Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Ant Man and Ethics

Our church just had a group get together and go see the new Marvel super hero movie Ant-Man and the Wasp  I am a big fan of superhero movies - especially Marvel Comics movies - and have been largely impressed over the years at the writing and production of these movies.

With Ant-Man and the Wasp, I was surprised at...
Wait.  Let me just say that there might be a few spoilers ahead.  Just so you know.

Ok.  So I was surprised at the fact that the movie had no real villain.  Certainly not like Avengers: Infinity War or even Dr. Strange or Black Panther.  But there were some amazing portrayals of characters with conflicting moral and ethical points of view.  For that, it should be required viewing for an ethics class somewhere.

What I mean is that all the characters are electing to act on behaviors predicated on their own idea of what is right and what is important.  For a quick run down, Hank Pym and his daughter Hope want to find Janet, Pym's wife and Hope's mother.  For them, nothing else matters, even the house arrest of Scott Lang.  If he gets in trouble for their whisking him off on a mission, that hardly concerns them.

The Ghost simply wishes to find a cure for what seems, at first, to be an awesome power.  Again, nothing else matters to her but finding the cure.  She will do whatever it takes to be made whole again.  Against that, is the character of the man trying to facilitate that healing, Bill Foster (who was the character Black Goliath in the comics - hint!).  There comes a point where Bill and the Ghost come into conflict when the Ghost wishes to utilize Lang's daughter as a means to get Lang to do what the Ghost wants.  Foster steps up to the plate and says that hurting a child is out of the question.  Clearly the man has a strong moral compass in that regard!  In fact, it is Foster who keeps trying to direct the actions of the Ghost in ways that are not harmful to others.  In that respect, he is the ethical ground for the Ghost and does his best to be the voice of reason.

Pym, however, does not care what becomes of Lang, at least not in the immediate sense.  He only wishes to accomplish his goals.  Lang and his concerns are a distant second to his own agenda - a point that Foster makes in explaining why he and Pym had a falling out years earlier.

In the middle of this is Scott Lang, Ant-Man.  His concern is largely to stay out of trouble.  He wants to do right by his daughter, his ex-wife, and certainly by the FBI who have him under house arrest at the beginning of the movie - which are the consequences from his actions in the Captain America movie Civil War.  He is drug into the action unwillingly, and keeps asking for the other characters to take his concerns and needs seriously - which they often do not.

I found that the movie was a good one, but I also found that it fit right in with the series I am currently doing on ethics.  As such, if you are so inclined to do a little more study on the ramifications and ethics of our actions, you might want to give Ant-Man and the Wasp a try. 

Oh, and you might want to see Avengers: Infinity War first.  Just to prevent you from some confusion with a scene...
Well, I don't want to give any more away than I have to.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Christian Ethics - a series

During the month of July, I will be focusing on the idea of Christian Ethics and the challenges of facing the world around us.  Ethics, defined as the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity, are also defined by our Christian faith.  Yet we don’t often consider the ethical principles of Christianity or how they might effect our theology or vice versa.  It is a challenging topic, and one that isn’t entered into lightly.

When it comes to talking about ethics, we tend to get a bit tense, especially given how loaded and even politically charged the word can become.  I cannot say that my words will reduce your anxiety about the topic, should you have any concerns.  Nor can I say that my words won’t be heard as political, though my intention is not to favor or advance any partisan political agenda.  I will be approaching the issue from that of a Wesleyan ideology as well as that of the United Methodist Church, however. 

Why I say that is because when we, as Christians, speak of ethics, we tend to speak in terms of morality.  The two are almost inseparable and both words hold influence over our actions.  Christian ethics, though, do not exist apart from the community of faith and the reading and interpretation of Scripture.  Ethics are the principles that govern the behavior of a person or the conducting of an activity.  Ethics, as a discipline, is what deals with the question of what is good or bad as well as the ideas of moral duty and obligation.

As Christians, we equate morality, ethics, and good and bad with Scripture, the “sacred canon for Christian people.” (United Methodist Book of Discipline ¶ 104)  It is through our study of Scripture, based within the believing community, as well as in the historical context of that scripture that we, as United Methodists, believe “we may come to know the truth of the biblical message in its bearing on our lives and the life of the world.  Thus, the Bible serves as a source of our faith and as the basic criterion by which the truth and fidelity of any interpretation of faith is measured.” (¶ 104)

Even describing the Bible as the source of ethics is difficult, given the fact that we all read and interpret it differently, sometimes remarkably so.  Our task, then, is to consider our source with regard to our present context and setting.  What are our duties as Christians?  How do we define our ethics as Christians? 

In this series I am proposing only to invite you into a deeper consideration of the idea of Christianity and ethics as well as the ramifications of our decisions.  Christian ethics requires both interpretation and application.  Prior to that interpretation or application is consideration.  This task, to consider ethics in light of the Christian tradition, is our goal.

Friday, May 18, 2018

On the School Shooting in Santa Fe

Another school shooting.
Today it happened again in Santa Fe, Texas.  As of this writing, 10 dead, 10 wounded. 

And we go on.

Since Columbine, there have been over 200 shootings at schools.  Some have been big news, some were small news, some were barely reported.  They should all have shaken us to the core.  Now they just make us sad, if that, and only for a few minutes.  Then we go back to blaming the government, the guns, the gun lobby, the anti-gun lobby, or this or that.  Video games, rock music, or the lack of church in the lives of the children.

It goes on and on.  And it seems, especially after the shooting in Florida, that only the children seem to be worked up.  Perhaps it is because they are dying.  Just as African Americans have to point out the injustice and the obviously and statistically skewed numbers that show they are arrested at an amazingly higher rate than whites, the children have had enough. 

Of course, they can't vote.  So their voice only goes so far and only troubles politicians for so long.  The governors and Senators give their speeches, and then they fall back into the rhythm of the status quo.  Nothing changes and soon...another shooting.

And the Christians don't know what to say.  Is this the will of God?  I cannot see how it is.  In the eyes of Jesus, children were precious - despite cultural norms that kept them out of sight and out of mind.  In the days of the early Methodist movement, John Wesley argued against child labor and for education for all.  Children dying cannot be sanctioned by the church.

Of course, there are those more fundamental groups within the Christian faith who, as they argue, are against any program to save the planet.  They feel that the planet is ours to use up.  Why?  Because we will get a new one at the end of time.  So trash it up!  I wonder if that thinking also applies to how they view school shootings:  "Oh, it is bad, but it will all be made right in time."  Tell that to the parents of the most recently murdered child.

Is this Christian philosophy?  We don't want to save the planet because we are going to get a new one - is this their philosophy with human life?

It certainly is in opposition to the idea that God is love, that Jesus loves the little children, and that we are to proclaim the kingdom as a present reality. 

What I do ponder is that the shootings seem to be symptomatic of something larger, perhaps something worse.  Gun control is only one aspect of the issue, but an important one.  Yet, there is more than that.  Why have our children become so violent?  Why has society become so full of animosity?  Why does life not matter if it isn't your own? 

We have seen that civility in politics is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.  Name calling is acceptable, lies are truth and truth is obfuscated.  The only way that that kind of attitude can reach the top is if it has grown from the ground up.  It's only acceptable so long as we let it be.

And that might be the point.  School shootings and the culture that apparently fosters them will continue to be the status quo until we the people decide it's time for things to change.  My hope would be that we would foster that change before then next shooting takes place.

We shall see.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Longest Night

Last night our church held "The Longest Night" service.  It was our third time doing one of these and it is a powerful experience for all involved and, I believe, all present.

It doesn't get a huge reception, and part of that may be due to the fact that many people just don't quite know what to do with the service.

It takes place on December 21st, which is where it gets its name.  "The Longest Night."  During the month of December, the nights get longer and the daylight far shorter until it reaches the 21st, the shortest day of the year and the longest "night" of the year.

Sometimes this service is called "Blue Christmas" (you just can't help but think of Elvis with that title), and it takes place in December, but not necessarily on the 21st.  I have preferred to utilize the darkness of the 21st to emphasize the idea of being caught up in the longest night.

Because for some, perhaps more than we might think, the season before and of Christmas is a difficult one.  And not everyone can understand or appreciate that.  This service tires, though.

It isn't a service designed to "cheer up" those who attend.  It is, instead, designed to acknowledge grief or sadness, and offer a place and a community where we sing, cry, and come together in the midst of emotion and in the recognition that sometimes the emphasis on joy can sting the broken hearts around us.

Most of all, as I said last night at the beginning of the service, the Longest Night service is to let people know that they are not alone. 

One of the other aspects of the service that many people will miss, save those who attend, is just how beautiful the church looks.  If you are familiar with our sanctuary, you will know that during the Advent/Christmas season, our sanctuary looks like this:

It is a beautiful space.  It does what it is designed to do.  But on the evening of the Longest Night, the idea of "bright" just doesn't work.  It needs to be something else.

So two years ago, our choir director, J.C. Smith, began to talk about how to make this service have the proper feel to it.  And mostly that had to do with the lights. 

Since we can't dim our church house lights, and we can't select which ones specifically to turn on or off, we decided to go a different direction.  And, as he has access to a fabulous lighting system, we created a setting that I believe is befitting of the Longest Night.  Taking cues from the idea of a "blue Christmas" (and, by the way, the liturgical color for Advent can be blue or purple), the end result was this:

With all the candles lit, with the cross as the only light up front, and the Christmon Tree lit, it makes for a stunning setting.  And it both illuminates and darkens the sanctuary, and it truly becomes a holy refuge for those whose hearts hurt during this time of year.

Last night we added a new feature, which was to light up the front of the church as well.

If you look closely enough at this picture, you can see through the open door.  With the stained glass window highlighted, it made for a tremendous sight both up close and from the road. 

It also set the whole place apart.  Which was the idea. 

Now, I know that this service isn't for everyone.  I also know that some people who would benefit from it often think it is for "other people."  But I can't make people attend (not just on the Longest Night either), and, as a church, all we can do is invite.

Our plan is to hold this service each December 21st.  It is a very special service, and I would encourage you to think about it and as this season comes around again next year, invite someone who might need a shoulder to cry on, a community to cry with, or a place to come and be quiet with God.  And if that person is you, consider joining us in beautiful quiet and compassion.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

With Las Vegas Before and Behind Us

According to the UMC Book of Discipline, "new issues continually arise that summon us to fresh theological inquiry.  Daily we are presented with an array of concerns that challenge our proclamation of God's reign over all of human existence."(¶104 UMCBOD)

I think sometimes that the "new issues" are arising at a faster pace than the church or any of those living in our country could have anticipated.  I remember thinking how the threat of nuclear war was theoretically dissipated when the Cold War ended only to find myself once again wondering if some maniac is ready to fire the missiles just to make a point about who was really the most powerful. 

And then there are hurricanes that demonstrate how quickly and easily the planet can put us in our place.  We see how, as the writer of Ecclesiastes said, all things crumble.  No matter what kind of confidence we have in our preparedness, we still have to respect the wind, the rain, and the storm - even though, as Elijah learned, God was not to be found in their destruction.

And then there are shootings.  Las Vegas.  Sandy Hook.  Chattanooga.  "Shots fired!" goes the cry.  And we wonder about our confidence in humanity and our willingness to arm ourselves to the teeth to prevent some shooter from going nuts only to find that a shooter armed himself to the teeth and went nuts.

In the face of these atrocities, our task continues to be as follows: "We seek an authentic Christian response to these realities that the healing and redeeming work of God might be present in our words and deeds."(¶104 UMCBOD).  That is really hard to do when bodies are on the ground - either from the hurricane or the hail of gunfire.  What we try to do more often than not is to find out who we can blame.  Blame the NRA, blame the Democrats, blame the Republicans, blame the Left, blame the Right, blame this historical event or that one.  Condemn those who want to talk about gun control, condemn those who don't. 

As to that last point, I think it should be said that we all handle grief differently.  Some want to spend time processing it, some want to talk, some want to be quiet.  When the nation is rocked by such atrocities, we all try to process the event in our own way - and sometimes we think that someone who doesn't act or react the way we do is uncaring, insensitive, or part of the problem.  But we have to learn to give ourselves time to grieve as well as time to process.  Some just move through that at different speeds.

But blame?  I blame the shooter.  He did this.  Of course, we could then write him off as crazy, a maniac, or whatever else.  The condition of his mind is certainly a question, as are his feelings of apparent indifference to human life.  Or we could just say that this proves that he was a sinner and that if only he had had Jesus in his heart, this wouldn't have happened.  As the Apostle Paul said, though, we are all sinners.  We can't call him that unless we are prepared to say that we are better in some fashion.

And maybe we are.  But then we start arguing about which sin is worse than our own.  According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said that the unforgivable sin is when we call evil good and good evil and when we say that the working of the Holy Spirit is the work of the evil and vice versa.  Sometimes our theological and political rants get very, very close to that line.  "We look," as United Methodists, "for answers that are in harmony with the gospel and do not claim exemption from critical assessment." (¶104 UMCBOD).  Critical assessment.  Which means that we have to not only hear the words of scripture, but be willing to talk and reason things out. 

Part of the problem we find ourselves facing today is that we do not take time to reason, to study, to examine.  Figuring out why this happened in Las Vegas will take time, but we are not a patient people.  So we start texting, tweeting, Instagraming and foster rumors and half-truths, even on national news, which has become the battleground for our short attention spans.  Critical assessment takes time and patience is a virtue.  Sometimes, though, we are not virtuous people. 

But we need to be.  As part of the United Methodist Church, we need to be the virtuous examples of faith in the face of tragedy.  Perhaps part of that needs to be the ability to keep quiet.  As a chaplain in the Niota Volunteer Fire Department, I learned quickly that sometimes the best thing to say in a crisis is nothing at all.  It is called the ministry of presence.  Just be there.  In being there, we bear witness.  We don't blame, we seek to console.  As the prayer of St. Francis says, "may we not so much seek to be consoled as to console."  That, of course, comes after the request to be an instrument of God's peace. 

"As servants of Christ we are sent into the world to engage in the struggle for justice and reconciliation.  We seek to reveal the love of God for men, women, and children of all ethnic, racial, cultural, and national backgrounds and to demonstrate the healing power of the gospel with those who suffer." (¶124 UMCBOD).

Who suffers?  We need not look far.  Our task then is, as the hymn says, to rescue the perishing, care for the dying.  And so many are hurting all around us.  The church, so crippled by internal debates over who really is loved by God, is loosing the ability to be a bastion of hope and light.  But that doesn't have to be the case. 

I once described the United Methodist Church as follows:
Where are we in the world?  Imagine someone about to be executed by lethal injection.  Where are we in that story?  First, we stand with the family of the victim.  We know that justice is cold comfort, and that the loss that they might have is a void that may never be truly filled. 
Second, we stand with the protesters outside.  We want justice, but we want honest and true justice.  Sometimes politics mar our attempt to be just people. 
Third, we stand with the ones who administer the injection.  Even in justice, a life is being taken, and we have to be in prayer for them.
Finally, we stand with the prisoner who is to be executed.  Because they are human as well, and we pray for God to be merciful on their souls.  For as much as they have ruined lives and ruined their own life, they, like everyone else in this example, are children of God.

Where we stand on guns, where we stand politically, where we stand concerning race, sexuality, or whatever else is less important than the ability of the church - the representatives of Christ - to stand with humanity.  We grieve.  We weep.  We pray that one day our minds and our lives might realign to find ourselves facing God.  In the end, we do what we can in the name of Christ our Lord.  And perhaps there is the true test of what we do as a church and as individuals.  Do we offer them Christ, as our conference once said for a slogan, or do we offer them grief for not being on board with us?

"Orthodoxy," said John Wesley, is at best but a very slender part of religion, if any part of it at all."  Do not let our opinions on issues become our orthodoxy and in so doing limit those to whom we offer Christ and the grace of God.  Instead, may we understand that "the heart of Christian ministry is Christ's ministry of outreaching love." (¶125 UMCBOD).  To drive that point home, the Book of Discipline states, "This means that all Christians are called to minister wherever Christ would have them serve and witness in deeds and words that heal and free." (¶127 UMCBOD).

So I close with this prayer, the Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

This Sunday I am going to be focusing on the idea of spiritual growth and knowledge.  It is a series that I hope will help people to see that there is a wide variety to our faith and traditions as well as how we understand the role of scripture and theology.  I encourage and invite you to be a part of the series and to think about what it means to experience different stages of faith and growth.

For so many the idea of growing our faith is desirable, but seemingly unachievable.  Or, in some cases, we don’t know that our faith can grow any further than it already has.  But faith, like life, has stages.  And we have to learn how to move through them.

While we will be looking at particular stories and passages of scripture, the more important facet of this is series is that we all examine our own journey of faith.  Where are we?  Are we satisfied?  Do we think there is more, but just don’t know how to get there?  Or are we unaware that our faith can grow? 

We will begin with the idea of foundational faith and move into some more challenging aspects as the series progresses.  

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Looking Toward the Future

On March 11th, we had the beginning of our visioning process for Harrison UMC.  We gathered to talk about the future of the church with regards to all the varied facets of church life – fiscal, physical, outreach, ministry, as well as talking about where we want to be in 5 years.  It was a great conversation and began what I hope will be a productive, innovative, imaginative and Spirit filled time for our church as we begin to seriously ask ourselves where we wish to be as a church in the future, both near and far. 

A second step was the District event that took place this past Saturday at Tyner UMC.  It did not get the advertising it needed, and we only had two persons attend, but it was a good (surprisingly good) event that made quite an impression on all of us.  As such, during August, I will be leading a four-week study of the book Get Their Name by Kay Kotan.  This study will be for anyone interested, but 
I would strongly encourage anyone in leadership within the church to attend.

While that is some ways off, I will be working with the church over the next several months to begin to develop our larger vision.  Here is how:  Over the next two months I will be visiting with each of the Sunday School classes to talk to them about the future of the church.  The classes will receive the questions that we discussed at the visioning meeting on the 11th and will be encouraged to discuss them as a class.  I will then meet with them the following week to hear their thoughts and ideas.

In September, we will have a second visioning meeting where I will be sharing some of the visions I have heard and we will begin to develop the vision for the future as well as beginning steps to getting there.  Then, over the course of the remainder of 2017, we will be working together to coalesce our vision as well as our short and long-term plans for reaching our goals.

It is an important time in the life of the church.  We have opportunity, but we have challenges before us.  Together, as we gather to do the work of the Kingdom, I believe we can take those perhaps frightening steps into the future and find that there is tremendous possibility before us.  What we may find is that the thing that limits us the most is ourselves.  If we can work together, though, we can do great things. 

I am looking forward to where we go as a church and I look forward to working with the leadership of the church and the congregation in general as we establish the outline for the future of Harrison United Methodist Church.