Should Worship Challenge You?

Luther Pic

This week, the clashing symbols at our worship services couldn’t go unnoticed.

We celebrated Reformation Sunday, as Lutherans, and the great hymns of Martin Luther were vibrating in the air. But, in the midst of the celebration, there was also a flickering candle in front of our altar that had been lit in memory of the eleven innocent people who were senselessly killed in the massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill exactly one year earlier.

We celebrated the life, ministry and teachings of Martin Luther – a man who boldly and with great courage nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. And yet, we remembered that Martin Luther vehemently attacked the Jews with words like these: “We are at fault in not slaying them. Rather, we allow them to live freely in our midst despite all their murdering, cursing, blaspheming, lying and defaming; we protect and shield their synagogues, houses, life, and property. In this way we make them lazy and secure and encourage them to fleece us boldly of our money and goods, as well as to mock and deride us, with a view to overcome us, killing us all for such a great sin, and robbing us of all our property as they daily pray and hope.”

We remembered that modern-day Lutherans have openly denounced these horrible words of Martin Luther. But, we also remembered that Adolph Hitler used the words of Martin Luther to convince the German people that Germans have always felt that the Jews should be “removed from society with no less mercy than a doctor cuts a cancerous tumor from someone’s body” – ultimately firing suspicions and fears that led to the Jewish Holocaust.

Even our altar was covered with red paraments that remind us of the Holy Spirit that continues to reform the Church even today; but, paraments that also remind us of the blood of those who have been killed because of their religious convictions.

Should worship challenge you?

I guess that I would respond by saying that if you’re attending a church where you are not feeling challenged and confronted from time to time, you need to find a new church.

The Bible continues to remind us that we are sinners, and that we want to continue to believe what we believe and act in the ways that we act because there is no fear of God before our eyes (Romans 3:18). But, the words of St. Paul remind us that God is at work in our lives to transform us and to restore a sense of peace in our relationship with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Set free by the love of Jesus, we can “fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12) and find peace with God (and with each other) in a world that God created with wonderful diversity.  Set free by the love of Jesus, we can join hands with others and be “good moral neighbors” in a world where hatred, racial and religious supremacy, and oppression need to be confronted by the Word of God and by the Church that’s called to proclaim that Word.

Abraham Lincoln once said, as he gazed across a muddy field that had been transformed into a cemetery after the battle at Gettysburg: “It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

If the death of those who were slain in the massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill has called us to reflect upon the ways that we think about others and about new ways that we can work together to make our world a better place, those who were senselessly slaughtered (as they were worshipping) did not die it vain.

But, before we can begin to move in that direction, we need to allow the words of pastors and those who teach in the Church to challenge us and to even confront the ways that we think and behave. And, as long as that continues to happen, we will be challenged during worship services and we will continue to be called to be a part of the solution – not a part of the problem.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

 

The Tree of Life Massacre – One Year Later

Yard Sign

It’s hard to believe that it’s been one year since the unconscionable slaughter of eleven innocent worshipers at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill (a part of the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). I’m reminded of my first feeble attempt to “do something” and to “take a stand” after a senseless tragedy that left me both numb and speechless each time I see the sign in the front yard of my home.

We have been challenged to think and to reflect in the last year. Many of us have grown and have been changed as we took a more honest look at ourselves in the mirror and as we’ve wrestled with what we believe about other people. Faith leaders in the Pittsburgh area have traveled for many miles – coming from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples – to join in both open and honest conversations that have helped us to better understand each other and the faith traditions that we represent. God has been at work in our communities to challenge us, to soften our hearts, to open our ears and hearts to the voices of others, and to stretch both our patterns of thinking and faith.

The last year has, also, been a time when leaders and members of spiritual communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania have worked hand-in-hand to create a Statement that we, as leaders of different faith traditions, believe expresses the principles and beliefs that we can embrace together. I am providing a copy of this newly released Statement to you, and am hoping that you will take some time to read it, to reflect upon it and even to pray about it. We, as faith leaders in Southwestern Pennsylvania, believe that our faith traditions challenge us: to recognize the dignity and worth of those around us; to speak boldly and clearly against racial supremacy, demonization of those from other cultures and religions, and the violent acts that grow from those bitter roots; to stand in solidarity with minority and marginalized communities; and to repent from our own complicity in words and deeds that have expressed individual and systemic bigotry, racial and religious supremacy, and oppression.

We have committed ourselves to building more loving communities and neighborhoods that uplift the oneness of humanity and the worth of every individual, and that bind us to one another as moral neighbors in both trying and peaceful times even as we continue to both recognize and accept the fact that we believe many different things about both God and our world because of our different faith traditions.

I am now presenting this Statement to you hoping that you will take some time to read it, to ponder it, to pray about it, and to allow it to both challenge you and lead you toward the new kind of life that God calls us to embrace in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Living Faithfully with One Another

As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to interpret and draw guidance from sacred texts and traditions.

The sacred texts of the world religions all affirm the created dignity and worth of each individual and our sacred responsibility toward those in need. As we interpret our own sacred traditions in preaching, teaching, meditation or prayer, we will lift up these values.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak and act in support of the dignity and worth of each person.

With sacred texts and traditions as our guides, we reject the theories and rhetoric of racial supremacy, the demonization of those of other cultures and religions, and the violent acts which grow from these bitter roots. We embrace the right of all people to worship (or not to worship) according to the dictates of their own consciences, and we expect the government to respect this freedom.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak and act in solidarity with those in need.

We turn with compassion toward those in our midst who have the greatest cause for fear and insecurity. We stand in solidarity with all marginalized and minority communities, especially those who have been targets of injustice, discrimination, prejudice, and hate. When any of us are attacked in word or deed, we promise our support, help, and protection.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak truth to those in positions of power.

Our voices must be spoken and heard in public discourse. We seek to bring the perspectives of sacred traditions to bear in our shared public life. We call upon and remind elected, appointed, and professional leaders throughout our community to uphold and enforce the values of justice, fairness, nondiscrimination, and dignity.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to high standards of self-reflection.

We call upon ourselves, our faith communities, and our institutions to acknowledge and repent for complicity in words and deeds that express individual or systemic bigotry, racial or religious supremacy, and oppression. We are committed to growing in wisdom and inclusivity as we learn from one another.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to live abundantly, joyously and harmoniously with one another.

We will work resolutely to strengthen the ties that bind us to one another as moral neighbors in both trying and peaceful times. When and where we disagree in our understandings, we commit to acknowledge, listen to, and value the perspectives of others even as we respectfully present our differing opinions.

We covenant to create, expand and nurture a community of mutual support throughout Southwest Pennsylvania. Seeking Divine help and guidance, we commit to building the beloved community, a neighborhood of neighborhoods that lovingly uplifts the oneness of humanity and the worth of every individual.

October 3, 2019
Pittsburgh, PA

In God We Trust

In God We Trust

Every piece of money in the United States contains the phrase: “In God We Trust.”

A pastor from Pennsylvania first suggested that we add that phrase to our coins in 1861 to ensure that God would protect Union soldiers during the Civil War. The phrase was removed in 1907 by President Roosevelt because he believed that printing the words “In God We Trust” on our money was an unhealthy mingling of God and mammon. President Eisenhower approved adding the phrase to all of our money – both coins and paper bills – because he believed that it was important to draw a sharp distinction between the faith of the American people and the godlessness of the Communists. And, by 1983, Supreme Court justices ruled that the phrase, “In God We Trust,” didn’t need to be removed from our money because, by that time, the phrase had lost all religious significance.

And yet, even in 2019, we struggle to make sense of what those words mean. Some argue that America was created to be a Christian nation, while others argue that our Founders created our nation to be a place where the government was prevented from choosing a particular religion. Christian Nationalists continue to teach that America is a Christian nation even though people like Thomas Jefferson created their own Bibles by retaining only the portions of the Bible that they believed were helpful for moral instruction, and even though people like Thomas Paine set the Bible aside in favor of personal spiritual experience.

And so, what do we do with passages like Psalm 33 that contain the words: “Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord“? How do we live, as people of faith, remembering that it is ordinary people, not God, who have drawn the lines in the dirt that separate counties, states, and even nations that exist in the world today?

The psalmist reminds us that “from where God sits enthroned, God watches over ALL the inhabitants of the earth.” The prophet Micah also reminds us that, as God watches over ALL the peoples of the earth, God sends messengers to reminds us that one of our most holy callings in life is to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)

The psalmist tells us, in Psalm 33, that the hope of a better future isn’t going to be found in trusting people who call us to build bigger armies, and who challenge us to find new ways to be bigger and stronger than people who live on the “other side” of the lines that we’ve drawn in the dirt. The psalmist tells us that the hope of a better future isn’t going to be found by silencing people who don’t think about life in the same ways that we do, and by continuing to separate ourselves into smaller and smaller pieces – until we get to the point where even all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can’t find a way to put us back together again.

Instead, the psalmist challenges us to envision God as a God who’s watching over ALL the nations of the world. The psalmist challenges us to rediscover a level of the soul that God has placed inside of us that connects us to every other living Being.

“In God We Trust” in a mighty statement.

How can we use that statement as something that binds us together as people who are called to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly in the presence of God in a world where people are using that phrase to separate us and to drive deep wedges between us?

Click Here to Listen to This Week’s Message

 

The Mission Interpreter

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How are choices and decisions you make each day connected to your journey of faith?

You live in a complex Age where change surrounds you. You probably feel overwhelmed by a constant stream of news and information that summons your attention by sending the invasive pop, ding, or silent vibration that invades every part of your daily life. You most likely believe in God, but you may have decided that you don’t want to be affiliated with a local church, synagogue, mosque or temple. And yet, you still want to make some sort of difference in the world. You still want to believe that God is somehow working in your life and in the lives of the people that you love. Perhaps, what you need are stories that remind you that God’s at work in our lives and in the world, and mental morsels to challenge you to think about the relationship between your daily living and faith?

I believe that there’s always a next step for us to take in our journey of faith, and I am dedicated to working with people who want to take the next step forward in their journey of faith with confidence and courage. And, that’s why I’ve added a link to the menu on this site that takes you to my newest blog entitled: “The Mission Interpreter”.

This is a place where you’ll discover ways that God’s people are making a difference in the world, right now. This is a place where the leaders of churches and synagogues and mosques and temples will be challenged to reflect and to grow. This is a place where you will be challenged to think about the relationship between daily living and the kinds of choices and commitments you make each day. This is a place where you’ll be challenged to explore the ways that choices and decisions you make are connected to your journey of faith and to your relationship with God.

You can receive updates every time new material is added to “The Mission Interpreter” by following the blog itself as a regular user of WordPress – or you can provide an email address where links to new material can be send. I hope you’ll also share information about this new blog with your friends, so that they can, also, be encouraged by the fact that people of faith continue to do life-changing things in our quickly-changing world.

To get started, why not take a moment to investigate “The Mission Interpreter” and to read one of the newest, thought-provoking posts: “Stewardship, Stoles, and Suicide” – a piece that tells the tragic story of a pastor who recently committed suicide and that offers some ideas that can help congregations to support and encourage pastors who struggle with issues of sadness, discouragement, depression and anxiety – just like so many other folks do in the Church. You can, also, find several inspiring stories that point to the power of prayer and that lift-up the good that God’s people do when they join hands and work as a team. You’ll even find a thought-provoking piece that challenges Church leaders to remember the importance of storytelling as they prepare to make financial appeals.

I hope that “The Mission Interpreter” will provide something helpful for everyone who visits the site. You’ll notice that there’s, also, a CONTACT ME link on the site. Please let me know if you; the congregation, synagogue, mosque or temple that you attend; or a group of people that you know are joining hands to do something that points others to the God who continues to call us to express our faith in a way that touches and changes lives.

Step Out of the Boat!

Peter on Water

I’ve always enjoyed sailing. I enjoy that moment when I first push the boat from the dock, catch a breeze, and feel the boat start to move through the water. I enjoy tacking into the wind, feeling the rudder-board vibrate beneath my feet, and feeling the absolute silence and total peace that I experience during long runs toward the down-wind side of lakes. But, when storms come out of nowhere and when my small boat is caught in open water, the fun quickly deteriorates into scary chaos.

We’ve all experienced different levels of chaos in the last few weeks. The sword-rattling between the United States and North Korea has kept our eyes glued to the television. We’ve watched a group of White Supremacists descend on Charlottesville, Virginia, and we’ve seen expressions of fear on the faces of people who were trapped in a church as they gathered for a prayer service. Chaos comes in many forms. And, as the forces of chaos surround us, we’d do well to reflect upon a story of chaos in the Bible that takes us right into the middle of a situation filled with life-rattling fear.

“Step Out of the Boat!” is a challenging message that’s designed to make us think about how we, as Christians, respond to chaos. Peter is trapped on the water during a ferocious storm and water is splashing over the sides of the boat. Peter is surrounded by people who are filled with consuming fear; and, when Jesus first appears, the disciples are even more frightened because they think that Jesus is a ghost.

And yet, even in the midst of the stormy chaos, Jesus invites Peter to “Step Out of the Boat!” and to walk across the water. I’m sure that it was scary to release the gunwales and stand-up in a rocking boat. I’m sure that it was hard to throw your leg over the side of the boat and put a foot onto the water. Can you imagine what it was like when Peter first put both of his feet onto the rolling waves and stood up? Imagine what it was like to take a first, faith-filled walk across the water – to feel fear starting to fill your heart as the wind continued to blow – to realize that you’re sinking into the sea – and to feel the hand of Jesus grab you (at just the right moment) and lift you up.

It’s scary to “Step Out of the Boat!” in the midst of a storm. It takes courage to denounce the teachings of a pastor who believes that American leaders have the God-given power and authorization to destroy North Korea with nuclear weapons. It’s not easy to speak-out when little children are being detained in prison-like conditions. It’s not at all easy to stand-up and clearly proclaim that the Church is a place for ALL of God’s people. And it’s certainly not easy to openly denounce the cancerous racism and bigotry that was openly displayed in Charlottesville, VA over the past weekend.

As Christians, we must “Step Out of the Boat!” in times of chaos. We’re going to need to learn, again, how to let get of what’s comfortable and certain before God can use us to change the course of the world. And we need to remember that, even as we’re looking for the strength and courage to do what God’s calling us to do, Christ journeys with us – always opening us up to new and exciting opportunities in our lives and ministry.

Take a stand against abuse!

abuse

Genesis 2:18

Most people believe that God created the world to be a place that was entirely good, and that everything fell apart when Adam and Eve went astray. God pauses at the end of each day of creation in the first chapter of Genesis and says, “Wow! That’s good!” The same thing happens each day – culminating in God’s recognition of the fact that everything is “very good” on the sixth day. And then, many of us have been taught, everything fell apart when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.

However, we find another truth buried in the second chapter of Genesis where God says: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” “It is not good” for us to live in isolation. We are most complete when we are in fellowship with others. Isolation stands at the heart of what God identified as being “not good” in the story of creation.

Domestic and sexual abuse isolate. People who are being abused often withdraw from significant relationships. Women and men who are sexually assaulted often withdraw into deep, isolating silence. Domestic and sexual abuse create what God has clearly said is “not good” in the lives of His people. And, in that breaking of human community, abusers create something very different than what God plans for our lives.

We commit ourselves to helping our world to grow toward what God first intended when we promise to stand against domestic and sexual abuse; and we participate in God’s redemption of Creation when we commit ourselves to standing against behaviors that strip dignity from the lives of God’s people and drive them into isolation that “is not good” in God’s eyes.