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.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"When in Rome..."

In August, there were forms in the bulletins for people to request particular sermon topics or series.  During the month of February, I am going to be responding to one request in particular.  “Romans.”
I am going to begin with an assumption that the word “Romans” meant, in fact, the letter titled ‘Romans’ in the New Testament and not the historical Romans or current Romans.  If you will permit that particular assumption, I think we will all be on the same page.

Romans is a different kind of New Testament writing.  It is a letter, more or less, that has come to us as one of the epistles of Paul.  What makes it unusual is that it is a letter Paul wrote to a church that he did not found.  All of his other letters were written to communities of faith that he had founded.  

The letter to the Romans was to a Christian congregation that was already in existence.  The letter was also to a group of people that Paul had not yet met.  So in some ways, this is Paul’s letter of introduction.  His plan was to meet the church at Rome and then venture onward to Spain, and his letter was a letter to introduce himself before he arrived in passing to other venues.

Romans is a big topic and one that could certainly merit many, many sermons.  I am going to limit them to four.  They will focus on some of the larger themes of the letter.  The first week will be an examination of the basic theology of sin, grace, and redemption that Paul held.  The second week will focus on what Paul would consider the end result of faith.  Week three will be on the sensitive topic of inclusivity from the point of view of Paul, and finally we will conclude with Paul’s particular call to ethics: how do we live as Christians?

I hope that you will come and join us as we spend some time in the letter to the Romans.  It won’t be an exhaustive look, but I think it will be informative and hopefully transformative.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Little More From Sunday

This past week I offered a sermon taken from Luke 22:36-38 in which Jesus talks to the disciples about purchasing swords.  It is a difficult passage because it seems to not be in keeping with Jesus' other teachings and actions.  Does Jesus advocate violence in this passage?

No he doesn't.  As I pointed out in the sermon, Jesus' words at the end of the passage, "It is enough," are to be understood as saying, "Enough!  Enough talk about swords!" The words are not an affirmation but a dismissal that points to the disciples not understanding his point.

So when Jesus dismisses the idea of the two swords, he is also stating that he does not want to advocate violence on his behalf.  That comes out clearly just a few verses later when the arresting party comes for Jesus, the disciples ask, "Lord, shall we strike with the sword?"  And then one of them will strike and cut off the right ear of the servant of the high priest.  Jesus will respond by saying "No more of this!"

Jesus, in 22:36-38 is telling the disciples that they are about to be on their own and he is concerned for their well being.  He has also, in the larger chapter setting, been trying to tell them that the power of evil has tremendous influence upon us.  We must stand up against it.  But fighting against evil does not necessarily mean to take up arms.  One need only look at Martin Luther King, Gandhi, or more to the point, Jesus.  When the forces of darkness take up arms against Jesus, he does not and he rebukes the disciples for doing so.

However, Jesus is also telling his disciples that they may have to defend themselves.  Defense is acceptable if there is no other alternative, but violence on behalf of Jesus?  Unacceptable.  That's Jesus' point.  He isn't there to foster a bloody revolution.  His message and his mission are in stark contrast to the violent policies of the Roman Empire.  Yet understanding that the setting in which they live is full of potential violence, Jesus' words in 22:36-38 are to tell the disciples to be prepared for adversity - from clothing to swords.  The swords, though, are not to be used in the service of Christ.

A fine line, to be sure, but a clear one.  Jesus does not advocate violence.  He does want his disciples to be careful and prepared, but preparedness does not mean to act with force in his name as the later Christian movement would do in actions such as the Crusades.

This is a difficult passage, especially when taken out of context.  So I encourage you to study the scriptures carefully.  I try to do that when presenting a sermon, especially one from such a passage as this.  But it is something we also try to do when we study together on Wednesday nights.  Come and join us as we delve into the sacred texts together.  Who knows what else there is to find!

- Pastor Charles