Saturday, July 17, 2010

Avoiding things that can destroy our relationship with God

Here. Really good!

What Women (and Men) Need as Leaders

I picked up a copy of the July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine at Laguardia Airport in New York on Thursday morning, before flying back to Columbus. It's the magazine's annual "Ideas Issue" and the featured idea was presented by Hanna Rosin in an interesting article called The End of Men: How Women Are Taking Control---of Everything.

Read it if you get the chance. There's a lot of good stuff, both in terms of summarizing ongoing trends and projecting what they all might mean for men and women in coming years. Here, I want to briefly mention one of Rosin's observations. She says:
A new kind of alpha female has appeared...the more women dominate, the more they the dominant sex...
Back in the 1970s, I excitedly looked forward to the day when women got the upper hand in society. I reasoned that with women as CEOs, mayors, governors, police chiefs, factory supervisors, college presidents, and such, the institutions they led, and the country at large, would experience seismic (and compelling) shifts. Female leaders, I thought, would bring more collaborative, even nurturing styles of leadership to their work, making institutions more humane and nurturing and because there would be less turf-battling, more productive.

In some cases, as Rosin points out between the lines in her article, those outcomes have evidenced themselves as more women lead more institutions.

But increasingly, as females have become socialized to gender equality and women have become leaders, supervisors, managers, and such, many women seem to have adopted the very harsh and dominating behaviors once associated with men.

In my twenty-six years as a pastor, a role which I have always felt called for collaboration, the harshest criticism I've received has come from women urging me to be more "assertive" as a leader, by which I've usually felt they meant I should not worry about giving people their say, but just do what I wanted to do. "Leaders," I've had to explain, "aren't dictators." There are always some women who, even more than men, seem disappointed to hear me say that.

In my college days, excited by the rise of the modern feminist movement, I would hardly have imagined such a scenario. But then I wasn't a Christian back then either. My atheism and faith in human nature militated against realism about human beings, be they women or men.

As a Christian, I came to see certain important realities, though.

First: There is no fundamental difference between men and women. The domination of one gender over another by whatever means, isn't God-given, but acculturated, something we're taught. Genesis says of the creation of humanity and of the genders:
Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...So God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created them, male and female He created them...(Genesis 1:26-27)
Male and female both were created in God's image, neither one reflecting that image less than the other. Men and women are equal then.

Second: Both men and women are prone to the same faults. Exhibit one of this can be seen in a passage of Scripture I cited in my sermon last Sunday, the story of how Adam and Eve abandoned defending one other when they disobeyed God by eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The condition of sin means that, no matter our gender, we can engage in sin. We can be alpha males or alpha females. We each can be devastatingly hurtful to others, ourselves, and to God.

I'm glad to be living in an era in which women are making dramatic--and increasingly unquestioned--strides toward true equality. But Rosin's article suggests what the Bible, in many and various ways, taught long ago: It's foolish to trust that the domination of either women or men will bring enlightened human leadership.

That can only come from people--female or male--whose knees are bent and hearts are turned to God. "The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge," King Solomon wrote under God's guidance (Proverbs 1:7). Solomon forgot that truth and so, in spite of his acquisition of power, influence, wealth, and wives, left a house of cards for a kingdom on his death. May we all--male, female, leader, follower--not repeat his mistake, instead putting God first in our priorities. When we do that, we won't be alpha-, beta-, or anything- people. We'll simply be people leading useful lives, affirming the equal usefulness of others' lives.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hanson Statement Highlights Problem with Churches of the Left...and the Right

One of the biggest problems in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), of which I am a part, is its leadership's insistence on speaking out on a variety of political issues, pretending, it seems to me, that their positions are unambiguously "Christian," when in fact, Scripture gives no such authority.

It matters little to me that the agenda pushed by our denominational leadership is "liberal," which it mostly is. I was complaining about the Religious Right's equation of Christian faith with conservatism a long time ago, and for the same reasons I am so critical of my own denomination's leadership today. Both the ELCA's leaders with their liberalism and those of denominations pursuing conservative political agendas are, I believe, equally heedless of the Gospel, equally prone to an "idolatry of ideology," and equally likely to confuse people about what it means to be a follower of Christ while alienating the very people with whom we're called and commanded to share our "good news.

I returned from a few vacation days in New York to find an email and press release announcing that the ELCA's presiding bishop, Mark Hanson, is pressing the U.S. Congress for immigration reform.

Immigration reform along the lines proposed by Bishop Hanson may very well be a fine idea. And there can be no doubt that we Christians are commanded to treat the strangers in our midst with hospitality and love.

But Bishop Hanson can hardly argue that he has a warrant for saying that two of the "principles" he endorses ("helping new neighbors come out of the shadows...and seeking a path to permanence for new neighbors") have Biblical or confessional authority. They are merely his political preferences, nothing more and nothing less, even if he feels a churchwide assembly vote gave him the right to issue such a statement in the Name of Christ and the Church.

Except in cases where the witness of Scripture is unambiguous in its message for civil authority and a pluralistic society, the Church needs to stay out of politics. Our mission is to share the Good News--the Gospel--of Jesus, not win legislative votes, elections, or coercive power.

Here are some other places where I've written on this subject:
No Politics from the Pulpit...or From Preachers
A Pledge I Wish Every Christian Leader Would Make
Jesus is Not a Republican. Jesus is Also Not a Democrat.
Who is the 'Values Voter'?
"Do religious ideas undermine democratic discourse?"
Dr. Dobson, Stop Playing This Dangerous Game!
Politics Endorsed by a Church? I Don't Think So!
Why Separation of Church and State is Best for the Church and Its Cause
Iraq, the Church, and 'Christian' Political Commentary

Sunday, July 11, 2010

All You Need is Love...All You Need is Jesus

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Colossians 1:1-14
This past week brought the seventieth birthday of Ringo Starr, drummer of the Beatles. Several days before his big day, an interviewer asked him what he might like people to do to celebrate. At noon on that day, Ringo said, he wanted everybody to hold up their hands in peace signs and say, three times, “Peace and love.”

It’s absolutely silly, of course. Humanity has known for centuries that “all you need is love,” but having that knowledge and even engaging in gestures like Ringo Starr suggested in order to remind us of it will do nothing to make us all the loving people who, in our heart of hearts, we really want to be and who we often pretend to be to the outside world.

There’s a lot of hatred in the world, much of it done in the name of God, some of it done specifically in the name of Jesus Christ. That’s not only tragic and sad, it’s sinful and demonic.

When I speak of hatred, I don’t have in mind just the sort of hostility we may harbor for someone we feel has betrayed our trust or hurt us. Those Cleveland Cavaliers fans who now say, as one was quoted as saying in the Columbus Dispatch this past week, that they’ll hate LeBron James forever, harbor a deep passion (I would say a way too deep passion) about LeBron, the NBA, and sports, in general. You see, at some level, those now professing their hatred for LeBron James once passionately loved him, his sport, and the promise of a championship that he seemed to carry away with him to the South Beach of Florida. 

That kind of hatred is born of love and disappointment. We see it all the time. A jilted lover can harbor a deep hatred for her or his ex, precisely because of the love they felt for that person. An assembly line worker who has thirty years on the job who suddenly finds his work shipped elsewhere or eliminated altogether, can feel hatred toward the company precisely because he loved his job, its income, its routine, and all that it brought into his life.

But there is another kind of hatred, one that is far more widespread than the hatred of overt hostility born of love and disappointment. It’s the hatred of indifference, of looking out for number one without regard to others. It isn’t hostile, mind you. It simply doesn’t consider others.

This kind of hatred was seen in the Garden of Eden when Eve tried to beat the rap by blaming the serpent and Adam did the same by blaming Eve.

It's seen in two fictional characters created by Jesus, the priest and the levite who passed by the wounded man on the road in the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson. These characters felt no hostility toward the wounded man; they didn’t know him or even try to know him. They were simply so absorbed in their own agendas that they didn’t ake him or his wounds into account.

We’re rightly outraged and mystified by what we might call “passive hatred” we see, hear, and experience in our real-life world. And yet I personally have to admit my own culpability for this very sin.

A few weeks ago, Ann and I were walking across the parking lot of a Starbucks when a woman pushing a child in a stroller approached us. She said that her baby’s father was being released from jail the next day and she needed money to move to a different place where he couldn’t find her. Was she telling the truth? I don’t know. But I didn’t give her a chance to repeat her story. I dehumanized her by simply refusing her request and moving on. The image of that woman and her child has haunted me since.

This is an example of the hatred of indifference and I confess it to you, really, with shame. I should know better.

But it pleases me that I recognize it for what it is: a sin, a violation of the great commandment that we love God totally and love our neighbors—all our neighbors—as we love ourselves.

The reason it pleases me that I recognize this indifference as sin is that it shows that, despite my   imperfections and flaws, a powerful seed has been planted within me. It’s the seed of the gospel—the good news of new and everlasting life that belongs to all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ. The messiah Jesus brings those who trust in Him forgiveness of sins and ushers us into His kingdom here and now. I don’t think that I would recognize the subtle hatred of indifference as a sin of mine if Jesus weren’t working within me, working in spite of my faults and frailties to make me part of His new creation.

Today we begin a short sermon series on the New Testament book of Colossians. Colossians is a letter written jointly by the apostle Paul and his assistant, the young pastor Timothy, to a church in western Asia Minor, what is today western Turkey, in the town of Colossae. Paul was imprisoned, probably under house arrest, at the time of the letter’s writing. Some think that he was imprisoned in Rome; others say he was held in the nearby town of Ephesus. Whatever the case, the letter was probably written in the early-60sAD, several years before Colossae was destroyed by an earthquake.

By the time Paul and Timothy sent this letter, Colossae had fallen on hard economic times. Its major industry, the production of dark red dyed wool, had nearly died out. Colossae sat in the Lycus Valley, near the Meander River, and was largely forgotten by the greater Roman Empire beyond it.

But Colossae and the Lycus Valley weren’t forgotten by God! (Anymore than any of us are ever forgotten by God. God is never more than a prayer away, something I have learned again beyond all doubt in recent weeks.) Paul had sent a member of his ministry team, a Colossian named Epaphras to start a congregation in Colossae. There, under the daily pastoral leadership of Epaphras, a congregation composed of Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles, like us) had taken root and grown. But it wasn’t just an organization that had taken root and grown. Paul says that the very word of God’s truth, the gospel, had born fruit in them and was displaying itself in their love: in love among believers, in love of the believers toward others.

In the original Greek in which Colossians, like the rest of the New Testament, was written, the word that Paul and Timothy use for love is agape. In secular Greek writing, the word agape for love was rarely used until the second and third centuries. When the early Christians used it, they had a very specific understanding of love in mind.
  • Agape love is self-giving love. 
  • Agape love is also in-spite-of love, given and acted upon in spite of how one may feel about the person to whom they’re loving at the time. 
  • Agape love is about actively looking out for others, even when you don’t know them or when you don't approve of their behavior or know that God doesn't approve of their behavior. 
The ultimate expression of agape love, of course, is Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus gave His life to wipe out the power of sin and death over our lives and He did so in spite of the fact that at that moment the world’s hatred—our hatred—in the forms of both hostility and indifference—were the very things that pounded the nails into His flesh and forced the crown of thorns down on His head.

But Jesus is more than an example of agape love. Seeing representations of His death on a cross—while it may build up our faith—won’t necessarily have any more power to turn us from the hatred of indifference to agape love than will holding up peace signs and saying, “Peace and love” three times.

It’s only when we trust—when we have faith--in Jesus and give Him access to our hearts, minds, and wills each day that He can plant the seeds of His love in us and make us and every part of the world we touch different, better, more human, more divine.

In the opening verses of Colossians, our second lesson for today, Paul exults and thanks God that Jesus’ word is growing in the Colossian Christians and showing in their lives of tough agape love! That's what happens when the Good News of Jesus takes hold in people's lives.

A few years back in our former community, a strip joint opened. Some churches got together and demonstrated, protesting the existence of the place. They were concerned that it would breed prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse. But they did more than demonstrate. Demonstrators befriended the dancers, found out about their lives, and set up schedules so that while the women were working at night, volunteers from the churches babysat their kids. Why? Christ’s agape love lived within those Christians. They refused to be indifferent or hostile to people who, just like them, needed Jesus Christ living within them.

And this is no isolated incident. Tony Campolo is a Baptist pastor and a sociologist. I tease that he's so cool, he could be a Lutheran and Campolo, in fact, often speaks at our Lutheran gatherings. One evening before a presentation in Hawaii, he and a colleague walked into a diner that turned out to be the gathering place of prostitutes before and after they went out onto the streets. Campolo struck up a conversation with these women. When it was clear that he wasn’t interested in buying what they were selling, they asked questions about him and his work. He explained that he was a Christian and a pastor.

As they talked, Campolo learned that it was the birthday of one of the prostitutes. No one would send her a card or give her a cake and she would spend the evening in her humiliating trade. Campolo found out that this woman and the other prostitutes all would return to the diner at 3:00 in the morning. So, he and his friend went to a bakery to buy a cake. They bought streamers and hung them in the diner. When the prostitutes returned, they were stunned, especially the one whose birthday it was. "What kind of God do you believe in?" she asked. Campolo answered: “The kind of God Who throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:00 in the morning.” The God we know in Jesus Christ is the One Who fills us with His tough, self-giving, in-spite-of agape love to share with the world!

I thank God for the strong agape love I see and experience in the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church.

I thank God that I am privileged to be your pastor.

I thank God that I'm given a front row seat on the kingdom of Jesus I see growing in you each day.

And, I thank God that He has made me a grateful beneficiary of your agape love for me, imperfections and all.

My message for you today is as simple and as direct as the one we find Paul sharing with the Colossians in our lesson this morning: Keep trusting in Jesus and keep allowing Him to grow His self-giving, in-spite-of love for all, not just in your sentiments and attitudes, but in everything you do, in every decision you make, and in every word you speak.

All the world needs is love. And that love is found only in Christ Jesus. Amen!