I don't get to preside at baptisms much any more, but when I do...it's with great joy.
It is clear we worship a culture of violence, the hand of greed and the power of dominance. The new trinity. I read all those psalms and wisdom literature of lament and outrage with fresh eyes, once again.
"Well, I took all this in and thought it through, inside and out. Here’s what I understood: The good, the wise, and all that they do are in God’s hands—but, day by day, whether it’s love or hate they’re dealing with, they don’t know. Anything’s possible. It’s one fate for everybody—righteous and wicked, good people, bad people, the nice and the nasty, worshipers and non-worshipers, committed and uncommitted. I find this outrageous—the worst thing about living on this earth—that everyone’s lumped together in one fate. Is it any wonder that so many people are obsessed with evil? Is it any wonder that people go crazy right and left? Life leads to death. That’s it." Ecclesiastes 9
"But it’s a black day for me! Hopelessly wounded, I said, “Why, oh why did I think I could bear it?” My house is ruined— the roof caved in. Our children are gone— we’ll never see them again. No one left to help in rebuilding, no one to make a new start!" Jeremiah 10
"I’m homesick—longing for your salvation; I’m waiting for your word of hope. My eyes grow heavy watching for some sign of your promise; how long must I wait for your comfort?" Psalm 119
Most people know the Serenity Prayer. Do you know the author?
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Some of you might recognize the the name Reinhold Neibuhr. You'll also note the play on words in the title of this blog post. The play on the well known book title by Reinhold Neibuhr, which was called Moral Man and Immoral Society. Neibuhr was a theologian, political commentator and professor of Church & Society at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He was one of the most influential voices of the 1940's & 50's. If you want an orientation to Neibuhr, check out the documentary American Conscience here. The trailer is below.
Why bring up Neibuhr today? Candidly, I'm struggling with something I am observing in our culture. In the words of a friend of mine "I am constantly doing battle with justice militants who think that the way to perfect the Church is to endlessly proliferate episcopal mandates for righteous living." and then later..."On the right it is the delusion of personal righteousness...on the left it is the absurdity of social utopia. I find both to be equally naive and equally pernicious."
I am not such a skilled writer. Heck, I barely passed Mrs. McKinley's eighth grade english class with a C minus. But, today I'm resonating with these words. You want my translation? "People on both sides of the cultural/political/church world have no interest in living in reality, they just want to have their say, damn the torpedoes whether it helps us have a better world."
So this is why I think of Reinhold today, He was a Christian realist, and he understood power and the corruptive nature of power on society. Because society is corrupt, it's not possible for human beings to be moral, largely because individuals are forced to compromise the ideal of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Niebuhr argued that human perfectibility was an illusion, highlighting the sinfulness of humanity at a time when the world was confronted by the horrors of the Holocaust, Hitler, Stalin etc.
In the New York Times obituary upon his death in 1971, the author Arthur Schlesinger Jr wrote, "[Niebuhr's] emphasis on sin startled my generation, brought up on optimistic convictions of human innocence and perfectibility. But nothing had prepared us for Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, concentration camps and gulags. Human nature was evidently as capable of depravity as of virtue... Traditionally, the idea of the frailty of man led to the demand for obedience to ordained authority. But Niebuhr rejected that ancient conservative argument. Ordained authority, he showed, is all the more subject to the temptations of self-interest, self-deception and self-righteousness. Power must be balanced by power."
Now, at this point let's bring in Martin Luther. "Simul Justus et pecator" which means "We are simultaneously saint and sinner." We need Luther to be in conversation with Neibuhr. Oh, wow, would that be a Table Talk at the local pub. I'd love to be in on that conversation. Luther reminds us that we need to let go of the delusion of personal righteousness...and the absurdity of social utopia. It ain't gonna happen. Our redemption in Christ is central. Our humanity as saint/sinner describes our condition.
Why is this important? Because as long as both the left and the right cling to these fantasies, and the idea that they can be legislated, mandated or persuasively generated...we are toast. How's that for elegance? Human beings are wonderfully beautiful, broken, majestic, selfish, generous, god-forsaken (note the small g), grace imbued creatures. When we recognize that, believe it, and swim in that water, well, it changes our expectations and our dreams.
I would also argue it puts us on a more sober path toward addressing the critical crisis of our time which include all of the causes you want me to insert right here, but fall under a larger umbrella for both individuals and society to take responsibility for their own spiritual, social and emotional maturity.
How do we do that? I have no clue, except maybe a hint:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
*Thanks to my friend WM for influencing this post.
Today we release part two of our conversation with Heidi Richards. In episode one, we learned about how she began to learn her child identified as a boy and the impact that had on things like attending school, making friends and interacting with family. In this episode we hear the next part of the story, as she is connected with resources at the GEM clinic in Boston, and her growing understanding of God in the midst of all of this adventure.
Today, we release Episode 5 of our Podcast interview with Heidi Richards. She is the parent of two children, one of whom identifies as transgender. In part one of this two part interview, we discuss the early years of how she navigated some new territory for her and her child. Heidi is a courageous, smart and loving mother. I was so impressed with her candor and willingness to sit down with me and answer questions, that many people might have on this particular subject.
You can listen here or by subscribing to the podcast via Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
I'll release part 2 later this week. (After I finish the editing process)
We launch our podcast today. You can listen to the Podcast here (see below -click the play button in the bottom left) or you can subscribe via Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. There is also a Podcast Page on this Website, and we will have all the episodes there as well.
Today we release four episodes. Part One is an Introduction which we refer to as Episode Zero, followed in the same podcast episode with a reading of the latest version of my article on a Church Being Re-Born. Episode Two is an interview with Tim Stein about his new venture called Verse 4, in which we explore the struggles of churches at the close of their time of ministry. Episode three and four is a two part conversation with Rev. Laura Everett about what she is seeing in dynamic churches in New England. Enjoy.
More to come in the weeks and months ahead. If you listen to Podcasts regularly consider subscribing in Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or your favorite Podcast App.
What to do for Christmas gifts this year? My wife and I have talked about giving each other one of the genealogy tests. You know the ones they advertise on TV. You swab a little flesh off the inside of your mouth, mail it off, and two weeks later they send you a report of your DNA. Supposedly it reveals a pattern of your own ancestry.
Human being are meaning seeking creatures, and one of the ways we seek meaning is by looking backwards. We look to our past to understand our present, which gives us glimpses of where we might be headed. Perhaps that is part of the reason that Matthew was so keen to include that genealogy of Jesus. Not exactly the most riveting way to start the greatest story ever told.
The family tree of Jesus Christ, David’s son, Abraham’s son:
Abraham had Isaac,
Isaac had Jacob,
Jacob had Judah and his brothers,
Judah had Perez and Zerah (the mother was Tamar),
Perez had Hezron,
Hezron had Aram,
Aram had Amminadab,
Amminadab had Nahshon,
Nahshon had Salmon,
Salmon had Boaz (his mother was Rahab),
Boaz had Obed (Ruth was the mother),
Obed had Jesse,
Jesse had David,
and David became king. David had Solomon (Uriah’s wife was the mother),
Solomon had Rehoboam, Matthew 1:1-11a (The Message)
The story of Jesus birth has a deeply profound message. Namely, that God shows up in the darkest moments, God shows up in the times when you think God isn’t there, God shows up in the people you think “no way.” So, what’s the deal with all this ancestry work here?
The Christmas story is not just about pedigree, or is it? Look at some of those characters in the genealogy. I’ll pick a few of the less well known. Notice the reference to Tamar and Judah. You can read about it in Genesis chapter 38. What you’ll discover is not exactly the most noble of behavior. Then there is Ruth, a foreigner, yes an immigrant. She is someone not from one of the tribes of Israel. Hmmmm, what does that tell us? Then there is David and Solomon, and you may recall their story. The mixture of exemplary leadership, and self absorbed narcissism.
If a genealogy tells you about yourself, what does this genealogy tell us about Jesus Christ, the divine embodiment in human form? What does it tell us about the nature of God? Among other things, it suggests God is not particularly focused on purity. God is more interested in showing up in the ordinary and the unexpected. God shows up in immigrants. God shows up in people whom we might deem less than noble.
The story of Christmas has historically been presented too simplistically. In recent times, the commonly held narrative was this: “Humanity has a problem that needs to be solved, so lets send Jesus to redeem it.” Instead, I’m wondering if the story of Christmas is more about a reality needing to be expressed: “Humanity is complex, often bewildered, wandering without purpose or connection, let’s enter into life to remind them that God is in their midst.”
Once again the message seems to be: “God shows up in the darkest moments, God shows up in the times when you think God isn’t there, God shows up in the people you think ‘no way.’”
When our DNA results arrive in the mail I wonder what it will reveal of our past. We might be surprised. I’m guessing we will also realize how God shows up in our past and the present. Maybe we’ll get a glimpse of how God is pointing us into the future, as well. One way or another, God shows in our midst.
Image above: Nativity, He Qi, ink and gouache on rice paper. See his website here
I found this on a post by Al Pittampalli. He has written a great little book on how to have productive meetings, and often has helpful resources like this article. You can read more here.
First, communicate a clear, transparent process in advance of the decision. For example, the next time you’re thinking about changing the school dress code, send a memo first outlining the three-week process: week one — online survey to get feedback from parents, week two — town hall to get input from students and faculty, week three — executive meeting where the decision will ultimately be made. Furthermore, you’ll earn extra points if you indicate the criteria by which leadership will make their decision.
Second, leaders should be clear about how each individual or group gets to contribute to the decision, particularly: who gets a voice and who gets a vote? Leaders, however, not wanting to offend, frequently hesitate to make the distinction. Ironically, this ends up creating more offense in the long-run as people inevitably find out. Better to let them know up front.
Third, once a decision is made, leaders should explain not just what decision they’ve reached, but why. Communicating a clear rationale helps people understand that the decision was made based on the pre-determined criteria, not, as some are inclined to believe, the capricious whims of the leader.
Finally, and most importantly, leaders should be persuadable. If you’re heart is already set on a particular course of action and you have no good faith willingness to change your mind, then better to jettison the idea of a process altogether. Make your decision, communicate it to others, and move on. But if you do choose to go through the effortful and time consuming exercise of inviting others to the table before making your decision, make sure you come to that table with an open mind. Because people are generally good at sniffing out when the decision was a fait accompli.
Of course, a good process (and mindset) won’t guarantee people will like your decision. In fact, no matter what you decide, someone, somewhere undoubtedly won’t. That’s okay. Your job isn’t to convince them that the outcome is good, it’s to maximize the chance they see the process as fair.
For those of you that watch this blog regularly you probably noticed an addition to the menu bar at the top. The link to "Podcast" just appeared. That's right. Launching January 3, 2018. Stay tuned.
What's a podcast? It's like a radio talk show, only you get to listen to it when you want.
Conversations on Life, Faith and the New Church being Born
Ah the blog series post, where I assume you have read part 1. (It's below on Nov 29)
When people think of politics, they often think of Washington DC, the President & Congress. I awoke this morning to learn of the upset victory of the Democrat Doug Jones defeating expected Republican Roy Moore. I can see on my Facebook feed, a bit of attention to this race, along with various prognostications of what it means. That's good. I'm glad people are engaged. But, we are missing something if we focus only on the national level. Local politics may not involve international diplomacy, but you'd be surprised how much it impacts your life.
This evening I made a brief visit to a campaign fundraising event for Teresa Tanzi. She is the State Representative for District 34 in Rhode Island (Peacedale, Wakefield, Narragansett). She is actually not my representative. I live a few miles to the west of her district. But, I went cause I know her through a mutual friend. OK, well, he's not really my friend, as in college buddy. OK, actually I know her cause she is married to my doctor. So we're not friends, but we know each other. Oh never mind. I went cause I had a connection, and I've liked what I've seen in Ms Tanzi. She strikes me as honest, committed to doing the right thing and she is a person of stamina. i.e. she is in it for the long haul. She recognizes there is a long arc to the curve of justice, and wants to be a part of that curve. Plus I saw on Facebook they were having the event at a new local brewery called Whalers Brew, and they were serving Oysters by the folks at Bluff Hill Oysters. Hey, a guys gotta eat.
My motive was simple. Go meet, support, cheer on a good person in local politics. Check out her web page. She's been hard at work.
Should pastors and bishops be doing such things?
My view is simple. If people of faith are not engaged in local politics they are not fully living into the call of God to be about the work of building the Kingdom of God here on earth. Yup. You not knowing your local political leaders, government officials, you not doing' your job. That's true for clergy as well as the people in the pew. In my view, we are all called to invest in civic engagement.
In recent years, as in the last thirty, the most vocal and engaged people of faith in politics have been from the conservative side of the spectrum. The rest of us in the middle and to the left of the religious and political spectrum have been largely absent. We've either separated politics from religion or we've walked away from one or both.
"But, I don't like politics." you say. OK, I hear you. My question is this: Do you like your roads paved, plowed and planned? Do you care about the education of your children, grandchildren, neighbors' children? Are you concerned about how much building goes on in your community, and/or how green space is near you? I could go on. All that is politics. If people aren't engaged, then decisions get made by people who are influenced by people who are engaged.
Get connected with your local leaders. Follow them on line, go to town hall meetings, and support people who want to make a positive impact. And, hey, if nothing else, there might be good food.
Below is the text of my Advent letter to the Pastors and Deacons of this synod.
Advent is among us. It’s a time of stirring. We pray each week for God to stir up - a frightening prayer when you think about it. In the words of one woman, “I’m praying for God to calm things down, I don’t need stirring… yet I know that God is in the stirring business.”
A few things for you this Advent season:
First. I encourage you to embrace this time of year. Carve out space and time for scripture, candles, the variations of blue. It is a full time, filled with the range of everything from generosity to self-centeredness, from the mystery to the manufactured. Perhaps no other time of year brings out such a range of responses from people in our society. While I am disgusted with consumer capitalism run amuck, I confess to thoroughly enjoying hanging the outdoor lights and listening to Peter Mayer’s Stars and Promises CD. This year, I am attempting to be drawn into the time, which hopefully leads me to solidarity with the suffering of others. Somehow in that there will be “room” in the Inn, or the Stable, or the back yard or shelter.
Second. I am increasingly aware of what it is like to be a woman in our society today, more particularly a woman in church leadership. More and more of you are articulating to me, or members of my staff, the challenges that the past year have brought you in your ministry. Sexual harassment, discrimination, belittling, etc. are challenges you face on a regular basis. I’m also hearing a brave call to not be victims, but be strong women of integrity. I’m open to supporting you in ways I probably don’t fully understand, and want to be with you as an encourager, and advocate. But, I also, want to say a word to the men. It is time for us to police our own. Forgive my crass language here, but let’s be honest. We’ve allowed this $^!t to go on. We’ve not called out our colleagues, friends, uncles, brothers, partners for their stupid comments, sexist talk, belittling words and harmful actions. Guys, we need to be candid and begin the hard work of learning how our own fears, failures and longings are at the root of our behaviors toward women. I’m equally open to finding ways that we can do our own work. Let’s find ways to change this for the better.
Third. I have just returned from a significant visit to our companion synod in Jordan and the Holy Land. Twenty-three of us walked among the stones of ancient ruins, the shores of Galilee and through the wild brush along the Jordan River. We also walked with our brothers & sisters in the Palestinian Lutheran churches on the West Bank and in Jordan. I learned much, and would like to share what I learned. If your conference is interested in hosting a “Lands and People of the Bible: Yesterday & Today,” I am available for such an event. It would be a talk, some photographs and a Palestinian meal. The goal is awareness, deepening of our faith, and strengthening our relationship with our Companion Synod. Contact Lyn ( email@example.com ) about your interest, and we will look into scheduling options.
Finally, but it’s never over. Version XI, that would be version 11.0 of the paper “A Church being Reborn,” which we discussed at convocation, is now available. The latest version has several updates. First, there are some editorial fixes to language and concepts that you have suggested. More significantly, you will find further reflections in the area of deepening spiritual vitality, some updates to the ministers as entrepreneurial leaders section, and the addition of an addendum based on one congregation’s reading and life experience in the midst of labor. You can download the latest version here. This is a public document. Please feel free to share it with colleagues and discuss it in adult forums, church council meetings, etc. You will note the addition of some “Stir it Up” artwork. Could that be a hint of our 2018 theme? I’m also available to discuss this document with anyone who wishes to engage. It’s not perfect; it’s a work in progress, and there will be a version 12, and then 13, and so forth. We are writing and living this together with Jesus.
Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that would obstruct your mercy, that willingly we may bear your redeeming love to all the world, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen
Advent Blessings, Still in One Peace,
Bishop James Hazelwood
I've just returned from a 2 and 1/2 week trip visiting Palestinian Christians on the West Bank. It was a whirlwind tour that took our group of 23 to every congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL for short) I'll be going back in January for the Consecration and Installation of the new Bishop.
Later today, according to news reports, the current US President will make a declaration of acknowledging Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel. This highly controversial move is viewed around the world as furthering division, and most likely will sideline any efforts to achieve a meaningful and last Peace. Why? This article and the summary video explain it best. But the bottom line is that the move is a clear indication that the US is taking Israel's side in the peace talks. This means the US looses it's opportunity to be an honest broker or moderator. It's like having a referee in a game who is on one teams payroll, and is a fan of your side. The big problem here is that this is no game, this is the central middle east divide. Click here
This blog post will be more ramble than fine tuned essay.
I recently engaged with someone on the topic of religion and politics. They were holding the position that politics doesn't belong in the pulpit. My response was "it depends." I continued by pointing out that it's pretty close to impossible to read the Bible, both Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels of Jesus and not see tribe engaging with forces of empire, poverty, war & peace as well as a whole range of economic manipulations of people.
Yet, I also tried to acknowledge the power dynamic of the pulpit. Let's be honest. Preaching in such a way that allows the preacher to light up the room with a whole lot of right wing or left wing rhetoric is both irresponsible and unfair. It's unfair cause your in a one way conversation, i.e. you have all the power. What's the person in the pew supposed to do? Break all norms, stand up and scream "I disagree with you.." It's irresponsible because the preacher is not deeply engaging the scripture and the cultural/political/social context. They are simply ranting.
Now, having stated the above, I also want to maintain strongly that the Bible is very much a political library. Most of it it written by and for a people that were living under oppression. In the Prophets time, that might have been under the Greek, Persian or Assyrian empires. IN Jesus day, it was under the Roman system, and one could argue a High Priest run system in the religion of his birth. The scriptures were the poetry of imaginative response to the situation of the day, to roughly quote Walter Brueggeman.
Today, politics is all around us. No, I'm not talking about Donald Trump, though his public persona is clearly dominating. I'm referring to everything from our current consumer culture to how the local school board prioritizes for next years curriculum. I'm referring to the paving of roads to the treatment of people who don't look like you. I'm referring to an opioid drug crisis, the rapid increase of unhealthy foods and the rampant obsession with our social media narcissism. Does the Bible speak to that? Does religion have a voice in any of this? Of course it does.
The challenge is to help people see the scriptures as having a voice, a critical voice, in our current cultural, social and political context. To deny that, is to render religion impotent.
More to come...
Here is my sermon from the joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic Prayer Service at the Cathedral in Fall River, MA. You can also see their write up at this link christthekingparish.com/reformation-500 Thanks to Pastor Paul Wheeler as well as the members of the Lutheran Roman Catholic dialogue for the work in designing and preparing this event.
Huh? Check out this video where Pastor Niki Harvel describes how to use Game Theory to develop Confirmation Instruction
For the last couple months, I've been working on a paper that could form the basis of some principles for the New England Synod. It is intended to be an ongoing work in progress. In fact, there have already been 9 versions. I'm releasing version X today, so I can get out in front of the next iPhone.
Next week, at our bishops convocation, I'm inviting all of our deacons and pastors to discuss this latest version. I'm also inviting you, readers of this blog, to engage in the conversation. Let's see where it takes us.
Here is the link to the paper. Click Here.
If you have thoughts or comments or suggestions, you can email them to my attention at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
Last week I was invited to be a part of panel discussing the Lutheran Roman Catholic Dialogues. It is part of a series of Reformation Commemoration events we are sponsoring around the New England Synod. In addition to myself, there were two academic scholars. My role was to talk about the practical implications of the relations. You can listen to an audio recording of my talk by clicking here.
Has your congregation planned a Synod Sunday? Contact Martha Whyte for more information at email@example.com
For two thousand years, the western Christian tradition has had two lines running through it. (OK, probably more than two, but for the sake of this essay, I’m focusing on two) Christianity has seen these two lines emerge again and again - One line emphasizing and protecting the establishment or the powerful, another line calling for justice for the dispossessed.
Social Historian Rodney Stark described these lines when he wrote of the lineage of the papacy having an emphasis on power, which is occasionally interrupted by a lineage of piety. Those popes that emphasized power have dominated this lineage According to Stark, and have focused on incurring wealth, status and authority. There have been interruptions to this lineage when pietists have been chosen. It’s clear, in my mind, that Pope Francis manifests a recent example of the pietists’ lineage. This line has emphasized care for the poor, ministries of peace and reconciliation as well as a call to Justice.
During World War II, there were clear divisions in the church in Germany. On one side you had those acquiescing to the Nazi’s abuse of power, even to the point where Martin Luther’s horrific words about Jewish people were used to justify the holocaust. Yet, at the same time you had Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonheoffer, leading a movement to resist the Nazi’s. Two lines, both claiming the faith was on their side.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr was challenged on many fronts but one that is not often discussed is the challenge to his reframing of a biblical understanding of race, slavery and civil rights. King was pushing back against the dominant narrative that was using scripture and theology to justify exploitation of black people. One of the important aspects of the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement was King’s successful neutering of the dominant, largely white, theology that claimed white race superiority. There were two lines running through American Christianity at that time, and we see it again today.
Christianity as a religion has been coopted by empires and the powerful, and used as a weapon against people, often in service to the rich and the dominant. Christianity also has a line that runs through its history of siding with those who are oppressed, tortured and neglected. These lines met again in Charlottesville, VA over the weekend.
Both sides claimed obedience to their faith. I wonder if Bob Dylan would like to add a new verse to his song “With God on our Side?”
Increasingly our world is forcing everyone to make a choice. It’s as if there is some force at hand that is pushing us all into a duality. You are either with us or against us. My team or their team. My side or their side.
Are there many sides, as has been suggested? Yes, there are. But that doesn’t mean that all sides should be followed, supported or endorsed. As I think about the two lines that run through the Christian tradition, I’m choosing the less dominant, the marginalized line – indeed I'm choosing a side, and it's the voice that speaks of justice, equality and love.
Not some sugar coated, sweet tasting love. Not puppy love. Not the love that gets sung about in one hit wonders or romanticized in movies.
I’m thinking of love that gets expressed in acts of courage, moments of sacrifice. It’s a bold and audacious love. A love most profoundly expressed on the cross at Calvary. There the GodMan was crucified for embodying a love that was so frightening to the dominant power structure of his time, both church and state.
Jesus bleeding for all humanity – longing, hoping, praying. Dying as an act of love, still clinging, even today, to his vision that we will see in one another – his face. Yes, when we look at another human being, we are looking at the face of Christ. To deny that, is to deny Jesus.
The long lines of power and peace continue to weave there way through history, and no doubt will continue until the Peace of God is fulfilled. But, in the mean time, the all too mean, meantime; there comes a time in life when you need to make a choice, and choose which line you are going to stand in.
Where will you stand?