Food for Thought-Are People Screaming At You? Reflections on Mark 1:21-28

Are People Screaming At You

At first glance, one word from verse 23 jumps off the page. The man with an evil spirit “screams” at Jesus. I’ve had many things happen to me while preaching and in the context of a worship service. To date, I’ve never had anyone scream at me. Given what we read here, maybe I’ve been doing it all wrong. Perhaps people should be screaming at me if I’m disturbing and disrupting the world in the manner of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus provokes strong reactions in people; especially those who are heavily invested in maintaining the spiritual status quo.

We, knee deep in the pig-slop of Western Christendom, are hell bent on being loved, adored, and respected. People who provoke the back pew sitters to anger and confront society’s worst evils are relegated to the fringes of their denominations, live in poverty, and rarely find a spiritual home. Despite our innate desire to please others, we can’t ignore the reality that our Messiah was poor fringe dweller who alienated more people than he attracted to his cause. This is Jesus we see preaching in Capernaum.

Screaming seems to be the order of the day. When Jesus exorcises the demon, the man screams for a second time. The evil inside this man lacks the appropriate words to confront Jesus or explain its presence. We are reminded that evil is often inexplicable. Other than identify Jesus by name and role, evil has no response to Jesus or his message. There is no real battle or conflict. The possessed man is merely part of a much larger narrative. He will be made free. However, he is there to help tell the story.

What story? Jesus’ message will be heard; no matter how loud people scream. Demonic temper tantrums will not interrupt the coming Kingdom of God. We also learn that in order be heard, we don’t need to scream. Evil screams and shakes its fist in anger. Yes, the evil spirit calls Jesus out by name. What does Jesus say to man? Does he identify the demon by name (if you watch movies and television shows we’re led to believe this is crucial in exorcisms)? Jesus simply says, “Silence”. In a head to head confrontation with evil, Jesus doesn’t resort to name calling or screaming. That’s the other team’s modus operandi.

Jesus’ message is that he comes to build something new. He is destroying the cycle of fear, hatred, and anger undergirding a life which says, “I hate my neighbor as much as I hate myself”. This message is conveyed by one word, “Silence”. I can’t emphasize this enough; Jesus doesn’t argue, insult, or scream. Loving our neighbors begins when we say, “silence” to the arguments and anger within ourselves. It is in the spaces between the silences that the kingdom of God can begin to be built.

Food for Thought-9 Assumptions that are Killing the Church

9 Assumptions that are Killing The Church

1. Church is a building; a religious franchise complete with signs, entrances, exits, a sale table and a manager called a “pastor”. We sell intangible goods and services such as peace of mind and tickets to paradise.

2. Church is somewhere you “go”, usually once a week on Sunday morning at 11:00 am.

3. The best people in the community go to church. The world, which is inherently “bad”, is full of people who don’t go to church.

4. Our primary function is to convince the “bad” people from the world to come into the church so they might see how cool it is to hang out with “good” people who dress casually and sing upbeat music. We want the “bad” people to become “good” people like us.

5. Church is what happens between 10:59 am Sunday morning and the moment the pastor says the Benediction. Everything else which happens at church during the week, that’s a “meeting” or “function”. Church is only on Sunday mornings.

6. The real work of the church is done somewhere else, called “the mission field’. This “mission field” is certainly not in our own community. We send our best “good” people (at great expense) to these places because that’s where the poor, physically needy, and emotionally broken are found.

7. We do ministry best in segregated groups which are based on gender or age; the men’s group, women’s group, or youth group.

8. People who are saved according to our standards go to heaven when they die.

9. Our mission is to “make disciples”. We say this ad nauseam, especially at the district and annual conference level. We assume that making disciples is the mission itself rather than overall goal that occurs organically if we’ve moving away from using the language of control and manipulation (e.g. we make, we control, we transform).

Food for Thought-Friday with Francis

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We live in a time of great violence, conflict, and war. Peace seems, at times, to be both elusive and naive. Thank God Jesus never became that jaded. Do we honestly believe Jesus lived in an era which was any less brutal, violent, or conflict driven? No, by all indications his world was far more destructive and bent on killing than our own. If Jesus was able to talk about loving our neighbors, blessing peacemakers, and putting down the sword in 1st century Palestine, why does it seem so odd or out of touch for Christians to do the same in 2015? Because if we take Jesus seriously; our priorities will have to change. When we risk looking foolish for Christ, out of step with the conventional patriotic wisdom, we also risk being called stupid and ineffectual. Stupid for insisting there is no possible way to reconcile violence with Christianity and ineffectual for continually reminding the world Jesus never said the words others place into his mouth. I’m ok with those epithets as long as I can maintain the integrity of the term “Christian”. It’s hard to call yourself a Christian when you reject the basic premise of Jesus’ message. I believe that message starts with how we understand peace.

Have you ever read the Prayer of Saint Francis? Originally attributed to Saint Francis, these words have woven their way through Catholic and Protestant Europe for centuries.

Make me an instrument your peace. That’s how the prayer begins. Look at those two words “instrument” and “peace”. As we step from the clutter of our present moment, we realize the one thing which separates the word “make” and “peace” is “instrument”. Peace is contingent upon the work of the instrument. Who is the instrument? What is the instrument? We are the ones who can become instruments of God’s peace. If I want to be an instrument of God’s peace, I realize that instruments are like tools. Tools function in many ways but ultimately they accomplish tasks bigger than themselves. We are the tools which God uses to undertake tasks bigger than we can ever imagine. As we apply ourselves to the task of peace in our daily journey, our eyes widen and we see the bigger vision God has laid before us.

Food for Thought-Lies You Might Have Been Told by a Pastor or Church

Lies You Might

1. There is only one way to read the Bible.  The Bible can only be viewed as the literal word of God. That’s not true. There are multiple ways to read and understand the scriptures.

2. Jesus only loves you unless you say a certain prayer or formulaic arrangement of words. Again, a lie. Jesus loves you as you are at this moment. How we come to that realization is what matters.

3. The church is not a place for people who have doubts or questions. To be a Christian means you have “faith” all figured out. Also, not true. God welcomes our doubts and questions. Church is a place where we should be able to explore and find the courage to be ourselves.

4. You must be able to recall (or pinpoint) the moment you were “saved”. This is false. Salvation isn’t one instance in time; it’s a lifelong process.

Food for Thought-Reflections on Jonah 3:1-5, 10

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Some of you will know that I live on an island. On this island much fishing is accomplished. Whether for sport of profit, fishing has been an integral part of life on Ocracoke for hundreds of years. Wherever people fish, one will find “fish stories”. Dramatic tales of wrestling fish from the surf or into the back of a small boat are a part of life in fishing communities. Some of these stories are true, others exaggerated, and a few are outright lies. Such is the nature of the fish story. The fishing story doesn’t need to be true in order to make a larger moral point. Because, so often, the fishing story has little to do with the actual fish; it’s about the adventure, the journey, and the events which surround the fishing. The story recorded in the Book of Jonah is one such fish story.

Let me say this from the beginning: do I believe the story of Jonah is factually true? No. I don’t believe a man was swallowed by a large fish, survived, and was vomited to safety some three days later. Do I also believe this same man went and preached to the people of Nineveh and converted the king of Babylon’s largest city? No, not really. I do believe this a fish story and as such, it’s not about the fish. The story of Jonah, the whale, and his time in Nineveh is a tale which wants the reader to ask a few key questions.

1. What does this story say about God?
2. What does the story say about us?
3. What does this story say about how God feels about the people we hate?
4. What does this story say about the limits of God’s love?

Is the writer of Jonah trying to convey the history of an actual fish, man, and trip to Nineveh? No, he’s not. Like Jesus, the author is offering us a parable so we might better understand how we fit in to what God is already doing.

1. What does this story say about God? God has an expansive view of our abilities and potential. God see us in ways we are unable to see ourselves.

2. What does this story say about us? It says we think we know more than God and can make better decisions about the fate of people than the creator of the universe. It says that the only thing which makes us take God’s love for other people seriously are threats to our safety, comfort, and security. When we feel comfortable, safe, and secure we are less likely to be compassionate, loving, or benefit of the doubt giving to anyone, especially God.

3. What does this story say about how God feels about the people we fear and hate? Jonah’s story is one that insults our sensibilities and turns our prejudices upside down. Who are the Ninevehites? The remains of Nineveh are in present day northern Iraq. They were the people most despised and detested by the Israelites. Their religious practices differed from the Israelites. They were warriors who had conquered great swathes of land. In Jonah’s eyes (and those of his countrymen) the Ninevehites were brutal heathens who deserved no mercy or attention. None of that mattered to God. God saw value in the people that Jonah viewed as worthless. Jonah had one Nineveh to confront. We, (the west, Christianity) have a whole list of Nineveh’s.

Nineveh is Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, sub-Saharan Africa, Paris, Oslo, Berlin, Ferguson, and Staten Island. Those are all places that seem to bring out the worst in humanity these days. These are places where many have given up, written off, and decided the people who live in these areas aren’t worth our love, compassion, or understanding. New Nineveh’s are created every day. In the back of our minds, we (like Jonah) have decided these people are evil, these people are bad, and they must die. And as Jonah did, when people begin to discuss compromise, coexisting, and compassion people get angry. We seek our tiny shrubs and woefully bemoan how wrong it is that God is being God and our rules seem to be ignored when it comes to running humanity. This God who has sent us to Nineveh wants to give everyone compassion, the benefit of the doubt, and kill no one. Doesn’t this God know that his way isn’t the American way?

4. What does this story say about the limits of God’s love? The only limits on God’s love are the ones we create, try to hand to God, and then become disappointed when we realize God doesn’t deal in limits, especially when it comes to love.

Food for Thought-What Does Jesus Say About Homosexuality?

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As I noted in a post a few days ago, 2016 will be an important year for the United Methodist Church. When delegates representing every conference in United Methodism arrive in Portland, Oregon the most contentious issue facing them will be our church’s stance on same sex marriage. In a nutshell, will the General Conference allow our clergy to officiate at marriages for same sex couples who have marriage licenses (in some states) or even in places which have not recognized same-sex unions as legal. The answer to this question threatens to cause a schism within our denomination.

In light of the gravity of the situation, I thought I would look at what Jesus of Nazareth (i.e. the Son of God, second person of the Trinity, God incarnate) says about homosexuality and gay marriage.

Here’s what Jesus says about homosexuality and same sex unions: absolutely nothing.

There isn’t a single recorded incident in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) of Jesus having said anything about homosexuality or people of the same gender choosing to marry. For something that’s presented as an immense religious and cultural issue, isn’t it odd that our main guy (Jesus) whose title “Christ” was used to identify his followers (Christians) says nothing about this issue. While silence doesn’t equate to affirmation, it is impossible for anyone to claim Jesus’ words or Jesus’ name as their reasoning for opposing a change in United Methodism’s policies regarding who is worthy to be wed in God’s house.

Some may quote Moses (from Leviticus) or Paul (from Romans) in response to Jesus’ silence. Paul and Moses weren’t on a cross at Calvary.  I’m sticking with Jesus.

Food for Thought-Two Bible Verses You’re Probably Misquoting and Misusing

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1. Luke 11:9 “And I tell you: Ask you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.”

Was this ever meant to be taken as a literal promise from Jesus (i.e. God)? This is certainly the way I’ve most often heard it preached and discussed. Whatever we want; whether money, a car, a promotion, as long as our heart is in the right place you should expect to see the divine delivery man showing up at your door.

The key to understanding this verse (and others like it) is to not take it out of context and look at the bigger picture. This verse doesn’t make sense unless you read what Jesus said leading up to verse nine. It’s easier, granted, to read one verse and tell people that their sense of misplaced hope, materialism, and narcissistic entitlement is exactly what God wants for their lives.

In 11th chapter of Luke, Jesus is teaching the disciples to pray. Just a few verses leading up to the misquoted verse 9, Jesus told his disciples to what to ask for when they pray. He said, “Bring us in your kingdom and give us the bread we need today.” In addition he says they should pray for the forgiveness of sins. So when you get to verse 9, when Jesus instructs the disciples to ask, seek, and knock; he’s already told them what they should be asking for and what they should be seeking. He’s told them to ask for the bread they need to survive for that day. Forgiveness is not something that comes easy to members of our species. Jesus was wants us to seek out the ability to forgive our enemies. Lastly, he wants us to go God when we’re looking for ways to bring his kingdom to the here and now. This is not a verse of scripture which should precede a prayer containing a list of things we want or think we need. For everything else we think we may want to add to the prayer, simply say, “thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”. Feed us, bring up your kingdom, help us to forgive, and we trust you to do what’s right in this moment. It’s only at this point that Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive.” However, if we read only one verse, we might as well be saying, “Jesus told us to ask for anything we want and as long as I believe in his name I’ll get it.” Instead, Jesus wants us to ask for his kingdom and all it represents.

2. Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Is the Bible a collection of moral one liners; all waiting to be put on some Christian motivational poster? If you look at social media and within the church itself, we regard the Bible as hodgepodge of pithy sayings that seem to be applied to winning the big game or killing an enemy. Nowhere is this truer than with this single verse from Philippians.

We like to read this verse as testament to achievement. Paul is interpreted as saying, “I can achieve and do anything with God’s help.” Christians then take this misinterpretation and apply it to scoring touchdowns and selling houses. When the chips are down, because this is what we’ve heard, we tell ourselves we can achieve any goal with God’s help. On the surface, that doesn’t sound like a bad message. The problem is this: Paul wasn’t talking about achievement. Paul was taking about endurance. Paul knew what it meant to suffer. He was beaten, tortured, arrested in the course of his daily ministry. Food could be plentiful or it might be scarce on the roads of Asia Minor. Money was necessary to live. Sometimes he had coins in his pocket and on other occasions he was flat broke. Paul endured all of the highs and lows of a 1st century life; extremes worse than most any of us know today. Paul is saying he can endure, put with up, bear, suffer through anything with God’ strength. Prison, hunger, and poverty were conditions Paul endured. They weren’t achievements on his divine resume.

When we misuse verses (verses often short enough to be tweeted or placed in a Facebook status), we make it more likely people will misunderstand what the Bible says. The more misunderstandings and faulty interpretations of scripture which float about our world, the harder it is to share the true meaning of the Gospel.

Many of the preachers on television rely on such misunderstandings in order to stay relevant. Evangelists like Joel Osteen need people to believe the Bible is nothing more than a handbook of self-help clichés. Look beyond the tiny fragments and motivational memes which Osteen and those like him use to distort the meaning of scripture.

Food for Thought-Martin Luther King’s Clerical Robe

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I read an article by one of my colleagues in Tennessee concerning preaching attire. He always preaches in jeans. I’ve done the same, usually wearing a tie, blazer, or clerical shirt with my Levis. More often than not, I wear a preaching robe or black cassock. There are times when I don’t want to wear a robe and other times when I enjoy donning the symbol of my office and role in the church. In those moments of doubt and indifference, when questions pop into my mind about how this black gown is perceived by my congregation that I remember; Brother Martin wore a robe.

It’s difficult to find pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King preaching when he’s not wearing a robe or stole. Whether in the pulpit of his father’s church or his own congregation in Alabama, Martin can be seen wearing his preaching robe and stole. In a day and time when African-Americans were subject to ridicule and scorn, King dressed in a way that placed him on a level with his white colleagues. He was not any less a human being or religious professional than white clergy. He had earned a degree from an accredited seminary. King studied preaching not only as a street corner practice but as the means which civilization had shared how God is revealed for centuries. The robe, a visible sign of an inward calling, helped to set him apart as a voice for those who had no means of being heard. White and black, racist and non-racist all knew what the robe meant.

Martin Luther King was a man of the cloth. What he said, what he preached, was all framed by the Bible he carried and the God he believed in. When you put on that robe, it’s a humbling experience. You realize you’re representing more than yourself; you’re speaking the words you believe God wants you to say. Wearing the robe means you take the task of preaching seriously. Martin Luther King believed in meeting the challenges he faced because those challenges were shared by his entire community. When I don my robe, I am to take my calling seriously because my congregation and I both share struggles on a common journey of faith. The robe is one way preachers ask their congregations to follow them on this path.

So this week, not because of Martin or for Martin; will I wear my robe. I’m wearing my robe because Martin and I are preachers and that’s just what we do.

Food for Thought-Saint Francis, I’ve Been Thinking About Your Favorite Crucifix

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It is as if Jesus is holding up the cross, not the other way around. This is not how we typically talk about or describe the crucifixion. Jesus, the broken man, is hung, nailed, or placed on the cross. In the San Damiano crucifix, Jesus appears to be keeping the cross in place. The longer you hold your gaze upon the cross the more this becomes apparent. Jesus is there, holding the instrument of his suffering in place for everyone to see. He has chosen the place and the time of his execution. Despite the obvious reality of death, there is little indication of his mortality. Jesus seems very much alive. He is conquering death by embracing his vulnerability. His open arms, often depicted as hanging limbs broken in exasperation are vital signs of his willingness to embrace his enemies while awaiting his next agonizing breath. As Jesus props up our idea of death, we are forced to realize that death is not what we believed it to be. Eternity remains in the background. Resurrection happens in the foreground; not in an isolated empty tomb but at the foot of the cross itself. Resurrection is now.

Food for Thought-Reflections on Prayer and Faith at Duke Chapel

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The notion that the predominately white, high church, southern, Protestant Christianity Duke Chapel is assumed to represent and was about to be overthrown by Sharia law imposing foreigners is both absurd and silly. I remember walking to class from what was then called the “R” lot. I passed a group of university employees waiting on the bus to take them toward the central campus. As I walked past the bus stop, I overheard a snippet of their conversation that I’ve never forgotten. A large guy, big white man who could have easily stomped me into the ground said, “You know all those faggots over at the divinity school are ripping the church apart.” I was about a quarter of a mile from the chapel and divinity school buildings. I had no idea who this guy or his friends were. I don’t know if they knew I was a divinity student or they were simply blowing off hate filled steam. There were days when it was hard to be a Christian divinity student at Duke. I had been raised in a United Methodist congregation 90 minutes west of Durham. I am from Trinity, North Carolina; the birthplace of Trinity College. I was in my first semester of divinity school. Yet, to this guy and people like him, I was a “faggot ripping the church apart”.

I can only imagine what it’s like for someone from Pakistan or Turkey who wants to come to Duke and study. I shudder at what they must go through when they realize the freedom to practice one’s faith is only truly guaranteed unless you are white, Protestant, and American. Therein is the irony. Many of these same people who also condemn any expression of Islamic practice on Duke’s campus don’t see true religion in the way Christianity is practiced at Duke Chapel or taught in the divinity school. We’re all wrong in Franklin Graham’s eyes.