Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Is "us vs. them" the only way?

For some time now, I’ve been concerned that for every problem people can only see two possible answers: "mine" and "wrong". At least since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we’ve been led to believe that everyone is either "for us" or "against us". No middle ground, no third option is available. "Kill them over there before they kill us over here" has become our national story. "Us vs. them" is the lens through which we view every issue.

Of course, no one denies that there are those persons in the world who seek to commit crimes of one kind or another in the United States. My concern, however, is that one problem with an "us vs. them" mentality is that it eventually begins to filter down into all aspects of our living. With our "us vs. them" lenses on, we lose the ability to see that issues might be more complex than we currently imagine. We lose the ability to think and act creatively to solve some very real problems in our communities. And in all the shouting at one another, we lose the ability to listen to one another as individuals made in the image of God.

Recently, the state of Arizona passed a very strong anti-immigration law. As I understand it, the law would require police officers to consider a persons immigration status as part of a traffic stop. Again, as I understand it, the law would make it illegal for churches to give financial assistance to persons who are in the US illegally. It’s another case of "are you one of us, or are you one of them?" Without realizing it, we are being conditioned to look upon everyone with suspicion before we attempt to see them as persons made in the image of God.

But is there another lens we can use? I believe there is. It's the "face to face" lens that is the way of Jesus. With the "face to face" lens on, we see persons as the New Testament sees them: as either a "brother or sister in Christ," a "neighbor," or possibly even as an "enemy." But in each case, our "face to face" lens helps us see that this is a person with whom relationship is possible, if we trust the Jesus way.

For the case of (documented or undocumented) immigrants, what might our "face to face" lens help us see?
  • Might we see someone who came to the United States because they couldn’t find a way to feed their families in their home country?
  • Might we see someone who is willing to come to the United States to do a job that many Americans won’t do?
  • Might we see someone who came to the United States as a very young child with their parents? Someone who has lived their entire life in the US, gotten an education and are now holding down a job? (And while we're here, where exactly would we "send this person back" to, anyway?)
  • And might Christians remember that forgiveness and mercy are appropriate responses to the offense of illegal immigration? Can we imagine ourselves saying, "do the hard work of becoming a citizen. Learn our history, contribute to our society, pay your taxes, go to church, obey the law. We forgive you, and welcome you."
Rather than an "us vs. them" narrative, the church needs to lead the way in living out a "face to face" narrative. My prayer is that the church can learn to look into another person's eyes, and listen to their story first, before we assume we know all the answers to everyone else's problems. "Face to face" not "us vs. them."


Monday, May 10, 2010

From the mouths of babes...

The children of Central Church of the Brethren provided the content for today's post.

Yesterday was Mother's Day. During the Children's Story, I shared this passage of Scripture with the kids:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honor your father and mother"—which is the first commandment with a promise—"that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth." (Ephesians 6:1-3).

After reading the passaged, I asked the kids, "what are 5 ways that you can honor your mother?" This is their list...

1. Listen to her.
2. Don't fight with your sisters.
3. Help with chores.
4. Don't mess with other people's stuff.
5. Give mom flowers.

Not bad advice. I hope each of you can find time---all year long---to honor your mother in these ways.

Monday, April 19, 2010

How is your attitude?

One piece of advice I heard from time to time while growing up was "Watch your attitude." It was helpful advice, even though it was generally unappreciated at the moment it was given.

Our attitude is important, because it is one of the few qualities of our life that we can control. Think about it. You have no control over what people think of you. You have very little control over how people respond to you. You have no control over the strange and unexpected things that happen throughout your life. But you can control how you respond to them!

Our attitude is a choice. No one says it is an easy choice, but it is a choice.

Like many people, I often find myself struggling with my attitude. It is easy to allow outside circumstances dictate my responses. Trouble is, whatever I'm feeling on the inside will eventually make its way to the outside. When my attitude is bad, I will eventually behave badly toward other persons. That's unfair to them, and unhealthy for me.

So what can we do? Are there ways to change our attitude? The next time you're struggling with your attitude, consider the following steps to improve your attitude....

Remember that God is with you. In the New Testament book of Romans, the Apostle Paul says, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). The next time you're struggling with a bad attitude toward something someone else has done, remember this verse. Can you imagine that in the midst of whatever is happening in your life, God is working for you good?
  1. Nurture your relationship with God. Our relationship with God is like any of our other relationships: if we want it to be strong, we must spend time together. Your relationship with God will become a means toward a changed, positive attitude if you nurture it. Spend time in church, in prayer, in study, and in fellowship with other Christians.
  2. Identify issues that rob you of a good attitude. What is it that robs you of a good attitude? Is it certain people? Certain circumstances? What can you do to change those circumstances? Identify these, and be aware of them. Write them down and let them be your personal attitude adjustment plan.
  3. Finally, control your thought life. Philippians 4:8 says "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Do you do this? When you find yourself being consumed with negative thoughts, invite positive thoughts into your mind, and think about these things.
I give thanks to God that the unhealthy, sinful parts of our life can be removed---even our unhealthy, negative attitudes. May God help you along the way to a good attitude.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bridges, Barriers and Bombs

Yesterday, I was the invited speaker at the Roanoke City Public Schools "Faith Community" event. My purpose was to encourage Roanoke City congregations to see partnering with local elementary schools as part of their overall outreach. The following is the text of my message . . .

One of the critical questions the faith community needs to answer in this generation is "how will we define our relationship to those who are not part of our faith communities?" It might be with those who do not attend our worship services—or anyone’s worship services. Or it might be toward institutions like the local school system. Either way, how will our various faith communities define our relationships with those outside of our four walls?

When I look at the world, I see three options currently vying for our imaginations: bridges, barriers, and bombs. If you give this issue a moment of thought, you can easily see illustrations of all three.

Bombs is the metaphor that makes the nightly news: the extremists’ car bomb on a roadside in Iraq; the bullet that murdered Martin Luther King, Jr. at a Memphis hotel; the arsonists torch burning church buildings in Texas. The problem of those who resort to the bombs of violence to relate to the world around them is a necessary challenge for our faith communities to deal with; it does, however, take us too far afield this afternoon.

The metaphor of barriers is a more likely option for faith communities, and in some regards it is the prevailing metaphor of church-state relations in the United States. The doctrine of "separation of church and state" seems to establish an impregnable barrier between the faith community and the communities around us. Even though we walk the same streets, shop at the same stores, have children who walk in both spheres, the barrier of law would seem to say that these two communities cannot—and perhaps ought not—come together for any purpose.

Ironically, you will find those on both sides of the barrier who affirm this separation. Some on the faith side see involvement in the community as a either a compromise of their message or an abrogation of their duty; those on the state side see involvement with the faith community as meddling in things that are a personal choice.

But might it be time for a new metaphor to capture our imagination? We reject the metaphor of bombs outright; we understand the metaphor of barriers, but can we hope for something better?

The nine congregations that make up Old Southwest Congregations in Action, in fact, employ a different metaphor for their work. We have chosen bridges as our way of relating to the communities around us.

Jeremiah 29:7 is an important text for understanding this metaphor. The Israelite people are in exile in Babylon, and are sorely tempted to retreat within their walls and erect a barrier between them and everyone around them. But then the prophet Jeremiah sends a message:

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29:7

We may not be in exile. In fact, Roanoke is our home. But the message is no different. We are connected to the people around us, and it is imperative that the faith community of Roanoke get the tool box out of the workshop and build more bridges in this city.

What will the faith community say to the fact that there are hungry children within an arms length of our meeting houses?

. . . When the needs for future prison space is predicted based on the 3rd grade reading level of the community, what story will be told of Roanoke, VA?

. . . When the budget gets cut and teachers are laid off and recent academic advancement is put at risk, can the faith community stand up and say, "not on our watch! We’ll be there."

Congregations in Action builds bridges with our elementary schools. Right now, a total of 25 bridges into six elementary schools. Specifically, we ask members of our congregations to give 30 minutes - 1 hour of their time every week or two to . . .

* Read to a classroom of students, then go to lunch with them
* Tutor a child struggling in math or reading
* Provide scholarships for field trips.
* Go shopping at the food bank for the backpack meal program,
enabling hungry children to eat a bit better on the weekends.
* Mentor a child, being a reliable, steady friend for them
* Bring a meal to the teachers
* Volunteer at the annual fun day
* Provide school supplies in the fall

We serve because we understand there is a need. And there is. We cannot be blind to the fact that Jeremiah’s message is correct, regardless of your faith persuasion. Our welfare depends on one another. We are more than a random collection of individuals who happen to call Roanoke home. Our welfare as a community will be enhanced when all have opportunity to share in the common opportunities and possibilities of this time and place.

But this is more than just a one-way relationship. It’s not just the about a first grader who has someone to read to him or her, or a fifth grader who passes the math SOL in part because someone was there each week to tutor them. Our volunteers benefit as well. We become aware of the amazing children who live near us, and the potential they have to do some magnificent things in the future, if someone will give them a little extra help along the way. Best of all, our volunteers fall in love with these children. The children aren’t statistics anymore; they’re persons, with a name, and a smile, and a story. Love is a common welfare that will never be measured in dollars and cents.

There is a tremendous need for this kind of bridge building, and I want to take this opportunity to challenge you to get involved as well. Our congregations know that "CIA" is not the only show in town; we’re not the only people volunteering in schools. But what we can do is help coalitions of congregations come together to do more than any one of us can do on our own. We are not the only model, but we are a model that works.

My promise to you is that if you are interested; if you will go back to your congregation and get one or two people from your congregation—and even better, one or two more congregations—one of us will come and visit with you, and help you get started. I want to challenge you to commit today. There are brochures and a sign up sheet on the back table. Go back there and find out more. Come talk to me afterwards, and lets talk. Friends, our community needs us.Loosely translated, God says, "Build bridges. Like it or not, you are connected with the people around you. Get up and get to work."

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Compelled to Serve

The following is the text of my sermon, delivered Sunday, February 7, 2010 at Central Church of the Brethren. It is the fifth in a series of six sermons on our congregational mission statement.

Luke 6:32-36

A friend of mine posted the following on his Facebook page last Thursday:

The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. I am glad when the Lord takes the snow away. What are you glad the Lord gives, and what are you glad He takes away?

My response to him was as follows:

I just checked the weather forecast. I don’t see any "taketh away" in it, unless you’re planning to bring your snow shovel to my house and "taketh away" the 8-12 inches of snow that will falleth upon my driveway.

I made a decision a few weeks ago that I was not going to be grumpy about the weather. If it wants to snow 10 feet this winter, then "bring it on!" "Have at it!" "Don’t mess around, let’s see what you can do!"
Storms expose things, don’t they?
Some years ago Lynette, Emily and I went to Puerto Rico with a group from seminary. Our professor was from Puerto Rico, and we saw many of the places where he grew up, and met much of his family.  A year or so later, a significant hurricane blew through and did a significant amount of damage. It cleared out a lot of trees, and exposed a lot of land. My professor spoke to his brother, and said that so many trees were down people saw the homes of neighbors that they had forgotten were there.
Storms expose many things.
One of the things they expose are our attitudes . . . One night, Abraham Lincoln and a friend were riding along in a carriage, in the midst of some really terrible weather. Rain was pouring down and it was cold. But inside the relative comfort of the carriage, Lincoln and his friend debated as to whether there was any such thing as an act performed with a totally "unselfish motive." Lincoln argued that there was not; that every act, no matter how altruistic and selfless it appeared, had a twinge of self-gratification.  In the course of their conversation, Lincoln abruptly halted the carriage, and without a word jumped out into the miserable weather. A pig was stuck in a nearby fence. Lincoln waded through the mud and freed the squealing animal.  When he returned to the carriage dripping wet, his friend crowed triumphantly: "See, you have proven my point. That was a selfless act."  "No," replied Lincoln, "for if I had not done it the sound of the pig squealing would have haunted me all night."
Storms expose many things.
A few years ago, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and exposed the realities of urban poverty and racism. For the most part, those who could get out of New Orleans did. But for much of the population there was no way to get out, and no place to go if they could. Thousands hunkered down inside the Super Dome as the storm raged on the outside. It was an ugly scene, bringing to many of our minds some unpleasant thoughts that most would rather avoid.
Storms expose many things.
Just a few weeks ago, a major earthquake rocked the nation of Haiti. Hundreds of thousands were killed, most of these buried in anonymous mass graves. Thousands more will be homeless for years, as entire neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince were leveled. Most of us have always known that Haiti was a corrupt, poverty-filled island, but we really had no idea until this storm of an earthquake came.
Storms expose many things, often because they are sudden, unexpected. But what if we could plan for storms, if we could be prepared for the things that will be thrust upon us at unexpected times, if we could walk through life with our eyes wide open to the challenges and the possibilities that exist whatever may come. If we can be disciplined in our thinking and in our preparing, then perhaps the storms that come will open up options we cannot presently see.
One of the groups that I have joined on Facebook is The Journal of Urban Mission. One of their early postings includes these words: "Our future is urban. For the first time in history more people live in cities than in rural areas. The future of the church will be shaped significantly by the answer to the question ‘Will the Church reach the world’s cities for the sake of the gospel or not?’" It is an important question to be answered. It is Central’s question to be answered.
What are we talking about when we say "reaching the city for the sake of the gospel?" A large tent revival? A mega-church? Several new churches? Quite possibly. Everything we are saying in this series of sermons on our mission statement are subordinate to the Great Commission of Matthew 28: Go and make disciples of all nations. In order to be a disciple, there must be some kind of invitation, a call, and an affirmative response.
Martha Grace Reese says of her book, Unbinding Your Heart: Unbinding Your Heart is about...untying the knots that keep us from living exciting lives in the Spirit. It’s about unbinding the Good News that God adores us and everyone else, that God has shown this to us through Jesus Christ. [Unbinding Your Heart] is unabashedly about evangelism: faith sharing.,,It’s intended for members and pastors of churches who want to share that joy with people who don’t know it.
"Reaching the city for the gospel" is this, and more! Ultimately it involves living and recognizing people’s lives and needs in the midst of a very complex urban environment.  Urban areas bear the brunt of the world’s poor; this is especially true in Roanoke. Having been pastor of a very rural congregation, I can say with some authority that rural poverty is a very real circumstance as well, that needs the creative attention of Christians in those areas. Urban poverty differs in just the magnitude of people who live in urban areas, or who move to urban areas looking for relief. What does it mean to reach the city for the gospel, in light of the needs of the poor?
Urban areas often carry an unbalanced share of the local infrastructure. As businesses and families moved to the suburbs, a vacuum was created in the cities that make it challenging to meet the very real needs of the city. Consider the Roanoke City Public Schools budget challenge, that really cannot be solved without higher taxes. In our culture, education is the most significant way out of some of the challenges facing us, we cannot abandon our children without making significant efforts in education. What does it mean to reach the city for the gospel, in light of the needs of education?
The amount of fear and pain that exists in the world, and in the churches. 10 years of ministry have taught me that a lot of us are carrying around a lot of pain, deep concerns, and fear.  Gordon Cosby tells the following story: I was sitting with four women that I thought I knew fairly well. Something happened to change the feeling and people began to share deeply. I found that three of these four women had been sexually abused when they were children. But now they were talking about it.
Often we feel that our own personal pain is unique. We feel cut off. But when at last we can share it, when we can tell our stories to those who themselves are in pain and who really want to hear them, healing begins.
The strange thing is that the church, which is by definition a place of healing, is often the place where it is most difficult to share our pain.  What does it mean to reach the city for the gospel, in light of people’s pain?
In many ways, each of these three areas are storms. The question is, what do these storms expose in us?
If we are taking seriously the work of spiritual formation, if our worship attendance and Bible reading and praying and loving one another are doing the work in us that they can, then somewhere along the way—maybe without our even realizing it—we ought to set aside reciprocal relationships for servant relationships.
People can say what they want about the Bible being old and irrelevant all they want, but don’t believe a word of it. Jesus may have spoken these words 2,000 years ago, but he has pegged our society hasn’t he? It is easy to allow what we will put into a relationship to be defined by what the other person gives to us.
Think about your relationships for a moment. How many significant relationships do you have with persons who aren’t doing all that much for you?
This seems so obvious that I’d be surprised if some of you weren’t ready to object. "Of course this is how relationships work!" But isn’t Jesus telling us something of the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God in these texts?
Luke 6:32-34 "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full."
If reciprocal relationships are the only kind of relationship we can imagine, we’re not there yet. The Holy Spirit hasn’t yet marinated down very deeply in our souls, tenderizing and flavoring our character to where we begin to see the nature of servant relationships. Listen again to the text...
Luke 6:35 "But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked."
What do servant relationships look like? Those are the ones where we invest in the other person, without regard to what we might get back. If you want to consider what a servant relationship looks like...
Consider Ruth Corekin.

Four years ago, she made a choice to enter a nursing home, rather than insisting on staying at home and having Bob care for her. Why did she make this choice? Because she knew how difficult her care was going to be, and she didn’t want to put a burden on Bob that might have ended his life prematurely.
Servant relationships are a measure of our faith! We cannot measure our faith by our reciprocal relationships because everyone has those. You do not have to be in Christ to understand effective and meaningful reciprocal relationships. We all have them, and we should have them.
In relation to reaching the City of Roanoke for the sake of the gospel, servant relationships are how we are invested in storm clean up in the name of Jesus. They are our attitude to the storms of poverty, under-funded education, the large amounts of personal pain being carried around by many persons. What is your attitude to the storms around us?
How can Central continue to emphasize servant relationships along side of reciprocal relationships? Consider Congregations in Action. One of the ways I’ve learned that CIA is an effective ministry is by the number of other groups that have "come out of the woodwork" wanting to learn more about us. It should come as no surprise that there are a lot of Christians in Roanoke who get this, that one way to reach the city for the sake of the gospel is to provide all of our children with a good education.
There are many components to that, issues of poverty and personal pain factor in, to be sure. But when we allow this inner compulsion of the Spirit to overcome our fears, our busy-ness, our uncertainties and venture into Highland Park school we find something interesting. We find out that even in servant relationships, we learn something! Our eyes are opened to our own ignorance, our own prejudices, our own fears. Hopefully, prayerfully, we are bringing what we learn back to the church and sharing it with others, learning how the gospel applies to our front-line experiences, and then going back and reinvesting in those servant relationships with more wisdom and power.

And the body of Christ is built up, and we see the power in servant relationships for reaching the city for the Gospel.

"Our future is urban. For the first time in history more people live in cities than in rural areas. The future of the church will be shaped significantly by the answer to the question ‘Will the Church reach the world’s cities for the sake of the gospel or not?’"
It is an important question to be answered. It is Central’s question to be answered.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

'Compelled to Serve' - Remembering the Homeless

Because the 'City of Peace' conference of November 7th joined Roanoke civic leaders together with representatives of an interfaith clergy and community members, Congregations in Action was invited to co-host a service on December 18th to commemorate National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day.  Carol Tuning, Human Services Coordinator for Roanoke's Homeless Assistance Team and Chair of the Blue Ridge Continuum of Care expressed her gratitude for our help:
On behalf of the Roanoke Valley Alleghany Regional Advisory Council on Homelessness, we would like to thank you for participating in the National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day Service. This was a very important event for our community. It affords those who are affected directly by homelessness an opportunity to remember their loved ones and allows agencies in the region to have a forum to advocate and create awareness about homelessness.

Your participation was very poignant and will hopefully leave meaningful impressions on all in attendance. We appreciate the time and energy you invested in preparing special music and commemoration and hope that you will consider returning in the future for this annual service.

Again, thank you. We wish you a healthy and prosperous New Year.

Carol Tuning, Human Services Coordinator
Chair, Blue Ridge Continuum of Care
Consequently, I'd like to in turn, extend my own appreciation to Pastors Gary Robbins and Tim Harvey for their ministerial guidance, in addition to Fred Porter, Susan Starkey, and Phillip DeNise for graciously contributing their combined talents and ability to the ceremony.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Prayer for the City

I offered this prayer at the January 4, 2010 Roanoke City Council Meeting.

Here it is, God; the first agenda items on one of the first days of this new year.

Here they are, God; the elected leaders of this great city, and the professional staff who work to make our local government run.

Help these leaders—and each of us—begin this year well, because beginnings are important. We know that how we begin often determines where and when we end, so on this day, and in this place, our God, we ask that you would help each of us to begin this new year well.

We ask because there are challenges ahead, O God. Some are known all too well. Others are unknown, waiting to be revealed. May the good beginnings we ask you for today lead us to courageous thinking in time of challenge.

But we also ask because we know that there are interesting opportunities ahead. These we cannot see, or perhaps only see vaguely. Again, we ask that the good beginnings we seek today would lead us to bold, creative thinking when the time to seize opportunity comes.

Help us, O God, and hear this, our prayer.


Monday, January 4, 2010

Paying attention to shepherds...and the homeless

This post is a bit late, but still manages to capture some important values of our congregation. So enjoy a late Christmas present on me. Tim
Shepherds, why this jubilee? Why these songs of happy cheer?
Come, adore on bended knee, Christ, the Lord, the newborn king.
Gloria in excelsis Deo. Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Arthur Cole...Laura Scales...James Davis...William Dooley...Leonard Sinkler...
One by one, the names were read. At the calling of the names, a bell tolled, and a candle was lighted.

...Penny Lane...Tammy Blankenship...Robyn Hancock...Paul Wade...Bernard Dillard...
The names were not familiar to us. Had we seen a photograph, probably no one in attendance would have recognized a face, except possibly a face we had once avoided, eye contact we did not wish to make.

...Oscar Cheatwood...Eric White...Alfred Brown...Sydney Liggins...John Harvey...
The names were read at the Homeless Persons Memorial Service, held Friday, December 18. About 50 persons—not nearly enough—gathered to recognize the life and dignity of 26 of our neighbors who died during the past year. These men and women had chosen to make Roanoke their home, even though they had no place of their own to call home—at least, not in the sense that you and I do.

...Calvin Stump...Paul Switzer...Dana Stith...Susan Robertson...Wayne Heath...
Remember these 26 names the next time you sing the Christmas hymn, Angels, we have heard on high. Think of these 26 homeless men and women, and try to imagine their stories, and their families. Why? Because of the shepherds in the Christmas story.

You see, shepherds lived on the fringe of Jesus’ society, just as the homeless live on the fringe of our society. Most would not want to be around shepherds; the coarseness of their living made them offensive to polite society. In Jesus’ day, shepherds’ character was so suspect that they were not allowed to testify in court. They lived on the fringe. Out of sight, out of mind.

And yet on the most holy night of Jesus’ birth, shepherds were the first ones to get the news that a Savior had been born. Not the dignitaries, not the noble men and women. Shepherds, out in the fields, out on the fringe of society. They got the news of the Savior’s birth, and they went to Bethlehem to see. They may have been out of our sight and mind, but they were not out of God’s sight and mind.

God saw fit to bring these fringe-living shepherds right in to see His Son. We should think about that this Christmas, and remember the names of 26 homeless men and women who called Roanoke their home, who died in 2009. We should think about that, and remember many other homeless men and women who continue to call Roanoke home. If God can welcome in those on the fringes of society, so should we.

...Bryce Allison...Alonzo Hodge...Alma Sawyer...David Helms...Lucille Woolfolk...Pete Betuea.