Thursday, August 25, 2011

Happy are they who...

well.... don't seek happiness.

Not that folks should be unhappy, but happiness is as one's primary goal in life is misdirected.  I finally got around to reading my July/August issue of The Atlantic Monthly and found the article "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy" to speak to our situation.  As a parent I fear often that I am too hard on my kids.  And while this article is not a call to become parental tyrants, the idea that we as parents have to make our children happy all the time might be devastating to them in the long run.

There are plenty of things that we do in our lives that bring us happiness.  But happiness is not the primary goal of such activity.  Trying to provide for our child's happiness by constant praise, or navigating the troubled waters our children find themselves in, might even have more to do with the parents not wanting to let go than anything else. One notion that was raised as a possibility for parents not wanting to let go was the nature of community and most people's removal from it.
“There’s a difference between being loved and being constantly monitored,” Dan Kindlon told me. And yet, he admitted, even he struggles. “I’m about to become an empty-nester,” he said, “and sometimes I feel like I’d burn my kids’ college applications just to have somebody to hang around with. We have less community nowadays—we’re more isolated as adults, more people are divorced—and we genuinely like spending time with our kids. We hope they’ll think of us as their best friends, which is different from parents who wanted their kids to appreciate them, but didn’t need them to be their pals. But many of us text with our kids several times a day, and would miss it if it didn’t happen. So instead of being peeved that they ask for help with the minutiae of their days, we encourage it.” 
 This article was a very sobering look at a number of issues that face not just the world but the church as well, particularly as wee seek to teach virtues that have nothing to do with common conceptions of happiness and instead have much to do with suffering and discipleship.  Yet throughout the history of the church many have found happiness precisely in those endeavors.  Happiness perhaps resides in the wrestling and the overcoming. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

10th Sunday after Pentecost -- Sacrifice

After laying a theological foundation that re-orients the identity of God's people, Paul turns to the living out of that identity.  Paul uses the language of sacrifice but turns it so that it is rooted in the life of Christ rather than death.

An excerpt from the sermon:

But why do we Christians so easily accept notions of sacrifice?  For Christianity the final sacrifice of death was that of Jesus.  In the midst of the sacrificial system set up in Israel, Jesus was raised up to be God’s final answer to sin and death.  God did not make the hard decision  of having another pay, but chose to put himself on the line in the person of Jesus, his Son.  And Paul makes much of this clear in Romans.  Paul begins with the complete power of sin in the world.  Sin holds everyone captive.  Jew, Gentile, everyone both inside and outside of God’s chosen people.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” he writes in chapter 3.  But that also means that all are placed in right relationship with God (that is, God undoes the power of sin) in Jesus, whom God has put forward as the sacrifice once and for all. 

Read the whole thing here.

Or listen to it. 

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Friday, August 19, 2011

Barna Group and the State of the Church

Recently, George Barna's research group put out a report that looked over the past twenty years and marked some significant changes.  Relating to six key religious behaviors, they found:

  • Bible reading undertaken during the course of a typical week, other than passages read while attending church events, has declined by five percentage points. Currently an estimated 40% of adults read the Bible during a typical week.
  • Church volunteerism has dropped by eight percentage points since 1991. Presently, slightly less than one out of every five adults (19%) donates some of their time in a typical week to serving at a church.
  • Adult Sunday school attendance has also diminished by eight percentage points over the past two decades. On any given Sunday, about 15% of adults can be expected to show up in a Sunday school class.
  • The most carefully watched church-related statistic is adult attendance. Since 1991, attendance has receded by nine percentage points, dropping from 49% in 1991 to 40% in 2011.
  • The most prolific change in religious behavior among those measured has been the increase in the percentage of adults categorized as unchurched. The Barna Group definition includes all adults who have not attended any religious events at a church, other than special ceremonies such as a wedding or funeral, during the prior six month period. In 1991, just one-quarter of adults (24%) were unchurched. That figure has ballooned by more than 50%, to 37% today.
Barna also continues on in a six-part series that outlines the State of the Church, which covers many differences including generation, gender, racial, ethnic and so on.  It is interesting and raises some issues for mission.

Begin with Part One of The State of the Church here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

9th Sunday after Pentecost -- Table Manners

Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman who won't take "No!" for an answer.  Jesus ignores and insults.  He abuses theology.  Jesus' behavior is difficult to stomach here.  But his behavior is, seemingly, for the benefit of his disciples who simply want him to send her away.  Yet the woman is persistent, enlarging the picture of Jesus' mission for his disciples.

An excerpt:
When Jesus sends us away, he sends us away from the realm of sin and death.  Too often our choice is to keep people there.  We ignore or insult or abuse scripture to keep from extending the grace shown to us by Jesus.  Grace is not a commodity that will run out.  It flows out of Jesus’ identity as the messiah, the one who comes to humanity to set us free.  He becomes sin so that we might become righteousness.
Read the whole sermon here.  

Or listen to it.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hauerwas, America's God, and the Church

I saw that Brian McLaren had a quote by Stanley Hauerwas over on his blog.  That quote had a link to a longer column over at ABC's religion page titled "The Death of America's God."

In typical fashion, Hauerwas points to the reality that the faith most Americans have is deeply shaped more by our political notions,  than who Jesus is.  Hauerwas wrote:
Protestantism became identified with the republican presumption in liberty as an end in itself. This presumption was then reinforced by an unassailable belief in the commonsense of the individual. As a result, Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain those disciplines that are necessary to sustain a truly free people - people who are capable of being a genuine alternative to the rest of the world.

For those who are familiar with Hauerwas, this sort of writing is nothing new.  I did find however his discussion about marriage to be interesting.  He begins writing about how the notion of liberty plays itself out.  Human beings are presumed to be rational creatures with the ability to make "free choices."  The problem as Hauerwas sees it, is when accountability is brought into the equation.  We want accountability and responsibility, but at the same we demand that we know what we "know what we are doing." He says that most Americans do not think someone should be held accountable for something if they do it when they do not know what they are doing.  And here is where marriage becomes problematic, he says. He writes:
But the problem with such an account of responsibility is that it makes marriage, among other things, completely unintelligible. How could you ever know what you were doing when you promised life-long monogamous fidelity? That is why the church insists that your vows be witnessed by the church, because the church believes it has the duty to hold you responsible to promises you made when you did not know what you were doing.

I am not sure I agree with Hauerwas' suppositions. I think most Americans want to hold others accountable for things even if they did not know what they were doing.  But if we ask individuals if they should be held accountable when they did not know what they themselves were doing, then maybe. But his discussion rings true as I consider some friends who just could not see themselves ever getting married.  One discussed it with me after a break up with his long-time live-in girlfriend.  He could not ever see committing to one woman because he just didn't know what else was out there.  In other words, he wanted to know what he was doing before he made a decision where didn't know what he was doing.  I am fairly certain that my friend will never marry... or he might once he realizes the hopelessness of his situation. 

Hauerwas' column is not as clear as it could be and he likely preaches to the choir.  But he is on to something here.  Watching the incommensurability of political discourse in America today, it is clear that the three antithetical threads he names in America are beginning to fray.  An April survey by Public Religion Research Institute showed that most Americans believed Christianity and capitalism to be at odds with one another.  Several prominent Congressmen and Congresswomen who claim to be Christian also espouse Ayn Rand's atheist philosophy.  Hauerwas is clearly on the right track.

Monday, August 08, 2011

8th Sunday after Pentecost -- In the Boat

Jesus walks on water and draws a deep resonance with things that God the Father has done.  This text clearly shows that what God does, Jesus does and highlights Jesus' relationship with God.  Thus when Jesus calls us out of our relative safety we can trust that all is well and we will be looked after no matter what might happen.

Here is an excerpt from my sermon yesterday.
While it seems daunting, uncertainty for the church is nothing new.  Routinely the church has had to face fear and uncertainty.  Even with Jesus around the disciples found themselves fearful.  Not only do Jesus’ disciples have to fear authorities, both political and religious, but at times it even seems like Jesus placed them in a position to be fearful.  Today’s gospel reading has the disciples being forced into a boat to go across the sea.  The NRSV says that Jesus “made the disciples” get into the boat.  The word is incredibly forceful.  Forced or compelled work perhaps better.  Jesus feeds the multitude, then ships his disciples off and he goes away to pray. 

Or read the whole thing here. 

Or listen to it below.

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Thursday, August 04, 2011

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread...

I saw a friend on Facebook share an article from the StarTribune about truckers. The author of the article had a great opening.

Let me tell you a little about the truck driver you just flipped off because he was passing another truck, and you had to cancel the cruise control and slow down until he completed the pass and moved back over.

His truck is governed to 68 miles an hour, because the company he leases it from believes it keeps him and the public and the equipment safer.

The truck he passed was probably running under 65 mph to conserve fuel. You see, the best these trucks do for fuel economy is about 8 miles per gallon. With fuel at almost $4 per gallon -- well, you do the math. And, yes, that driver pays for his own fuel.

The author Dan Hanson writes incredibly well about this particular driver, Harold, and his situation. Read the whole article here. The article is a great reminder about the reality of truck drivers' lives... and our own self-centeredness.

And it is a great illustration for the daily bread petition of the Lord's prayer. When Luther explains in the Small Catechism what is meant by daily bread, he says:
Everything that belongs to the support and wants of the body, such as meat, drink, clothing, shoes, house, homestead, field, cattle, money, goods, a pious spouse, pious children, pious servants, pious and faithful magistrates, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.

I always take the opportunity to explain to my confirmands that this means we are praying for the migrant farm workers, the stock boys in the supermarket and yes, even the truck drivers who are hauling goods all over the country. This article is just one more piece of evidence that supports my position. The men and women who are engaged in trucking are not just obstacles in our path, but human beings with real lives who are engaged in providing our daily bread.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Pastor Dad and the Eucharist... Again

This past Sunday, after the service as I was greeting people, two visitors introduced themselves to me. One of the visitors was a pastor and the other a pastor’s wife. The pastor’s wife had commented on watching my wife with our three kids. I commented as usual that my wife bore a great burden on Sunday morning. The pastor’s wife though was one of the first who mentioned my burden in having to push them out of my mind at times. And this is certainly true. A couple of weeks ago though I could not perform such a separation and I needed to reflect quickly on my feet.

The practice at our congregation is that people come forward to the rail and kneel to receive the sacrament. Our oldest chose the pew the rest of them sit in as I am up front. He chose for them the front row immediately under the pulpit, which means that my family is the first in the congregation to receive the sacrament since I start on that side. For the longest time, he has been the first in line to receive the sacrament. But my middle child, my five-year old son (whom I wrote about last year here), has started the struggle with his older brother as to who will be first. If I had chosen to name the boys Jacob and Esau, it would have been appropriate. I have seen near wrestling matches recently as they strove to be the first.

I have tried to explain to them that there is no “first” at God’s table. But a couple of weeks ago I nearly lost it. They had been pushing my buttons all morning, starting with getting ready in the morning to misbehaving during the children’s sermon to antagonizing each other in the pew during my sermon (which of course was directly below me since they sit directly beneath me in the pulpit). So when the wrestling match began, the pastor in me was not what responded. Rather the dad reacted.

It is our practice to withhold whatever is the currency that holds sway. If we have to take away television, computer or handheld games, we do. Sometimes if the offense is egregious enough, they might lose all three. That morning I told them I had had enough. My oldest tried arguing with me, but I wanted none of that at the altar rail. And I was about to tell them that they lost the sacrament. Something stopped me. Just before I levied that discipline, which I would have felt obliged to keep if I said it, I paused. Was this offense worth excommunicating my kids?

Now let me be clear, I do think there is a place for withholding the sacrament. Public, egregious and unrepentant sins have no place in the community. We do not sin so that grace may abound. Excommunication is meant to be a evangelical tool to bring about repentance and amendment of life. It is not shunning and exclusion, but a means to reach out anew with the proclamation of the gospel. But I would think about it in connection with something severe like abuse or extra-marital affairs. Two brothers elbow jockeying? Hardly. Not without warning and conversation first at least.

So I pulled back from the brink. I told them to stop and that if they kept it up they would get served last. They stopped. I communed them, after I communed their mother and sister. This past Sunday, after a week off since we were on vacation, I called them to me before we left the house. I reminded them of the respectful behavior we should exhibit when taking the sacrament. And THIS time, I did tell them, that if there was a problem there would be no sacrament for them. The middle child still misbehaved during the children’s sermon, acting out and making loud noise seeking attention. But when we celebrated the Eucharist, all was quiet. All was still. Jesus’ presence calmed the boys, and the dad. A mystery to be sure.