Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Didn't You Eat On Tuesday

As I was growing up my parents were big fans of Charlie King, one of the songs I remember was a tongue and check song called "Didn't You Eat On Tuesday." It raises good questions of the care we give to those less fortunate than most of us. As I was thinking about what I would do for Lent and Ash Wednesday I was struck by the reminder we get in the Gospel for today, that sacrifice should not be a public display but instead a private one. Thinking about this, I was not sure if I wanted to post anything today, but I have decided that my posting could be informative rather than self-promoting. I decide yesterday as I was reading about Ash Wednesday customs that I would try to fast before the soup supper this evening. Already I have had a couple of profound experiences, one is that fasting is hard when you are not awake ... it was not until I had poured a bowl of cereal this morning that I remember I was not going to eat, so I set that aside. I also realized how attached I have gotten to food. Since going without breakfast is a pain, and as lunch approaches I am constantly distracted by my body's cries for food. I think this is a good thing because it reminds me of the suffering that others endure. I will not change the world by not eating today but it reminds me what others go through on a regular basis. My suffering does not glorify me, it glorifies all those who endure this all the time. As an individual largely born into privilege, a male middle-class WASP through and through, I sometimes forget how different the experiences of others are. As Lent begins we often give things up, take on spiritual devotions to help better ourselves. My personal challenge for Lent is to try and use it as a time to reflect on the needs of others. Hopefully I gain some personal insights, but I want to also remember the suffering of others and make sure my sacrfices do more than just help diminish my waist line a bit.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Love of the World

Long ago, at least it seems a long time ago, I decided my theme for Lent would be Love, I would move in concentric circles inwards, starting with Love of the World and ending with Love of Self and ultimately Love of God, which is both the most inwards and most outwards circle. This means that on Sunday I will be talking about the love of the world and how that relates to our lives as Christians.

As I am sitting here in a coffee shop thinking about this one of things I see is a sign by the restrooms that reads "support our local economy" with a web address encouraging people to buy local. I am always concerned about the tension between thinking global and yet also working locally. The two do not need to be exclusive but unless wrapped up in something larger I think they easily can be. One example that comes to mind for me is the question of Buy American, do we spend our money supporting local workers and in turn not helping out foreign producers? If this is done for the sake of making sure we are better off financially and to improve our own standing that is worrying to me, because the motive really becomes one of greed. On the other hand, one reason to support local efforts is the poor labor conditions/standards in foreign countries. Buying products from countries with a good record of supporting the workers can be a good reason to buy American instead of from say China. The same to me is true of an effort to buy local, if we are buying local just to support the people we know instead of the people we do not know, I feel we are ignoring the needs of others and privileging those around us simply because of proximity. Conversely buying local as an environmental effort to support less trucking/shipping costs and the resulting pollution is a good thing.

What it comes down, in my opinion is making sure we are thinking global for the right reasons, understanding that a love of world is a love of all people everywhere, and literally a love of the whole planet. We cannot talk about love in a more local sense until we ground it in that. Things like buying local are important, but only as long as they are not grounded in regionalism and nationalism, issues of false pride, and instead are about building a better more sustainable future for everyone, for the whole world. Well, that is a start to what I am thinking/wrestling with today.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

2021 and Beyond!

For many athletes today, the year 2012 and London are synonymous, 2012 being the next Summer Olympics year and London being the venue for that quadrennial competition. I know one fencer seriously training for the event and know one of the national coaches who is also working with fencers to get them ready for that year. As exciting as it would be to dream about what could be glory I could achieve in fencing in the Olympics, I have a humbler goal and a more distant year 2021, that is the year that I become old enough to compete again in age-oriented fencing tournaments. Fencers under 20 compete in Junior tournaments and once you pass 20 you must compete in open events with everyone else, until you reach 40 and suddenly there are "Veteran" events for you. I have compete occasionally and not very successfully in national level tournaments and appreciate that with my life choices, (marriage, being a pastor, serving a church 130 miles from a fencing club), there is little hope for me to ever achieve much glory on the national stage in open tournaments ... but Veterans, that could be a total different story. For that reason I am setting my sights on 2021 and starting to think about what goals I have to be ready for my "rookie" year. It is an interesting process for because it requires so much long range thinking/planning/training, something I am not used to. Still I like the exercise. Whether it is because of our constant expectation of the return of Christ, or just the daily grind of ministry, pastors and churches do not seem to do a good job of looking ahead, of setting large long term goals. The one exception I can think of right now is the 2020 goal to eliminate poverty that we have in Minnesota and that the UMC is on board with. It is good to look far down the road, to plan for the distant future as well. Certainly things will change, long range planning in the early 90's would not have seen the dot-com boom/bust or probably 9/11 and its effects but still it helps to have long range goals, because those can be big. We cannot eliminate poverty in MN in a year, we cannot reduce/eliminate malaria, and I certainly cannot get in shape/practice enough to be competitive at a high level in fencing in a short time, but if we think long term we can dream big, and make the plans to make thos dreams a reality. That is why I am thinking of 2021 and beyond.

Monday, February 9, 2009

"I have become all things to all people"

I preached this week on the lectionary text from First Corinthians this week (9:16-26). I love the text for a variety of reasons but as it was still rolling around in my head this morning something occurred to me, I probably would not have liked Paul in real life. There is something about his tone that I think would have just annoyed me too much. At least in this chapter he comes across as supremely arrogant to me. His staunch claims of needing no reward and must preach the gospel out of compunction seems to demeen anyone who behaves differently. And then there are his brazenly politicing with regards to the gospel. Paul is willing to play whatever part is needed in order to spread the gospel. I both love and hate this idea. On the one hand I think that a lot of great progess has been made for the church at times when it realized that it needed to do something different in order to reach people. The church has often failed the most when it takes on a come to us, be like us attitude, rather than a willingness to realize that some people do not like what they see and do not want to god where they see the church. My wife watches a show on TLC that gives fashion tips to those who really need it. Still the way that this advice is given is not always in the most loving of ways. What occurs is really closer to an intervention and the end result is that almost everyone on the shows comes out looking about the same, they look good, but they look about the same. Is that what we want in the church? Is that what Paul wanted?

Some of what is not clear in this text is what Paul means when he claims to be all things to all people. Is he making a claim to do the ultimate bait-and-switch, that he lures Jews in with the understanding of law only to tell them their is no law, and lures Gentiles in the same way but reversed? Or is Paul instead emphasizing an understanding of Christ as being under the law to Jews and Christ being beyond the law to Gentiles? Is he meeting them in the middle or suckering them over to his side? I kind hope it is the first but something about his tone makes me think the second. Paul makes a third claim as well, to the weak he becomes weak in order to win more over to the gospel. Up until now Paul has operated with a dichotmy, playing both sides, but Paul makes no mention of becoming strong to win over the strong. What goes without saying in this text is that Paul considers himself strong, and needs to make no efforts towards that particular group. He may be one of the most successful church planters ever, but he just is so insufferable at times that I struggle to find the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in his almost self-congratulatory claims. Paul maybe the reason a lot of people have found the gospel, but I would be willing to bet he is also the reason a number of people have not found the gospel.

I was reading in Time today about a war being fought on the buses of London, it was started first by atheist but the battle was quickly joined by Christians of a variety of persuasions. Both sides were buying ad space on the buses to spread their religious or anti-religious messages. The one that caught my eye was one done by a Christian group that quoted Psalm 14, that fool says in their heart they do not believe in God. The not so subtle implication of course being that all these atheists and their billboards were fools. Ignoring the logical fallicy of such a claim, to me it was a bad thing because it did not reach out to those doubting or question God, but instead brushed them aside, mocked them, questioned them. In addition to being an incorrect assessment of the "if then" proposition to was also an ad hominen argument, assailing not the ideas of the person but instead calling into question who they were. It was one more strong arm tactic of a self-assured Christian.

The final blow, or final tipping point for me in all of this came when I heard on the radio today someone bemoaning that Obama was looking weak in seeking compromise compared to the GOP and their tactics. I would actually agree to some extent, but what I actually object to is this constant belief that compromise is weak, and really that weak is bad. Paul seemed to think it was that way, needing to reach the weak but still asserting his own strength, his own ultimate ability to be everything for everyone. I guess where I keep finding myself going in all of this is, is there a place for a weak evangelist, someone who reaches out, not in the strength of their own truth, but instead in the weakness of wanting to seek also, and how does one do so effectively? Can someone with some certainty earnestly seek along those without certainty? Is it weakness to acknowledge that my own understandings might be wrong? Is that sort of weakness a bad thing? Not sure where this has gone, how comprehensible it was, or where it leads to, so if you have made it this far and feel your time has been wasted, I offer you a full refund. Have a nice day.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Being a little brother

It took me almost 28 years but I finally got the chance to feel like a little brother. Ok, I am probably exaggerating a bit, especially given how little I recall of the first few years of my life, but recently I got another chance to feel like the little brother, the first in a while. I am less than a year and a half younger than my older brother, Jonathan, so for most of our childhood I do not remember having the problem of always trying to play catch-up. We did a lot together but for the most part I found a way to be competive with him. The "friendly" competition between Jonathan and I has had some interesting side effects. In high school while he was doing cross-country skiing I was doing fencing, so we did not have a good basis for comparison, but in college when I managed to outski Jonathan he turned around and upped the ante by running a marathon. Not to be outdone, this last year I responded to challenge and ran a marathon with him. Of course we were not "racing" but I would point out that I finished before him, though there was a stretch where I was walking on Summit Ave wondering if I could start running again if he passed me. Anyway, like I said, for the most part when we compete it is on a fairly even playing field.

So a couple of Saturdays ago, despite the negative temps and even worse windchills my brother and I went skiing at Como Park. Finally I got the chance to feel like a real little brother, always pushing just to catch up with my big brother who was always a hill or a turn ahead of me. Just as a side note, Como is a terrible place to play catch-up. The trails make good use of the space, doubling back and forth to give you lots of skiing, but it means you always think you are close until you realize that the person is actually way ahead of you and it is just that the trail doubles back. So all of this to say that it was interesting, fun, and furstrating to be playing catch-up. It gave me something to push for. When you are head it is easy to pace yourself based on the people behind you, just working to stay head of them, but when you are behind you have someone pushing you to faster than you want. I like that kind of competition. I once hiked up a part of a mountain with my cousin, maintaining a remarkable pace through out it because neither of us wanted to be the one to slow down.

As I raced to keep up with my big brother I appreciated what healthy competition can do to keep us motivated. Being behind my brother encourages me to work harder so that next time things are closer. Being behind is something we tend to look down on. In the US we take pride in the fact that we are #1 and we work hard to stay #1, but we do not work nearly as hard as maybe we would if were #2 and trying to keep up with #1. Sometimes it helps to have that person ahead of us that makes us work a little harder. The impressive and stunning plays at the end of the Super Bowl were not made by the team that was ahead, playing to keep their lead, but by the team behind, trying desperately to take the lead. Maybe it is better in some ways to be #2 instead of #1, at least that is what this little brother, this #2 child is thinking today. Plus it takes the sting off the fact that my older brother completely outskiied me