upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sabbath Poems - Wendell Berry

As I've been thinking a lot about worship this Sunday during which we will remember our saints and as I've been thinking a lot about the election next Tuesday, this poem by Wendell Berry came to mind. It comes from the book "A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997." Every Sunday after church Wendell Berry walks the grounds of his Kentucky farm and then writes. This is the collection of the ideas and thoughts that came to him during his walks. Here is one poem:

"A gracious Sabbath stood here while they stood
Who gave our rest a haven.
Now fallen, they are given
To labor and distress.
These times we know much evil, little good
To steady us in faith
And comfort when our losses press
Hard on us, and we choose,
In panic or despair or both,
To keep what we will lose.

For we are fallen like the trees, our peace
Broken, and so we must
Love where we cannot trust,
Trust where we cannot know,
And must await the wayward-coming grace
That joins living and dead,
Taking us where we would not go--
Into the boundless dark.
When what was made has been unmade
The Maker comes to His work."

Thank you, Wendell Berry.

The New York Times on a "New" Kind of Hospice Chaplaincy

One of the most sacred things I do as a pastor is be with people as they end their lives. Rarely am I there at the moment of death, but I am very often there within hours of someone moving from this world to the next. People often want to talk about the most interesting topics right before they die - how they met their spouse, whether or not they have regrets, how their families should act once they're gone, what their service preferences are, how the weather is, why they liked certain foods, why they never did certain things. Listening to people - deep listening - is probably the most important things I do. It's how I best understand chaplaincy - listening. Occasionally people ask questions, but more often than not those questions are not for me.

Today the New York Times has a very interesting article on hospice chaplaincy. The article was written in part because of a sharp rise in chaplain services since 2004, nearly doubling in this time period. However, the article's main focus is a change in what chaplaincy has become. What does that mean? More secular, less religious. To me it just looks like plain old chaplaincy.

This article raised some questions for me. What do the authors think traditional chaplaincy is? (It appears they see it as death bed conversions or long talks about God.) What has traditional chaplaincy been? (Are they correct?) And how long as this "new" chaplaincy been around? (It's all I was ever taught.)

Like the chaplains in the article, it's been my experience that when someone who is not a member of the church I serve asks for a chaplain (me), then that person has at best a loose affiliation with religion. They aren't looking for orthodoxy or conversion. They are looking for confession, tenderness, companionship, and care. It is my job to help make the transition out of this world as painless and loving as possible. Perhaps I've only been trained in this "new" chaplaincy.

I encourage you to read about the rise in requests for chaplain visits and about a "new" kind of chaplaincy taking place in hospice care.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Father, Just..." - Communication Filters

I am in Fayetteville, Arkansas for the second session of the New Church Leadership Institute, which is a training to help people plant new churches/faith communities. I grew up in Arkansas, with a seven year interruption during which my family lived in Mississippi so coming back to Arkansas should be a form of coming home. In many ways it is and in many it simply isn't.

When I return "home" to Arkansas, there is so much that is familiar. I remember how much I miss the warm nights, the sound of crickets and tree frogs, and the warmth of the people. People are hospitable, intrested in you, and kind. I hear turns from phrase that I haven't heard since the last time I was here and when I hear them I hear my dad speaking (he passed away four years ago). And yet, even as so much is familiar and reminiscent of home, I realize how I have changed (although if you ask my mom or sister, I've always been a bit on the outside of the culture which reared me).

One of the great challenges that I have faced during these two training events - the same challenge that I faced when I attended the Congress on Evangelism in Atlanta a few years ago - is the contant necessity to filter and translate the language used in talking about ministry, mission, and even about God. Often I struggle to get to the speaker's core message because I get hung up in the colloquialims, cadences, and language choices made by the speakers. What catches me up?

*When people talk about "unbelievers" and "believers." I want to know exactly what they mean by that. I make assumptions and translate this language into what I would have it mean, but I'm not sure if it's exactly what they do mean.

*Talk about "bringing people to Christ." I never understood this even when I lived here. Is this simply a prayer, a profesion, or a new way of life in which a person learns to walk the way of Christ? Too often it just sounds like a profession - a statement with no long-term impact. Some speakers talk about a life of discipleship - this is language I understand. Is discipleship what others mean when they speak of "bringing someone to Christ?"

*"Lord (Father) just..." is a phrase that creeps into prayers. I never heard it growing up. "Lord, we just ask you to, Lord, fill ___ with your power, Lord, so she can bring the lost to you. Lord, we just..." I don't know why a little smile crosses my lips when I hear prayer expressed in this way. This is a perfectly fine way to pray; it's "just" that it isn't my way.

*Saving souls for Jesus. Hmmmm. I am a Wesleyan with a strong understanding of salvation, but there's something about this phrase that catches me up. I get hung. I pause and wonder if the speaker and I really mean the same thing. And, sometimes, I am quite sure that we aren't.

*When speakers talk of the supernatural. I have a strong and abiding belief in the mystical presence and infinite ability of God, but that word - "supernatural" - just makes me shake my head. To me, that relegates God to a marginal position. I clearly hold a negative feeling toward the word "supernatural" when used in conjunction with God and God's power.

*The conversation between the preacher/presenter and the congregation/conference attendees. I grew up in a United Methodist church in Arkansas. The loudest unplanned sound I ever heard was a hymnal falling off a pew. While I certainly visited many churches with lively conversations punctuated with "Well," "Preach it," "Amen" and other things; this conversation simply didn't happen in my white, upper middle class home congregation. But at both NCLI trainings, not only have attendees participated, they have done so vigorously.

None of these differences is in and of themselves good, bad, right, or wrong. They simply highlight the importance of language. These gatherings remind me of how out of sync I might be with visitors that attend the church that I serve, especially those who are unchurched or dechurched or who come from other traditions. Is the language that we use in worship and in our communications (newsletters, bulletins, etc) clear for everyone? I suppose this rambling post is really a reminder to me that I need to be mindful and careful about the language used in teacihng, preaching, and communicating the gospel, the mission of the Church and the nature of God in order to speak through people's filters and reduce the need for translation.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Religious Oppression is an Opportunity for the Church

An article came out today about the difficulties that Iraqi Christians face. Rather than stay in Mosul and face pressures to convert, Christians are leaving the city. On a recent radio broadcast, travel expert Rick Steves advised those of the Baha'i faith not to travel to Iran because the religion is outlawed. Earlier this year, Tibetan monks engaged in severe conflict with Chinese authorities. And, of course, we hear a good bit about the prejudices of people who still believe that Barrack Obama is a "secret Muslim" - whatever that means. Unfortunately, religious oppression is alive and well in the world. This month Bill Maher's movie "Religulous" sets out to show the inherent insanity in all religions - and it would seem that perhaps he has a point: If religion demands that one leave critical thinking at the door and incites within that person a hatred of "others," then why tolerate religion at all? Especially during a time of economic and financial crises when people are apt to regress, retreat, and revert to their most own kind, succumbing to their prejudices, isn't this the time for religion to shut up and sit down?

No. I don't think so. While religion can certainly be used to scare, oppress, demean, and diminish, so can any powerful philosophy, social structure, or world view. Religion is dangerous because it is powerful. And, power is neither good nor bad - it simply is. It's how we understand power and how we use power that reveals the worth of any person or any power structure. Jesus redefined power as life poured out for many. He set forth a program for the world that challenged the production-consumption society of his time, that looked the might of Rome's military in the eye and declared it impotent over him and his God, that told the people to seek a new power, born of the Spirit.

As religions begin to slide into their worst selves during this time of world unrest and financial crisis, there exists an incredible opportunity for the Church to witness to Jesus-power. Too often the Church has stepped away from the Jesus we claim to follow and we have embraced systems and structures of coercion, exclusion, and oppression. Even as early as twenty years after Jesus' death, churches became embroiled in battles over purity, inclusion, and identity. These conflicts gave rise to the letters of Paul. We have a two thousand year history that includes horrible acts of violence against Jews and Muslims, humanists, and animists. It seems that whenever a religion finds itself in ascendancy, it inflicts harm on the weak, the outcast, and the other. Christianity has no monopoly on this behavior, but it is to Christians that I write since I myself am a Christian.

In this time of upheaval, the Church and those of us who are part of the Body of Christ have before us a choice. We can slide into old ways of being, into old arguments, fighting old fight or we can become our best selves. My heart aches for the Christians fleeing Mosul who face death because they won't convert to Islam. How can we support these people in their quest to live whole and joyful lives free of persecution and oppression? How can we tend this part of the body that is hurting and wounded? Additionally, we can speak up for Tibetans persecuted by China. We can welcome our American Muslim brothers and sisters, challenging the prejudices held by too many Americans against them. We can pray for peace in the Middle East between Jews and Palestinians and between Israel and Iran.

Christianity is a powerful belief system. Our local churches need to teach a gospel of love and care. Too many churches teaches hate and intolerance. We allow ignorance to flourish; too often we promote ignorance among our communities. A faithful Christianity cannot allow vitriol to take hold, set down roots, and grow among us. We have a gospel to share and at its core is a message of love, grace, and peace. It is also a message of impatience in the face of intolerance, hatred, and violence. We have opportunities - as individual Christians, in our local congregations, and in our larger assemblies.

This year our church's ecumenical Thanksgiving service is changing into an interfaith service. Bill Maher is right - religion is dangerous. He is also wrong - it should not be abandoned. When our congregation worships with Muslims, Jews, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Buddhists, we will be declaring to the world the religious oppression is not inherent to any of our world views - not a part of our God - not a part of who we are. As a matter of fact, violence encouraged by religion is a perversion of any world faith. Religious oppression is the use of powerful and meaningful symbols in a perverted way to forward the unjust agenda of those who are unfaithful.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Bones - The He in the She

This week Bones dealt with redemption thru transformation by using a storyline about a pastor who undergoes a sex change.

Have you seen it? If so, what did you think?

Watch the episode here.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Happy Feast of Saint Francis

It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.~ St. Francis of Assisi

Today I am off to bless gardens, pets, and animals (i.e. animals that are not pets) in people's homes and neighborhoods. This is the first year I've done a "I'll come to you" day of blessing. It's kind of nice. People have asked me to bless ducks in their neighborhood pond, their gardens, their community pea patches, and animals in a shelter. Many of us have become used to the joy of a service of blessing, but this year when I thought of Saint Francis, I thought of the quote above and of his love for the least, last, and outcast. These will not come into our churches for blessing. I thought of homebound people who have only their pets for company, the local shelter, and animals in the zoo that are far from their natural habitats. I also thought of the environment as a whole. Later today I will go to Golden Gardens a bless the beach and Puget Sound, one of the world's most diverse ecosystems. I am privileged to live next to it.

Too often the church has tamed Saint Francis. While the blessing of pets is a wonderful and joyful experience, we need to remember the wildness of his love and the unwavering commitment to a God of radical inclusion. There is nothing tame about such a God.

Happy Feast of Saint Francis.

Biden and Palin on Church/State Separation

Katie Couric asked Joe Biden and Sarah Palin to speak to the separation between church and state. Here are their responses.

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