Tuesday, January 03, 2017

New Year Resolutions

The new year is prime occasion to start something. Many of us make resolutions. I have read many: Lose weight; Exercise regularly; Be more at peace with myself; Follow my dreams; Focus on my needs; Learn a language; Go back to school; Get a hobby; Win the lottery; Get a new job. Do not misunderstand, please. There is nothing wrong with improving one's self, educating one's self, finding a place of peace in this chaotic life. Each resolution is good, in and of itself.

There is something missing here, however. So I want to propose a different kind of resolution for 2017, one that focuses beyond self-improvement. Do those things too, of course, but don't do only those. What I suggest is a resolution that is beyond one's self, one that focuses our attention, time and energy on the needs of those around us. I call it the "selfless" resolution.

Here is the resolution: In 2017, I resolve myself to do one random act of generosity and kindness per day, without expectation of return, reward. recognition or appreciation.

The first half of the resolution is tough. One act of kindness or generosity per day is going to cost me time, energy, attention and, more than likely, even money. I am going to have to go out of my way to attend to those around me, particularly as I search for an act of kindness and generosity. As I look for opportunities to practice kindness and generosity, I am going to have to listen and look. I will be forced to attend to the needs of those around me. I will have to pay attention to others.

The second half of the resolution is even tougher. These acts of kindness or generosity are to be practiced without expectation of thanks, reward or recognition. There is a purity here that I do not want people to miss. So often, we engage in behaviors in hopes of winning some recognition or reward. Doing so means that we engage in those acts for ourselves. They are not genuinely focused on doing for anyone else. If, however, we are to engage in acts of kindness or generosity without such expectation, those acts spring from our sincere attempt to simply meet someone else's need.

Here is what I anticipate as an outcome of my 2017 selfless resolution. I anticipate a freedom from my own aches and pains. I anticipate a decrease in complaint about the ways of the world, which seem always to work against me. I anticipate freedom from depression and anxiety, which spring from a concentration on one's self. I must make clear, though, that I am not practicing my 2017 selfless resolution in order to get these things. It is simply that a focus on the needs of others diminishes attention to myself, my problems, my tension, my stress, my fear and my anxiety.

If you genuinely want 2017 to be a better year, I recommend a selfless resolution. Try it for a year. See if it does not translate into happier, healthier, more fulfilling relationships. See if it does not make better selves in the long run. See if it does not make us more like Christ, which, I believe, is core to the practice of the Christian faith.

Happy New Year!  

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Prayer of Christian Commitment

A new person here at Shiloh shared this prayer with me a few weeks back. He explained where he ran across it, why he passes it along, and its deep meaning for him. While I might amend a thought here or there, I have decided to share it with the readers of The Shiloh Insider just as it was passed to me.

I am part of the fellowship of the unashamed. I have Holy Spirit power. I have stepped over the line, the decision has been made. I am a disciple of his. I won't look back, let up, slow down back away, or be still. My past is redeemed, my presence makes sense, my future is secure. I'm finished and done with low living, sight-walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tame visions, mundane talk, cheap living and dwarfed goals.

I no longer need pre-eminence, prosperity, position, plaudits, or popularity. I no longer have to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded, or rewarded. I now live by faith, leaning on his presence, walking in his patience, lifted by prayer, labor and power. My face is set, my gait is fast, my goal is heaven, my road is narrow, my way is rough, my companions are few, my guide is reliable, my mission is clear. I cannot be bought, compromised, deluded, lured away, or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of the adversary, negotiate at the table of the enemy, ponder at the pool of popularity, or meander in the maze of mediocrity. I won't give up, shut up, or let up until I have stayed up, stored up, prayed up, paid up, preached up, all for the cause of Jesus Christ.

I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I must go till he comes, give till I drop, preach till all know, and work till he stops me. And when he comes for his own, he will have no problem recognizing me...and my banner will be clear. Amen.

While I do not necessarily agree that our goal would be heaven, and while I question whether Jesus comes again in the faithfulness of his followers, I love the devotion and commitment that is reflected in this statement. Maybe we could be less distracted, less manipulated, less compromised, less turned away. Maybe we could be more faithful, more devoted, more committed, more loyal, more certain. Maybe our lives could serve as certain witness to the presence, love, grace, mercy and generosity of Christ Jesus. Maybe, with Christ's coming, he might find us ready, willing and able to be his faithful community of disciples and apostles. Thanks, Jason, for sharing the prayer with all of us!

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Law Against Christmas

If you are a person who believes that strict adherence to all laws is the best way to live communally, I have some news for you. Your position would have resulted in preventing Christmas. Here is how.

In ancient times, marriage was less a romantic notion about life choices and couples' aspirations than it was a contract between two families. The deal worked like this: families with daughters arranged with families with sons to transfer responsibility for the daughters to the families of sons in exchange for a price, a dowry. In exchange, the families with sons received a young woman of child bearing potential to provide subsequent generations. The arrangement was a betrothal contract. It promised that responsibility for the daughter would be transferred to the family with sons.

The betrothal contract was binding. The sons had no choice. The daughters had no choice. They were bound by the betrothal contract to carry out the arrangements that their respective families had reached. As soon as the daughter of the one family reached the age of child-bearing, the betrothal contract of with the son's family was enforced. There were few ways out of the betrothal contract. Most were unlawful. The sons or daughters could vacate themselves. They could run away. If they did, however, they could never return. Such a crime was punishable by death. The female could become impregnated by another male, thus breaking the betrothal contract. Again, however, the crime was punishable by death. In fact, in such a case, the groom-to-be son of the one family was obligated under the law to be the first to cast a deadly stone at the otherwise bride-to-be daughter of the offending family. The betrayal brought shame on the daughter's entire family, and, not incidentally, her own death.

This situation is particularly applicable to the nativity story of the Gospel according to Matthew. While betrothed, but prior to marriage, Mary, who was obligated by her family to marry Joseph, was found to be with child. The law was very clear. Joseph was obligated under the law to see to it that Mary was stoned to death. In fact, he was obligated to be the first to cast the deadly stone. Joseph was in a tense position. He did not want to see Mary die. He resolved to break the law by dissolving the contract between his family and hers. (This was an illegal act!) In Matthew's Gospel account, Joseph, not Mary, is warned in a dream, by no less than an angel of the Lord, to honor the contract, despite Mary's betrayal, and take her as his wife. (Another illegal act!)

In the briefest of accounts, Joseph breaks the law and takes Mary as his wife. If he were a man of honor under the law, he would have cast the first rock at her public stoning. If Joseph had done what he should and ought to have done, there would have been no nativity, no birth, no Jesus. Had Joseph held to the letter of the law, there would be no Christmas.

So, if we want to protect Christmas, let us do so with compassion, understanding and creativity. Let us not demand a strict adherence to the letter of our Christian orthodoxies or ecclesial laws, rules or regulations. Had Joseph rigidly clung to those obligations, Mary and Jesus would have died. It is only through compassion, mercy, imagination, forgiveness and grace that we have Christmas at all. Thanks to the unlawful Joseph, Jesus is born to Mary. Christmas is saved!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Advent Stinks!

I have a problem with the season of Advent. I imagine that you, too, might.

Not a single Advent season passes that I do not get at least a small handful of well-meaning suggestions that we in the Church ought to get with it and begin celebrating Christmas as soon as Thanksgiving is over. What is wrong with celebrating Jesus' birth, after all? What is wrong with Christmas Carols? Who nominated you and the Church as our corporate Scrooges or Grinches? Let's have some fun!

Well, fine; except for this one, small thing. It is not yet Christmas. Liturgically, at least, Jesus has not yet been born. He is still anticipated, hoped for, feared and promised. Therefore, the Church observes Advent. Advent is the season of preparation that precedes the birth of the Christ Child. It is intentional readiness for the policies and practices of Christ Jesus, a time of "making his paths straight." Those paths can look radical and seem dangerous, even unorthodox. They call us beyond some simple assumptions about Jesus' life and death.

My problem with Advent in the Church is that it is so contrary to the practices of the world around the Church. Everywhere we look and hear, there are Christmas sales, Christmas carols, wrapping paper, Christmas lights, Christmas parties, and, God forbid, glitter. So much glitter! The world moves to Christmas in mid-to-late-October, even before Halloween. By the end of November, even on Thanksgiving Day, the stores are open and ready for those Christmas, Black Friday sales. Cyber Monday takes place before we even reach December.

Advent is about the authentic Jesus, not about some characterization of him that traditions have created. The authentic Jesus comes as a corrective to traditional faith, that which falls too simply into categories of black/white, good/bad, in/out. He comes as a sign and symbol of God's inclusive will and tolerant acceptance. He comes with a concentration on those who had been excluded, rejected, despised and feared. He comes for others, not for himself. He does not care about life after death, but about the state of living on earth. He cares less about our sins than he does about our capacity to practice heavenly virtues in relationship with our brothers and sisters, helping those who have been victimized and oppressed.

The Church has a lot of work to do to "make these paths straight." The Church has a great deal to prepare. We have to move the accent of our words about Jesus to a completely other syllable. We have to rewrite sentences where we have been the subject, and see, finally, that others receive Jesus' emphasis. We have to empty ourselves of ourselves. Jesus was not about himself. Neither may we be. To put it bluntly, Advent is a way for us to unlearn many of the traditions that we have blindly accepted and the assumptions that we have been fed. It is a four-week period of re-acquainting ourselves with the real Jesus, who demonstrated the true Christ.

So, we in the Church cling to Advent, a season about the coming apocalyptic that Jesus brings. We remain in a time of serious preparation, even as the world sings of grandmas who are run over by reindeer and hippopotamuses for Christmas. I don't like it, but there you have it. Advent is about the birth of the genuine revelation of God's will, even if that looks nothing like what the world around the Church is celebrating.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!

The people of Israel had returned to their ancestral homeland after spending some fifty years in Babylonian bondage. They had been freed by an edict from a warrior king who thought it an ultimate insult to Babylon to send their former slaves back to their own lands. The former slaves certainly supported the policy.

Some of the Israelites remembered the former glory of their homeland, the Temple, the buildings, the roads, the public squares. They left Babylon, eager to return home. Many made the arduous trek, while others remained behind and established themselves as Judaism-in-diaspora. Those who returned were overjoyed as they approached what had once stood as the gates to Jerusalem. What they found, however, was utter devastation. No stone remained upon another. No Temple stood. There was no palace. There were no passable roads. Everything lay in ruin.

It took decades for the priests and prophets to inspire the people into any semblance recovery. They had been immobilized by hopelessness and immovable in their victimization. They were bitter at the fates that had brought them back to their own ancestral land. They blamed their leaders. They blamed the nations around them. They blamed God.

After some time, however, the priests and the prophets broke through the solid veneer of Israel's hopelessness by reminding them that they had been brought out of Babylon. Their freedoms had been restored. Their sovereignty was renewed. The only thing that was keeping them from restoring the splendor of the nation was the attitudes and perspectives of a broken people. The priests and prophets began to sing songs of celebration and thanksgiving. They began to paint pictures of hope and possibility.

Eventually, the people heard the songs of the priests. They envisioned the possibility that was promised by the prophets. A thankful heart slowly replaced the bitter and resentful one. A grateful attitude shaped a perspective of potential and possibility. They placed stone upon stone, and there was soon a building. They laid them, one against another, and there was a road. They built one structure at a time, one neighborhood, one vital element of their relationship with God. Within a century or so, the Temple was rededicated. The people of Israel had genuinely returned home.

The spirit of gratefulness and thanksgiving changes everything. You who read this are likely not the citizenry that is disenchanted, weighed down, frustrated. Instead, you are the priests and prophets who need to sing for the people songs of hope, possibility and promise. We are the harbingers of thanksgiving. We envision the new day.

Sing, friends! Shout! Let the people hear of God's love and forgiveness. Let them know that God's Spirit is within them and upon them, that nothing is impossible if we rely on the strength of that Spirit. Let them see the deliverance, the hope, the embodiment of God's will on earth. It is just out of our reach. An attitude of thanksgiving and a perspective of praise allow us to reach it.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!  

Monday, November 14, 2016

Safety (pins)

It is undeniable. Since last week's Presidential elections, some of our brothers and sisters are running scared. Those who had formerly been on the periphery of inclusion and acceptance, those who had been working their way into cultural acceptance, feel that they are now being pushed outside of access and participation. Whatever our politics, and whatever our systems of belief, we must acknowledge their fear.

Some homosexual persons are afraid that their recently-granted right to marry is now in  jeopardy. Some women in hijabs fear being attacked and assaulted. Some Black Americans worry about a return to segregationist America. Some Muslims fear religious intolerance and discrimination. Some Latinos sense an approaching cultural backlash. Some women fear that their rights to decide the fate of their own bodies is under attack. For many, these are tense times, whether or not others of us think the fear is warranted. Our brothers and sisters live in fear and worry about what is to come.

What can those who call Christ "King" do?  What are those who refer to him as "Master" offer to those who are in dread these days?

Maybe we can do as Christ did. Maybe we can offer safety and acceptance to those who are in fear of being excluded, rejected, even assaulted. Maybe we can do even more. Maybe we can offer welcome and acceptance to those who may be seen as potential sources of exclusion and rejection. Maybe we can see past the politics of the fear to the simple fact that lies beneath and above it. In Christ, we are all one. No race, kind, clan, sexual preference, economic or political status, religion, color, creed, gender or gender identity is naturally better than any other. We are unified in Christ. We are one.

At Shiloh Church, we offer you this opportunity to express the notion that you are a person of safety, both for those on the periphery and for those in the cultural core groups. Some of our crafty population will make available special "safety" pins, starting this coming Sunday. These pins are not anti-anything. They are pro-safety, pro-acceptance, pro-tolerance and pro-love. Some of the pins will bear the UCC Comma, some will have rainbow beads, some will be plain. The differences mean very little.

Wearing the safety pins may be very meaningful, however. They may mean that someone who had been in fear feels a sense of support and acceptance. They may mean that someone who feels pressure in our culture to believe or think in certain ways are accepted by people of faith. The safety pins are a sign and symbol of support and acceptance. Pick yours up from the green table on Sunday. They are free for the taking.

One other note. Even if you do not wear one of our safety pins, treat persons with the respect and honor due them as children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. Reject no one. Exclude no one. Love every one. Everyone. This is what it means to call Christ "King."

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Election Just the Beginning

I admit it. I care who is elected today as President of the United States. While I have not yet, I will vote today. For whom I vote is not your business. I do not care to attempt to convince anyone that my vote is the correct one. I will vote for what I think is the best course for the country that I love. I trust that everyone is doing the same.

My concern comes on the days, weeks, months and years that follow election day. For the sake of the nation, whichever party wins the presidential election will have to work with whatever party loses. In order to address the problems that we face, and in order to make us an even better nation, we will all have to put aside petty party politics, anger, fear, suspicion and doubt and focus our unified energies on the issues that had divided us. Obstructionism has to become a thing of the past. Intolerance has to pass. Vitriol and hate speech have to be erased from the national dialogue. We have to care so deeply about our fate moving forward that we are willing to bend our opinions and our convictions, many of which are fostered by a media machine that cares more about sensationalism and profits than it does about reflecting truth and reality. We have to learn to work together, even if we had disagreed.

Thus, my pledge. Even if the candidate who I favor, for whom I will vote, is defeated in this election, I will do everything I can in moving forward productively and positively. My work will not be misdirected in opposition to or obstruction of the work of whatever candidate wins. I will accept the presidency of the winner. I will support the work of moving forward from the contention of this election cycle to a more unified national hope, vision and direction.

I will not disrespect those who voted differently from me. I will not disrespect the candidate for whom they voted. I will not use accusatory or inflammatory language in conversation with or about them, their preferred candidate or their stances on the issues. I will not, however, tolerate such language or treatment of those who voted the way I did, or with the winning candidate, whoever that may be. If we are to be unified in our directions and actions as we move forward, there is no place in the process for foul, ugly epithets, or judgmental action or language. Even if the opportunity should present itself, I will refrain from such action or language.

Now, who will join me in this pledge of civility and respect? Who will join me in promising to do everything we can in channeling our communal energies toward a positive and productive direction for this nation? Who is tired of it all and ready to set a higher standard for dialogue and resolution of the challenges that we face?