Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Value of Human Life

File this under jobs I don't ever want to have: calculating the value of human life.  However, many governmental agencies are doing just this, and a report out today in the NY Times illustrated some of the values of human life set by various agencies.  Unfortunately it comes as little surprise to me that certain businesses are fighting higher valuations of human life because it affects their bottom line.  The value of human life is important in cost-benefit analysis when coming up with various regulations. 

Here's an example from the article:
"The Bush administration rejected a plan in 2005 to make car companies double the roof strength of new vehicles, which it estimated might prevent 135 deaths in rollover accidents each year. At the time, Transportation officials figured that the cost of the roofs would exceed the value of lives saved by almost $800 million. So the agency proposed a smaller increase in roof strength that might save 44 lives a year.
Last year, the Obama administration imposed the stricter and more expensive roof-strength standard, and it published a new set of calculations showing that the benefits outstripped the costs. Most of the difference came from the increased value of human life. By raising that number to $6.1 million from a figure of $3.5 million in the original study, the Obama administration rendered those 135 lives — and hundreds of averted injuries — more valuable than the roofs."

It kind of makes you feel icky, doesn't it?  I was first introduced to this aspect of cost-benefits analysis when I went to work for the State Public Interest Research Groups and heard Lois Gibbs' story.  Lois Gibbs was the housewife whose children got sick.  Very sick.  Then she found out that their neighborhood had been built on top of 20,000 tons of toxic waste.  She thought that if only she could prove the link between the health problems and the toxic waste, the company would pay for cleanup.  Then she discovered a cost-benefits analysis in which the company determined the cost of cleanup didn't outweigh the value of human life that was affected.  Her husband earned $10,000 a year, so his life was valued at $10,000.  Since her son was likely to follow in his father's footsteps, his life was valued at $10,000 plus inflation.  Lois was a housewife with no income, and so her life's value was nothing.  And since her young daughter was likely to follow in her footsteps, her life was also worth nothing.

I suppose we've come a long way from there.  In the same edition of the NY Times was an article about Watson, the super-computer built by IBM that beat Jeopardy!'s two most winning contestants.  It wasn't even close.  One question raised by the Watson factor is whether such machines will be able to replace humans, at least in certain capacities.  So I wondered what the value of humanoid computer "life" would be.  It took a team of top computer scientists a few years to develop Watson, and though IBM won't say how much they spent on the project, estimates range from $100 million to $2 billion.  I'm not saying it was too much.  In fact, perhaps the technology can be used in ways that save lives in the future.  If Watson-type computers can help diagnose sickness or disease more quickly and accurately, wouldn't that make Watson at least worth it's weight in gold?  I guess that would all depend on how you value a human life.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

March Newsletter article

So I opted against the AI-inspired article, but here is what I came up with for the Pastors' note for the March newsletter:

A recent editorial in The Presbyterian Outlook (an independent and important bi-weekly publication of news related to the PC (USA)) opened with the following Q&A:
“What’s so great about camps and conference centers?  In three words, they make converts.”[1]  The editorial goes on to point out a number of ways in which camp and conference ministry can be life transforming.  As the editor points out, few people walk out of church on any given Sunday saying, “That changed my life,” and yet such a statement is much more common after a weekend retreat or weeklong camp.
            Many of you have fond memories of time spent at Camp Burnamwood, and some of you have experienced Montreat Conference Center, or other camp and conference ministries of the Presbyterian Church.  I have had conversations with a few of our young adults who look at their time at Camp Burnamwood as having been formational and transformational.  The youth who went on the mission trip to Chattanooga last summer had similar sentiments, and we are looking forward to the trip scheduled for this June.  We also hope to send more youth to weekend retreats or weeklong summer camps at Burnamwood this year.  There is no substitute for that kind of a “mountaintop” experience.
            The Sunday before Lent starts is Transfiguration Sunday, which falls this year on March 6th.  On this Sunday, we will remember the literal and figurative mountaintop experience that Peter, James, and John share with Jesus, during which Jesus is “transfigured” before them.  His face shines like the sun, his clothes become white, and suddenly Moses and Elijah appear.  God’s voice can be heard by all, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.  Listen to him!”  There is a real and transformational religious experience if there ever was one!
            None of that is to talk away from what we do here at church each Sunday, Wednesday, throughout the week and throughout the year.  Mountaintop experiences are important, and they do make converts.  They teach us in deep and meaningful ways.  And yet, another feature of mountaintop experiences is that they must end.  All mountaintop journeyers must once again descend to the valley, and coming down from the mountain can be a shock to the system.
            Living out the daily walk of discipleship in the midst of the hustle and bustle of life is a huge challenge.  Mountaintop experiences are shared in communities of support and encouragement.  Such support and encouragement can be much more difficult to find in the valley.  We are surrounded by more distractions, more temptations, and we lose the focus and zeal that seemed so unshakable up on the mountain. 
That’s where we come in.  Just as there is no substitute for a mountaintop experience, so there is no substitute for the regular practices of worship, Bible study, prayer, and fellowship, that are cultivated in the community of believers we call the church.  The church is the ongoing community of support and encouragement, the place where fervor and zeal are given shape and depth in daily life.  The church serves to send journeyers to the mountain, and to provide ongoing nurture when they come back down.
Are we doing everything we can to point people to the mountain?  And are we cultivating a community of faith that can sustain travelers and deepen their journey?  We support Burnamwood in the church budget, and we support scholarships for Burnamwood, Montreat, and the Mission Trip through the Hylen Fund.  Do you know of young people who could use such a mountaintop experience?  (Hint: if you know any young people, the answer is yes.)  Let us help start the journey.  We also invite you to prayerfully consider making a financial contribution to Burnamwood, Montreat, or other PC (USA) Camp and Conference Centers, or to the Hylen Fund here at the church to support scholarships for those who would otherwise be unable to attend.
Camps and conferences aren’t just for youth.  If you are interested in exploring adult conferences or retreats, talk to us – there are great ones out there.  Happy trails!
Grace and Peace,
Stephanie and Andy

[1] Jack Haberer, Editor, The Presbyterian Outlook, Vol. 193, No. 4, Feb. 21, 2011.

Oh, the times, they are a'changing...

I didn't watch the Grammy's the other night, but I was amused by the wildly different comments I read on Facebook about Bob Dylan's performance. Some friends celebrated the vindication of a sugar-pop music industry show with a real artist like Dylan. Others (primarily younger), wondered what the old man on stage was gargling that kept him from getting his words out. I don't know what song he sang, but I think the performance itself sang, "Oh the times, they are a'changing..."

This morning I read a recap of the first Jeopardy! match between Watson, the IBM computer, and Jeopardy!'s two most successful contestants. This related article in the NY Times discussed some of the possible applications and ramifications of the highly advancing field of Artificial Intelligence.  Advances in AI threaten to make humans obsolete in many occupations that we currently hold.  Oh the times, they are a'changing...

Of course, that immediately got this former philosophy major/current preacher brain thinking about what it is to be human. I thought perhaps I had stumbled onto my theme for the March newsletter Pastors' Note, but immediately second-guessed myself.  After all, even though a good number of our members currently receive the newsletter over email rather than snail mail, most of our members are not very tech-savvy.  One of the reasons that I decided to hold off regular blogging and tweeting was because it doesn't connect with the vast majority of our congregation.  Though we have more members on facebook than I would have thought, only a dozen or so seem to use it regularly, and I don't know of a single person in our church who is on Twitter.

The times may be a'changing, but there is a huge technological divide between the average person in our congregation and the general public.  Is it the difference between being in a small town and being in a more urban area?  Maybe a little.  I think to a large degree the gap can be attributed to average age.  Most of our members are older and retired, and never knew a work environment when a personal computer was required, much less an email address! 

Even so, I look at my own grandparents and see that they are active on email and facebook (though it took them a while to realize they didn't have to "have the facebook" on their computer, they just had to go to an internet site).  They are older than all of the four active elders in our church who don't have email.  Though we do have some older members who regularly use email and the internet, I don't think any of them are as old as my grandparents. 

It seems like one major determining factors in use of technology by the "Greatest Generation" is geographic history and mobility.  Most of the older adults in our congregation have lived here most of their lives.  Their families, for the most part, live here or somewhere in the state, and their friends all live here.  If they want to connect, they will pick up the phone and make plans for lunch.  My grandparents, however, are retired from a long career of ministry, in which they have served congregations from the west coast of Canada all the way to upstate New York.  In retirement they have lived in Washington state, Louisville, KY, and last year moved to Pittsburgh.  Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren live in Missouri, Kentucky, and Virginia, and their brothers and sisters live in British Columbia and Ontario.  While they continue to enter into their new community, their web of support spans two countries extensively, and beyond.

My grandparents, who will be 82 and 87 in the next month, more closely resemble Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers in their geographic rootlessness.  Email and social media networks are an important web of connectivity in their lives.  They know that the times are changing - they have experienced the change first-hand.  Through all of the changes, God has been the constant, and their church has been the center of their professional, social, and spiritual lives.  Yet even as they hold onto that constant, they appreciate the need for the church to change.  They don't really like a lot of the "new" music.  They have a difficult time following words or images that are projected onto screens.  And yet, they support changes in worship that they might not prefer because they recognize that the times are changing, and that the church must continue to change to meet and reach out to new generations.  They recognize that yesterday's ways of being church might not always be appropriate to today's context of ministry, or to meeting the spiritual and material needs of tomorrow's generation.

Back to the newsletter article.  In my current context of ministry, I won't be writing about advances in artificial intelligence.  I won't make references in sermons to Twitter, and I'll think very carefully before I reference facebook, or even a video on the internet (YouTube).  That's not where the current congregation is.  In fact, my current context of ministry more closely resembles the context of ministry twenty or thirty years ago than it resembles contemporary urban and suburban settings.  I have been called to serve a small (under 150 members) church in a small county-seat town (around 8,000 people) that is still primarily white (88%, and 94% for the county), primarily Christian (76%), and primarily Baptist (67%).  The average age of marriage is still in the early 20s, most adults are married, and couples are having children at younger ages than in other parts of the country.  Most people have an affiliation with a church, whether or not they go regularly (or go at all).  Some kind of religious involvement is still assumed, and though sports practices might be creeping into our Sunday afternoons, schools still suspend activities on Wednesday nights for church involvement.  The times may be a'changing, but they are changing in different ways here than they are in other parts of the country.

Though more of the US population lives in cities, I think that more of our churches are in smaller towns.  While more of the population is living in contexts of increasing diversity, increasing use of technology, increasing pluralism on the religious landscape, more of our churches are struggling to survive or grow in areas that are changing at a slower pace and in different ways.  When we think about challenges of ministry in the 21st century, we must be sensitive to those differences. 

How can leaders be adequately prepared for ministry in such vastly different settings? Are there ways we can bridge gaps between churches in different settings?  Like some churches that have a "traditional" service and a "contemporary" service, are we facilitating two different churches that are growing further apart, with less sense of shared ministry?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

"Baby Food"

Sermon for Sunday, February 13th, 2011. You can read the lectionary readings here. My primary text is 1 Corinthians 3:1-9.

“Baby Food” – Stephanie Wing, 2.13.11

Growing up as a younger sister, I was often frustrated by what I saw as blatant unfairness. My older sister got to do all kinds of things that I wasn't allowed to do, just because she was older. I argued in vain that I was at least as mature as she was, but for some reason, my complaints didn't get very far. I had to suffer through the injustice of seeing her be given greater privileges and freedoms for the arbitrary reason that she happened to have been born two and a half years before me. I was ready for the rights and responsibilities of an adult, and to be told otherwise was quite a blow.

I'm not sure, but I imagine that the Corinthians would have felt something similar when they received this letter from Paul. You see, Paul had started the church in Corinth, and it had grown by leaps and bounds. Sure, they had their problems, but doesn't every church? One of their biggest issues was arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest, who was the most spiritually gifted, and who was the wisest in the church. Paul's message to them delivers this terrible blow to the ego: "And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh."

The Corinthians are arguing about who is the most spiritually advanced among them, then Paul comes along and says, "I don't know who thinks they're about to get a doctorate in Spirituality, because you all are still in pre-school!" When he first came to them, he had to nourish them through "baby food," and even now, they still aren't ready for solid food-Christianity. Not yet. He can tell that they aren't ready because of the problems they're having. They simply don't get what it means to be Christian; if they did, they wouldn't be so divisive.

Back then, the early church met in homes, and it sounds like certain home churches were in competition with others. Though Paul was the first to spread Christianity to Corinth, other teachers followed, and factions developed based on which teacher or evangelist the group followed. That led to some of the arguments over who was greater, or who had had received the better instruction. Some boasted that they were in Paul's camp; others in Apollos' camp, and so on. Paul responds, "Don't you realize that both Apollos and I are merely servants of God? We're just doing what God directed us to do. The real credit belongs to God."

Paul is saying that a sign of spiritual maturity is unity among the body of believers through the Holy Spirit. Factions and divisions are signs of spiritual immaturity, signs that the church still has very far to go, and much further to grow. By that measure, I dare say we still need the baby food diet today. There have always been arguments within the church, as long as there was a church within which to argue, but dividing ourselves into different camps takes it a few steps further. For nearly 1000 years, the Christian church was mostly united, at least in name. In 1054, there was the great schism between what became the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. There was relative stability again for another 500 years or so when the Reformation came along, splitting the Protestants from Catholics. Almost immediately, there were a number of offshoots from the Reformation that became the sources of different denominations today. Denominations have continued to develop and split off from each other ever since. Today there are estimated to be 38,000 different Christian denominations in the United States! If division is a sign of spiritual immaturity, we all need to grow up!

This weekend Andy and I were at a Presbytery Retreat at Shaker Village, and one of the ministers was talking about a particular church that he drives by on a regular basis. The sign says "Independent Presbyterian Church," and we all agreed that there is no such thing! A central part of being Presbyterian is being connected with other Presbyterian churches, being part of a connectional body of believers. But even within the Presbyterian church, there have been many divisions, and we are a much more divided body than we used to be. Even some who continue to worship in PC (USA) churches have very little connection, and even less desire for connection, with the larger Presbyterian church.

I commend the history of the United Presbyterian Church here as having voluntarily reunited after the Civil War, 70 years before the northern and southern denominational streams came back together in 1983. Even so, we are not the only Presbyterian church in the county. There are Cumberland Presbyterians, and even two other churches that are technically PC (USA) in affiliation, if not in name. I've heard some ideas that all of us Mercer County Presbyterians need to join forces and merge, and I've heard some responses indicating that is about the last thing that some people would want to do. I can understand - there are some pretty significant differences between our church and some of those other churches, and it would be very hard to come together. Besides, none of us wants to lose our own identity.

We do try to work with other churches in some ways, for instance in participating in Ministerial Association events and services, like the Holy Week services we hosted last year. We also have some churches with whom we routinely share special services, coming together as an extended body of Christ. We try to play well together, but it can get tricky. I understand that.

Often it feels like, even with the churches with whom we have particularly good working relationships, there is a sense of competition. Do you know what I mean? We want to know how many people they have, how many young families, how much programming, and what kind of budget. When a new family moves into town that seems to be inclined to worship in a non-Baptist, mainline denomination, there is a sense of pressure to "get to them" before someone else does. And I think we beat ourselves up a little bit when if they ultimately choose to go elsewhere, don't we? And what about those who used to be members here, but who have gone to different churches? Do we ever stop wanting to "get them back?" It's not easy to resist that sense of competition, but if we trust the word of God that we have read today, we must.

Paul says, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth." That's what we are doing here - planting, watering, and harvesting, all for the kingdom of God. Sometimes we might be called to plant seeds that others will get to water. Other times we might water the seeds that have been planted elsewhere. When harvest time comes around, we enjoy the harvest, but also have to remember that we harvest the fruit that has been planted and watered by others. And ultimately, it isn't about us, it's about God.

The only way that anyone comes to spiritual maturity, that anyone comes to belief in God and Jesus Christ as Savior, is through God. God calls us as church to plant, to water, and to harvest, but the work we do is only as servants of God. Rather than seeing ourselves as the owners of the farm competing against other farms, we should see ourselves as hired farm hands, all working together in the field that belongs to God.

Here's another little secret: we might never know what particular role we are playing, and we might never see some of the fruit of our labors come to fruition. We will be called to plant seeds that seem never to take root. We will be called to use our precious resources to water seeds that never seem to grow. Sometimes we will watch the seeds that we plant and water bear fruit in other places, but rather than pine for the fruit of our labor, we should instead rejoice for the fruit of God's vineyard, and be thankful for the opportunity to be workers in it.

We must support our brothers and sisters in Christ in churches across the street, across the country, and around the world, and recognize that we are all co-workers on God's great big field, all working to increase the harvest together, in whatever role God calls us to play. We are here in this particular church for one reason or another, but that doesn't make our church any better (or any worse!) than other churches who are working towards the same ends, which is building up the body of Christ for the kingdom of heaven.

When babies are born, everything in the world necessarily revolves around their needs. As children grow, they continue to think that the world revolves around their wants and needs, and it is jarring to find out it doesn't. Part of the maturing process is beginning to develop empathy for others, and eventually to care more for the needs of others than you care about your own needs. Isn't that parenthood? How many parents in this room haven given up what they wanted, and sometimes even needed, in order to provide their children? That is mature parenting. That is mature nurturing.

If we as a church get stuck in the place where we are more concerned with our own needs and desires, we have stopped growing, and we will die. But if we continue to mature as God calls us to mature, if we look beyond our own needs and prioritize the needs of people that genuinely need help, then we are growing in Christ. We might not necessarily grow in the places we want to see growth, but if we remember that all growth comes from God, we are on the right track. We must trust that we are growing just as God is calling us to grow, and serving just as God calls us to serve, not in competition with other workers in the vineyard, but working together as servants of the one God who unites all of us as one holy church.

It isn't easy, but we can get there. We might want to spit out the baby food and go straight for the steak, but remember that we, too, are growing, and as we mature, we will move onto solid food. That is not just exciting for our palates, it is exciting for the kingdom of God. May it be so.

Calvin Retreat Sermon

I preached this sermon at the Presbytery of Transylvania Calvin Retreat this weekend (mostly preachers, some educators and Elders). I was one of 5 preachers, and each of us was assigned one of the Sundays in Lent (not counting Palm Sunday). My assignment was Lent 4. I almost went to the 1 Samuel passage. The sermon title would have been "A Crisis In Leadership." Skim Judges. Read the chapters of 1 Sam leading up to the Lectionary. Think about it. Instead, I chose John 9 - a passage with way too many possibilities, some of which I followed before finally ending up with this. You can read the Scripture readings here.

“What do you say about Jesus?” – Stephanie Sorge Wing

This really is a great story, isn’t it? It is so full of dialogue, interesting characters, and scene changes, it almost demands to be dramatized rather than simply read from the pulpit. It already has a soundtrack. We’ve got Hank Williams’ “Then like the blind man that God gave back his sight, Praise the Lord, I saw the Light!” Or, if you prefer John Newton, “I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.” This is a good old-fashioned conversion story! Now, I know we're Presbyterians, and when Presbyterians talk about seeing the light, we might be making a pun about the wise stewardship of switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, or perhaps we'd be talking about the light at the end of a particularly long committee or Session meeting. Having gone to Seminary in Louisville, I heard more than once about certain Baptists who "saw the light" and came from “that place down the road” to work or study at the Presbyterian Seminary. Let’s be honest: chances are, if you hear a Presbyterian shout, "I have seen the light!" there isn't a dramatic story of personal, soul-saving conversion following those words. Then again, the conversion that takes place in this story isn’t all that sudden, either. Eventually, seeing is believing, but the road to that belief is a winding one, paved with many questions. Let’s take a closer look.

Jesus and his disciples are out walking around, and they come to a man who was born blind. Have you ever noticed how much of Jesus’ ministry happens when he is out walking around with the disciples? The disciples ask, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" For the most part, we tend not to believe that illnesses or disasters come as the result of sin, but that was pretty common thinking back then. Of course there are contemporary Christians – including prominent leaders – who still believe that. To them, and to the disciples, Jesus responds by saying that neither the man nor his parents sinned. The blindness is not a punishment from God.

Unlike many other miracle stories, the actual healing is not a climactic part of the action. Jesus makes a salve of mud and spittle, then tells the man to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The man does as he is told, and then, he is able to see. When he returns to his neighborhood, the drama really picks up. The scene is almost comical. The next question is asked: "Isn’t this the guy who used to sit and beg?” The people are arguing amongst themselves, and the man himself keeps saying, "Yes, it's me!" The thing about having an encounter with Jesus is that it changes you. It changes you in ways that you might not fully realize or recognize. Sometimes it's easier to cling to an old identity, one that is known and accepted by your friends and neighbors, than it is to claim the change and live into the new creation to which we are called. After all, no one really expects much from a blind beggar.

Finally the neighbors accept that it is the same man, but they keep asking, "Then how were your eyes opened?" He tells the story, plain and simple - "The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, 'Go to Siloam and wash.' Then I went and washed and received my sight." Unsatisfied, they take him to the Pharisees, who ask the same questions. Some Pharisees respond, "He was working on the Sabbath? That's against our Book of Order. He can't be from God." Others say, "Maybe, but how could a sinner perform such signs?"

Sometimes it is easy to mock the Pharisees, but I think we can sympathize with their position. We all know at least one individual in our communities who is perpetually troubled – behind on rent, short on food stamps, coming around or calling frequently for assistance. What if one of these individuals came by the church office one day, but didn’t ask for anything? What if she came in with a story that she had been healed of the long-term disability that kept her from working? She tells you that the Pentecostal preacher down the road prayed with her, and she was healed. How would we respond? Is our faith big enough to accommodate the possibility of a miracle? It can be jarring when we witness God’s work that doesn't conform to our decent and orderly categories of belief.

The Pharisees continue to question the man. "What do you say about him?" Up to this point, the blind man has referred to Jesus as "the man called Jesus." But now, after having shared what is becoming his testimony, he is emboldened to say, "He is a prophet." When we are asked, "What do you say about Jesus?" how do we answer? What if it cost us our social standing or the esteem of our peers? Dare we risk a Christology that is too robust, or too anemic?

One of the best sermons I heard in the Louisville Seminary chapel during my time as a student was entitled, “Why I Love Jesus.” The highly-respected professor who preached it proclaimed unapologetically her love for Jesus Christ, acknowledging how such a sermon would be unfortunately out of vogue in the academic community. The question, “What do you say about Jesus?” sounds a bit funny, doesn’t it? But consider the startling fact that, Sunday after Sunday, in churches across the presbytery, congregants and visitors alike make a conscious decision to come, sit in the pews, and listen to what we have to say. Their very presence asks the question, “What do you say about Jesus?” People are hungry to hear what we have to say about Jesus – not because they want to know what we think, but because they have a hunger for the bread of life, even if they can’t exactly name it. There are many more who have the hunger that they can’t name, and don’t know where to find the life-giving bread. What do you say about Jesus?

The Pharisees find the man's parents and intend to unmask the truth. They ask, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?" They may as well be asking, “What do you say about Jesus?” The parents aren’t willing to take the bait. They confirm that he is their son, and he was born blind, but then they place the risk of testimony back on their son. By this time the Pharisees are beginning to lose their patience. They have asked their questions, and despite what they have seen and heard, all they can say about Jesus is that he is a sinner. They go back and demand that the man give glory to God by admitting that Jesus is a sinner. This man who was born blind can’t argue with the knowledge of the Pharisees. All he can do is tell what he does know: "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, though I was blind, now I see." What can you say about Jesus?

It can be tempting to feel like we have to have the answers to most of the questions, most of the time. People expect us to have the answers, and there are many questions. They expect us to know what to say or do in times of crisis. They don’t know just how long and extensive the list of "things they don't teach you in Seminary" is. Yet when we really get down to it, isn’t the question at the heart of ministry, “What do you say about Jesus?” We can spin our wheels answering the countless other questions, comments, and complaints that crop up during the week, but those are all distractions. We might not have the answers to everything, but we can follow the man in saying, "Let me tell you what I do know about Jesus – how I have experienced Jesus in my life.” Testimony is the starting point – the only starting point – for all evangelism, all preaching, and all teaching.

The Pharisees press on. "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" The man responds, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?" The Pharisees could neither see nor hear the Truth when it was right in front of them. The man who was born blind, however, is seeing the light. Through the series of questions, he has gone from talking about the man called Jesus to proclaiming him a prophet, and now, even seeing himself as his disciple.

What seems to bother the Pharisees the most is that they like to be in the know; they pride themselves on having the answers, but for all of their knowledge, they are still in the dark. This is contrasted by the insight of this man born blind. He says, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will... If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." This leads to the incredulous question: "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" You can almost hear this question being spit out, and with equal disgust, they send this man out from their presence.

This man who was born blind has been thrown out by the Pharisees and left hanging out to dry by his own parents. By all appearances, this man is more alone than he has ever been, but again, things are not necessarily as they appear to be. It is then that Jesus seeks him out again. Jesus asks, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" The man responds, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him." Jesus says, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he." At long last, after being healed, after telling his story and facing angry questions, and after being cast out, the man born blind worships Jesus: "Lord, I believe."

In the closing scene, Jesus, the light of the world says, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." The final question in our text is asked by some Pharisees standing nearby, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains.” The Pharisees relied on their own knowledge, their own sight, rather than looking to God. As a result, when they actually were in the presence of God in Jesus Christ, they had developed such a blind spot, that they couldn't even recognize the source of light in front of them.

How often do we rely on our own knowledge, and our own way of seeing things? We have spent years in school learning to see things a certain way, to look at life and faith from particular angles. We have learned to sniff out “bad” theology, to be wary of instant conversions and cheap grace. Surely we are not blind, are we? So then, what do we say about Jesus?

Through one series of questions, a man whose life has been touched by Jesus comes to believe in him, and worship him, as Lord. And yet, through a different series of questions, Pharisees who cannot make the answers fit into their defined categories of knowledge or theology, miss seeing God. While the Pharisees are more concerned with what they know, or what they think they know about God, the man born blind only comes to know through his first-hand experience of the grace of Jesus Christ. There is no intellectual substitute for experiencing the grace of Jesus Christ. It is only through that grace that any of us come to belief. And yet having experienced that grace, we can get so caught up in our own knowledge and understanding that we become blind to the very grace that changed our lives to begin with. We might get so caught up in the very tasks of the ministry to which we are called only by God’s grace, that we lose sight of that amazing grace at work in our lives.

But that is what ministry is really all about. It is sharing the good news of God’s grace with others. It is standing with others and saying, “Let me tell you about the Jesus I know, about how God’s love changed my life.” Ministry is pointing, with our stories, with our questions, and with our lives, to the man called Jesus. It is listening for the question that is begged but rarely asked, “What do you say about Jesus?” Our task is to answer that question, to equip and encourage others to answer that question, in word and in deed, by the grace of God. May it be so.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A New Taskmaster

From today's lectionary readings:
"I will appoint Peace as your overseer and Righteousness as your taskmaster." Isaiah 60:17b
"Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety...Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels." 2 Timothy 2:16, 23

There is a dissonance in the language of Isaiah 60:17b. It places Peace and Righteousness in the context of language of slavery and oppression. This vision of Isaiah is one of a completely new order, flipping everything on its head as God's reign is realized. Language of submission is never easy to swallow, even though we have all (baptized and confirmed believers) acknowledged Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But I think the language of submission to Peace and Righteousness is appropriate, and appropriately challenging.

Peace and Righteousness are not merely lofty ideals; they are disciplines. They are yoke and bridle. They require us to work, and the work is not always pleasant. We find ourselves yoked to other workers who we would rather avoid altogether, if we had our 'druthers.

As for the selections from 2 Timothy, I confess that in the past week and a half, I have been very guilty of the offenses above. Since the "Final Letter to the PC (USA)" was circulated, I have been somewhat addicted to following the responses, the blog posts, the Twitter feeds - all of the conversation that has been generated from this letter. While much of it has been very thoughtful, helpful, and faithful, there is no question that there has been some "profane chatter," which certainly has led to some impiety, at least in response.

I won't say that this controversy is "stupid and senseless," but there is no doubt that it has bred quarrels, and I fear it will continue to do so. Perhaps it is raising important questions or challenges for the church. It has certainly spurred dialogue across the country. As a member of the Special Committee to Study the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century, I have been following that dialogue and listening for answers to the question, "How are we called to be church today, and in the future?" I hope and pray that the result of all of this will be a church that is stronger, more unified and yet more diverse, that will be a more faithful witness to Jesus Christ in what we say and in all we do. I pray that this will be an opportunity for real discernment, waiting on the Holy Spirit to ignite us once again, to be the light and salt that we are called to be.

That is my hope, and my prayer. As we continue to move forward, let us really consider what it means to have Peace as our overseer, and Righteousness as our taskmaster. Though we chafe under submission, let us be reminded that we are all called to submit joyfully to Jesus Christ, remembering that the church is the Body of Christ on earth. We exist not for ourselves, but to be a witness to the grace, peace, justice, and love of Jesus Christ. It is God who calls us together, and our togetherness can be sustained and strengthened only through the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us all pray humbly for that guidance and unity of Spirit, in the name of our savior Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

I told you it was a work in progress.

I realize that is is now Feb. 11. I wrote exactly 1 blog post in 2010, but I think I might have a new-found commitment to writing/keeping a blog. My thoughts are mixed; I have never really been a big blog reader, and frankly, I don't know if anyone will read or would want to read what I write in a blog. Perhaps I need greater clarity as to the purpose of this blog. Maybe not. I do quite a bit of writing each week; I could post my sermons here, though I also post them on our church website. I could post newsletter articles, though I also post those on the church website.

I think I started this blog as a way to keep up with family, to have a central place to post updates and information, and I guess part of the reason for the silence in the past year is that not much has changed. For the first time in many years, I haven't had a major change to report.

So why am I back to the blog now? Perhaps I have enough distance from Seminary to appreciate the practice of "journaling." But I don't think so. A few months ago I was named to the PC (USA) Special Committee to Study the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century. We met back in January, and over the course of our meeting together, I explored the use of Twitter a bit more. In thinking about and preparing for this committee, I have also found myself spending more time online, and more time on blogs of other church leaders, in particular. This past week in particular, after the release of a "Final Letter to the PC (USA)," I have been spending a lot more time in front of my computer screen, following the responses from across the church to this letter. I have read blogs of people I know and people who know people I know. I have tried to keep a finger on the pulse of response, in part because of my participation on this special committee, but mostly because of my personal interest. Between the letter and my participation on the Special Committee, time spent looking through Tweets and blog posts, I have come to appreciate the new terrain of blogging communities. I find affinity with blogging Presbyterian leaders, young church leaders (Presbyterian and otherwise), and women in ministry, and perhaps others. I think many people in those three categories are in contexts of ministry where blogging and managing a social media presence are almost a prerequisite for effective ministry. In my particular congregational call, I don't think that is the case, but who knows? And it does seem that a stronger social media presence might be more important for other aspects of my vocation and vocational discernment, so here we go again. I think. I always knew that this would be a work in progress.