are formative and sustainable for long-term change.

5. Too, short term works of mercy can look good on social media and church reports. Justice asks why the suffering? The long, hard work of harmony in communities starts and continues by talking with each other. 

6. Read other voices not your own. Learn from them. I suggest Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, Michael Eric Dyson. I especially recommend "Benediction," pp.195-212. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The Call to Repair

In Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair (2021), Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson present the biblical witness to fully and finally to own, renounce, and repair from the evils of White supremacy.  White supremacy is identified as multi-generational theft: theft of Black identity, history, physical, social, and moral agency through the abduction, chaining, transportation, commodification, forced labor, deprivation, whipping, and hunting of Black bodies. After Reconstruction, the theft included lynchings, shootings, and burnings and the "photographing of these mutilated bodies surrounded by smiling White faces." p. 83. Finally, White supremacy continues to steal from African Americans through extraction of and obstruction to truth, wealth, and power.  

White supremacy was never a "weed in the garden of American democracy," it was a "native species that grew into and flowered out of every institution that the American founders created, in every region of the nation." p. 63  

The American church's culpability in the thefts of  White supremacy is a large part of the story. There was the creation of a slave catechesis, and the practice of buying and renting the enslaved by churches, sometimes to pay for clergy salaries. p.118-119.

Meaningful repentance begins and continues with the ethic of restitution, argue Kwon and Thompson. We discover this ethic in Zacchaeus' story in Luke 19 and move to the key passages in the Law, such as Exodus 21:33-22:15, Leviticus 6:1-7, Numbers 5:5-8. There is a surprising lack of references to the Prophets. The authors unearth the forgotten wisdom found in Christian church tradition. 

There are three recipients of restitution: original owners, their heirs, and, in the absence of the first two, the poor. In light of the ravages of White supremacy, "[ ] reparations is not less than the logic of restitution, but it is undoubtedly more. We believe that the Bible commands us to return our neighbors' stolen things when we are guilty of their theft, and we believe that the Bible also commands us to restore their stolen things even when we are not." p.161 

The Christian call to restorative, neighbor love is an essential response to the multigenerational, cultural theft of White supremacy. Love is restorative, as in Luke 10:25-37 Church communities are given a possible framework for reflection: churches have "the responsibility to bring our various forms of vocational, relational, and financial power to our Black deliberate and equitable collaboration so that our power is both under the direction of others and used for their good" pp. 201-202. 

There's an impressive breadth of cited sources. We meet a plethora of witnesses, past and present, White and Black, who dedicated themselves to the Christian work of reparations. These include the Quaker teacher John Hepburn, who, in 1715, wrote The American Defense of the Christian Golden Rule; Levi Coffman who housed over 3,000 fugitive slaves as a part of the Underground Railroad. We are introduced to Memphis community organizer Anasa Troutman, Clayborn Temple, and the Center of Transforming Communities, a multiethnic, multi neighborhood coalition.

This volume provides a fertile ground for reflection, study, and action. There is a noticeable and refreshing absence of partisan political categories. Reparation is presented as a Christian call to repair Christian theft. Could it be that reparations could be the reason the White Christian church still exists?

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Jesus, Wisdom, Church

References to wisdom in the New Testament are not insignificant. Wisdom is mentioned over 50 times.* Here are some gleanings from my search. Interestingly, wisdom appears in I Corinthians 17 times, mostly in chapters 1-2, where Paul contrasts the wisdom de jour with the deeper wisdom of God in Jesus Christ. 
  1. The totality of wisdom here, now, and forever, belongs to God. See Revelation 5:12, 7:12
  2. Gospel writers use "wisdom" to mark both Jesus' biography and teaching. This seems much more significant than I had previously thought. See Luke 2:40, 2:52, 11:29-32, Mark 6:2, Matthew 13:54 
  3. Jesus is the wisdom from God. I Corinthians 1:30-31
  4. Wisdom provides followers of Jesus a way out and guidance on what to say and do in threatening circumstances. See Luke 21:15, Acts 6:3
  5. Jesus' way is wise but not easy, clashing with the values and methods of the dominant culture and religious institutions. In light of this, we are counseled to ask God for wisdom. See Matthew 7:13-14, I Corinthians 1:27-31, James 1:5-6.
  6. Wisdom is the self-critical principle, equipping me to discern the spirits- what is good and beneficial, and what is wrong and harmful, in the unquestioned traditions I practice.** See I Corinthians 12:4-11 
  7. Just because religious rituals are used, it is not automatic that the choices and decisions will be wise or even necessary. See Acts 1:24-26.
  8. Wisdom poses the questions of purpose, sustainability, and justice. It is like a woman who is vindicated by her "children." See Luke 7:35.
  9. Just because an institution is religious does not mean that its leaders or members make decisions that are just or wise.*** See Luke 11:42. 
  10. The inaccessibility and mystery of wisdom is continued from the Old Testament. See I Corinthians 13:12.
  11. Part of the wisdom of the righteous is freedom from their own self- righteousness. See Matthew 25: 37-38. 
* 52 times. The NRSV, Oremus Bible Browser.
**I am indebted to Elaine Heath's insights in her book,  God Unbound: Wisdom from Galatians for the Anxious Church. God's wisdom includes discovering the "tradition within the tradition." As an example, prayer itself can be used as cover for hypocrisy and to provide a favorable appearance. See Matthew 6:5-8. 
***Luke 11 compares the greatness of Jesus to the fame of King Solomon's wisdom, which reached to the Queen of Sheba in Africa. The text could refer to to Saba, a port city in Yemen. See Lawrence Goodman's "How Did the Queen of Sheba Come to be Known as Black? in the Jewish Experience, Brandeis University. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Wisdom in Clergy Career Decisions

I have served on United Methodist church staffs and specialized-extension ministry for almost all of my career.* The only time I did not was pastoring a rural church in North Carolina while a student in divinity school. I was unprepared and mostly unaware of my lack of  readiness. My only experience of church had been my home church, a multi-staff, suburban parish in northeast Ohio, where I also served during my college summers. 

I was a first time pastor, newly married, living in a defunct mill town, while commuting about 18 hours a week and taking a full load of classes at divinity school (my choice, to graduate on time). Once I was ticketed for having out of state plates. The trouper threatened to impound my car. Early on, a concerned lay leader and mill manager asked if I was going to start a labor union.  The DS just asked me to focus on caring for and shepherding the people. 

However, this was also a time when I gained a rare and hard-won wisdom about myself and my true calling. The experience was irreplaceable. The interaction between the classroom and the parish absolutely accelerated my learning. There were some accomplishments amidst the sojourn- interracial and interchurch gatherings, resource people provided leadership for marriage enrichment and stress management. A retired pastor and his wife became wonderful, supportive friends to us. 

Here's a list of considerations that have proven helpful to me:

  1. Have I made an effort to truly know and make known my gifts and talents? Now, Discover Your Gifts is an  excellent guide.** This assessment has assisted me in developing God-given gifts further, and in making weaknesses less glaring.
  2. Clarity about my gifts is my best guide. Is there a chance for a good fit between the church under consideration, its mission and gifts, and my proven abilities? 
  3. Does my path include a specialization or a particular area of expertise, such as serving on a church staff?  What are the benefits and shortcomings of specialized ministry? Do the advantages outweigh the limitations?  
  4. Have I considered my family an asset, a gift? What are their thoughts? They are the people who are most affected and will be there long after any others have moved on. 
  5. In addition to family, who comprises my support system? A mentor, a friend, a spiritual director? 
  6. Under what conditions do I make a first-refusal? What are the consequences? An unwritten rule is that a first refusal will net less compensation in a future move to another church.  
  7. I may need more than a 15 minute hard sell and 24 hours to think and pray. Is my decision sustainable? Does it make for peace within?
  8. It's my responsibility to do an accurate inventory of the prospective position. This is becomes more important if I am restricted from discussions with a prospective church.
  9. Gift-based appointments are often heralded in word, but, in reality, this is the ideal. Many in-time factors are at work among scores of clergy and churches in a wide geographical area. These factors are not my responsibility. 
* Governance of the United Methodist Church is assumed. 
**See Now, Discover Your Strengths, Clifton and Buckingham, 2001. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Wisdom 's Third Way- Using Shared Praxis

Thomas Groome's masterpiece, Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision, since its publication in 1980, has shaped the educational ministry of Catholic and Protestant churches alike. *

Originally designed for educational groups, shared praxis can be a method informing spiritual direction and making personal faith decisions. It can also can provide an outline for sermon planning and preparation. A hallmark of shared praxis is that it engages me in a process of self-critical reflection.** If I am never asked to think critically, then there is little hope of seeing or choosing a third way.

Shared praxis invites me to reflect on the whole of my life, here and now. What is my unexamined bias? My blind spot? My racial, socio-economic, educational, and religious assumption? What is my sense of wisdom and how does it function to reinforce or correct what I've always thought? Fully engaging Scripture and Christian tradition is basic to Shared Praxis. The assumption is that honest reflection on The Christian Story creates dissonance that leads to faithful action.    

Springing out of reflection on my life and exploration of the Christian Story, what's next? Is there a decision to be made, an action to take? Is there a new way forward? Is it time to wait and for how long? 

Shared praxis requires honesty, openness to reason, patience, and gentleness. Seeking the wisdom of the third way moves me beyond either- or thinking. Its gifts are clarity and faithfulness to what I know to be true of myself- and the shared Christian faith. 

*Thomas Groome, Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision, 1980. More information is available from his Boston College webpage. 

** See Christian Religious Education, Chapter Nine: Shared Christian Praxis.    The five steps in Shared Praxis are:

  1. Naming Present Action
  2. Reflection on Present Action: Sharing Stories and Vision 
  3. Presentation of the Christian Story and Vision
  4. Reflection on and interacting with the Christian Story and Vision
  5. Making Decisions and Choosing Personal/Communal Faith Response.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Wisdom as Questioner: Clearness Committee

'Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding? Job 28: 12

‘God understands the way to it, and he knows its place.  And he said to humankind, “Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.”'  Job: 28:28

Job 28 is intriguing. There is an aspect of wisdom that is unknown, inaccessible, and mysterious.  Job 28  appears in the middle of the Book of Job, and functions as an intermission in the poetic drama. There's no reference to Job or Job's famously unhelpful friends. Only God knows the way to wisdom. Wisdom, for humans, is the fear of the Lord, understood as the awe or respect of God leading to obedience.

Seeking the truth has a way of exposing the naivete I have about God, people, and myself. Wisdom can serve as a self-critical principle, challenging our cherished beliefs and unquestioned practices. Can you imagine wisdom making us less aware, less reflective, less free, and more fragmented? 

A preference for seeing myself in a positive light or being in the right, is a tenacious enemy of clarity. I am sometimes blinded by neglecting to ask questions of myself, such as--why would I take this course of action?  

In Parker Palmer's book, Let Your Life Speak, he discusses how a clearness committee equipped him with a vocational decision.* From the Quaker tradition, a clearness committee is composed of a small group who can be trusted to ask challenging questions throughout the session. They must refrain from giving advice. Only the one being questioned may respond. One of the hallmarks of this approach is the discerning and uncovering one's true motivation and intention.  

In this instance. a college presidency was offered to Palmer. The job was his if he wanted it. During the course of the clearness meeting, the group continued to ask, "why?" Why did Palmer want to be president of this college? The truth did not emerge immediately. The question of "why" had to be asked several times. There were periods of silence. Finally, in a moment of clarity, the answer came to him. The truth was uncovered. Palmer was embarrassed to speak the honest truth: Palmer was interested in the job because he most wanted his photo and name in publication. He wanted a public announcement of his new status. 

A clearness committee may not be right for everyone. I have greatly benefitted from spiritual direction. A third party such Spiritual Director who is trained in asking questions and listening, can offer great support on the journey to clarity. They too are engaged in this ancient practice; they are supervised, and observe confidentiality. Together, both Director and Directee listen to the Holy Spirit.*** 

1. Who are the people I can engage with an understanding to ask non-leading, advice-free questions for my benefit? 
2. In discernment, how can my faith assist me in discovering a third way? 
3. How can my true intentions and motivations be uncovered? How can seeing them assist in making wise, sustaining decisions.

*Find more information on Parker Palmer and his book at Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation
**Clearness Committee information is available from the Friends General Conference.
***Spiritual Directors International is a good place to explore spiritual direction and to look for a spiritual director.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Seeking Action Born of Wisdom

Wisdom is God's gift, but the way of wisdom is chosen. We are created in the image and likeness of God. Wisdom, the queen of the virtues throughout the books of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, is highly prized throughout Scripture. When the Apocrypha is included, wisdom appears in the text of the Bible almost 400 times.*

Consider the Epistle of James a New Testament version of wisdom. From its beginning, we are encouraged to ask God for wisdom. And here is the description of that wisdom: "Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of  partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace." James 3:13-14, 18 NRSV

Without the capacity to learn and grow, life is dull, futile and even dangerous. Without a capacity to learn, how do I know about the wrongs of the past, or, take action to right them? But with wisdom, there is clarity.

God's wisdom can uncover overlooked, but significant aspects of my life. The way may not be easy to see, but it is there. I need to have the eyes of my faith opened to what I cannot see. The One who knows me also knows my limits and my gifts, what can be sustained and what cannot. My true gifts and values often provide the best guide.

Wisdom often calls me to seek out a new way. It may be a "third way," another option between two choices. Adding a third way is more inclusive of various factors. It gets me out of either-or thinking. A third way may be the resolution to refrain from the decision-making process for a time. This may come as a result of being too confused or depleted to make a sustainable decision immediately. 

The experience of spiritual direction is very beneficial in Christian discernment. It encourages me to go deeper in my  communion with God and my life with others. Its gifts and blessings encourage me to look beyond the temporary; they are meant for the long journey. 

More questions to consider in my discernment process: 

1. Ask for God's help in claiming-reclaiming your true values and gifts.

2. Is the decision an emergency? Must it be made immediately- or not?

3. What option can I sustain (not just live with)? 

4. What would a third way look like?

5. Who is most- and less- affected in this decision? 

6. What will work for deeper peace within? 

7. Which decision makes me freer and more open to the future?  

*When the Greek- written Apocrypha is included. See also Oremus Bible Browser. In most Protestant churches, the Apocrypha is considered secondary, and separated from the list of canonical writings. In Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Bibles, these books are recognized as Holy Scripture.

For further reading, consider Pope Francis, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, 2020. Especially helpful are Part I: A Time to See and Part 2: A Time to Choose.

Oldies but Goodies