Jul 27, 2012

Too Much (to do)

I had a pastor friend, who for effect, once stood before his congregation at Sunday morning worship and said, “Friends, I want to apologize to you this morning. I have no sermon. I hope you will forgive me, but as all of you are aware this week has just had too many emergencies in it for me to sit down and work on my sermon. We have had two funerals and two emergencies surgeries this week and on top of that we also had Vacation Bible School. In addition, people called me into several emergency counseling situations. I hope you will understand.”

Then he sat down. The organist froze, as did the rest of the congregation. No one had ever seen anything like this at First Church. No one moved—they didn’t know what to do.

Then, after about 60 exceedingly painful seconds, my friend got back into the pulpit and said, “This is what God must feel like when we tell God we are just too busy to attend to the world God has created.” My friend went on to preach a superb sermon on how God may not need us, but how God wants us to be covenant partners with God in working out our salvation. My friend went on to express how we witness to our faith by the way we live, love, and work in God's world. His sermon turned out to be very powerful indeed. He also shared how the Sabbath and rest on the Sabbath figure into the life that produces fruit. Perhaps you remember what Jesus said: “. . . the tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33).

We all know what it is like to have too much to do and have seemingly too little time in which to do it. It is often easy for us to let the most significant parts of life slip by the wayside and our fervent hope is that we can attend to these significant moments and events tomorrow or perhaps, the day after. We might also suppose that even Jesus faced problems of time-management. Could it be for this reason that Exodus tells us:
“Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death” (31:15).

Rest it seems used to be serious business. Perhaps we should all go take a nap!

Jul 19, 2012

The American Bible—A Book Review

The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation by Stephen Prothero. 

May we quickly disabuse ourselves of two notions pertaining to the title of this book The American Bible? First, some readers may be irked because a conjecture that Stephen Prothero’s perspective presupposes that “America” is purely a Christian ideal. Hence—why not “The American Koran” or “Torah?” This is not what the title implies. Rather Prothero uses "Bible" in his title in a sense of “collection of books” or “library” of documents. This is our collective history that has authority for how Americans think and behave.

The second inaccurate notion is probably why this book came into my possession to review. When seeing the title The American Bible I jumped to the immediate conclusion that this book had to do with biblical interpretation from a North American hermeneutic or something of that nature. Instead, what the book turns out to be is a collection of what author Stephen Prothero sees as the most important documents in the history of the United States. The subtitle offers a clue to the book’s aim: “How our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.” He uses a religious metaphor of “bible” to suggest that although this is not a religious book, it is nonetheless full of religious ideas. Prothero writes: “The conversation [about America] is spirited because the United States isn’t just a country; it is also a religion of sorts” (page 3).

The religion of which he speaks is not that of Yahweh, Moses, and Jesus, although in some American quarters this may be true. Rather, Prothero writes of a religion in the more generic sense of a set of high-minded concepts that have a “religious feel” about them: freedom, courage, respect, equality.

John Ruskin once remarked, “All books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time.” What Prothero strives to do in The American Bible is bring to our collective consciousness those ideals and concepts that made us what we are as a nation. In so doing, Prothero creates a book that highlights what Ruskin offers as “books of all time.” Of course, as Prothero himself admits what he calls “books” in this writing may include poems or songs or narratives—but Prothero collapses all these literary forms into the generic term “book.”

Prothero’s table of contents may be seen as fanciful or brilliant, depending on one’s point of view. He divides the documents or books he selects for this volume and places them under actual biblical categories. Under Genesis he places seminal American writings such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence. In the section called Lamentations he places the Gettysburg Address and Mary Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Prothero has ten such categories.

The American Bible’s content is predictable. We would expect to see The Constitution and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Speech. Yet Prothero also includes some surprises: Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman,” Ronald Regan’s “evil empire,” and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. What Prothero is after are works that, as the subtitle suggests, are documents that “unite, divide, and define” us as a nation. This collection of writings—and they are complete or abridged—is more than 500 pages.

In this book, America can be seen through the keyhole of its formative writings—things that stand in authority in our national conversation. Agree or disagree with these pieces of American literature, they are all nonetheless those writings that set the agenda for any national dialogue.

Like our national parks which have been called "America's best idea," America has almost always taken other nations’ and people’s ideas and altered them into our sort of art form—some for the worse, some for the better—slavery, freedom, universal suffrage, universal education, and free enterprise. Taking roughly 38 time-tested documents from our history, Prothero allows a wide assortment of critics to weigh in on whatever the writing puts forth. For example, in the chapter titled “Roe v. Wade" some of the critiques are written by, among others, Supreme Court Justice Byron White, Mother Teresa, and Barack Obama. Many of the commentaries on the primary sources are fascinating and run the whole gambit of American history—from very early to quite recent.

Although there are many anthologies that collect American documents, I am familiar with none with this range of authors with respect to gender, time, and political perspective. The American Bible truly allows many voices into the conversation that is uniquely American. In addition, the commentary as well as the introductions to each entry helpfully set the historic context of the writings. But more than that, it is fascinating in one book to have access to both Stephen Carter (law professor) and Jimmy Carter (former president) comment on Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists—written in 1802. The strength of this book is that it is a tour of great American ideas from multiple perspectives over the last 250+ years.

Perhaps more than any other country since the Greece of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the United States of America is a nation of ideas, notions, and concepts—and at times ideals we all thought worthy of passionate debate. Today, sadly, too many citizens are only interested in “feathering their own nests” or “getting what is mine” and the rest of the American experiment hardly stirs their notice. America is a place in the mind and heart where we talk seriously about things: the relationship of individuals versus community liberties, inalienable rights, limited and decentralized government, the pursuit of happiness, private versus public property, and the role of taxes to enhance the life of the commonwealth.

I heartily recommend Stephen Prothero’s The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation. For although it is not a book about biblical interpretation or a North American hermeneutical methodology, it can, like the original Bible, offer one a glimpse of the best humanity can muster.

Review written by Rev. David N. Mosser and reprinted with permission from The United Methodist Reporter

Jul 12, 2012

Does the Word “Stewardship” Make You Nervous?

Hilarity and mirth often mask our deepest anxieties. For example, about 20 years ago I led a group of moderately young church leaders through their first bona fide “Fall Stewardship Campaign.” Naturally, what most churches call the fall stewardship campaign is generally a code word for “budget raising.” To this end, our congregation’s veteran leaders determined our church’s next generation needed a direct and hands-on experience in financial leadership. Thus, our young leaders learned personally what raising a nearly one million-dollar budget consisted of.

To inaugurate this crash course in faith-finance for beginners, I led a Bible study and stewardship reflection. Afterward, the youngish committee chose a theme and delegated individual responsibility for this essential undertaking. We all sensed a certain tension in the atmosphere. Perhaps, most of those 11 people gathered understood that their church’s ministry was at stake. They knew that churches with financial problems experience more sustained worry and pressure than do churches without monetary troubles. In this way, churches and families resemble one another. Each person present that night felt a deep responsibility, and, to a person, they all loved their church.

I selected the story of Ananias and Sapphira for our meeting’s meditation (Acts 5:1-11). This story is so chilling that most lectionaries tend to pass over this text. In fact, most folks who present that evening have little familiarity with the story. After I concluded my remarks, the group discussed Ananias and Sapphira at length. Subsequently, suggestions for our church stewardship campaign theme came pouring out. The most appealing theme, and the one that best captured the group’s imagination, was a succinct slogan.

One young man said, “I know, let’s use the theme: ‘Give or Die.’ ” We all laughed and laughed about how on target this theme was. The group decided the “Give or Die” slogan would be easy for our congregation to remember. It was short and to the point. This crass slogan also conveyed plainly the message of Acts 5. Sensibly, we all knew that this theme would have been inappropriate, even offensive to some, especially for a church-wide stewardship campaign. Ironically, however, we all also realized a deep truth—Hilarity and mirth often mask our deepest anxieties. Our excessive laughter that evening symbolized the modern, mainline church’s anxiety about speaking to the issue of financial stewardship.

Without question, a stewardship campaign focuses on the management of a congregation’s fiscal resources. Realistically, however, stewardship in its broadest definition of “managing the whole household” is a year-round endeavor for church leaders. It sounds a constant refrain in the life of the church because it is one of the most tangible practices of discipleship.

To be a disciple is to practice stewardship in all its manifold expressions. Teaching, listening, visiting, praying, leading, organizing, and giving are each forms of stewardship of which there are hundreds and possibly more diverse expressions. Pastors as leaders need to help people come to terms with each member’s God-given gift to offer something to Christ’s church through stewardship.

As one of my preacher colleagues fondly pronounces, “Giving leadership is leadership giving.” In other words, if pastors expect those who follow us to respond, then we must do ourselves what we ask others to do. The best leaders have always understood this leadership principle.

Jul 6, 2012

What About the Sabbath?

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy”—God (Exodus 20:8).

Sabbath keeping’s primary principles are these: ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting. Each of these principles is clearly a focus of Exodus 20. Ceasing [from shabbat—to cease/desist] means faithful people break from anxiety, work, worry, accomplishment, possessiveness, etc. Notice that sabbath keeping in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5) sits between “you shall not make wrong use of the Lord’s name” and “honor your father and your mother.” The commandment pertaining to sabbath keeping gives us balance, in that “ceasing” divinely and persuasively mandates a break in our labor week. This suspension of our “business as usual” routine offers us a sense of the other six days’ wonder and blessing.

A second principle for sabbath keeping is rest. Resting too pertains to balance. The idea of rest is no doubt for our physical bodies, but more than that too. God can work in us most effectively—and we can respond to God most faithfully—when we are wholly in tune with God. Too many of us are distracted by the thousands of things that divert our attention. All of us are guilty of failing to rest on the sabbath, but as God originally conceived sabbath rest, God envisioned it as a foretaste of eternal life. At times the root of any problem is that we are simply too tired—either physically or mentally—to address it. When in doubt, take a nap—then address the source of your doubt.

A third principle for sabbath keeping is embracing. Embracing means permitting time for God and for family. This embracing time allows nurture for the most important relationships in one’s life. We are not simply producers of material or of information. Rather God creates us to experience relationship with the divine and with other people. The principle of “embracing” guards against two conditions that slip up on people who work too hard—anomie and ennui. Anomie means “personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals.” Likewise ennui is “a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from boredom or lack of interest.” Anomie and ennui signal that something in life is amiss. Yet with the speed of today’s life people accept this descriptor of American life as simply one of life’s “givens.” Sabbath allows time to embrace God in worship and each other in fellowship—God time and family time. Embracing our calling in life means we are related.

Finally, the last principle of our fourfold set of ceasing, resting, and embracing is the principle of feasting. Feasting is simply the enjoyment of life. It means taking the time to take pleasure in life by rejoicing in food and beauty. This means sabbath offers us permission and time to rejoice in music and the arts—rejoice in nature—rejoice in slowing down to be. We can enjoy what God created us to be. Our modern hi-tech society deprives us of these gifts and morphs into lost intimacy with God, ourselves, and others. Thus, in a culture that sees church, faith, religion, and spirituality as modern kill-joys, ironically the church uses sabbath to help faithful people reconnect. We re-connect by sabbath feasting. The primary principles of Sabbath keeping are: ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting.

These are sabbath gifts from God to God’s people. So . . . learn to say thank you!

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