Saturday, September 29, 2007

Dawn Chorus

What do you like to do in the mornings? Ever since I brought Maggie home, my mornings have changed dramatically. There was a time when I enjoyed sleeping late, waking up and staggering downstairs for a cup of coffee as I watched the morning news. Sometimes I'd sit out on the front porch, coffee in hand as I'd stare out at the morning dew watching the cars pass the parsonage on their way to work. Seldom would I ever be as awake as I am now.

NowI wake up early, with Maggie licking my face telling me to get up. Usually this is around 6:00 AM. Before I take her for a walk, I make a pot of coffee so that when I return, I have a hot cup of vanilla or hazelnut cup waiting for me. By the time I return from our walk, I am wide awake. Lately, when I sit on the porch, I don't notice the cars passing the house as much as I see the clear morning or hear the last visages of the dawn chorus: a few birds winding down their morning songs. I am becoming an early riser who actually enjoys rising early.

I know that I am not alone. Many of you are early risers too. To help celebrate the morning, we will be offering an opportunity to do just that. Beginning on Wednesday, October 3 at 7:30 AM, a brief communion, liturgy, and prayer will be offered at the church. Afterwards, coffee will be served (it might also be offered before the service too, ).

You know, there are generations after generations of Christians who have used the early mornings to meditate and celebrate God. Looking as far back as Jesus, the originally early riser, we can learn the benefit of participating in a Garden of Gethsemane of our own. Let me invite you to join with us for a peaceful time of reflection and praise next Wednesday morning. And, if we're lucky, we might hear the dawn chorus beckoning us to praise God as they do, in the wee hours of the morning.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Fourth Commandment

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” Exodus 20:8 (NKJV)

While in seminary, I lived on a communal floor where everyone shared the kitchen. We cook, ate, and dined together. On my floor, there were about 25 of us in total, however, there were two kitchens on each floor.

In each kitchen, there were cubbyholes for people to put their food. In each refrigerator, there were shelves and space for each person to put their food (labeled of course); however, there was a general area where everyone donated their pots and pans. One would think there would be enough space for us; unfortunately, our space was very limited because one of the students was an ultra-orthodox Jewish PhD student. Given his strict dietary requirements, his stuff couldn’t come near our stuff—his pots and pans couldn’t touch our pots and pans. Jonah, the PhD student, had strict laws about how his food was prepared and he often cooked meals for other Jewish students. Practically every time I was in the kitchen, so was Jonah.

I mention this because Jonah practiced and observed his religion faithfully even given the reality that his rules of religion were complicated and inconvenient. For instance, on Friday night before Sabbath, he would prepare all his food and turn on the lights (which couldn’t be turned off—because turning them back on once Sabbath began, would violate the religious rules he followed). When I think of the strict rules of Sabbath, I cannot help but admire Jonah’s tenacity and fortitude.

Christians, however, do not honor the Sabbath like Jonah does. We wail because the “activist judges” won’t allow the Ten Commandments on court house steps, but we do not intend to actually follow them and here is one such proof.

This commandment instructs us not to work, nor have our children work, or our servants, or even anyone who just happens to be over at our house. The justification is that if God can create the world in six days and rested on the seventh, then so should we. Rest being an important part of spirituality and an organized society, this rule takes its place as our fourth commandment above murder, lying, and coveting. If it is so important, then how come we allow our children to engage in sports activities on Sunday? How come we mow the lawn? How come we go out to dinner, after church no less, where we are waited on by others who are working to serve us, thereby causing them to work? Doesn’t it sound hypocritical for us to fight like mad to protect the Ten Commandments and yet we have no intention of following them?

A student of the New Testament might say that we’re no longer bound to obey the Law, as the Apostle Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 9:21. And Paul does indeed say this but he also doesn’t rule out the Law entirely—he only rules out the possibility that following the Law will merit salvation.

Another Bible student might also explain how Paul does seem to articulate a rather indifferent or reckless attitude about obeying the strict rules of the Law wherever they might be. This student would quote Colossians 2:16 and in so doing, s/he’d be absolutely right, at least according to the proof-texting Scripture being used.

So what is our responsibility to following the Ten Commandments? Didn’t Jesus even say that if you took all the Law and the Prophets and grouped them together that you’d come up with only two important ones: To love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves? (Matthew 22:38-40) Yes, Jesus did say that.

So then—does this mean we’re off the hook in obeying this Commandment? Well, yes, I do believe we are. In my opinion, having to follow something is different than wanting to. But that’s for a different post.

Answering the above question isn’t the point of the post at all. What is important is asking ourselves why we deliberately choose not to follow this Commandment and yet demand that its presence be put in places of public gatherings. And when they’re removed, we act like we live in a godless nation. If we admit that we have no intention of following those very same Commandments, does that mean we are admitting that our laws and Scripture are more symbolic than an actual necessity to our faith? And if so, then why not just admit it? Or are we more comfortable being hypocrites for the world to see and judge?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Pastoral Update

What happened on Sunday is the first time I have ever missed church, when I wasn't scheduled to miss church, that is. I woke up early on Sunday morning (around 5:00am) and began my day. Around 8:00am, I suddenly felt dizzy, my heart was racing, and my breathing was more than labored. I had, what I thought was, a pulmonary embolism. I came to this conclusion after the warnings from the doctor from last week's diagnosis of the blood clot in my leg.

So I did what they told me to do if I ever felt light-headed, my heart racing, and my breathing labored: I called 911.

I must say, the paramedic response from the Cresskill Police Department was extraordinary. They were at my house in a minute--and the paramedics got me on oxygen as the ambulance arrived shortly thereafter. They too wondered if I might indeed have a embolism. I was rushed to the ER at Englewood Hospital where more tests and examinations would follow.

After several hours of tests and a CAT scan, it was determined that I did not have the embolism; they were uncertain exactly what had happened although they concede it could be a reaction to the medication I am taking.

I have an appointment with a new doctor on Tuesday where I will learn more about treating my blood clot and I'll pass along the information as soon as I know more.

I am feeling better today and have actually returned to the church office. Maggie is fine and she is sitting here relaxing in my uber comfortable reading chair.

I would like to send a special thanks to everyone who prayed for me during my scary moment and for those wishing me well, calling on me, bringing me tasty food and walking Maggie. I would also like to thank everyone who participated and helped lead the worship service in my absence.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

We're Not Alone

Last year our former ad agency, FaithHighway refused to continue business with us when they discovered our church's support for gay people. They asked me, "What would you do if a gay couple walked into your church on a Sunday morning?" I responded, "Umm, I'd give them a welcome packet and say how glad I am they're here." They responded, as you know, "I am sorry Reverend, but that's not the answer we were looking for. We can no longer do business with you." Fortunately for us, Spotrunner was willing to do business with us and as a result of FaithHighway, Spotrunner GAVE us our commercials, only charging us for airtime. It was a silver-lining in our cloud.

This week, an insurance company refused to even offer up a quote to West Adrian UCC when the insurance agency mulled over the UCC's position of support for gay marriage. They couch their reason as a rise in possible violence directed at the church and possible insurance claims from that violence--we know that it's just another form of bigotry and hate.

Let us pray for West Adrian UCC in Adrian, Michigan that they'll find an insurance company who'll give them more than they are asking and needing.

You can read more of the story by going here to Rev. Church Currie's blog.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Prayer for Peace

Click on the picture for a larger version.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Bells, Whistles, and Huge LCD Screens

As you know, I traveled home to Oklahoma during my vacation last month. While there I had the wonderful opportunity to visit and spend some quality time with my family and friends. I ate, drank, and was merry. As the teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us, let us enjoy food and drink for these pleasures are from the hand of God. (Eccl 2:24). And to enjoy them with family and close friends makes such merriment all the more joyful.

While home I was also afforded a rare opportunity to worship in different houses of faith. On one particular Sunday, I worshiped in two different churches: LifeChurch, one campus of 14 in the northern metroplex of Oklahoma City and Heritage Presbyterian Church, which is located in the same area. I'll write more about my experience at Heritage Presbyterian Church later. In this post, I want to tell you about LifeChurch (this is a different link than the one above).

At LifeChurch, I was impressed with several factors. Notably was the church building itself and the parking lot. Here in NJ, parking space is a premium and many churches don't even have a parking lot. This church, however, had parking lots bigger than most churches around NJ. It is so big, in fact, that the church employs a zoo-like tram-like golfcart that seats 8-10 persons, that takes parishioners from their car through the parking lot to the church door.

Once entering the facility, I noticed that my search for the sanctuary ran into a snag: there was more than one. Actually, it had several. Upon entering one of them, it looked less like a sanctuary and more like an auditorium, I guess because the space was so large. The one auditorium I entered was for the children--yes, it was big but in comparison, it wasn't as big as what I was about to experience later. In the one I visited, it was an impressive children's area with Walt Disney-like caricatures, climb up ladders and swirling slides, information booths and a Garden of Eden section with talking trees in the style of Universal Studios. I found myself wishing I was 10 years old again. It was quite amazing.

Being directed accordingly, I walked into the main lobby (and this is tough to discern since there were many lobbies throughout the facility), there was a huge coffee bar with every flavor and condiment one could think of. I zeroed in on the large assortment of donut-holes with Greeters encouraging me to "eat all you can". And I did. There was also a gift shop, several information kiosks, and about 15-20 Greets and Information attendants to answer any question and help in any way. All around the lobby area were huge LCD television screens in every corner and right smack in the middle of the lobby area that projected cute Scriptures interspersed with announcements and information about the church.

Upon entering the main auditorium, I noticed that it could easily sit over a thousand attendees. It was a huge space. Glancing at the Order of Worship, I noticed there were 5 other service times, I was at the 8:30 AM service, which was explained as the lowest and most intimate setting in terms of people who attend. Looking around the space, there must have been about 200 or so people. And then the band began to play. The band was a worship band and it sounded very much like the Irish rock band U2. Yes, they were really 'that' good. The worship leader was the lead singer accompanied by a electric piano player, a drummer, a bass guitarist and a regular guitarist. Surrounding the singers were other incredibly large LCD screens, three to be exact. One above them and two on either side. In the auditorium, there were additional LCD screens, huge ones too, in the corners of the space as well as behind me in various locations.

The band began to play and the worship leader took to the stage and for 15 minutes or so, the audience stood, sang, worshiped, lifted their hands in the air, swayed to the music, and generally participated wonderfully. The music was carefully chosen/written to include a Call to Worship, Prayers of Confession, and Assurances of Pardon, as a more liturgical setting might envision. And then, as quickly as it started, the band finished, a curtain came down, and the pastor took to the stage. Dressed in jeans and a cotton pullover shirt with simple loafers and a microphone attached to his ear, he casually welcomed everyone and began his message.

Craig Groeschel, the founder and pastor of LifeChurch, preached for about 20 minutes while stepping back from time to time while videos were shown on the monitors that corresponded to the sermon. These videos were interviews and conversations with people. After the video segment would end, a spotlight would come on and the pastor would continue his message. His message was very biblical, organized well, and had memorable quotes and bullet statements. After he preached, an offering was taken. Following the offering were a few announcements and the worship team returned (a curtain went up) and they played their parting music. And it was over. 60 minutes. Timed perfectly. And it had to be.

For you see, at LifeChurch, the sermon and service were broadcast via satellite to 11 other campuses throughout Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, and now Albany, NY. The video screens at each campus, like the one I attended, sees the same sermon that everyone else sees although at each campus they have their own band and worship team. And this is the novelty and unique ministry LifeChurch offers. Other churches, some who have smaller numbers and cannot afford to hire a full-time pastor with benefits, are joining LifeChurch and the Evangelical Covenant (the loose denomination of LifeChurch) to share resources and technology to share the gospel, or their ideology. Presently, over 19,000 people attend all the services each weekend at the various locations.

After I left, it took me a while to actually process this experience. There was a lot of things happening in it--and some of it I am still unsure about, probably because it was just an incredibly different worshiping experience for me. I would like to offer a few observations, both good and not-so good. Judgment isn't intended, mostly my opinions are simple reactions.

First, the space must've cost a bundle to set up. One friend who attended with me is an architect who works with both commercial and residential projects, estimated the space, with the huge satillite, the LCD screens, and the various technology must've run into the multiples of tens of millions of dollars. It was my friend who also told me about LifeChurch's way to electronically monitoring each child in their Children's Church with surveillance microchips so that the church and the parent can know exactly where each child is at all times. Such a feature isn't cheap--and the church obviously embraces the expense. Also of note were the offices, available to see as you walk towards the main auditorium which had an open cubicle system, so that you could see all the desks, and their were about 25 different desks in this one office. How much does it cost to maintain and run the already expense digs? I have no idea but the thought made my stomach uneasy. I am not saying there is anything wrong with it, only that obviously there is great expense in what they are doing.

Secondly, the idea of a satellite broadcasting church to thousands of people without the physical presence of a person seems too "George Jetson" to me, and I hadn't realized we were 'there' yet. But obviously they are at least, and it works for them. In my church, we all know each other and we worship in a way that makes us experience one another throughout the service. I interact wtih them, they with me, and all of us with each other. At LifeChurch, it's an audience much like a rock concert. You don't really interact with anyone--you're not there to get to know them, you're there to enjoy (or be benefited by) the show. Still, the gospel was preached and the music was edifying and it felt good. Sort of.

Thirdly, and lastly, I can't seem to shake the church-as-community-as-me-included idea that the whole worshiping experience seems to cater to an ideology that seems less like the idea of a church I am accustomed to and more like an entertainment event, like a Christian Rock concert (which I attended many in my youth) or an evangelist's message (like something you'd see at a Billy Graham Revival) or a Christian gathering of famous speakers (like the Fosdick Convocation). While I enjoyed the experience, it left me feeling different than coming to church where I know everyone and we spend the time afterwards getting caught up with everyone in the church's life. I felt entertained and enlightened, but in a way that missed the energy of meeting old friends again each week.

All in all, I mostly enjoyed myself (and the donut holes). I wonder if I'll ever get back there. I may. While the experience was somewhat unsettling, it did offer an interesting worship. While the setting and theology was more conservative and evangelical than I enjoy, it did offer a perspective and opportunity of outreach that was a refreshing source of newness. And, the technology employed was and remains impressive.

And, I noticed something that was also impressibly absent: there was no reference to a health, wealth, or prosperity gospel. I was worried about that and was glad it was absent. Surely Groeschel's theological development wouldn't take him in that direction (he was educated in a Disciples of Christ seminary) and yet, one wonders how the money was raised to fund such a ministerial endeavor. Still--I didn't hear how being faithful will make you rich and that encouraged me greatly. (Go here to see a powerful video message against such a theological presentation, it's only about 2 minutes long and it is well worth watching).

I like to think I am open to new ways of experiencing God--and hopefully wise enough to know when one way may not always be as good as others. Still, I live in a changing world and the older I get, the more it changes. I am just glad that in some of those changes, the gospel message can still be heard and is proclaimed.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The New Sanctuary Movement

As mentioned this past Sunday in the sermon, there is a movement among churches to create and sustain opportunities of compassion and outreach to illegal immigrants, those seeking asylum, and others involved in immigration red tape. This movement, endorsed by the United Church of Christ at our UCC General Synod in June. At the meeting, we approved "A CALL FOR A MORE HUMANE U.S. IMMIGRATION POLICY; END TO MIGRANT DEATHS; AND SUPPORT FOR IMMIGRANT COMMUNITIES." The Synod also urged pastors and congregations to "form grass roots organizations working in conjunction with established groups such as Border Links, Presbyterian Border Ministry, Samaritan Patrols...The New Sanctuary Movement..."

In many ways, our outreach to immigrants is similar to the outreach offered a century and a half ago with the Underground Railroad. To aid and help a runaway slave was a criminal offense and many felt unAmerican, since slavery became an integral part of the American identity. And yet, there were those who felt compassion on the runaway slaves and offered to help them as best they could. Our congregational history is rich in offering help to this historic crisis.

Today we are at a crossroads when it comes to immigration. While there is certainly a problem and in some states, a problem with staggering implications to our national resources, there remains our call as Christians to feel compassion on those who are hurting, oppressed, or caught in difficult circumstances. How do we alleviate such suffering while not 'getting into trouble' or, how can we stand idly by and watch families be torn apart while singing our praises to the Lord, remain outstanding questions, depending on where you stand on the issues of immigration, national patriotism, and fiscal responsibilities. Wherever we come down on the issues, there is something each of us can do either minimally or on a larger scale.

To learn what you can do about it, you can attend a free gathering this week at St. Bart's Church, 51st and Park Ave, in NYC on Thursday, September 6 from 10am- 5pm. If you are interested in attending, please contact our church office. For directions, click here. If you would like more information, or cannot attend the conference, visit the New Sanctuary Movement website to learn more about the issue and come to your own conclusions.