emergence christianity

Power Can Be A Big Problem

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

The problem, in my mind, is the abuse of power.  Now let me tell you what I am talking about. Over the past several years, I have spent a large amount of time reading about what has been called “The New Atheism” and its critique on religious faith.  Having grown in popularity after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, this movement points to the 9-11 attacks as an example of the evil that can be done in the name of religious faith.  That is often followed with a longer list of historical events in which evil has been done by religious believers - the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Salem Witch trials, etc.  The number of books that have been written criticizing the philosophical underpinnings of the New Atheism, along with their near complete blindness concerning the benefits of religious faith on culture (criticism that has even come from fellow atheists) is no small number.  These books often point out, accurately, that some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were perpetrated by governments committed to an atheistic philosophy - Stalin and the USSR, Pol Pot and Khamer Rouge,  Mao and the PRC, Kim Sung II and the DPRK, etc. 

Now, my reason for citing these examples of the evil committed by certain atheistic regimes is not for the purpose of “tit-for-tat.”  It is not a “right back at you” moment; not a “Yeah, but look at what you did” kind of thing.   Honestly, I think those of us who claim religious faith need to listen with a discerning ear to those who have claims against us.  And though I have many philosophical disagreements with the current atheist movement, I will grant them this truth, there have been times when evil, even great evil, has been done by those of religious faith. There has been evil that has been done in the name of God.  That is a painful reality, but it is the truth, and we who have faith should own it.  It is by no means the whole story of religious faith, but it is as a part of the story.  But those of no religious faith have the same problem.  Great evil has been done by those with a purely materialistic worldview.  Apparently, evil makes for strange bedfellows.

So when it comes to the human capacity for cruelty, the issue of religion or non-religion does not seem to be the necessary factor.  As I look at this matter, it is the presence of power, and its abuse, that is the common characteristic.  Every human community has some kind of structure of power.  In regard to political structures, power is the possession of control or command over others.  I heard a famous American politician once say, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”  Power becomes the precursor to evil when it is used to impose one’s worldview or one’s will on others.  In explanation of the evil done by the atheistic regimes, Bo Jinn offers this critique, “The governing ideology behind every one of these [acts], . . . involved the proposition that there was no power greater than their own.”    I would add that for the times when evil has been done in the name of religion, it has occurred because those in power felt empowered by God to maintain orthodoxy or to purge away what they considered evil.  

For those of us who are Christian, it was our Lord who reminded us that power is something that we should be suspicious of.  Two of his disciples once asked him to sit on his right and on his left when he came into his kingdom. Which means they wanted to sit in seats of power. To this request Jesus replied:

You know that the rulers of Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your  servant. . . .  Just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. 

Our understanding of power is to be different.  It is not about the imposition of our way of life on others through the strength of force.  It is about the sharing of our way of life through acts of service and commitment to the common good.  It is not the love of power that motivates us; it is the power of love that moves us to act.  Dr. King said it this way:

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.  Power at its best is love implementing the demands for justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

For both people of faith and people of no faith, the issue of power and how it is used is of utmost importance.  We must always ask ourselves, what principles, ideas and beliefs are behind the use of whatever power we have been given.  As can be seen, we are all more than capable of using power to achieve the wrong end.  Which means we also have the capability of using power for the right end—a more just and compassionate world.  It is within our power to make the right choice.    

 

Bo Jinn, "Illogical Atheism: A Comprehensive Response to the Contemporary Freethinker From A Lapsed Agnostic"

Ceremony Seeking Meaning

By Colton Lott

I graduated from college this past May, joining about 1.9 million other students who were conferred a bachelor’s degree this year.[i] Like many of these students, I went to my commencement and heard words of life, wisdom, and foo-foo as we were set off into the sunset with shards of hope, crystalline dreams, and massive amounts of student debt (but hey, who’s counting?).[ii]

While I was decompressing in a school sponsored reception, I began talking to my favorite professor. As we were chewing the fat, one of the topics we touched on was the odd phenomenon that is graduation, especially how students in the United States make such a hullabaloo about commencement. And sports. And church. And weddings. And lots of things.

So I’ve been obsessing on why the culture I was born into obsesses about pomp and circumstance. Why is there a cavernous drive to have ever-expansive ceremonies to mark the turning points of life? Big graduations, expensive weddings, and elaborate celebrations for birthdays and anniversaries dot the landscapes of our lives, mostly without critical questioning. Kindergarten graduations are becoming formalized and holidays are becoming holimonths. This is without mentioning in detail the ways we sincerely celebrate relatively meaningless accomplishments, such as dating someone for a few weeks, doing well on a required task for school or work, or a pet’s birthday.

Capitalism drives much of this “biggering,” but to have expanded consumption serve as the only answer for this phenomenon seems stunted. A surface response is that our society is starved for true and/or profound meaning and we try to fill this hole with ever-enlarged celebrations as a supplement or substitute. But the question I’m more interested in is: “Why are we so famished for a true and/or profound meaning to enter into our lives?”

One of the biggest contributions made by the emergent church movement is it attempts to detail why and how our culture is being unanchored from what was previous understood as a “given.” Phyllis Tickle identifies our questions du jour as revolving around our collective source of authority and lack thereof; what constitutes true “human-ness;” and how we relate to other systems of life, especially other religions.[iii] Just as has happened, and will happen, we have become untethered and are desperate for a rock on which to rely.

The disciples of Jesus offer us a poignant analog. As followers of Christ, they were drawn into an alternative lifestyle that required them to live without traditional boundaries, without the culture’s guideposts that could sustain, correct, or reassure them. They were untethered, unanchored, and forced to seek new meaning for the time and place they were situated in. In Luke 9, we see Peter, James, and John following Jesus up the mountain for what will be the transfiguration of Christ and the appearance of Moses and Elijah.

When things started really happening, Peter jumps up, johnnie-on-the-spot, and wants to “construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33, CEB). Before Peter could even cease speaking, the other two figures leave, a voice from the cloud speaks, and they are eerily back to their regular programming.

What a celebration! What a ceremony! Like Peter, we want to capture the holiness that comes through in the flash of light, but like Peter we are powerless to do so. We cling to the hope that if we could just make these shrines bigger, just a bit bigger, we could hold down something deep, we could examine something true. But the ceremony, the pomp and circumstance, is heartbreakingly ephemeral.

The wish is that the celebration or the ceremony holds the meaning, but that is not what we experience. When Christ is transfigured, there is no significant change within him, but only the disciples’ understanding of who Jesus is—the ceremony offers only a glimmer of what the profound and/or true meaning is. Birthday parties don’t magically make someone have a year’s worth of wisdom and growth, but the celebration serves as a pause to merely recognize what has happened in the past year. One of the common critiques of marriage is that a piece of paper doesn’t “mean anything;” there is something true to this contemporary argument, as the formality and ceremony doesn’t make a meaning, but the wedding points to the change that has, is, and will be happening between two people.

As hard as we try, we can’t find solve our dilemmas and problems of the twenty-first century by making ceremonies and celebrations more spectacular in the hope that they will be more meaningful. While it would be easier, we can’t substitute the party for the cause of the party. We have to continue struggling and asking the hard questions of meaning, even though the progress of answering such questions can be frustratingly minimal. Just like Peter, James, and John, we have to follow Jesus back down the mountain into a very messy, unknown world. Just as Jesus wreaked havoc for the original disciples, we are living in holy disorder, too. We live in the tension, both desperately waiting on something profound and/or true to come our way and rescue us from our insecurities and angst, and also realizing that in following the radical Jesus we slowly gain something meaningful and get to glimpse something ultimate.

 

[i] https://www.naceweb.org/press/faq.

[ii] The servicers on your debt. That’s who’s counting. And, like the undead or crab-grass, they never go away. Ever. 

[iii] This thought is detailed most accurately in her book The Great Emergence (2008).

The D in [D]mergent is Home for Me

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

The D in [D]mergent comes from the Disciples of Christ. The Disciples are part of that larger movement within the Body of Christ known as the Stone-Campbell Movement. It also includes the non-instrumental Churches of Christ and the Independent Christian Churches. The Stone-Campbell movement has its roots in the early 19th century American frontier (Of course, any movement can trace its beginning further and further back in time citing different events and ideas that influenced it.  My daughter recently took a course in American foundations and it took her a little while to understand why her class on American foundations began with the teacher talking about Greece and Rome.)    The hope of the Stone-Campbell effort was to overcome the stringent denominationalism that was present at that time and unite Christians through a simple confession of faith in Christ and obedience to him “in all things according to the scriptures.”  So in the beginning it was a unity movement.   Sadly it has developed into three distinct and separate bodies.  A unity movement that has split at least a couple of times. I put the phrase “in all things according to the scriptures” in quotation marks because if I was going to point to one matter that has influenced the division more than anything else it would be how the scriptures are interpreted.  (I would also argue that egos have had a lot to do with it . . . but that’s a different article.)  

I have spent the majority of my life, and my entire pastoral career, as a Disciple.  My undergraduate and seminary education, however, happened at schools that are more closely aligned with the Independent Christian Churches.  My only knowledge of the Churches of Christ have come through the study of the Stone-Campbell Movement and through parishioners who have come to the Disciples from a non-instrumental background.  It was during my seminary education that I made a conscience decision to return to the Disciples of Christ, the church of my childhood. I want to share why I made that decision.  But before I do, I want to tell you why I want to share it.  I presently serve as the Regional Moderator of the Christian Church in Indiana, which has about 170 Disciple congregations.  The Regional Moderator is like the Board Chair for a local church, but overseeing, in this instance, the structure that unites all the congregations in that region.  There used to be a lot more Disciple congregations in Indiana but over time congregations have voted to leave this body and become independent.  Usually, the reasons cited include the belief that the Disciples have become too liberal and the leaders “have an agenda.”   As the Moderator, I have had the occasion to travel with our Regional Minister to a couple of these congregations who are considering leaving.  To say the least, they are very interesting conversations.    

I have had my own struggles with my church at times – from the cumbersomeness of the bureaucracy that has been created over the last fifty years to the sometimes lack of focus on what I think our priorities should be, but I still love the church I call home and here is why. 

First, I believe in gender inclusive leadership at every level of church life.  This underscores one of my deepest theological convictions that God is neither male nor female and that all people are created in the image of God. Not too long ago, my family worshipped at an Independent Christian Church while we were on vacation.  When it came time for communion everyone who stood around the table was male.  I asked my teenage daughter if she noticed anything different from our church and she said, “They are all dudes.”  I asked how that made her feel and she said, “Not very good.”  I don’t want my daughter, who is told in school that she can choose any career she wants as long as she works hard enough, to be part of a congregation where she is told she can’t lead because of her biological make-up. 

Second, I am a Disciple because I believe very strongly in the idea of Christian unity and that unity is rooted solely in Christ.  It is not creedal nor doctrinal unity, it is a unity rooted simply in Jesus.  The Christian faith has never been monolithic.  There has never been a single, pure expression of the faith.  There has always been various understandings of the faith.  We are bound together not by correct belief, but by our hope that Jesus of Nazareth is someone we can trust now and for all eternity. 

Third, I have chosen to stay with the Disciples of Christ because of the commitment to social justice, which to me means that everyone gets treated fairly and has equal access to the bounty of this world.  I have a firm faith there is more to this world than what can be seen, touched or tasted.  I believe there is an eternity that awaits us all, but the faith I claim is one that is lived in this world and is concerned with the real world problems of people in the here-and-now.  The prayer we say together each week doesn’t ask for us to be taken out of this world, but instead asks that the ways of God be made known upon this earth as they are in heaven.  I have often said that the goal of our faith is not heaven.  Heaven is the hope of our faith.  The goal of our faith is to be like Christ – who was concerned with people’s hunger, their pain, their sorrow, their exclusion.  As incomplete and as faulty as our efforts might be as Disciples, I know I am in a church that seeks to move forward the best we can in caring for the real needs in our world. 

Finally, I am Disciple, because I don’t like anyone looking over my shoulder making certain I am “correct” in my belief about scripture, baptism, the atonement, etc. I think we are all on a journey of faith where we reason together what it means to follow Christ.  I happen to think it isn’t correct belief about different matters that saves us, it’s Christ.

So, I’m one of those Disciple leaders now.  One who believes in the foundation of Christ for our life of faith.  One who believes in inclusive leadership which recognizes the image of God in us all.  A leader who believes in the inherit unity of all who seek to follow Jesus – a unity not of doctrine, creed or structure – but of a way of life in which we are called by Jesus to love God, neighbor and enemy. A leader who believes that there is no more important witness to the love of God in this world than to care for the brokenhearted, to house the homeless, to provide food for the hungry, to embrace those who have been pushed to the edges.  I don’t want to just tell them about a heaven that awaits them, I want them to know the love of heaven now.

So that’s why I am a Disciple.  Now, if some folks want to call me a liberal I am absolutely fine with that.    And if others want to say that the Disciples have a fuzzy theology, I don’t know how much more clear it can be than saying it is all rooted in Jesus.  As our general Minister and President Sharon Watkins said recently, “Jesus is enough for us.” And if there are those who think there is “an agenda.”  There is.  I just spelled out my understanding of it. 

I think in this day and time, there is nothing our world needs more than a church that simply tries to love God, neighbor and enemy.  A church that seeks to follow Jesus.  And the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has the opportunity to be such a church for such a time.  I am at home.

Liberty and Justice For All

              I spent four days recently with the General Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  I am deeply appreciative of the work of the wider church and am glad to hear about the various ministries that are happening as a result of our working together beyond the local congregation.  I have to admit, however, when it comes to “the amendment to adjust the last line of GBAC -14327 to read whatever it was supposed to read,” my mind is completely somewhere else.  When it comes to structure and governance and “Robert’s Rules of Order,” I know it is important, but it is not my passion by any stretch of the imagination.  I am more along the line of “let’s everybody act with integrity and authenticity and for the good of all and let’s quit talking and start doing.”  That’s just my nature.  I don’t mind jumping through some hoops if there is important work to get done on the other side.  It just seems like sometimes, when too much structure is developed, all the energy is spent jumping through hoops with little energy left to do the actual work.  Anyway, I am glad that at this gathering of the General Board there was a lot of talk about the importance of mission, that is, engaging the world with the gospel of Christ in word and deed as we pursue together justice and peace for all.  And I am glad that there are those willing to jump through all the hoops necessary to get that work done.

                On the third day of our meetings, during an extended break, I, along with two of our Disciple Regional Ministers, went over to the Indiana State House to lend our supporting presence to Freedom Indiana.  The organization that has arisen to defeat HJR-3.  This legislation seeks to put language into our state constitution defining marriage as only between a man and woman.  It is an effort to constitutionally ban gay marriage, even though there is already a state law in place doing the same thing.  I had previously written my state senator stating my opposition to this legislation, which, in my mind, does nothing but add further insult to injury to gay and lesbian people in our state.  With the law already in place, all this effort does is make legal challenges harder and more costly for the state – and there will be legal challenges whether it stays in the existing law or is inscribed in the constitution.

                I oppose HJR-3 for numerous reasons.  I oppose it as a person of faith who believes that all people are created in the image of God. I oppose it as a veteran who gave six years of my life to help protect people’s rights and not to restrict those rights in a constitution. I stand in opposition to it as an American who believes very strongly in the last words of our pledge to the flag which states that we are nation “with liberty and justice for all.” And I oppose HJR-3 simply as a born and bred Hoosier, who loves my state and believes in the phrase “Hoosier Hospitality.”    Though I know there are people of faith who see this differently than I do and some of them were present the day I was at the statehouse (and to everyone’s credit there was general peace and friendliness among all), I cannot read scripture in a way that singles out one group of people as undeserving of all the rights that the rest of us have. 

                There is a lot of time and energy and money being spent on HJR-3.  Valuable resources that could be spent by our state legislature on much more important matters – creating jobs, improving education, developing public transportation, etc.  It is exceptionally sad the amount of energy this legislation has taken away from other areas.  

                After many years of study and reflection and prayer, and a process of discernment that involved many others, I admit that my mind has changed on the matter of homosexuality.  Many Christians have made a similar journey in recent years.  A lot of them were at the statehouse too.  It isn’t matter of accommodation to culture or watering down the demands of the gospel, it is a matter of understanding how this beautiful gospel of grace and life that we have been given fits into our present world. Though other Christians, because of their understanding of scripture, see this matter differently, I always hope that all of us who claim faith can be guided by the highest ethic of all – the ethic of love and grace.

                With that said, my opposition to HJR-3 transcends my faith commitment, and touches me, as I have already said, as a veteran, an American and a Hoosier.  As long as we are nation of freedom, and pledge liberty and justice for all, I’ll stand against those efforts that restrict for some the rights all of the rest of us are able to enjoy.

I oppose HJR-3.  

*After this article was posted it was learned that HJR-3 will not be on the ballot for at least two more years.  This is due, in large part, to the work of Freedom Indiana.     

 

freedom.jpg

Truth Telling

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Last night, the story on the national news was about the $636,000,000 Mega Millions Dollar Jackpot and all the last minute tickets that were being purchased. The reporter said that if there was one winner and they took the cash option they would receive $341,000,000.  He went on to state that if the winner kept 80% of that prize money and divided the other 20% among three charities there was a lot of good that could be done.  The first charity he mentioned was the Salvation Army.   A representative from that charity said that they could help about 150,000 families with their 1/3 of that 20%.  The second charity mentioned was Habitat for Humanity and they said they could build about 25,000 homes around the world with their third of that money.  Honestly, I don’t remember the last charity mentioned.  I started thinking about the fact that the first two charities were founded by people whose purpose was to follow the example of our Lord Jesus.  In this season when we celebrate his birth, I thought it would have been nice for the news reporter to mention that fact.  But, of course, I am a little biased.  For all that is wrong with the church, there are still some things that we get right.  The Salvation Army and Habitat are but two of the ministries rooted in the Christian faith that remind us where our attention and focus should be.  I was glad that they were highlighted on the national news even if their origins weren’t mentioned.

The more I thought about it, however, the more frustrated I got with the way this story was reported; the Mega Million winner giving a “generous” 20% to these charities.  The story could have been approached much differently.  If all the people buying tickets, hoping against the astronomical odds of getting rich, had decided instead to give their dollars to these charities there would be a whole lot more good that could be done for people.  More than one billion dollars’ worth of tickets were sold to create this jackpot of $636 million.  So a report could have been about what these three charities could have done with 1/3 of a billion dollars instead of 1/3 of 20% of $341 million dollars.  So the story was about what one person “might” do with an abundance, instead of focusing on what we all “could” do with what we already have.

The stories in the news today are about the two winning tickets for this Mega Million jackpot and the happiness of the store owners who sold those tickets.  For selling the winning tickets, the store owners get a large lump of money too.   Maybe these “winners” will be generous in sharing their winnings with the charities that were mentioned.  Maybe they won’t.   To be truthful, I think these lotteries and the “feel good stories” that come out of them are a very sad commentary on our culture and the priorities that have taken hold of us.

I know that people will argue that the funds raised with the lottery support education.  But the truth is much more complex.  This was the way lotteries were “sold” to people.  We were told the money made from the lottery would supplement education and make our public education system stronger.  Nothing wrong with that goal.   And with billions and billions of dollars raised over the past few decades through lotteries you would think that our public education system would be the best in the world.   Why then are there still so many public school systems struggling and having to make cut backs, struggling to make budget?  According to a March 2012 Washington Post story:

Because instead of using the money as additional funding, legislatures have used the lottery money to pay for the education budget and spent the money that would have been used had there been no lottery cash on other things.  Public school budgets as a result, haven’t gotten a boost because of the lottery funding. . . . . As one state education official said, “That’s been a slow and insidious movement that’s been going on for a few years now.” (“Mega Millions: Do Lotteries really benefit Public Schools”, Valerie Strauss)

So our children are sold two lies with the lottery. First, the lie that the money is going to be used to make our education system better.  And second, the lie inherent in the lottery itself, that buying tickets at the chance of getting rich is a good way to use their resources.  Hard work, education and wise decisions aren’t really important in this life.  All you need is just pure dumb luck. 

In just a few days, we will be celebrating the birth of our Lord Jesus.  Whatever else we might believe about Jesus, as Christians we do believe that he came as a word of Truth spoken to our world.  Those of us who chose to invest our life by following him are to be people who, likewise, speak a word of Truth to our world.  Though we have all at some point bought into the Lies that are part of our world, it is imperative that we continue to strive toward the speaking of Truth.  Our culture’s obsession with wealth, made so clear by the billions of lottery tickets sold for the mere chance at getting rich, is one of the most profound Lies we have believed.   All the hypothetical questions about “What would you do if you won the lottery” keep us from the real question of “What are we already doing with what we have.”   Because the truth is, all of us working together, have more than enough to make this a more just and equitable world.   

Preaching Troublesome Passages

By Rev. Mark Poindexter

Earlier this week, Derek wrote about the “clobber texts” that are so often cited in the conversation regarding the full inclusion of the LGBT community in the church and our society.  How the scriptures are understood is indeed an important matter for the church to continually engage.  It is with that in mind that I offer this week a sermon I preached earlier this year.  It doesn’t address the texts Derek referred to, but another very difficult text, Psalm 137.  This troubling Psalm has started to disappear from some versions of the Lectionary and I used that as an opportunity to talk about how we might understand difficult biblical texts.  For the most part, this is the same sermon I preached, though I changed some wording to make it better for a reading audience.

At the end of the sermon, I include an email that I received in response to the sermon that helped verify for me the importance of dealing with the difficult passages in the Bible and not ignoring them.  If you are not familiar with this Psalm I would encourage you to read it before you read the sermon.      

 

Troublesome Scriptures

 

For most of my preaching career which began in 1989, I have used the Revised Common Lectionary as the source for choosing the morning’s scripture. The Lectionary is a three year cycle of readings which intends to take the church through the major themes of scripture every year.  Each week there are four readings, a gospel lesson, a reading from one of the New Testament letters, a reading from either the Mosaic Law or one of the prophets and a Psalm.  I bought this resource called a Lectionary Bible soon after I started preaching.  It has all the Lectionary readings for each Sunday and if you were to turn to the page that represents this Sunday, the Sunday between October 2 and 8 in Year C, you would see that the Psalm for today is Psalm 137.

Now, this Lectionary Bible is over twenty years old.  If you were to purchase one of these today, it is likely you would not find Psalm 137 listed as a reading for this Sunday or any Sunday.  In several versions of the Lectionary Psalm 137 has been replaced with an alternate reading.   Feasting on the Word is one the best received Lectionary Commentaries written in decades.  For each of the scripture readings for every week there are four different perspectives written.  There are twelve volumes in this series . . . and in none of the twelve volumes, which cover more than 5,000 pages, is Psalm 137 dealt with.  For this Sunday the alternate reading dealt with in this commentary is Lamentations 3:19-26. Now in fairness, there are many biblical passages that are not part of the Lectionary . . . but this Psalm was included, but now it often isn’t. The question is “why?”

And we will get to that question in a minute, but first we need to talk about the historical context of this Psalm. This is one of the few Psalms in which the context is clear and important.  It was the period in Israelite history known as the Babylonian conquest and exile.  In the 6th century before Christ was born the Babylonian Empire came and their soldiers conquered Jerusalem, laying waste to the holy city.  Death and destruction was everywhere.  In this conquest, Israel lost its king, its temple and its land.  And many of Jerusalem’s leading citizens were taken as captives back to Babylon – thus their exile.  With very graphic terms we can read in 2 Kings and Lamentations and other places, just how violent and destructive this Babylonian conquest was for Israel . . . and that the violent destruction included the death of women and children. 

Psalm 137 is a response to that horrific event in Israelite history.  The psalm begins with a deep sense of grief

 By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.             

On the willows there we hung up our hearts.  For there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” 

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

The psalm begins with the grief over what has been lost.  And these are powerfully, moving words that have spoken to many people.  Dr. Thomas Davis was the professor of religious studies at Indiana University.  His wife Melanie, a Presbyterian minister, was diagnosed with cancer which eventually claimed her life.  During Melanie’s illness, Dr. Davis began keeping a journal about the journey he and his wife and children were on together.  He continued the journal after her death and a few years later it was put into the form of a book and published.  The title chosen for the book, By the Waters of Babylon.  The sense of grief and loss spoken of in the first verses of this psalm is one that has helped to give voice to many people as they go through their own devastating times of grief and loss.  So, if this is a psalm that people find so helpful – why then has it been disappearing from the Lectionary, so that it would not be read on Sunday morning in worship?

 Well, what happens very quickly in the Psalm is that it moves from a sense of grief and loss – to rage and a desire for vengeance.     

 O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us. Happy shall they be who take your little ones (your children) and dash them against the rock.

It is these verses that are deeply shocking and even appalling, these words full of hate and desire for revenge that have been the cause of Psalm 137 being removed from the Lectionary.  It was thought that they are of such a brutal nature that they are not fit to be read in worship.  I understand that and on one hand I agree.  I mean can we read the last two verses of this psalm and then say with any joyful conviction “This is the Word of the Lord.”   We talk about scripture being the inspired word of God, does that mean God is the inspiration behind these raging words filled with hatred and calling for vengeance.  And let’s be clear, there other very difficult texts in the Bible that we have to ask, what does inspiration mean here?

Last weekend we were Skyping with our daughter Michele.  She was doing her homework for her American Foundations class.  She was writing a paper about the religious views of southern states concerning slavery during the civil war.  And she found out that they used the Bible to undergird their position. They said, “Slavery was a recognized way of life in the ancient world as bore witness to by the Old Testament – why father Abraham had many slaves. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul returned the runaway slave to his owner, Onesimus and wrote elsewhere, ‘Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor.’  The Apostle Peter said something very similar, ‘Slaves, accept the authority of your master’s with deference.’”  Those seeking to find a reason to support the ownership of slaves looked to the Bible and said, “See the Word of God.”  But, let me ask, is there anybody here that thinks that since the Bible has such passages God is okay with slavery, or that God is the inspiration behind one human being owning another?  I didn’t think so.

You know when we talk about the sacredness of scripture, when we talk about the inspiration of the Word, we need to always be aware of the complexity of that proclamation.   Not everything in the Bible is prescriptive for all people in all times, in every situation.  The Bible is descriptive of historical situations in which real human beings were reaching out toward the sacred and the holy, reaching out toward God . . . and their understanding of how God was reaching back toward them. The author and minister Frederick Buechner wrote that the Bible is not so much a book about the way life is supposed to be, as a book about the way life is. In that sense of realness lies its sacredness and its holiness.  Not always prescriptive, but descriptive of the search for the sacred and the holy.   

As Christians, we should read all of scripture through the lens of our faith in Christ, who scripture teaches is himself the Word of God.  And not a Word that was spoken only thousands of years ago, but a Living Word that continues to speak even today through the scriptures and through human reason and through the faithful actions of his body, the church.  The Word of God, Jesus Christ, reveals to us a God of grace and mercy and love, a God who cared for the least and made room for those who lived on the fringes, a God who created every human being with dignity and worth. 

This is why even though there are passages that point to the institution of slavery as being real in that day and part of the culture, there is also a powerful word from followers of Christ pushing back against that institution, words that challenged that cultural reality.  Paul returned Onesimus to Philemon yes, otherwise Onesimus may well have faced death. Paul returned him but wrote to Philemon, “no longer treat him as a slave, but as a beloved brother in Christ.”  This attitude, this push against the institution even as he lived in it is what led Paul to write, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, we are all one in Christ.”  The trajectory of scripture is clear, always pushing toward greater equality and dignity in Christ for everyone.  And these words of scripture became the force which allowed Christians to be leaders in the cause of breaking the bonds of slavery.  We read all of scripture through the lens of our faith in Christ – his grace, his mercy, his love, his treatment of people.  We seek to understand the time and the culture in which things were written and that it is not all prescriptive, but it is all descriptive of the human journey.

Which brings us back to Psalm 137 and the difficult words that end this Psalm – the words of hatred and vengeance and unspeakable violence. These words were written by someone who had themselves endured monstrous evil.  A sense of desperation is what has brought out these feelings.  A very raw wound is being exposed.  And the rage in these words is a cry for justice to be done. They want those who have perpetrated these awful crimes against their people to endure the same.  They want the punishment to fit the crime. The nature of these words are a measure of the deeds that provoked them.

What these words of scripture help us to understand is that when people endure unspeakable tragedies – they need a place to share what is in them.  Not what we think ought to be in them, but what is really in them.  Their pain, their anger, their sense of injustice, their outrage – it has to have an outlet.  There has to a place where they can take their authentic feelings and frustrations and not feel that they have to hide them or feel shame over having them.  In fact, is it not understandable that the psalmist after his home was violently taken from him and he witnessed the death of so many, maybe from his own family, that these were his feelings? 

You know the church needs to be a place that respects the pain and grief and anger that comes to folks who have been victims of other’s cruelty and crimes.  We need not lay a quick and simplistic word about forgiveness upon people as they express their own sense of rage at being mistreated – whether it is themselves or someone they love being mistreated.  As God patiently listened to the Psalmist, so should we be a people that provides the balm of  a safe place and a listening ear.

But the place we cannot ever go if we seek to follow Jesus and understand life through the lens of our faith in him is the place where we say to someone, “Vengeance is alright in this case. You should seek to hurt them as they hurt you. It’s okay in this situation. An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth. As they did to you, so you should do to them.”  No – not as the people of Jesus.  We respect people’s deep sense of pain and we understand their anger – but we can never condone those actions that just perpetuate the cycle of violence over and over and over again.  Which is what acted out rage and vengeance does.  No. We have been taught to return evil with good, to bless those who have cursed us, to meet the hate of the world with the love and grace of God.

We understand the feelings that can arise and we listen, but we can never condone as the people who follow Christ, acts of vengeance.  And I know that’s very, very hard at times – and that’s why we need each other to offer support and encouragement along the way.

A final word. Why did I choose to preach on this most difficult text, believing that it still has a place in worship?  Folks, this is a time in the life of the church when we need to have as fully an informed faith as possible.  For there will be those in this day and time, who will point out the troubling and difficult texts in the Bible, some of them have written best-selling books . . . they will point out those texts and say, “Look at what it says – and Christians say that this is the Word of God.” And we need to be able to provide a reasoned answer to such things. Why would I preach on such a difficult text – because I care about the witness of the church and because I value your journey of faith and I want you to have as an informed faith as possible, one for this day and time.          

                           An Email Response

Pastor Mark,

Thank you so much for your message yesterday.   I admit to not understanding much of what is in the Bible--and struggle sometimes with how to put it all into perspective. Your message was very helpful.  Thank you.

  

Have a great week and God Bless!

Staying With My Religion: Hope

By Rev. Mark Poindexter

This is the last in a series of articles that have been written concerning my decision to stay with the life of faith.  I titled this series, “Staying with My Religion: The Risk and Rewards of Sticking it Out.”  It has been written in response to a book by a former pastor called, “Leaving My Religion: The Risk and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”   After twenty-five years, this former pastor left the ministry, the church and his faith.  He felt that life “no longer worked for him.” His book has become a workshop and he recently led a sold-out session.  I don’t want this series of articles to be seen as a judgment upon this former pastor’s decision.  His story is his own.  I simply wanted to offer a different perspective. 

I have worked in congregations for nearly thirty years, and there have been a few times when I was ready to throw in the towel.  I have also had tragic losses in my own life and been present with many people in their own difficult circumstances.  Times when the shallowness of the simplistic answers offered by too much of the religious world become so easily apparent.  Times in which I have learned that a silent presence with one who is hurting may be the most powerful gift we have to offer.  Yet, neither those tragic times nor the difficulties of congregational life have led me to leave my faith behind.  They have led to periods of deep questioning in which I thought I might walk away, but I haven’t.  My faith is different than it was thirty years ago when I began in ministry, as well it should be.  But my belief in the Sacred and Holy continues to be central to who I am.  My trust that life has meaning and purpose, that there is a Reason behind it all, has only grown stronger over time and through my experiences.  For anyone who was interested, I thought I would share at least some of the reasons why this is so.  Not in judgment of the other pastor, but as an alternative.

I have written about what I call the Sacred Realities of love, joy, hope and beauty.  Realities that cannot be empirically proven to exist, but are the Realities that give life its deepest sense of meaning.  I also wrote about the importance of the community of faith as a place of both comfort and challenge, a place where our relationships help us to understand what it means to be fully human.  In ending this series, I want to point to religious faith as being a word of hope for our world.

In her book, “A People’s History of Christianity” Diana Butler Bass quotes Sojourners founder Jim Wallis:

From the perspective of the Bible hope is not simply a feeling or a mood or a rhetorical flourish. Hope is the very dynamic of history.  Hope is the engine of change.  Hope is the energy of transformation. . . . Between impossibility and possibility, there is a door, the door of hope.  And the possibility of history’s transformation lies through that door.

I believe that the message the church is called to share with our world is ultimately one of hope. Hope that the darkness of the ways things so often are, are not the way things have to be.  Hope that things can be different.  Hope that the people who live as enemies can live in peace.  Hope that the blessings of this world, which are abundant, can be shared with all in need.  Hope that every human being is treated with dignity and respect, for we recognize that all are created in the Sacred image.  Hope that selflessness can overcome selfishness, that love can overcome indifference, that understanding can overcome prejudice.  This is the hope-filled message of the church.  This is the gospel; that in Christ an alternative way to live has been shown to us, a way that shines light into the darkness. 

Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, “The Hunger Games,” has become quite a cultural phenomenon, especially now that the books are being made into movies.  “The Hunger Games” are a stinging critique of our society’s fascination with media, celebrity, and violence. The disparity between the “haves and have-nots” and the insidious nature of power also play a central role in the future dystopian society that Collins has created.   She holds a haunting mirror up to us so that we might see that our ways are costing us that which is most precious, our children.  

In her story about the country of Panem, there is a revolution that is beginning to take place, a dissatisfaction with the way things are is beginning to brew.  The leader and symbol of the revolution is a teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen.   In the second book, “Catching Fire” it is decided by the President of Panem, who is invested in keeping things just as they are, that Katniss must be eliminated.  When he is asked why, the President responds, “Because she gives hope to the revolution.  Without her, they have no hope and the revolution is over.”  In this series of books, both highly popular and highly critical of our culture, hope is understood to be that power which can change things.  Hope can make a difference.  Hope can bring down the oppressive structures and create a more just society. 

I understand that the church doesn’t always live up to what it should be.  I know religious doctrines and dogma can often sound hollow amidst the complexities and tragedies of life.  I seek not to judge someone who has experienced the church’s failures and meager attempts to explain the unexplainable and then decided it isn’t for them.   I simply wanted to share another perspective.  I still find the life of faith, and life lived in the community of faith, to be a life of blessing and worth my commitment.  I am deeply grateful to be part of a tradition where we proclaim the hope that the power of love is greater, by far, than the love of power.   

I haven’t stayed with this life of faith because “it works for me.”  I actually find such a utilitarian approach to life to be very dangerous.  I have stayed with the life of faith because I believe in things that can’t be seen, but can experienced – love, joy, hope and beauty.   I have stayed with this life of faith because I believe our most important journey in life is toward becoming a more complete human being and this can only happen in the relationships of a community, a community that is about so much more than just “me.”   And I have stayed with this life of faith because I believe it is through our faith that we provide the hope of different possibilities to our world. 

These are some of reasons that I have stayed at it for the past thirty years.  And I plan to keep staying at it.  I hope that maybe something I have written over the past month has given you some reason to think about the place of faith in your own life.  I encourage you to stay with it.  I believe both you and our world will be blessed if you do.       

Staying With My Religion: The Comfort and Challenge of Community

By Rev. Mark Poindexter

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift the other up; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.  Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one.  A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

This is the third in a series of four articles titled, “Staying with Faith: the Risks and Rewards of Sticking it Out.”  It is a response to a workshop taught in Indianapolis by a former pastor called, “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”  After twenty-five years in ministry he had resigned his pastorate, leaving behind not only the ministry, but the church and his life of faith. He believed that life “no longer worked for him.”  Since I have been in pastoral ministry for about that same amount time and chosen to stay with it, I thought I would offer a different perspective.  That is, I have chosen not only to stay with the life of ministry, but, even more, the life of faith.  Though my profession is an extension of my faith, my faith is much more than my profession.  It is through my faith that I understand myself and others and with my faith that I seek to engage the world.  Last week, I wrote about what I call the Sacred Realities.  There are realities in this world such as love, joy, hope and beauty that are beyond the realm of empirical verification.  They are realities that cannot be measured or weighed or touched, yet they are the very things that give human life its truest sense of meaning and purpose.  I believe that behind all these realities is the deepest Reality – God.

This week, I want to share about the importance of community in the life of faith.  The community is a place of comfort and challenge in which we learn what it means to be truly human.   In “The Courage To Be” Paul Tillich wrote, “Only in the continuous encounter with other persons does the person become and remain a person. The place of this encounter is the community.”  In other words, our humanity can only be fully realized in our relationship with others.

That our American culture with its emphasis on individualism has seen a break down in community has been well documented in books such as “Bowling Alone” and “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.”  Our increasingly disconnected lives has led to a breakdown in civility that is easily seen in our political world and is possibly a contributing factor to the many random acts of violence that seem to take place almost daily.  The Christian faith, in which we are taught to love both neighbor and enemy and to welcome strangers, can and should play a vital role in helping our culture overcome our increasing estrangement from one another.

The church can help to build community in a variety of ways, but I want to briefly mention two.  First, the church as a source of support and encouragement for people.  Life can be very difficult at times – each person has struggles and difficulties and loss that must be endured.  The church is a place where people should realize they are not alone through the difficult times of life; that their sorrow is shared by others.    As a pastor, I have had countless opportunities over the past twenty-five years to be with people in some very difficult times.  When I am present on such occasions, I always feel as if I am standing on sacred ground, a place where the grace of God can be made manifest.  This grace often comes in the form of other church members living out their own faith with those who are suffering by holding a hand, providing a meal, cleaning a house, sending a card, or any number of other expressions of compassion.  I have heard on more occasions than I can remember, someone saying to me, “I didn’t know so many people cared.”  The community of faith is a place of support and encouragement.  Not only within itself – but also within the larger realm.  This is why churches must always be engaged in ministries of care and compassion beyond its own members.  Every congregation should be reaching out in the town or city in which it finds itself to help meet the needs of folks who are struggling in life – food and housing and clothing ministries are at the top of the list.  But there are numerous ways we can share in the life of those who are our neighbors and who just like us, are the beloved God.   It is also the sense of community support that should lead the church in being among the first and most consistent responders to people who have endured the devastating natural tragedies that happen.  And when longer term recovery efforts are part of the equation, the long term commitment of people of faith is vital.

Another important aspect of the church in building community is the inherent challenge of living together in community.  In my understanding, the community that the church seeks to build is not one in which we ask everyone to be just alike.  It is instead a community built upon having dignity and respect and love for each other even with our differences. It is a community in which we recognize that we all have different gifts and talents and abilities, along with different thoughts and ideas.  It is not our uniformity that is the foundation of our community, it is our united commitment to recognizing that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus worthy of the love and respect that forms the foundation of community.  It is not just the one who looks like me, thinks life me and acts like me that I am to be in relationship with.  It is also the one who doesn’t look, think, or act like me that I am called to journey with in life.  That can be quite a challenge at times . . . . but it can also be very beautiful when it is accomplished.                

So part of the reason I have stayed with my faith is because I find in the church the community of support and challenge I need as I strive toward my full humanity.  Yet, I recognize that the church has often fallen short in these areas.  There have been some, even many, who have come to the church with the hope of finding a community of support and they did not.  For whatever reason, they were not made welcome.   I have heard their stories.  I know it is true.  I also know that the church hasn’t always proclaimed the unity that exists in our diversity, but instead, often out of fear, proclaimed uniformity.  I know it is true.  I am aware of these shortcomings.  And I am deeply sorry for those who have experienced these failures of the church in their own life.  All I can offer is that what you experienced is not the way it is supposed to be.  All I can hope is that you can keep looking for the sense of community that we all need to be who we are meant to be.  I found it as a person of faith in the community of faith.  My commitment is to strive to make my faith community the best community possible for all people.         

Staying With my Religion: Sacred Realities

By Rev. Mark Poindexter

Last week, I wrote that I would be sharing a series of three articles titled “Staying with Faith: the Risks and Rewards of Sticking it Out.”  This was in response to an event at the Spirit and Place Festival in Indianapolis, led by a former pastor, titled “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”    After twenty-five years in ministry, this former pastor, who is also the author of some best-selling books on religious themes – books which happen to sit on my shelves – resigned from his position and left the church.  He didn’t leave just the ministry, he left the church as well.  He apparently felt the religious life “no longer worked for him.”  Since, I have been in pastoral ministry for about that same amount of time, and since I have decided to stick it out, I thought I’d share why.  The “why” I’ll be seeking to answer isn’t about why I have decided to stay in ministry as a career, but why my religious faith is something that remains a central part of who I am, independent of my life as a pastor. 

This week I am going to write about what I call, the reality of the Sacred.  Next week, I’ll share about the vital role a community of comfort and challenge plays in the religious life.  The final article will deal with the power of religious faith in helping to create a more just and compassionate world. 

In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul writes that once everything else has passed away, some things will remain, “faith, hope and love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  In this passage, Paul speaks of there being some realities that are eternal in nature.  The way I often speak of such realities is that they are “woven into the very fabric of the universe.”  These realities are found across space and time and they are the very things that make human life worth living.  They are not things that can be measured or weighed.  There is no empirical test that can verify their validity.  Yet they are the very realities that give life its fullest sense of meaning.

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who endured the horrors of life in the Nazi death camps from 1942-45, including time in Auschwitz.  In those camps, Frankl’s parents, brother and pregnant wife all perished.  It was out of that experience of intense suffering and loss that Frankl wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning.”   His foundational idea is that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning in life. Much can be endured in life, even much suffering, if somehow we can find meaning in the midst of it.  And for Frankl the highest sense of meaning is found in love.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.  The truth – that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire.  Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. . . . For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

Frankl learned that the reality that could help him survive the brutality and cruelty he faced, the reality that could help him have a sense of meaning in an environment where meaninglessness abounded was love.  The love that he shared with his family, even though they had perished, continued to be a real part of who he was. In the reality of that love he was able to maintain his humanity in the most inhumane of places.

When I speak of the reality of the Sacred, it is to such things as love, hope, grace, joy, beauty, promise, and potential that I am referring.  These are realities that drive the human heart to profound acts of compassion and propel the human spirit to heroic acts of character.  These are not things that belong to the realm of science, they exist outside the realm of empirical verification.  But that they exist, that they are undeniable realities in our world, seems self-evident.  And for me, these Sacred realities point toward the deepest reality of all, the reality of God. 

I know some folks look at the suffering and sorrow in the world and conclude that there can be no God.  I am understanding of their conclusion, but I do not share it.  I see the reality of love and hope, even in the midst of suffering and sorrow, as a reason that I believe in God and even more a God, who as the scriptures say, is love.        

My favorite quote is from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit Priest, who was also trained in geology and paleontology.  His two worlds of science and faith come together in this quote:

The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love.  And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.

I believe in realities beyond those of the material world.  I believe such realities have great power.  I believe that behind these realities is the deepest reality of all – God.  This belief gives a great sense of meaning and purpose and direction to my life.  This is one reason, I have stayed with my faith . . . and it has been deeply rewarding.     

Staying With My Religion

By Dr. Mark Poindexter 

The Spirit and Place Festival is an annual multi-day event in Indianapolis that takes place every November and is presently occurring.  The festival's mission is to “catalyze civic engagement and enduring change through creative collaborations among the arts, humanities, and religion.”  During the ten days of the festival there are a variety of activities including lectures, panel discussions, workshops, concerts and art shows. A few years back, I attended a workshop on creative writing in which I learned some practices that I still utilize.  The Spirit and Place Festival is a welcome part of autumn in Indianapolis.  I once met a couple, both of whom are artists, who moved to Indy after coming from out of state for a couple of years to participate in the festival.

The theme of this year’s festival is “Risk: New Connections, New Directions.”  In advertising this theme the festival website reads:

What issues need strategic risk-taking? How can we surf the space between safety and danger in ways that stimulate community vitality? What risks can we take during Spirit & Place to galvanize change for pressing social concerns?

Since I believe risk is a strong component of faith, I was glad to see this theme and scanned the many opportunities that were available.  When I looked, there was open space in every event except one, an event titled: “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”  This event is being led by a former pastor and author of several best-selling books on religious themes.   After twenty-five years as a pastor, he has decided that the religious life is no longer for him.  The event is titled after a new book he has written with the same name, which offers a guide for those who have decided that the religious life “no longer works for them.”

I have to admit, I found it quite ironic that the Spirit and Place festival, which counts a variety of faith traditions among its supporters and which “embraces religion in the values of compassion, fairness, hospitality, and service that fuel our life in community” would host an event such as “Leaving My Religion.”  (It is also listed as a Risk prize finalist. This means it has the possibility of winning a $2,500 prize awarded by the festival committee.) I also have to admit that I was not surprised, but was very sad, to see that this event had sold out. With the fastest growing segment of American religious affiliation being the “nones,” that is, those who don’t affiliate with any religion, it is little wonder that this event had no seats left.

The reason religious faith is on a decline in America is a complex matter that has many different contributing factors.  There are the cultural matters that include America’s hyper-individualism, consumer mentality, and a 24 hour, 7 day-a-week busyness, that does not lend itself to participation in much beyond one’s self and family.  There is also the rise of “scientism,” the mechanistic world-view that the only things that are “real” are things of material substance.  “Scientism” should not be confused with science. It is instead the belief that the “only valid” way of knowing is through the scientific method.  A world view that fails its own test, because it cannot be proven that the scientific method is the only way knowledge is acquired.  This is simply to say that there are cultural matters that have impacted the decline of religious faith.

But the cultural factors should not preclude the church from taking a hard look at itself and how it has contributed to the religious decline.  There is no shortage of books or studies which show that many people view the church as an anti-intellectual, anti-science, homophobic, judgmental group who condemns to hell those who don’t hold the same beliefs we do.  We might want to argue with that perception of the Christian faith, and I know it doesn’t square with most of the Christians I associate with, but we have to admit that where there is smoke there is fire.  And the truth is, many people have experienced a brand of Christianity that is a close description of the above. 

Well, the thoughts in the two preceding paragraphs need a whole lot more time than I am able to give them in the space provided here. Let’s just leave it at this, there is no one reason for the decline of religious faith in America – there is a complex, multitude of reasons for why this has happened. 

What I want to offer over the next few weeks is an alternative to “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”  I would like to offer “Staying with Faith: the Risks and Rewards  of Sticking It Out.”   My intention won’t be to critique the reasons for the decline beyond what I have briefly mentioned above.  I simply want to offer to you why I have stayed with the life of faith, even when it didn’t seem to “work for me.” I want to share with you the places that I still find great beauty in the religious community.  One pastor is sharing with others why he chose to leave.  I want to share with you why I have chosen to stay.  I want to state why I believe that the life of faith still has much to offer our culture and our world, it’s most important offering being a word of hope. 

Letting Go of the Ego

By Dr. Mark Poindexter 

Last week I was on vacation.  Other than a night away with my wife, I had nothing planned.  I spent the week doing those things that I enjoy and which enhance my life.  I read a couple of books.  I wrote a few pieces.  I rode my bicycle.  I ran several days in preparation to run a road race with my son.  And I rested.  I didn’t call the office to check in at church.  I didn’t go in each night, after everyone else had left, to check the mail and clear my desk as I have done in the past.  I stayed away.

Though it has been a long and hard lesson to learn, I have discovered that I am not nearly as indispensable as I once thought I was.  When I first began my works as a pastor, I believed that just about everything in the congregation was my responsibility – from the care of the building and grounds to the physical and spiritual well-being of the members.  If the water fountain wasn’t working, I needed to make certain it was fixed.  If someone quit coming to church, I needed to fix that as well by discovering what I had done to discourage their interest . . . because surely it was something I had done.  If a new ministry was starting, I needed to be the person out front leading the charge.  When I went on vacation, I would call into somebody at least once, sometimes more, to check in on things and coordinate those matters that needed my attention. I was certain that there was always something that needed my attention.  I could go on with the many ways that I thought I was indispensable to the congregations I was serving, but I think you get the point. 

The humbling lesson I learned over the years was that I had confused the real needs of the congregations in regard to pastoral leadership with the needs of my own inflated ego.  This became clear to me about ten years ago, when after saying “Yes” to every opportunity that was provided to me in the church, the community and the denomination to feed my ego need to be out front leading (and there were many such opportunities and most of them worthy causes), I found myself, after a time, becoming very irritable and angry about people asking so much of me.  I was complaining about all the demands on my time to my wife, Becky. She listened and then said, “You know, Mark, you can say ‘no’ to some of those things . . . if your ego will let you.  Other people are just as capable as you are.”  I did not like what my wife said.  I was very upset that she did not see the “servant’s heart” that I was trying to have.  Of course, she was right. I just didn’t want to admit it – that truth hurt too much.

It all came crashing in on me, literally crashing, a few weeks after that conversation.  While driving my truck, I blacked out and crashed.  I have no recollection of the wreck.  All I remember is waking up in the emergency room of the local hospital and being sore all over. Though the doctors offered several possible explanations of what might have caused me to lose consciousness, there was never 100% certainty about the cause.  As I reflect back on that time, I have become convinced that my body and mind shut down from pure exhaustion. It was an exhaustion rooted primarily in the needs of my own ego.  It was a painful lesson to learn.  The truth of my wife’s words stung.  The wreck caused not only physical pain, but emotional pain as the rumor mill turned about what actually happened.   A painful lesson, yes.  But also, for me, painfully necessary.

In the nearly ten years since that event, I have sought to have more balance in my life.  I have tried to remind myself on a regular basis that though I need to be faithful and diligent in the leadership I provide, not everything depends on what I do or don’t do.  I spend more evenings at home than I once did and less at meetings.  I do say “yes” to opportunities that come along now, but I am also much more willing to say “no.” I remind myself on a regular basis that I’m not the savior for any person or congregation.  My work is to help folks learn about the one who is the Savior for us all. 

I decided to write this article because in this time when so many congregations are aging and in decline, so many pews empty and resources dwindling, it is easy for pastors to think it all depends on us – growth, new energy, new ideas, resurgent budgets, creative programs.  We can begin to think if we just work harder then everything will turn around.  The truth is, all any of us can do, is the best we can.  And we can only be at our best when we take care of ourselves, mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.  One of the first steps in that process of well-being is realizing that for any of us, though our leadership is important in the life of the church, none of us are indispensable.  The church existed long before we were around and it will continue long after we are gone.  We are called simply to be faithful servants during our time . . . and we can’t be faithful servants of Christ if we think it is all about us.

This is a quote from Dr. Howard Thurman that has had a growing impact on how I seek to live and provide leadership in the church:

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.  Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that.  Because what the world needs most is people who have come alive.

Do Good

By Dr. Mark Poindexter 

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

                                    The Apostle Paul, Galatians 6:10

“. . . cease to do evil, learn to do good, . . . “

                                    The Prophet Isaiah 1:16, 17

This past summer, my son, Christopher, and I attended a ballgame of our local AAA affiliate, the Indianapolis Indians.  They are the minor league team associated with the Pittsburgh Pirates and some of the young men now playing for the Pirates and the chance to compete in the World Series played in Indianapolis on their way to the major leagues.  It was a fun evening. The Indians won and Christopher even bought my hot dog and peanuts.  The night was most memorable, however, because of the conversation Christopher and I had on the way home. 

Christopher is a college junior and needless-to-say, we don’t always see eye-to-eye on many matters.  But on this night, he initiated a conversation I thoroughly enjoyed.  It started out about how much fun it is to go to games together, which is something he and I have done quite a lot.  But then our conversation took several turns and we covered many aspects of life.  We discussed what he wants to do in regard to a career. He spoke about his understanding of faith.  He also asked a lot of questions about family members that he doesn’t know very well.  Then at one point in the conversation, Christopher said, “You know, Dad, sometimes I listen when you preach.”  I said, “Well that’s good that sometimes you listen.”  Christopher added, “Yeah, I mostly listen when you tell stories.”  I replied, “I think it is easier for most people to listen to stories and that’s why Jesus told stories so much.”  My son then asked me, “Do you know what I get from your sermons when I listen?”  I honestly did not know if I wanted to hear the answer to that question, but I went ahead and asked, “What?”  And he said, “Do good.  That’s what I get from you when I listen. Do good.”  Other than my wife, probably no one has heard more of my sermons than Christopher and if after twenty years of sometimes listening to my sermons, he can sum up all that preaching in those two words, “do good,” I’ll take it.

I thoroughly believe that the future strength of the church is to be found not first in “orthodoxy” which is adherence to correct beliefs, but in “orthopraxy” – the practice of right behavior or as I would put it “to do good.”  The congregation I serve is one that has taken as its mission imperative the task of “thoughtfully and faithfully following Jesus.”  Those five words form the core of who we are and how we try to engage the world.  Following Jesus is not a passive endeavor.  It means being involved with the world the way Jesus was and asks us to be.  It means working to ensure that everyone has food to eat and clothes to wear and a place that they can call home.  It means that our congregations are places that practice a deep sense of hospitality, not only welcoming all who come our way, but by finding ways we can actively be good neighbors in our communities. It means caring for the sick and the aged, giving voice to those who have been pushed to the edges of society.  It means having a sense of grace and respect for all people, helping our world to become that beloved community of reconciliation and peace that it was created to be. Following Jesus means giving our lives so that others might have life.

Faith is an action oriented endeavor.  I have always appreciated the wisdom of an old Chinese proverb, “It is much better to light a candle in the darkness, than to just curse the darkness.” 

The media tells us about the overwhelming response that often occurs after a natural disaster or another kind of tragic event, such as the bombing at the Boston Marathon.  It is wonderful that people respond to the real needs that arise during such times.  But the good we are called to do and which needs to be done is not limited to tragic and catastrophic events.  Every day there are real needs of struggling people that need to be met.  Children who are hungry, families who need adequate shelter and access to health care, villages that need wells drilled for clean water, people living in nursing facilities who need someone to hold their hand on a lonely day.  The list of needs goes on and on without end.  Moses said to the Israelite people, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hands to the poor and needy neighbor . . . .’”

 The ways to help are numerous as well, Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International, Living Water for Clean Water, Week of Compassion, local food pantries, nursing facility volunteer, adult literacy programs, etc. and etc.  There are numerous ways to be involved in the doing of good.

Of course, no individual nor single congregation can do all that needs to be done.  But every individual and congregation can do some of the good that needs to be done in our communities and world.  And whatever good any of us do makes a difference.

The last thing our world needs right now is a passive church or one that is focused only on adherence to a correct system of doctrinal beliefs.  The world needs a church that is leading the way in respecting human dignity and worth, working for human equality, responding to human need, finding ways to take care of our planet that we share together.  The world needs a church that is working to “do good.”  May we strive to be that church.

Do some good today.

Tearing Down Walls

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By Dr. Mark Poindexter 

In the spring of 2010, due to the gracious generosity of the congregation I am part of, I was given the opportunity to spend twelve days in Israel and Jordan.  It was an amazing experience spending time in the place that I have spent much of my life learning about.  I rode in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and I floated in the Dead Sea.  I stood on top of Mt. Nebo and gazed, just as Moses did, into the land of promise.  I placed a prayer in the Western Wall of the Temple, walked the streets of Old Jerusalem and spent a day in the town of Bethlehem.  We celebrated communion on the Road to Emmaus, plunged ourselves into the Jordan River, and stood quietly next to the hill known as “The Place of a Skull.” It was a most memorable trip.

The most moving part of the experience, however, was not in visiting any of the historical places that play such a central role in my faith.  It was instead visiting the Palestinian Children’s Hospital in Jerusalem.  There Palestinian children, like the young girl pictured above, received care for chronic illnesses or were treated because of accidental injuries.  We were graciously received by the head doctor of the hospital, by the nurses and the social workers, and by the children as well.  One aspect of this hospital trip that was deeply disconcerting for me, however, was the near complete absence of the fathers of these children. Though mothers were everywhere to be seen, there was hardly a father anywhere.  I asked if this was because the fathers were at work. I was told for a very few that was the case, but for most their absence was the result of the family being from Bethlehem and it being nearly impossible for young adult males to get beyond the wall that Israel had put up in a proposed effort to stop suicide bombers.

I had seen the wall the day before when my group went to Bethlehem.  The wall is 468 miles of 25 foot high concrete slabs.  Israel calls it a security barrier. Others call it an Apartheid Wall.  What I call it is ugly.  The true extent of its ugliness became clear to me as I heard that it was keeping fathers from being with their hospitalized children.  To go to Israel is to go to a land of deep division.  Division between Palestinians and Israelis, along with division between Christian, Jew and Muslim.  Even the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is divided up among the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Apostolic Church with each having a section of the church that they are responsible for. We hear a lot in the news about these divisions and the strife that results from it; along with the political, ethnic and religious reasons for it.  I know the matter is historically very complex.  But on the day that I visited the Palestinian Children’s Hospital the only division that mattered to me was that a father wasn’t allowed to be with their child.  It made me deeply sad and very angry.

You see, I have a daughter with a chronic illness.   Her illness resulted in one long stay in a children’s hospital and now she is required to go back every two months for treatment.  Along with my wife, I was with my daughter during her hospitalization and have accompanied her on many of her follow-up treatments.  The thought that I could not be with her during that time is a very difficult one to fathom.  History, religion, politics be damned . . . you keep me from my daughter then you and I have got a big problem.  One whose only correction is to let me be with my child.

I suppose the reason I tell this story is because behind the historical and political landscape through which we often hear the stories of other places are the very human stories of  children and parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends.  People who, in more ways than not, are just like us. They laugh, they cry, they play, they work, they try to provide for their families and they worry about their children.  After visiting the Palestinian Children’s Hospital, I was continually haunted by the thought of living in a place where a father would not be allowed to be present with his ill child – not because he was in jail or had done anything wrong, but simply because of who he was, a Palestinian man.

Of course, I do live in such a place for I live as a part of this world. As do all of us. Whatever our race, whatever our nation of origin, whatever our language, whatever religion we might practice, whatever political system we might be part of,  we all live together in this place. And we need to find a way to tear down the ugly walls that we too quickly and too often erect between each other.  We need to try and understand that we have much more in common with one other than we realize.  There will always be voices who say the walls, literal and figurative walls, are necessary for safety and security and to establish one’s own sense of identity. I fervently believe they are wrong.  All those walls ultimately do is continue to breed anger and hatred and, thus, perpetuate the cycle of violence. 

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For those of us who happen to be Christian, we have been given, according to the scriptures, the ministry of reconciliation . . . the ministry of tearing down the walls of hostility that exist between people (Ephesians 2:14).  It is our work.  It is the heart of the gospel.  And we need to be about our work with great diligence.  This is so for many reasons, but one I know of personally is that there are some young Palestinian children and their fathers who need the opportunity to be together.       

Laws and Ideas

By Dr. Mark Poindexter 

Recently I was asked to be part of a conversation with our U.S. Congressman concerning the matter of immigration reform.  Our Congressman, who is a first term Representative, was traveling around all the counties he represents and meeting with anyone who had called in to his office and prearranged a conversation that would last about fifteen minutes.  The discussion could cover any topic the constituent wanted to talk about.  An immigration lawyer heard about this opportunity and scheduled such a conversation about immigration reform.  She asked a 21 year old undocumented college student who was brought to the States when she was 9 years old to share her story.  It was powerful.  She had asked a local business owner who had become a US citizen to tell about his experience.  Another moving story.  I was the only other person asked to be a part of this conversation.  I had no compelling immigration narrative to share, but I was a local clergy person who was perceived to be someone who would be interested in this matter since it is ultimately about human dignity and equality.  I am glad to be perceived in that way and agreed to go to the meeting. 

After the brief and moving stories by the college student and the business owner, I was given a couple of minutes to introduce myself and tell why I was there.  I actually had no idea what I would say and didn’t know for certain what would come out of my mouth.  But after I introduced myself this is what I said, “I’ve come to understand America not to be ultimately about geographical boundaries but about the high ideas of freedom and justice and equality for all.  And I think anyone who is willing to partner with us as we seek to move toward the fulfillment of these ideas ought to be allowed to call themselves a citizen of the United States of America.” The congressman thanked us all for our being there and then began sharing his perspective on the matter and the difficult political position it put him and many of his colleagues in. To the congressman’s credit he seemed to be genuinely listening and especially sympathetic to the college student’s situation.  He also seemed to have a very strong working knowledge of the matter of immigration reform.  But the longer I listened to him, the more obvious it became that he and I worked out of two different perspectives.  He was working in the world of laws and legislation and I was working in the world of ideas and principles. Neither way is necessarily right or wrong, but they are different and sometimes that difference can make the conversation, and any positive movement forward, very difficult. 

We often hear America referred to as a land of laws and that it is. But I prefer to think of America as a place of ideas.  No matter how imperfectly we may live them out, the ideas of freedom and justice and equality for all are behind the American experiment.  Laws are, of course, a necessity in any ordered society.   But I understand the primary purpose of laws to be that of helping a society live out the ideas that give it meaning and purpose.  Thus, the ideas precede the laws and the laws are in service to the fulfillment of the ideas.  Sadly, however, sometimes those in power make laws that keep others from sharing in the fulfillment of the ideas.  Think of the “Jim Crow” laws that were part of American culture in the middle part of the 20th century. Instead of enhancing and expanding the ideas of freedom and equality, they narrowed the scope of who those ideas were for.    

The difference between laws and ideas plays a role in the current religious landscape of America and the entire world as well.  I think behind the religious impulse is the idea of experiencing the Sacredness of life.  It involves the idea that there is Something more than this material world, that there are realities woven into the very fabric of the universe that give life meaning and purpose.  Such things as love and hope and joy and beauty.  In the presence of these non-material realities we experience the Sacred.  This, I believe, is the idea behind the religious impulse. 

 Where religious faith sometimes gets off track is when we want to make rules and regulations (laws) about how those realities are to be experienced.  I heard the story of a wise man who went off into the wilderness to have an experience with God.  And indeed, he had such an experience.  When he returned from the wilderness the town leaders asked him what happened and he told them about his experience of God.  The town leaders appointed a committee and based upon the wise man’s story came up with a document that was titled “Ten Steps to Experiencing God.”   All the steps were based upon the wise man’s experience.  The bottom of the document read “No other experiences of God are valid.”  When the wise man saw that line he cried and wished he had never shared his experience.

Especially in this day and time, I think the church needs to have a great grasp on the ideas that are at the heart of religious faith – love, grace, hope, joy, equality, dignity, compassion, peace.  And our goal is to expand and enhance these realities wherever possible.  We are not to say that they can only be experienced as we have experienced them, known only as we know them, lived as only we live them.  The God we claim to worship is much larger than only our own experience . . . . and for that we should be grateful.            

I Know Only Human Beings

By Dr. Mark Poindexter 

Recently my wife and I went to see the movie, “The Butler.”  It was an excellent film on many levels.  One of the aspects of the move that I found most intriguing was the capturing of the moral complexity faced by those living in and trying to overcome the racist system under which they existed.  The difficult and often painful interaction between the butler, Cecil Gaines, and his son, Louis, who became a civil rights activist involved in lunch counter sit-ins and the freedom bus rides is central to the movie.  How they arrive at a sense of understanding and respect for each other is a story that I am glad was told as part of this movie. The importance of personal relationships as a dynamic part of the larger drama in the struggle for freedom could not have been displayed better. 

 The matter of race relations continues to be something with which our country struggles and it cannot be denied that one’s race plays a central role in how one experiences life in America.  With this week marking the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. the relationship between the races has been at the forefront in much of the news. We are still on the long journey of making the beautiful dream of which Dr. King so eloquently spoke a reality.

 Racism, along with prejudice and discrimination of all kinds, is part of not only the American experience, but the experience of humanity across time and space.  The belief that “my group,” however my group might be defined, by skin color, geographical borders, gender, etc., is somehow better than “your group” has been a perpetual plague on humanity. The belief is often accompanied by a will-to-power, thinking that the only way for “my group” to survive and thrive is to dominate “your group.” This way of thinking, rooted in seeing how we are different from one another, has been the cause of much violence and war. Mother Theresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.”

 It is in the midst of this violent divisiveness that the church comes with the gospel of Christ in which we are taught to love ourselves, love our neighbors and to love our enemies.  A gospel in which we are to show kindness to all and extend hospitality to the stranger.  A gospel in which we recognize that all people are created in the divine image and worthy of the respect that a child of God deserves.  In the midst of racism and prejudice, tribalism and hyper-nationalism, sexism and any other kind of “ism” you might think of, we come with the message that we are all a beautiful part of God’s beloved creation.      

The story of Pastor Andre Trocme of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France has been a story that has helped me to understand just how important viewing the world through the lens of our common humanity truly is.  During World War II, after France fell to the Nazis, Pastor Trocme led the people of his parish and community to develop hidden shelters and safe-houses in which Jewish people could find refuge. It is estimated that 3,500 lives were saved through the efforts of Pastor Trocme and the people he led.  It is reported that one time he was brought before the occupying Nazi officials and it was demanded that he tell them where he was hiding the Jews.  Trocme replied, “I know no Jew.  I know only human beings.”  The beautiful courage of that simple statement is profound.

Though race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, etc., are all a part of someone’s identity, before I notice anything else, I simply want to see the other’s humanity.  Not Black or White, not Asian or Hispanic – a human being.  Not an American, or Canadian, not a Mexican or a South African, - a human being.  Not a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist, not an atheist, - a human being.  Not straight or gay or transgendered – a human being.  Not an athlete, not a disabled person – a human being. 

Sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, recently died.  He had gained much recognition for his book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  In the most recent issue of The Christian Century there was an article devoted to Bellah’s influence on understanding the present religious landscape.  The article stated:

The religious roots of a global ethic of human rights led Bellah to ask if the world’s religions can mobilize their deepest commitments to universal neighbor-love and mutual recognition to give genuine institutional force to human rights.*

To this question, the church must offer an emphatic, yes.

The ways we have highlighted our differences has been the cause of much pain in our world.  The church, with its message of the universality of God’s love, needs to be an agent that helps us see our common humanity, that we are all part of one race, the human race.  May we join hands with each other and work toward the fulfillment of the Dream.  Such work is our hope.       

*The Christian Century, September 14, 2013, p. 13

"We need all kinds of thinkers."

by Rev. Mindi

My husband and I had the opportunity to hear Temple Grandin speak last week. Temple is, of course, probably one of the most famous people with autism that we know of today, but as Temple shared, many also suspect people such as Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs had undiagnosed autism. Albert Einstein did not speak until the age of three, and Steve Jobs had few friends and was socially awkward as a child and youth.

While Temple has contributed much to our more current understandings of how people live in the world with autism, I was reminded that she is one person, with one set of experiences, and that as parent of a child with autism our experience and our son’s experience is different.  Her experience has taught her that sometimes the rest of us try to make it too easy and we don’t challenge our children enough. Perhaps there is some wisdom in that; maybe we do make it too easy at times. However, I am again reminded that is her opinion from her experience, and that we knew little about autism when she was a child. While we still don’t know as much, we do know that intensive therapies such as speech-language and behavioral therapy can go a long way in helping a child with autism achieve access to education as “typically developing” children do today.  We have had to think differently about how we care and educate children with autism, and we are continuing to do so.

But what I took away from Temple’s speech was that “We need all kinds of thinkers.” She thinks in pictures. She did not do well in math, especially algebra, but she is known for her incredible, creative designs for cattle farmers because she drew them out in elaborate detail.  She sees things in pictures. While many of us start at the top with a large concept and work our way through a problem by breaking it down into smaller pieces, she starts with the smaller pieces. She thinks differently. And many people living with autism do. Steve Jobs , as she shared, started by dreaming of an interface that was easy to use. He didn’t start with trying to figure out how to develop the software to do it—he left that to the engineers.

In the church, we need all kinds of thinkers. We need dreamers who dream of the church differently, out-of-the-box, along with the people who work on the ideas and ministries that help us to move into the new church concept. All too often, we are still working from the old concept, and we expect the pastor to do it all. We are not working out of the box, we are instead looking at the old concept of church and breaking down into smaller pieces: Christian education, outreach, programs, Bible Study, Youth ministry, etc. I have seen way too many churches think if they just hire a new Youth Minister everything will change for the good, or if they just try a new program for Young Adults they will change. But the truth is they aren’t looking for that kind of change—they are looking to fix one small problem without seeing the larger picture: the church they once knew is dying. Or dead. Or just completely outdated and irrelevant. And the pastor often gets blamed when the change does not occur (as expected).

We need all kinds of thinkers. We need dreamers and imaginers and organizers and planners. We need to go back to vision and purpose: who do we imagine God desires us to be as the church? Are we fulfilling that dream and vision, or are we fulfilling a plan of the past, an old model that doesn’t mean the same thing anymore?  How can we think out of the box in this world, today?

More importantly, how can we use all kinds of thinkers? How can we bring in the doubters and the strugglers, the ones who don’t know (and perhaps don’t care too much) about our denominational identity along with the cradle churchgoers? Or, to think even more outside of the box, how do we go out and be the church with all of these?

We need all kinds of thinkers. This isn’t easy to do, but we need to let go of the old models of programs and staff configurations and even building maintenance to move into a model of being the church as Christ’s Body. The church, since even the early days, has been challenged to think outside of the box. In many ways, this isn’t something new. It’s just time to dream it up again, and to include the dreamers who might think about church differently than you. It’s not enough to include a token young adult or youth on a committee; a church needs to engage communities of youth and young adults and actually desire to build a relationship. It’s not enough to say “Let’s have a program for young families to get them into the church;” a church needs to think outside the box and look at the greater picture: are we really a child-friendly church? Are we welcoming of children who may cry or run around? Do we provide child care? Do we care if children eat all the cookies at coffee hour? And are we welcoming of non-traditional families? How do we include families whose children may live with another parent and only attend on occasion?

It’s time to think outside the box, and to do that, we’re going to need some help. We’re going to need all kinds of thinkers.