Monday, March 30, 2009

Religion and Justice

Yesterday in church we looked at the passage in 2 Samuel when Nathan confronts David on his antics with Bathsheba. In the midst of this story we get caught up in the soap opera events it is easy to miss what is at the heart of the account. Nathan is speaking to injustice. It was not bad enough David took Bathsheba to be his wife, and had Uriah killed, it was that he exploited and dehumanized people in the process. If we take a good look at the parable Nathan tells it is not about adultery, it is about injustice.

There is a funny, not ha ha, connection between justice an religion. Not always but often religion is engage in furthering injustice. Most of the time this is not a willing choice, nonetheless it is there. Throughout history people who have been connected with religion have used religious language to justify the exploitation of people. Dare I mention the Crusades, slavery, racism, the list goes on. It has not always been in justifying that religion has contributed, it has also been found with inaction. Religion is very good at drawing lines between the society at large and the world of religion.

Religion is a system of conducting an organization for the propagation of that organization. When a relationship with Jesus Christ becomes a religion is when there is a movement from relationship to rules. Religion places a high value on maintaining order, tradition, while protecting the institution. Often to do this those who would challenge religion and possible threaten its security, are marginalized. Enter the justice issue.

Religion can further injustice, yet Jesus was working to bring justice. It seems religion, specifically the religion of Christianity, can work against its very foundation. The church should be a prophetic voice, instead it is often found to be a contributor. Until the church begins to reclaim its prophetic voice, it will continue to be empty religion.

Monday, March 23, 2009

New Project, Need Your Help

I am embarking on a new writing project and to get started I am asking for help form as many people as possible. Most of my life I have functioned in one way or another insider the walls of religious institution. I was at an event last night and listened to people mouthing the words of the Great Thanksgiving, an order of worship for celebration of communion in the church. I wondered how many people were really paying attention to what they were saying and doing, or if it was a religious activity? Over the past few years I have become increasingly less comfortable with religion, and the ways it has invaded the church. Some of you may have even heard me say religion is killing the church. Well the time has come for me to do some more study and writing on the topic. I am beginning to write with the working title of Religion Must Die. How can you help? Let me know your thoughts.

What would you say is the difference between religion and the church?

How have you been hurt, offended, or just plain turned off by religion?

Why might religion be important?

Anything you would like to share regarding the topic?

Please take a few moments, or longer if you like, to share your thoughts. You can post them as a comment here, or you can e-mail me at

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Comfort of Religion

As a part of our life together many of us at Cortland UMC have been reading through the New Testament together. The more I read the more I have a dilemma to wrestle with. Jesus was constantly and consistently challenging the religious establishments of the day. Now some two thousand years later and the same is happening. The dilemma is now I am tied to the religious establishment. This is not a happy dilemma for me, because I realize religion is killing the church, and mission of God. Why?

I can only speak from my own experience. One word and one word alone keeps us in the confines of religion, comfort. Found in religion is a comfort the we cannot always explain. Religion often tells us how to think and act. We do not have to seek, or strive to hear from God, we simply do what we did last week, which is what we have been doing for weeks, years decade and centuries. There is not need in religion to seek understanding and challenge our thoughts, because religion will tell you have to think and understand. There simply is not a lot of guess work of effort required for religion to thrive. All of this allows for comfort.

I wonder if it was comfortable to be a disciple of Jesus as he overturned the tables in the Temple? I wonder if it was comfortable to be a disciple of Jesus as he challenged the religious teachers of the day? Was it comfortable as mobs ran Jesus out of town? Was it comfortable when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Thesis to the door at Wittenburg? Was it comfortable for Mother Theresa to be in the slums of Calcutta?

I guess that is the point this morning. Following Jesus has never been about comfort. It have never really been about what we have always done. Never has it really been about human preference and desire. Following Jesus has always been about doing the work of God above all else. Our present day comfort however, has caused the church in the to found as impotent. Why? Because the church would rather exist in comfort rather than move out of the Lazy Boy of faith in do the work of God. We would rather have the answers given to us, and walk away unaffected by the whole thing.

As long as there is comfort in religion, the church will fail to reach the potential God has set it aside for. Until religion dies, comfort will reign and the church will continue to die. Fear not, the work of God will not die, that will continue with or without us. Humanity has not the capacity to stop the work of God. Yet how many of us will miss out on the fullness God longs for all of us to experience?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Paradox

We as humanity seems to be so bent of creating a God we can get our minds and hearts around. On a daily basis, recognized or not, we are striving to create a definition, of image of God based on our experience. Often this leads to the creation of a God which has glimpses of reality, portions of a dream, and hopes for our desires. Not all of this is bad, yet there is one major problem, God is not ours to define.

I am coming to believe that God is so far beyond my human ability to define. Sure I can offer some understandings, and hope to reason some good arguments for who I see God to be. However, they all fall short, and are limited by my understanding. Enter the paradox. My vocation, and life design is that of a pastor. Compliments to the institutional church and all, but this call and vocation is so much more than a denomination or structure. Yet not matter what the context of living out this vocation, I am left with a challenge. Generating an image or definition of God is a fairly challenging endeavor, and often leads to a corruption of understanding. Yet, I am called to help others understand who God is and what to make of God in their lives.

My understanding of God is so limited, yet I find myself, say on a blog, explaining how I understand God. This by default creates a definition. Confused yet, I know I am. That is how paradox works. So I am called by God to point people to God, and equip them for their journey. In the process of doing this I am generating some parameters of who God is. Yet, God is not created in our image.

So what are we to do? How about we all engage the journey laid before us. So often we accept the story being given to us by the church, and by the religious institution. Let's all agree to engage our brains, hearts, souls and strength to strive after the God who created us. May we stop creating a God in our image, and discover the God who created the great mystery which is humanity. May we learn to embrace the paradox.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lost His Way?

I am finding great trouble with labels lately. Perhaps it is due to the fact that I do not fit into a nice neat category anymore. At one point in my journey, I not only fit labels, I felt those labels were rather important. The need to know who was conservative, or who was liberal was of extreme importance to me. Terms like evangelical and progressive carried much wait in my life. Now, not so much.

What has been amazing in this transition and transformation is how others have reacted. Some have been shocked and engaged in conversation. Others have been shocked and figured I had lost my way. Still others are working to try and fit me into a new box, so a new label can be applied. The problem is, labels do not apply, and they are a great waste of time, energy, effort and resource. What matters most is not our political, religious or social affiliation, what matters most is the transformation of the world for the sake of Jesus Christ.

Many of the thought patterns and conclusions I am coming to have been hard for me to journey with. Often I am compelled to rework not just one component of my journey, but every aspect is impacted. Life was easier when I could use clear and detailed labels for myself and others. When I could simply use the "company" lines for theology and life, life was greatly simplified. However, I was missing out on the richness that is a transforming relationship with God. Before, I thought it possible to define God with great certainty. Now, I realize how great my inability to define God is.

Yes, to some I have seen the light, to others I have lost my way. I say they are both right. I have begun to see things on this journey differently, and thank God I have lost my way. Now I can start working on living Jesus' way and not Aaron's.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Hot Topic

A few days ago a young lady working on her senior seminar sent me a list of questions about a controversial issue in the church. Upon reflecting on them, I decided to publish my responses here. There are a few things I ask of those who choose to read. First, put aside all your predetermined notions about the topic, and about how you think I might respond. Second, read the whole thing. If you read only part, you might be tempted to misrepresent what I have written, and I would not want that. Third, engage in dialogue, either through this blog, of with other persons. It is through conversation we establish relationship, and though relationship we find a deeper understanding of God. So here goes, by the way the topic, homosexuality.

Have you had any involvement with the issue of homosexuality on the Conference level? (conferences, discussions, etc.) Please explain:

Most of my interaction with the issues of homosexuality have been through informal settings. Often this has come with gathers of young people. Yet, nothing in a formal, or “official” setting.

Do you view homosexuality as a sin? Please give any biblical or theological basis you may have.

I believe it is impossible to answer this question with integrity. Not because I do not have an opinion, which I will give later, rather because I think it is impossible for me to know with certainty. God and God alone is the one who will make such determinations, not humanity. It is not the business of people to make those distinctions as certain proclamations. God is concerned about us, and that includes or sexuality. The intention is that our whole life would be a life of Holiness. We as humanity do not get full rights as what that looks like. As for my personal understanding, based on my study, prayer and reflection, homosexuality is part of the area our scriptures refer to as sexual immorality. This does not cause a person to have less value than anyone else, nor does is grant permission to disqualify someone else from full humanity.

What do you believe to be the origin of homosexuality, are homosexuals created that way? Please give any biblical or theological basis you may have.

The only real answer I can give here is, I don’t know. It is apparent homosexuality has been part of humanity for centuries, as we have the writings of the Torah addressing what would today be called homosexual intercourse. At the same time, to say with certainty the origin of homosexuality is quite arrogant. This arrogance is shown by many different contributions to the debate. The reality is, no human being knows the origins of homosexuality, or many other aspects of humanity.

From your perspective, what do you currently see the United Methodist Church doing in order to address the topic of homosexuality?

Unfortunately the church seems to be focused on legislation at General Conference. Really it is not surprising, as that is how institutions work. Currently, the leadership is by their fear of persons across the spectrum of understanding, unwilling to foster healthy interaction and relationships among people from various perspectives. Thus highlighting the divide, which need not be a divide in the life of the church.

In your opinion, what should the United Methodist Church be doing in order to address the topic of homosexuality?

First, I think they need to encourage the leaders of the denomination to end the useless and hurtful squabbling around the issue. That is not to say this is not an important issue, as it is. Rather I would find greater investment in helping to focus on the commonality of humanity rather than the division. So much of our time and energy gets devoted to something none of us can fully reconcile. Why not let God sort out those kinds of things while we, humanity, get about the business of living the lives we are called by God to live. Lives where hungry are feed, naked are clothed, the widow and the orphanage are cared for. I cannot help but wonder if all the energy around this issue was channeled into the mission of God in the world what might be accomplished for the sake of Jesus Christ.

Where do you foresee the church going (if anywhere) with the topic of homosexuality, given their current state?

I see us continuing to pour all kinds of money and resources into the distraction of this issue. Unfortunately, institutions are slow to change, if they change at all. My hunch is there will be no official change out of fear that many will leave the denomination and therefore putting the institution at risk. I can imagine more and more people working this issue out in their corner of creation. My hope is that all people will be able to embrace the call of God in their lives, and allow God to transform us into the people we have been called to be. I am not sure the United Methodist Church as an institution is ready to do that.

Is there any else you would like to comment on regarding the topic of homosexuality in the church, specifically the United Methodist Church?

I have spent considerable time with this issue in my own journey. I was at one time on what might be called a very conservative, possibly fundamental stance around this issue. I am now at a place where honestly I have no idea. My heart often tells me homosexuality is sinful, and my heart rises to challenge my head. I am greatly grieved by the hurt and destruction this issue has caused in the Body of Christ. Further I am grieved at how my actions may have extended that pain. I wish the United Methodist Church would stop trying to play God, and let God do that part. No human being really has the right to determine who is “qualified” to be considered godly or not. If that were the case, we would all be in trouble.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Shack

Some may have noticed I am not writing as much this as last. I am only not always on this blog. Check out my other blog, as well. There I am writing almost daily based on reading the New Testament in a year.

After much encouragement and questioning I decided to lemming my way to the book The Shack by Wm. Paul Young. There has been much said about the book. Many absolutely love the book, some are lukewarm, and others feel it to be a tragedy for people to read. As I have worked my way through the first couple of chapters I find the reading is not hard, and the writer is a good storyteller. Deeply woven into the book is work of theology and the stories of redemption.

At first glance the theology seems to be shallow, and not breaking too deep. When one takes the effort to look deeper a rich theology is found. However, it is not a traditional theology, or theological dialogue. My best take on the story to this point, not quite halfway through, is Young works from a mystical framework. The mystics have been around since the first century, and have been misunderstood since then. Mysticism paints theology with a broader brush than some are comfortable with, using images and thought patters which challenge commonly held understandings. This book is right up that alley.

So far as a reader I have been challenged by the attributes of God I hold on to. At the same time I have found myself in the place of the characters in the book. The questions and emotions shown toward God are all ones that I have and continue to have. Like the journey I have experienced to this point, it is less about the answers to questions or the rationalization of feelings. The point is found in understanding.

I am intrigued to see where the story will go, and how the journey will unfold for me and for the characters in the book. The challenge is to put my classically trained and steeped theological mind in the holster, and allow the mystic in my to have some air time. More to come as I journey.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Game

The longer I pastor the church the more frustrated I get with the game. The game you see has multiple fronts. This last weekend our church hosted a gathering where there were a large number of clergy there. Game on. I cannot tell you the number of times I was asked what do we worship. I wanted to answer, God, but I knew what the people meant. They wanted to know how many people we had in worship each week. The other side of the game comes from people attending the church with their agenda before their heart of worship. With the rise of the consumer driven church came the rise of the church shopper. The person who is looking for certain things to be done and not done in the life of a church. Usually this person has a history of moving from church to church about every 18 to 36 months. If this person does not move from church to church they shop within the church.

This form of the game would push the church to do only the things people are comfortable with, or that fit their particular understanding of the the church. This is not about numbers but about everything else. The discussion ranges from music style, to display of a charismatic faith, to the way we pray, the elements of worship. There are people worried about being too Catholic, or too protestant, or too this and not enough that. I believe it was Paul who asked, is the Body of Christ divided? The game must stop.

At the risk of being too blunt or bold, this game, either one, is killing the church. The focus is on our personal preferences instead of on God. Yes I look at the numbers every week, and like most I would always welcome more in worship. Yes I am concerned with orthodoxy in our life together as a church. However, I recognize there is so much more than numbers and personal preference. God is so much bigger than our little churchy hang ups. To the church shopper I say, get your eyes off yourself and start looking to God.