Pope Francis and the Culture Wars

pope-francis_2541160b

I like Pope Francis.

I like his tone, his willingness to live a simple lifestyle even though he’s basically a king.  I like that he is trying to be more pastoral with people, especially gays.

But while I like the pontiff, I understand that he operates within the sphere of modern Catholicism.  I know he’s not going to change teaching on gays or the role of evolution or how to treat those who have been divorced.  His style is to reach out and love people who he might think are sinning, not condemning them.

So, while this Pope is different in tone than his predecessors Benedict and John Paul I don’t think for a moment that he is shaking up the Vactican -at least not in the way that some would like.

I just wish the media would realize this.

Every time Francis says something about science or sexuality, the media treats it as if no other pope has ever said these things, when in reality what he is saying is not so revolutionary.  What this shows is that the media is obviously not paying attention to the intricacies of Catholic theology.  No, instead of doing something like, I don’t know, reporting, the media tries to make the Holy Father fit into their culture war story.

The lastest media spasm has to do with some remarks the Pope made concerning evolution.  From the media’s standpoint, the Catholic church were flaming creationists until Francis stepped in.

Political blogger Doug Mataconis shows that in the area of evolution, the Catholics have a long history of accepting evolution:

Specifically, the idea that there is anything “provocative” or “seemingly progressive” in what the Pope is saying requires one to either be completely ignorant about what the Church has taught about science in general or cosmology and the origins of the universe in particular. For one thing, the Catholic Church has not considered Genesis to be literal truth for a long, long, long time. Indeed, I am not at all certain that the idea that Genesis is a literal recitation of how the Earth and life on Earth came to be has ever actually been part of Catholic teaching, but I’m not nearly well-versed enough in the early Church to stake money on that idea. In general, though, the Church has viewed the Creation Myth set forth in Genesis, and much of what follows in that part of the Bible, to be largely allegorical in the same way that the parables that appear throughout the New Testament are allegorical.

As to the idea of the Big Bang, and even the idea of human evolution, the Church has largely accepted these ideas as scientifically valid while emphasizing that, in the eyes of Church teaching, they are the instrumentals through which God has acted. For example, in 1996 St. Pope John Paul II stated that ”Fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis.”  More recently, in 2006, the main Vatican newspaper published a column stating that the theory of so-called “intelligent design” was not science and should not be taught as such in schools. This was already the case in Catholic schools in the United States where, in science classes, evolution is taught as it should be and “intelligent design” is not. The next year, Pope Benedict XVI himself said evolution and faith can co-exist side by side and without contradiction, something that has long been Catholic teaching notwithstanding the fact that, at least initially, the Church did express some concern about Darwin’s theory when it was first advanced in the 19th Century. In other words, nothing Francis said here is revolutionary or “progressive” in any respect, something that even Hemant Mehta, who blogs at “The Friendly Atheist” acknowledges.

So, Francis didn’t say anything that Benedict, John Paul and many other Popes have affirmed.

The same thing happened with statements on gays at the recently concluded Synod of the Family.  And his statements on the economy.  He doesn’t say anything that contradicts his predecessors.

If secular reporters are going to cover this Pope, it might make sense for them to do some homework on Catholic theology.  But most reporters aren’t familiar with religion and so they try to fit this into the framework they do know: the culture wars.

But that isn’t the best framework to view this Pope or any other for that matter.  Yes, there are some similarities, but there are also differences.

I don’t think that only Christians should cover this Pope, but if you are going to cover religion, please do your homework.  Look for the nuances.  Look at what past Pope said.  Try to get an understanding of the issues.  And please don’t hype the stuff that isn’t that revolutionary. That’s not news. Go find what is.

Sermon:”You The Man!”

2 Samuel 11:1-12:15
Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 19, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 Listen to the Sermon

David and Bathsheba. By Marc Chagall.

David and Bathsheba. By Marc Chagall.

The story of David and Bathsheba is the Bible’s own political thriller.  It has everything: powerful men, sexual affairs, murder and cover ups.  Before there was Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, there was David and Bathsheba.  There’s even what I would call a Woodward and Bernstein character: the prophet Nathan who is the one that finally accuses David of the wrong he had done before God.

It’s easy to look at this story and leave it as a political thriller.  It’s easy to join with Nathan in accusing King David and ignore how close we all are to becoming just like David.  No, we probably won’t try to have people killed (at least I hope not), but the temptation to fall into sin is just beneath the surface.  I think we are all capable of becoming King David.

But let’s review the facts first.  The passage opens with David in Jerusalem.  It’s spring, the time when kings normally go to war with their armies, but for whatever reason, David decided not to go.  He was walking along the roof of the palace when he encounters a beautiful woman taking a bath.  He does some checking and finds out that this is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a warrior in the Israelite army.  He invites Bathsheba to the palace and has sex with her.  Afterwards she goes back home and David is probably thinking that nothing more would happen.  Of course, we know more did happen.  Bathsheba informs David that she is pregnant.  David decides to recall Uriah in the hopes that time with his wife would make it look like the baby was Uriah’s and not David.  But Uriah, along with all warriors swear off sex while in battle.  So in a last attempt, David has Uriah send his own death warrant to Joab, one of David’s generals.  At David’s urging, Joab puts Uriah on the front lines where he is killed.  David had finally covered up the crime.  He marries Bathsheba after the mourning period and the baby is born.  No one is none the wiser.

Except someone was the wiser: God.  Through Nathan, David is caught red-handed.

As fanciful as David’s sin was, it is important to remember that we are not that far from being David.  A few months ago, I read an article by anthropologist Helen Fisher.  She has done some extensive research on adultery among various culture.  She notes that while most humans do enter into a long lasting relationship with someone, also called pair-bonding, they can and do enter into extra-martial relationships quite frequently.  She notes that studies show that anywhere from 20-40% of heterosexual men will have an affair in their lifetime.  For heterosexual women it is 20-25%.  She adds that there is a 70% incidence of dating couples experiening infidelity.  And this final statistic is amazing: 60% of men and 53% of women admitted that they had tried to poach a partner, trying to convince a wife or husband to have an affair.

David isn’t the only one in trouble here.

“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” is what Romans 3:23 says describing humanity’s common lot.  David was considered a man after God’s own heart.  He was considered faithful to God.  Because of his faithfulness, Israel prospered.  And yet, this man sinned. Big time.  Like Nixon-level big time.

As you have heard me say since we started using the Narrative Lectionary, these stories are actually one story: how God works to bring salvation to all of creation.  The reason this story is part of the salvation story is that even though David committed a few sins, including some big ones, even though he had to face the consequences of his actions, even though he displeased God, it was through his lineage that Jesus came into the world.  God still used him to be part of the salvation story.  David experienced grace from God, grace that wasn’t earned, but was given nonetheless.

This story is important to us for at least two reasons.  The first is that this story reminds us that we are people who sin, who sometimes wander off, that we fall short of the goal again and again.  That’s not something we like to hear.  I remember a few years ago, hearing a fellow pastor preached.  He noted he didn’t like one of the words in the hymn Amazing Grace.  If you know the hymn, the first few lines go like this: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” He objected to the word “wretch.”  In his view it was a word that hurt people.  I can remember him saying that none of us our wretches.  Maybe that word is a bit harsh, but for the writer of this hymn, who was slave trader, the words were the truth.  We can’t understand God’s grace, unless we understand that we are not okay.  Nathan’s parable is a story that shines a bright light on David’s sins.  He has to face the music, he has to realize that he isn’t all that and a bag of chips.  He has sinned.  Maybe our sin isn’t adultery, but we have all sinned and will sin in the future.  A church is a meeting place of sinners, or at least it should be.  We come to church to join with other sinners to experience grace and healing.  A church should be a hospital for sinners, a place where we can be made whole.

The second thing to remember is that God still uses us for God’s work in the world.  We feel God’s grace, the love that won’t let you go even when we fall short.  None this means we should go and sin, but it is nice to know that we are loved even when we mess up which at least in my life is rather often.

In my time as a pastor, I’ve learned about pastors caught in affairs.  One such incident happen when a pastor was caught in a prostitution sting.  The revelation spelled the end of his time at a church where had he been pastor for over 20 years and had to be suspended from active ministry.  The faith tradition he belonged to had procedures to deal with pastors.  A church judicial committee had to place sanctions on the person and he had to do certain things to be restored as a pastor.  I happened to be at the meeting where his sins were made known in public, as well as what his path to restoration had to be.  Beside this man was another pastor, who stood by his side as an advocate and truth teller.  The pastor had his very own Nathan, that was there to stand beside him during the rough times and make sure he is on the straight and narrow.  It was an interesting mix of sin and grace taking place.

I can’t say that I would never sin.  I’m human.  What this pastor reminds me is that I’m not perfect.  And neither are you.  We are capable of doing terrible things.  But God has not given up on us.  There is judgement, but there is also grace.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  Indeed.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Reverend Loser

Loser_by_mysticalphaEvery so often, more often than I’d like to admit, I get this feeling that I am a failure- especially when it comes to this pastor thing.

I’ve been at my church for a little over a year.  I think I’ve done a lot to help the congregation and to encourage them.  I think this church is at a different place than it was last year.  And yet, there is the feeling that I am not doing a good job, not good enough.

Part of this is dealing with some issues that took place in my life a few years ago that I am still trying to get past.  But mostly, I feel like I haven’t done enough to attract new members.

I’m probably not alone in thinking this way.  A lot of us do various things to help increase the visibility of our congregations.  We engage in social media.  We improve the church website.  We host community events.  And the result is…not many people darken our doors.

For me especially, it’s been frustrating.  I’ve been trying to establish relationships with those who left the church just before I came.  I’ve written, called and done everything short of showing up at their doorstep (and no, I am not trying that).  I may have to just give up trying to extend a hand to them.  I know that I’ve done the best I could, but I know that there is that voice somewhere that says I’m not good enough.    If I were better, I would have made contact with them and woo them back to the church.

Then there is this feeling that I’m not reaching out to the community.  If I were more outgoing, then maybe things would be better.  Maybe if I didn’t have Aspergers, I would be better able to communicate with others and then there would be more members.  I would be like that other pastor who can announce an event and 50 people show up.

All of this is nonsense to some extent.  Some of the problems facing First Christian started before I came there. Some things are the result of changes in culture.  But when few people show up to an event, or when few visitors show up to worship the questions always come flooding back.

If you want to know why so many pastors end up leaving the ministry, it’s because we tend to think that the success or failure of a church is all on us.  Pastors end up shouldering a lot of responsibility on themselves.

In the end, I have to accept some grace.  I am not all that.  All I can do is be faithful.  I try to do a good job, try to encourage the congregation, but in the end it is all on God.  It’s God that I have to trust in, but that’s hard.  I think we pastors are taught or at least we think, that we have to be demigods. I think God has to sometimes hit pastors upside the head and say to them “there is only one God baby, and you are not it.”

First-St. Paul might grow numerically and it might not. I am hoping for the former and that has been my prayer.  But in the end, it is up to God.  My job is to preach God’s hope to the people and hope they will see God at work in the world.

I just need to tell myself this over and over.

Sermon: Joy in Safetyville

Exodus 20:1-20
Twenty Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
October 5, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 Listen to the Sermon

-826adfcef174d44bI get my hometown newspaper, the Flint Journal  via email daily.  Like a lot of newspapers, the Journal prints a physical copy only four days a week, so a lot of what they do is online.  Everything Thursday they have a feature called Throwback Thursday, something that has been done on social media for quite some time.  Since the Journal has a vast selection of old photos, they spend each Thursday looking back at something in Flint’s past.  One week about a month ago, the featured a place called Safetyville.  Safteyville was located east of downtown and it was a place where kids went to learn about living with cars safely.  This place existed from the mid-1960s until the early-80s.  Safetyville was a miniature town with kid-sized buildings and roads.  Kids could get into small cars and learn how to drive safely.  For nearly twenty years, kids from the Flint area learned how to be safe drivers and pedestrians from the time spent at Safetyville.

A lot of people have great memories of the place which if you think about it is rather odd.  This was a place where you learned the dos and don’ts of driving and walking around cars.  Learning the rules of driving is not always the most exciting thing, but the people behind Safetyville made it exciting.  They knew how to make something that could seem burdensome into a thing of wonder and mystery.  A place where you were to learn the rules was a place that brings fond memories to adults who are now in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Read More…

Sermon: You Didn’t Build That.

Joshua 24:1-25
Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 12, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon

obama-you-didnt-build-thatEvery presidential election is always kind of a silly season in America.  People hear what a candidate says and it becomes fodder for the opposing side for weeks.  Certain phrases enter the body politic and are remembered for years after the election.  And this is not a modern phenomenon.  In 1884 as Grover Cleaveland was running for President, allegations surfaced that he had fathered a child out of wedlock.  His opponents began chanting “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?”  After Cleveland won the race his supporters fired back: “Gone to the White House, ha,ha,ha.”

In 2012, there wasn’t any chants like that, but there is one phrase that stuck out above all the din.  It was something that President Obama said, something that supporters of Governor Mitt Romney picked up and ran with.  The phrase is “You didn’t build that.”  If my memory serves me correct, the phrase came in a speech reflecting the role of government in our society.  The GOP milked that phrase for all it was worth.

Now, this sermon is not, I repeat, is not about the role of goverment or a rehash of the last Presidential election.  I’m wary about being partisan in the pulpit, so I’m not interested in talking about politics, at least from this vantage point as a pastor.

That said, this phrase is interesting to me, not because of politics, but because how it lines up with today’s passage.  The phrase reminds us that we are not where we are becuase of our smarts, but because God has been with us all the time.

Read More…

Why I Hate Columbus Day (It’s Not for the Reason You Think)

columbusdaynoTomorrow is Columbus Day.  Like a lot of folk, I never gave the holiday much thought over the years.

But I have paid attention of it over the last few years and I’ve come to dread the day.

Tomorrow, when I look at my Facebook or Twitter feed, I will see a number of posts maligning the day and the man.  Now I get why Columbus Day has become troublesome.  Columbus wasn’t a nice man at all.  I’m even up for changing the focus of the day.  What I am not for is the amount of self-righteous preening on social media where everyone is falling over themselves to share their “outrage” against Columbus and all that happened in his wake.  It amounts to nothing and changes nothing.  As blogger Nathaniel Gives said last year, I doubt that a lot of the people complaining are going to do anything serious like maybe give back land taken or even trying to improve the plight of Native Americans. Several cities have voted to change Columbus Day to something like Indigenous Peoples Day, but unless we are doing things that helps educate the public about Indigenous Peoples the excercise amounts to little.

If people are really concerned about this, if they want to change Columbus Day to something more fitting, then maybe people should look back to the Martin Luther King holiday.  In the 30 years since it became an official holiday, communities accross the country take part in events that both teach and celebrate the life of Dr. King.  If people want to create an alternative holiday, then start spending time teaching communities about Native Americans.  Have Native American speaks talk about their customs and traditions.  Make Indigenous Peoples Day or whatever the hell you call it something that educates people.

And what about Columbus?  Matthew Inman, the writer of the popular Oatmeal cartoon wrote something for Columbus Day last year.  Someone it does dabble in the standard denunciations, but he does say something that is important to remember: “History is full of terrible people doing terrible things, so instead of casting a shadow where there is already darkness, I’d much prefer to cast a light.”  He then proceeds to talk about Bartolme de las Casas, a priest who worked to end slavery in the New World. Columbus wasn’t a great guy, by any stretch of the imagination.  While I can understand why Italian-Americans pushed for Columbus Day’s creation, this is a different day.

So, sure work for an alternative.  But do something more than tear down a historical figure.  Teach people.  Help those indigenous peoples who are still dealing with the after affects of Columbus and everything after.  But do me a favor: if you don’t plan on doing anything else but going on Facebook, stop thinking like you are some kind of angel for “speaking out.”  It’s lazy and self righteous and won’t make a dime’s worth of difference.

The Landscape for Mission (and Theology)

One of the things that my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is trying to do better is helping people understand the context in which they are to be church.  An initiative, the  Landscape for Mission has come out that helps people explain the changing society that we find ourselves in and insight on what we can do.  I like the production value and I like that the four videos tell some hard truths about the denomination, something that a number of Disciples refuse to admit.

Where I think it falls short is in the area of theology.  I think we need to do more than address the situation of a declining denomination and offer reassuring words.  I think that among Disciples there is a massive deficit when it comes to theology.  Theology isn’t something professors do in seminary, it is about trying to understand our faith especially in the light of changed circumstances.  We need to do more than say the church is declining; we have to ask, what is church? Who is Jesus?  What does it mean that Jesus died on a cross?  What does it mean that Jesus was raised?  What does it mean to follow Jesus? What is mission? What is the mission of the church? More specifically, what does it mean to be a Disciple in this day and age?  Even more basic: What is a Disciple?

Fellow Disciples pastor Robert Cornwall has noticed the lack of theological thinking within Liberal Christianity with some concern.  In a posting written last month, he shares a quote from Canadian Theologian Douglas John Hall:

In short, Gospel needs theology; and where it is truly gospel and not just spiritual sound-and-fury gospel will evoke theology. It was fashionable during the Liberal period to minimize the importance of the epistles of St. Paul, or even to dismiss them. But without Paul’s theological acumen, which is reflected as well in the gospels, the early Christian movement would have split into millions of mutually exclusive and quarreling cults, and we should never have heard of the Christian religion. The fundamental claims of the Christian message by their very nature, including their boldness and universality, require the most intensive, committed and sustained thinking that human beings can manage. This thinking is not something added to the hearing of gospel; it is inherent in that hearing—to the extent that where such thinking is not evoked by what is named gospel, it must be questioned whether the thing so named is what it claims to be.

To which Cornwall adds:

If we are to call ourselves Christians and consider God to be a part of our lives, then this will require clear and thoughtful thinking about God and the things of God.  Hall notes that prior to the 4th century, when theology became more clearly the domain of the elite, Christians engaged in a lot of God-talk.   After Constantine, we left it to the experts.  While at one level theology requires significant training and expertise, at another level it can be and should be something engaged in by all of God’s people, otherwise we simply become another group therapy session.
Though we needn’t be dogmatic, and doubt is part of the theological process, we needn’t be afraid to embrace the gospel with its theological dimensions.  The key is holding our beliefs with a dose of an “absolute perhaps.”  That is a phrase I learned from another colleague, who with me recognized the importance of theology.  Can we not engage in conversation with the “absolute perhaps” standing at the center of the conversation?
Cornwall and Hall didn’t write this with the Disciples in mind, but it rings true.  As a denomination we don’t even look to the thoughts and musings of one of it’s well-known founders Alexander Campbell to even have some understanding of the Disciples views on mission and ministry.
I know that I will get painted as a naysayer, but I think one of the reasons the Disciples are in the situation they are currently is because we haven’t really taken the time to think theologically.
Maybe, the Landscape for Mission will foster more ongoing discussion and theological conversation.  I want to believe that.

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