Monday, April 30, 2007

Sermon Now Available

Okay, so now I think I have the digital sermon working correctly on this blog. I invite you to hear the sermon preached from this past Sunday. You can find that sermon by locating on the left side of this blog an embedded audio player. You'll see the player below the UCC commercial. Select "Was He or Wasn't He" and you'll be able to listen to the sermon.

It is my aim to have the sermons available every week. Hopefully I'll get that done by Monday--or as close to Monday as I can.

You'll want to ensure your computer speakers are turned on (or you won't hear anything).

Next Sunday I'll be sure to put a date next to the sermon title (for whatever reason, I can't go back and add it).

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Responding to Tragedy

I sent out this post yesterday in our weekly eNewsletter. For those email addresses I don't have and for those who haven't yet subscribed to our eNewsletter, I am posting the article again for your convenience.


Dear Members and Friends,

This past week has revealed to us a great tragedy. Watching the television news with sadness, we have learned that a gunman has murdered 33 students on the campus of Virginia Tech. All of the murdered were young men and women, some of them on the verge of graduation. All of the slain were innocent victims of the rampage of a crazed student—armed with an automatic pistol, shooting victims without a purpose.

As I watch television or surf the Internet, I am awash with information. One can hardly escape it unless one turns off the information boxes and sits alone in his darkened room. Even going outside, people are talking and asking, “How could something so hideous have happened? What have we become that something like this could happen? It seems there are more than a few people who are already starting to point their fingers of blame. Tragedy does that to some folks: there has to be someone to blame. If you can’t find a reason for the tragedy, then someone else made it happen.

For a few of us though, this tragedy brings overwhelming sadness. And anger. This past week, I could not help but feel both. Just thinking about the tragedy, all I could do was weep. And not the light and teary kind but the sort that convulses hard … the sort that makes you angry after you do it—angry at the loss, angry at God, angry at everything in the world that would allow such a thing to happen. And then the questions, the questions that inevitably make it back to God. How does one look at this tragedy and not ultimately think about God?

Normally, I have discovered that not everything that happens must be explained to the “inth” detail. However, this event is an unusual happening. Surely, there must be a reason for such a bad thing to happen, right? When thinking of the horrendous murders, I cannot help but wonder if there is supposed to be a reason for everything—or, at least the roots of my Calvinism seem to beckon for such reconciliation. Attempting such reconciliation, however, may be the cause of my current consternation.

Why did all those kids have to die? As I look for meaning in such tragedy, I am left with emptiness. This emptiness makes my heart hurt and even causes me to look to God in frustration and ask even the maker of heaven and earth, “God, why did you even allow this to happen?” Sitting in silence, all I am left with is the reality that I can never know.

But how can I even blame God to begin with? When everything is going good, my understanding of God isn’t one where God is responsible for everything good or everything bad that necessarily happens. I don’t think I am insulating myself against unanswerable questions—honestly, I seldom think about God this way. Except when tragedy occurs—it’s during tragedy that I look for meaning. Life is messy. And it is unpredictable—it goes this way and that way, sometimes without any indication that it is even plotting a course.

Over the past few days, I’ve looked to see how others have responded to tragedy. I have been surprised by what I’ve read. Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman spoke about tragedy and suffering. He said that when tragedy strikes it is because of something negative a person has done in a past life. It’s a causality by which we evolve—over and over again, until we get things right. So those who died did so because they caused it to themselves? Blaming the victim is a cruel answer. I find this response appalling.

A few people, who respond to tragedy, have retold the story in the Old Testament, where Job asks God why he experienced so much personal tragedy. God responded to Job that it wasn’t any of his concern and who does he think he is to even question why God does what God does in the first place. Everyone who mentions this story seems to leave out a main part of the story. As I read it, while Job doesn’t know what’s going on, the reader is privy to why God did as God did: the devil and God had an inside bet going on to see if Job would cave in and curse God. Job didn’t—so I guess that means God won the bet. Is this crass for me to say?

And there are others who look at tragedy through the lens of, “This is God’s will.” To me, I cannot accept that—that God has an ultimate purpose for such tragedy. This response is cold-hearted because it can never be proved outside of theological proof-texting. It is an argument of theology and, since we cannot know the mind of God, the answer removes us from the tragedy—turning the suffering into a theological justification rather than seeing the suffering for what it is.

For all that I cannot accept in all that I have read and heard, my reaction… the reaction itself… seems to be the only thing that seems to make sense to me. Realizing there is a story within the stories of those who died and the families who are living in their suffering, the more I find something that is beneath it all.

Take away the questions… take away the frustrations… and what am I left with? All I can see is the disaster itself. To me, the tragedy that happened simply “is.” Author, poet, and scholar of Jewish-Buddhist dialogue Rodger Kamenetz, explains what I have discovered as the belief in what “is.” Because I cannot reconcile God with the tragedy, what I am left with is this: Without adding any meaning to tragedy, what happened is simply what “is.” There is no God in the massacre. The massacre simply “is”. I need to abide with it and feel it instead of seeking an answer for it because the answers just make me complacent and take me away from the students in the classrooms and the mothers and fathers grieving over the loss of their children on the cusp of their adulthood.

The tragedy is not for the good, it is not for the bad. It just is.

It is not a blessing, it is not a curse, it just is. An emotionally unstable and reckless youth bought a gun, walked into a classroom, shot innocent people, and took with him many lives.

It isn’t a blessing, it isn’t a curse, it isn’t good, it isn’t bad. It just is.

And yet there IS something more.

God is in the response. God is in the hearts of those who are feeling and responding to this tragedy. God is in the families and the neighbors of the victims, and the rest of us, the bystanders too. The whole country is feeling it, even the world. In only a few days, people from all over the world are expressing their sadness, offering their prayers, and stopping their own personal strife to offer a moment of support.

In our faith tradition, when we look at that which we cannot explain, we often find a peace that exists beyond our questions. When we cannot fully explain why, we still find in our response, a kind of special grace that sustains us. In the resurrection story of Jesus, we may not understand Jesus’ murder but we find in his resurrection the confirmation that after all is said and done, everything is alright. God is both in the answer and the answer itself. In some way, God is probably more in the response than in the questions that shake our faith during times of tragedy.

Looking to Job, who obviously got a raw deal, he learned that God felt compassion on him and everything he had was restored. Take away the weird dialogue between God and the Tempter, and take away the mystery Job felt and we discover what Job learned, that his actions do not warrant God’s rewards or punishments: he learned simply that what happens simply happens. Job lost much and received much—to him there was no meaning in his loss in spite of whatever his wife and friends had to say.

The student who burst into the classrooms shooting wildly has no meaning. The blood that flowed, the lives that were extinguished, the destruction simply “is.” However, the response that is spreading through our hearts does have meaning. This response is affecting us and it is confronting many more.

The outpouring of love and support from people all over the world has meaning. The compassion that started with tears and cries of injustice has turned to caring—and in it, there is meaning. Let us remember all who live through and in tragedy, that in spite of the evil that confronts them, their lives have meaning with God and that God touches us all when we are faced with such senseless tragedy. I open my heart to it and feel it. The place it touches in me, touches God. The place it touches in you, touches God. Amen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What a Beautiful Idea

I found these plaques today online. You can go here to see them and others.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Obey God More than Others

Yesterday, I preached a sermon from our lectionary reading from Acts 5:27-32 in which Peter is being challenged by the Jewish religious leaders who are frustrated and angered by Peter's message of Jesus and Peter blaming the Jewish leaders for Jesus' death. They want him to stop preaching. Peter responds to them that they would rather obey God rather than human authority.

As I read this passage, I couldn't help but ask, "How does Peter know what God would have him do?" I mean, today we find God's direction in Scripture and in other experiences--how did Peter know how to listen and interpret what God would have him say and do? For some Christians, many feel that what they think is sometimes what God would have them think. If they have an opinion based on their faith, they think that God is directing their thoughts or opinions about a given subject. The danger of course, is that just because you're thinking it, doesn't mean that God is behind it.

This sort of thought process opens the door for us in terms of discerning how we are inspired or how God reveals the Godself to us. There are a number of ways that we discern God's communication with us and I'd like to share with you a few of them.

Ages ago, a few scholars, most notably Albert Outler, were studying the sermons of John Wesley and discovered a certain theme in them. Reading through his sermons and written works, Outler found that Wesley believed that divine inspiration happened in four primary ways: through Scripture, experience, reason, and tradition. In each of these ways, a believer might find inspiration about all things God as well as what and where God may be directing a person. This particular method of discerning inspiration is better known as the Wesleyan Quadritaleral.

What are some ways that you have been and continue to be inspired by God? Do you find God's direction when you study the Bible? When you pray? When you talk with your friends? When you ask a trusted spiritual mentor?

I love the idea of knowing the ways in which God speaks to us--and thereby remaining open to God's continued inspiration. I also love the idea of engaging the discernment process when trying to figure out what God would have me do. Personally, when I need divine guidance, I find myself talking with respected friends, reading the Bible, and praying.

And, there is another aspect of inspiration that intrigues me. I am intrigued when I am an inspiration to others. People come to church to hear sermons and sometimes when I counsel or speak with someone, I become an inspiration. Many of you also inspire others. In a cosmic sense, sometimes we may become a part of a divine circle of inspiration: God inspires us, we seek to discern and understand it, and we share that with others. And, we become an inspirer when others seek our counsel when God is speaking with them. And so it goes, inspiration is a method and tool by which God both communicates with us as well as drawing us together so that we might depend upon one another. Being a part of such a divine circle of inspiration that includes you, me, and God is a method that actually dwarfs Wesley's Quadrilateral in comparison--not that the Quadrilateral is a bad thing. It is just not as whole a process that also involves you and me.

A New Purpose with the Blog

As many of you have noticed lately, my style of preaching has changed somewhat. Most notably for me, is that I seldom use a manuscript anymore--except when we have a full house and I get kind of nervous. Manuscripts are great when you're nervous.

My style of preaching now has me following an outline; which makes my sermon prep a bit different. While many of you have enjoyed the change, one huge drawback to preaching this way means that I no longer have a manuscript to post on the website. Sure, I could write out what I think I said, but it'd be different and might lose a lot from what was actually said during the sermon.

So as a result, I am thinking of making use of the church's blog to post "thoughts and tidbits" from the sermon for you to think about. In the event you missed the sermon, reading a post here might be curious enough for you to get the main idea of the message. You are also afforded an opportunity to respond to the blog post, especially if you were in church and heard the sermon. Your comments can help to highlight or focus attention, where necessary, on a sermon point.

All in all, I hope it is beneficial to you. I'll post a comment about yesterday's sermon sometime today.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Our Second Commercial

Here is the second commercial awaiting that is to appear on our local cable stations. It should begin airing in the next 3-4 weeks. If you don't see the video yet, check back in a few minutes, I just uploaded it to Youtube and it takes a bit for their servers to load it for use.