Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Does God care about human decisions?

Does God care about people's minor decisions? During an election year, exploring God's relationship to human decisions is timely. The question extends to every facet of human life. 

Does God care what we have for breakfast? 
...what clothes we wear?
...who we date/marry?
...what job we pursue?

Ultimately, my question arose from the vitriolic debates surrounding the U.S. Presidential election in 2016. Both Trump and Clinton supporters have tried to argue that God could only possibly support one candidate. Of course, this presupposition assumes the impossibility of human change or transformation. As a pastor, I seek change in human hearts and radical transformation of people's lives every single day. Therefore, why would I not believe that either candidate would be equally susceptible to transformation. 

After the election, my prayer will be the same as it has been for political leaders over the course of my entire adult life: God help our leaders hear your voice. God help them seek mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with you (Micah 6:8). If I truly believe that change is possible, the same prayer will apply to both Trump and Clinton. Based on the news, both candidates could do better at exercising humility and putting humanity ahead of their egos and agendas. 

The original question still remains: Does God care about the minor decisions (including voting) people make? Yes, because the decisions we make reflect what we think about God. Our decisions point out what we think matters to God. If we eat Oreos for breakfast, we do not see our bodies as temples; we do not follow the theology of imago Dei. Even if we claim to be made in the image of God, eating Oreos for breakfast (or excessively any other time of the day) means that we do not care about God's creation. 

The same logic applies to other decisions. What we wear indicates something about how we see ourselves and how we want others to see us. To some people, I might dress as prep. To others, I might appear as a nerd. To still others, I might appear sloppy, whereas to some, I might appear too concerned with my appearance. For me, clothes match a purpose. If I am mowing the lawn, I wear old clothes. If I am going to my office at church or going to visit someone in the hospital, I try to look nice, what we used to call, in my corporate days, 'business casual.' There is no need for a tie, but a ratty t-shirt does not cut it either. If I am hiking or sailing, I wear appropriate attire. Does God care? Not in the explicit, doctrinal sense of prescribing a set uniform for different events, but in the dialogical way of reflecting my beliefs, yes, God does care. 

In Hosea, we find the metaphor of the prophet marrying a "wife of whoredom," and while people get tripped up on the explicit nature of the metaphor, the story points to God's feelings. When we turn away, we hurt God's feelings. The story is not about an interventionist God, but it is about an engaged God who cares. Perhaps, God cares less about what we eat, wear, or do than our motivation. 

Does thIs mean that we can do anything, as long as our motivation is pure? No. There are still right and wrong actions. How do we define what is right and what is wrong? And, how do we avoid the temptation of slipping into a Pharisee-like devotion to following a static list of rules? Both defining the rules and keeping them accurate is a challenge. As time changes, human understanding changes. For example, the covenant relationship connected to same-sex marriage debates in the twenty-first century have little to do with biblical marriage definitions in first-century Palestine. 

Orthodoxy is right-belief. Orthopraxis is right-action. Arriving at orthopraxis requires starting with orthodoxy, and luckily, brilliant men and women have written Spirit-inspired works over the centuries explicating the depth of orthodoxy. Some of the early creeds (e.g. Apostles) are a good place to start developing an understanding of orthodoxy. Then, putting it into practice is a matter of applying it to action. Above, I referenced Micah 6:8, "What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" This verse is a good place to start. 

Notice that this verse is not prescriptive. It does not list specific actions or dos/don'ts. The prophet points to a spirit of following God's directive. 

Does God care about the minor decisions we make? Yes, but not necessarily for the reasons we think. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Time Is a Gift

Most of my days are organized around a schedule. Events, meetings, phone calls, and appointments cram some days or weeks more than others. Quiet days are a respite. Busy ones energize my spirit. And, until I found myself removed from the distraction of everyday life, I am not sure that I realized how busy my life has become in 2016.

Generally, my activities are good and fulfilling. I like the work I am called to do and am fully aware of how lucky I am to be able to write that. Not everyone likes their work or is comfortable in their calling. Meetings lead to new projects. I can sense God's presence in the church where I serve. Phone calls are opportunities to enter the journey with another person. Some events exist for unfortunate reasons, e.g. some fellow clergy and I have a template for organizing a prayer service after a mass shooting--the reason? We have had practice. Still, organizing and helping lead these services of healing after major catastrophes is humbling and part of my calling. It is my work, and I am thankful to God for calling me. 

I have an acquaintance who tried to schedule a breakfast meeting with me. We looked at our calendars, until he referred the matter to his secretary. The secretary said he was unavailable for months. It seemed to be a not-so-subtle way of saying, "No thank you." Yet, it is possible that he really is that busy. If so, I pray to never be as inaccessible as him.

Time is a gift. Today, I am at a family gathering. I have no work-related books to read. My parents asked for my siblings and I to bring our families to a secluded spot so that we could have a vacation together. This was all they wanted to do to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Here we are. We will be together all week.

After a wonderful dinner last night, we sat around and talked. This morning, we spent time at a beach, and this afternoon, different groups are doing different things. I found myself enjoying some quiet time, alone, and that's when I realized: time is a gift. 

My family, parents, spouses, children--we have the gift of time together this week. But, there is more to it than just this week. Each person has the gift of time every, single day. Whether we choose to fill our schedules or not, the days and moments we have are gifts. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a man who stores up treasures on earth. Then, God says, "You fool! This very night your life is ending. Who will get all these things you have gathered up?"

People have different priorities from one another. Some focus on themselves. Some focus on work. Some focus on friends. Some have superficial relationships, limited to social media, like Facebook. Some focus on money and material things. Recently, I saw a Facebook post in which a friend of mine felt unimportant when relating to someone who was rich. I commented: you are only unimportant if importance correlates to wealth. 

At a party once, someone introduced me to a man and told him that I am a sailor. The man said, "I was just in Newport on a friend's boat..." He went on to describe the wonderful food they serve on their 130+ yacht. I asked, sincerely desiring to know, "How do you dock a boat that large?" Somewhat embarrassed, he explained that the crew took care of that. A super yacht might be appealing to some people, but I am thrilled to sail my 1985 29-foot Beneteau with my family and friends. And, I am well-aware that there are millions of people who cannot identify with owning a 29-foot boat. 

In fact, there are over one billion people in dire poverty on this planet. They cannot identify with snacks, three meals per day, basic health care, working electricity, public education, and many more things I take for granted. They may not be able to conceive of recreational activities, like sailing, scuba diving, or anything else I enjoy. However, there is more to life than money.

Wealth is relative. When we make wealth the focus of our lives, we miss the joy of each day. We miss the joy of having a quiet moment, as I experience while writing this. We miss the joy of time with family. We miss out on the happiness that surrounds us each day. Instead of focusing on what we have missed or what we lack, let us be thankful for what we have. I keep a list called "Gratitude." Sometimes, I add to the list. Other times, I read it. In either case, holding on to bitterness, envy, and other negative emotions is more difficult when counting my blessings. 

One of the greatest blessings is the gift of time. Each day is an opportunity to do something nice, make the world better, improve ourselves, pray, learn, and enjoy God's world. For me, I say, thank you God for today; thank you God for the gift of time. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A devotion on gratefulness from Bonhoeffer's 'Life Together'

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, "If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith and difficulty; if, on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry... then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow." --Life Together

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Missing the Point

People are different from one another. They hold different beliefs, have a variety of experiences, and distinctively relate to one another. Each individual gravitates toward inimitable symbols of value. For me, education and experience have high value. For another person, material possessions might have a higher value. For yet another, the opinions of peers are of the utmost importance. Each person is unique.

Groups of people can share symbols of value. When they gather around such symbols, like an intellectually stimulating conference, they might have trouble understanding another person’s perspective, especially when that other person does not see the group’s symbol as having any value. More than once, I have been excited about a conference paper and tried to share my enthusiasm, only to discover responses falling on a spectrum between polite disinterest and overt apathy.

The question, How can they be so off base?, belies an assumption of shared value. Both the one asking and the one to which the question refers must share some value. Yet, if they do not, the question makes no sense. I have had the experience, in the past, when, to me, I condescend to participate in something. Then, someone in the group organizing the activity says, ‘No thank you. We are fine without you.’ A grumpy old man seems to channel through me and say, ‘Harrumph! Really? Without me?!?’ However, the activity in question is not usually something I sought or, if I am being honest, really wanted.

Every person likes to experience value. Instead of finding value in something else, we all like to be the value. When a group says, ‘Yes, you are the one who can help us!’, we swell with pride, believe their affirmations and smugly and reluctantly join the activity. Instead of honestly answering the question, What am I supposed to be doing?, we follow the flow of life. Other people can set false pathways in front of us.

When other people set false pathways in front of us, do they do it intentionally? No. Certainly not. Or, at least, most of the time, people have no mal intention. Instead, they see something in us that we do not see in ourselves. Perhaps what they see is accurate. Perhaps it is an allusion, a misguided attempt to draw us out and nudge us into a new direction.

The overarching questions each person needs to ask are: What am I supposed to be doing? Where does God call me to be? Does this activity fit in with my sense of calling?

Interconnectivity, respected friends and mentors, hearing about other people’s successes, news and social media, and other sources can lead anyone to miss the point. Instead of asking and trying to answer the overarching questions listed above, people look around, practicing lateral Christianity.

The boy on the left might not have thought about a snack of cookies and soda before seeing his friend’s snack. Likewise, a person might be content with her job, car, house, phone, spouse, etc., until something grabs her attention. Suddenly, she misses the point. Her job was fine. Then, someone suggests applying for a new position; she applies, gets excited, and then is disappointed if she does not get it. Never mind that she was content before anyone mentioned the new position. The same applies to everything in life: living space, cars, bikes, mobile phones and other electronic devices, and even relationships.

Few spouses would say, I would like to wreck my life, go through a bitter divorce, become estranged from my children, and look back, wondering ‘Where did I go wrong?’ However, that is exactly what many people do. I once counseled a man who thought single life would be full of rabble-rousing nights in bars, so he left his wife. What did he find instead? Loneliness. Desperate for what he had, he and his wife reconciled, but their relationship will never be the same after his delusional foray into bachelorhood.

What is the point? Each one of us has to answer this question for ourselves. Let God guide your journey of discovery. Matthew 7:7 says, “Seek and you shall find.” Once we find the point, we can watch the world with interest, without letting the voices of the world create clutter and chaos and distract us from the point.

Maybe, one of the secrets of happiness is maintaining focus on the point.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Creating Sabbath in a Digital Age

Digital connectivity shrinks the world. Once, a few years ago, I left a hospital visit in Richmond, VA, and began making phone calls and following up on several voice mails. One message related to a mission trip. Before returning the call, I called a friend and fellow pastor in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, found the answer to the question in the message, and returned the call. On another occasion, my phone chirped at the arrival of an important email while I was out sailing. Responding in a timely fashion meant I could keep sailing and be present to the person who sent the email. The walls of my office fall. My accessibility extends to the car, a trail, waiting rooms, grocery stores, my home… almost anywhere.

Smart phones, tablets, widespread 4G and LTE coverage, and the ubiquity of Wi-Fi make connecting easy, if not unavoidable. Social media can be a wonderful way to keep up with friends, family, colleagues, and congregants, but it is ever-present, sort of like a digital Holy Spirit. The push notifications are always there. Facebook chimes in: a friend tagged me in a post. Instagram beeps to notify me of my friends’ latest pictures. Someone sends a tweet, so Twitter chirps. And, of course, there are texts, IMs, emails, and chats.

After Jesus heard about the death of John the Baptist, he tried to get away. “He slipped away by boat to an out-of-the-way place by himself. But unsuccessfully—someone saw him and the word got around. Soon a lot of people from the nearby villages walked around the lake to where he was. When he saw them coming, he was overcome with pity and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:13-14 MSG).

As I return from a week of vacation and respite from my ministry, I am reflecting on the difficulty of getting away. Jesus used a boat to get away. I would like to claim that I use a sailboat to get away because I am seeking to follow Jesus, even in my mode of vacation transportation, but the truth is: I love sailing. Two millennia ago, Jesus had trouble escaping notice. As a pastor in the twenty-first century, my ego does not extend to claiming equal fame with Jesus, yet I am unsuccessful at going incognito.

During the week, when someone asks, “What do you do in Kilmarnock?” I respond, “I am a pastor.” This can lead to a casual conversation about religion, a comment about the ‘world today’ or something like it, or the listener ignores my response. The last reaction is my favorite, not because I do not care about the person, but because I am seeking to reconnect with my family and recharge my emotional and spiritual batteries. Usually, a casual conversation does not disrupt vacations. The digital interaction can be the most disruptive.

On Tuesday of my time away, a person in my congregation sent a long accusatory email, outlining his grievances. He imagined some political beliefs and assigned these beliefs to me, and then railed against these beliefs. As a practice, I do not preach politics. My modus operandi for ministry is (1) seek God first, (2) love people where they are, and (3) be open to whatever God calls me to do. One of my most frequent benedictions is inspired by Brother Lawrence, “Walk in constant awareness of Christ, just as Jesus walked on this earth in constant awareness of his father in heaven.” If one were to poll my congregation, the majority would confirm these guiding principles, I believe. However, this person’s email was emotionally disruptive. Instead of focusing on my family, I began formulating a response. This man’s insensitive assault on my precious family time aggravated me. Then, my inability to shut it off irritated me. Finally, I moved the email from my inbox to a church folder and placed a reminder to respond to it when I return.

Sailing past Kiptopeke Beach and the breakwater made of World War II ships, I thought about the digital invasion. On the one hand, twenty or fifty years ago, setting sail over the horizon meant being virtually out of touch. On the other hand, twenty years ago, people did not have as much discretionary income or recreational time. Fifty years ago, there was even less time and money. Technological improvements make possible the kind of vacations we have available today. In the 1960s, FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic) sailboats revolutionized recreational sailing. In 2016, my family and I can enjoy a sunrise on the Atlantic Ocean in relative safety and remain in touch with family and friends.

Sabbath keeping and vacations require spiritual discipline. Instead of letting the world creep into these sacred family times, I can say, as Barth responded to Brunner, “Nein!” From the opening line of a disruptive email or text, we can make a judgment call. Is this an emergency? If the answer is ‘no’ (“Nein!”), then put the message aside, do not read it, place a reminder to read it later, and carry on focusing on building family relationships.

On Sunday morning, after I returned to my normal life, someone asked, “How is so-and-so?” I had no idea. Someone else filled me in. He had gone to the hospital a few days earlier. When I called his wife, she explained, “I knew that you were on vacation and didn’t want to bother you. He’s doing better and [the associate pastor] visited us.” Thank God for thoughtful people like her, even though I would have wanted to know about her husband.

Jesus had compassion when the people found him. We could learn from Jesus’ compassion, but if we never recharge our batteries, we will be more apt to burnout and less effective in ‘walking in constant awareness of Christ.’ God provides. Ministry stills happens. And, people are allowed to get away.