Saturday, November 5, 2016

Hold your nose and vote!

This presidential season may be first time in American history we have had to choose between two candidates who are actively disliked by a majority of the Americans.  Both have negative ratings above fifty percent.  A majority of the electorate will probably not actually vote for a candidate, but against one. It’s not that we think one will be a good leader, but only that they will be better than the other one.  

Whichever candidate you vote for is not my concern, but please vote.  Once every four years our country asks us to help make a decision.  It can’t be made by politicians or the media, but by has to be made by ordinary people.  It’s not a decision of choosing between two saints like like St. Peter and St. Paul—it may be more like choosing between being governed by  Moe, Larry or Curly.  It may a bad choice, a distasteful choice, but it’s our responsibility to make it.   

Some people have suggested that by staying home, they are making a statement of how disgusted they are with the choices. That’s a cop out.  By not voting we are turning their backs on the most important  responsibility any of us have to our fellow Americans. Even bad choices must still be made. We can’t go through life only choosing between two good. Sometimes it is necessary to choose between the lesser of two evils. When that happens, we should hold our noses and do it.

Others are opting for a third party.  No third party has had even a remote chance of winning for a hundred and fifty years.  It has always been down to two.  Voting for someone else, even if we agree with them is actually voting for the person we like the least, since we are denying our vote to the one we want the most.  If you want to work for a third party,  do it on a local level.  Help them build up a base of power that would make a real run possible.  No third party has ever been formed on a presidential level. They would not be able to govern, even if they were elected.

Voting is not an endorsement of a person’s lifestyle, or everything they stand for. It is merely an acknowledgment that at this time and at this moment,  we would rather have politician A over politician B.  You may not like them, but hold your nose and vote anyway. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Getting out of the Religion Business

My whole life has been spent in the religion business.  Almost every dime I ever earned came from pastoring, teaching, or writing about God or the church.  Organized religion still puts meat on my table. When I retire, my social security and pension will still come through my work in organized religion. I’m a professional pastor and teacher, and not ashamed to say it.
But even so, I still get a queasy feeling about the work of the church as I have seen it all my life from an insider’s perspective.  The way the church functions seems backwards from the way God intended.
People who are down on “organized religion” and see it as some terrible evil frankly don’t know what they are talking about. Organized churches and professional church workers are a necessity, and if it were not for people like us, there would be no church today. Jesus was a professional, full time minister.  He did not work as a carpenter when he was traveling around with his disciples. He was a full time Rabbi.  The same was true of his disciples who followed him.  They left their nets to follow Him. Paul worked as a tentmaker only when money was not available to support him in full time preaching.  It takes time and effort to prepare messages, pastor the hurting, and to do the administrative work required to keep the church going.  Study, preparation, and education are necessary to fulfill Christ’s calling to the church, and there must be money, structure and personnel to get it done. I do not question my personal calling to church work, or the calling of others to a full time service of the church.
What’s wrong is not that the church is organized.  It’s what we do with the organization.  Organized religion exists for a purpose, and that purpose has been turned in the wrong direction. We have approached religion as if people have been called to build the church. This is backwards--the church has been called to build the people.
In Ephesians 4:11-13 Paul writes “He (God) gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,” The Bible does not say that God gave the people the responsibility of equipping church leaders, but that He gave church leaders the responsibility of equipping the people.  We exist to make the people great.  They do not exist to make us great.  Yet church leaders in our pride and insecurity have sought for millennia to build organizational structures us that make us look and feel important.  Our ambitions are based on our egos, not our call.  We think that the calling of the church is all about us and our organizations.    
This has always been true and in all churches, but since I’m more familiar with the Protestant Evangelical church in modern America, I’ll confine myself to talking about it.  Our modern churches act like fast-food restaurants for the soul.  We have franchises, like McDonald’s or Burger King, which are in constant competition with each other for a shrinking religious market. Some churches are very successful and start branches everywhere. They even have their own logos and branding. Some even have marketing director and graphic designers to make sure their brand is well known.  They talk about market shares, revenue streams, focus groups, and target audiences—just like any other large business. They seek to crush the competition by offering more dynamic ministries, relevant preaching, and more professional praise bands than the church down the street. They hire professional musicians and video guys to make sure their religious shows (which they call “worship”) is better than the next church.  Those who do not fit their demographic are ignored in favor of those who bring a better revenue of prospect and gifts.
Please do not think I’m picking on the megachurches, that is not my intention. The only difference between what they are doing and what most smaller churches do is that they are better at it. Most of the criticism of megachurches comes with more than a little tinge of jealousy.  But, these criticisms of marketing are only a question of style.  The real problem with the church goes much deeper. The real issue is the hearts of church leaders and the message that they preach because of their hearts.  All pastors (myself included) are tempted to put ourselves first, to see the church we pastor as existing to support us, not us to support our church.
The church is our business—our living, our pride, and our security.  We want to be comfortable, just like everyone else. Our pride is wrapped up in the numbers of attenders, the size and condition of our buildings, and our reputation in society.
This leads us to spin the message in certain ways. Stewardship and financial giving is important, but not holiness or love.  Bringing new members to church is important, but not private prayer or personal disciplines.  Programs of instruction and discipleship go only as far as learning how to use our spiritual gifts for the sake of the organized church, and witnessing to people to get them in to church.  Controversial subjects are talked about, but only when they provoke people to get more active in our church, and to separate them from others.  Patience and tolerance are ignored as being unprofitable.  Spiritual disciplines such as regular prayer and fasting are not given high priorities.  Being a Christian in our families and jobs is mentioned, but only in passing.  People are told they need to serve Christ, but they don’t have to act like Him.  As long as they know they are saved, they can keep on being the stinkers that they always were. 
In the school where I teach, I asked my students what discipleship looks like, and what we need to teach Christians about being disciples. They list several things, but their list usually ends with either knowing and using their spiritual gifts or with telling others about Jesus.  When I ask them what comes next in discipleship after we have taught people to work in the church and invite others to Jesus, they seem to have no idea. There seems to be a consensus that this is the place where discipleship ends, at exactly the place it stops building the organizational church. 
The New Testament picture of discipleship is bigger than that.  It involves a lifetime of becoming transformed into Christ’s image.
This misconception is not my students’ fault--it is largely the fault churches that emphasize building bigger ministries, not members.  As long as people contribute financially or as volunteers, it is assumed they are not in need of greater maturity.  They are good enough to get by, but not strong enough to shine with the light of Christ wherever they go.
  It’s time we start telling the organization to serve the people, instead of telling the people to serve the organization.
The word “pastor” means “shepherd.”  A shepherd knows his sheep by name. Not every sheep has the same needs, but he makes sure that they get individual attention. If the sheep are not healthy, he gets no benefit.
Religion—organized religion—is a wonderful thing when it works right. Don’t let anyone deceive you in thinking that organized religion is somehow intrinsically bad.  But organized Christianity, if it wants to survive in these troubled times, must get out of the business of building religious institutions that are an end in themselves.  Churches exist to bring God’s love, comfort, judgment, and concern to people, so they can shine with the light of Christ as fully realized models of Christ.  If we who claim to be in Christ don’t look or act like Him, then the world has every valid reason to think that Christianity is a lie.
The church exists to build people, not the other way around. If we are not doing that, we are all in the wrong business.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Dungaire Castle, the Dolmen, The Cliffs of Moher

On Wednesday Joy and I left Connemara and drove down the  coast to see the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland's most popular tourist attraction.
By this day I was convinced I was getting the hang of this left-sided driving, at least until I came to a place called "Corkscrew Hill".  Even so,  after finding our first Irish four lane road and enduring a half dozen roundabouts, we made it town to County Clare in about three hours
Our first stop was Dunguaire Castle, in the town of Kimvara. 

 The castle was at one time  a dwelling place for the High King of Ireland.  (You may notice a pattern here. Almost every doggone castle was saw at some time has a "high king of Ireland")  One of the legends of this castle, though was the the king of the castle looked out of his window one day and saw a hundred and fifty bards, or poets, standing at his gate. He gave him hospitality, and from that time this castle became a center for poetry and art.  W. B. Yeats visited there often, as dis Oscar Wild and Singh.  It was a place of celebration and learning. 

One side note on this town.  Joy and I ate at a restaurant on the docks that evening. Three old men were celebrating at the bar,  and had been celebrating for some time.  We overheard their conversation, what we could understand of it. They would occasionally burst into song, and carry on in an inebriated fashion.  One of them regaled the restaurant with an impromptu rendition of "The Parting Glass." From his overall condition, I thought he should have sung it about an hour earlier.  Anyway they were colorful!
We went south from there, though the Burrens.  We stopped along the way to see the Dolmen, a picture of which is included here.

The Dolmen is a tomb over six thousand years old.  It is the oldest relic of anything in Ireland,  an Irish equivalent of Stonehenge. The only person around was a costumed Druid selling charms and trinkets, even though the Dolmen predated the Druids by thousands of years.  He was talking on his cell phone while manning his little table.
Finally, we made it to the Cliffs of Moher. It was a crowded place. There were fleets of tour busses and a huge parking lot surrounded by open fields.  We walked up a little path, and there were the cliffs of Moher, dropping seven hundred feet down into the Atlantic. The cliffs show up on a lot of inspirational calendars for good reason. It is a place to remind us of the smallness of humans and the greatness of God's creation.  We stayed there a long time, taking in the majesty of it. 

Monday, August 17, 2015


On Tuesday, Joy and I took a forty-minute boat ride to the Island of Innishbofin, which is Gaelic for the Island of the White Cow.  It is a small fishing village about five miles across, but covered with some of the most spectacular sights we saw on the trip. 

Joy in a Bike
 We rented bikes to tour the island. I have to say something about my wife's bike riding. I'm an avid cyclist, and love riding, but Joy hasn't been on a bike in twenty years. She was frightened the whole time, but she did well and managed to go from one end of the Island to another.  I salute her willingness to do it. She was a real trooper.

Cromwellian Fort
There's the ruins of a fort there, built by Oliver Cromwell which is more than four hundred and fifty years old.  It still stands prominently overlooking the harbor like something out of a gothic movie. Black rocks stand stacked one upon another,  dark and foreboding, covered with moss and lichen.  Cromwell used the fort to imprison fifty Catholic clergy of Galway when he took over the town in 1651.  The Irish were strongly Catholic, but Cromwell tried to force them into Protestantism by force.  He confiscated the estates of the Catholic noblemen and tore down many monasteries and churches.  This fort stands as a silent reminder of those days.   No wonder the Irish still hate Cromwell.
Innishbofin is a gentle place today.  Dogs, sheep and children run freely.   There is limited vehicular traffic on the single paved road.  Around every hill is another spectacular vista of ocean, stone and grassy meadow.  Seeing places like this,  it is on wonder that the Irish are a nation that produced some of the greatest poets on earth. You would have to be a poet even inadequately explain what you see.
We left and returned to the island via ferry from the fishing village of Cleggen.  There's a monument in this village dedicated to about two dozen fishermen who lost their lives in a storm in 1927. When the storm began to blow they refused to abandon their nets until it was too late. They died with their nets in the water.  Whether it is a monument to the bravery of the rescuers who saved some, the stubbornness of the fishermen, or to their foolishness for not abandoning their nets in a hopeless situations is I suppose a matter of interpretation.   Any way you look at it, it was a great tragedy.
Innishbofin though is such a peaceful place today, it is hard to imagine the hardship the place has endured.  But time heals all wounds, and the place is a monument to peaceful living, and a true reminder of the beauty of God's creation.