The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tragedy, Mental Illness, and Christmas

My initial response was to not to comment on the tragedy of the shooting of twenty elementary school students and six teachers in Newtown, Connecticut. I decided in the beginning that part of being a responsible blog owner is knowing when to lay off an issue when it doesn't pertain to your area of specialty. 

This blog is a pastoral response. 

The gospel reading for church this weekend is based on Mary's song of praise, after finding out that she is pregnant with the Messiah. She sings, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior." I'm preaching on this text in a few days, shortly followed by Christmas Eve services where we celebrate the birth of Jesus who is Christ the Lord. It's a happy time.

Jesus has come. Jesus has died. Jesus has risen. 

But tragedy still finds us. 

I have friends who like to put the phrase "post" in front of everything. We're "post"modern, "post"christian, "post"9/11. The idea of "post" is that life is new now, that we have become self-aware of how wrong modernism/Christianity/9/11 was. "Post" means we want to define ourselves in a new way. It means that whenever we experience something, we learn, and adapt our behavior so that we do not make the same mistakes of the past.

Every generation is "post" the previous generation, destined to succeed where others have failed. But for every two steps forward, we fall one step back, because self-awareness does not lead to perfection. 

Call it sin, imperfection, or brokenness- but the human condition is like a piggy bank that has been smashed and hot-glued back together over and over again.

The problem of human suffering is called Theodicy. It is often posed like this: 

God is all powerful
God is loving
Human suffering exits. 

The theological puzzle is to have more than two of these statements be true. If God loves us, and can do anything, then why not stop people from suffering? 

There are volumes written about the problem of Theodicy. You ought to be weary of anyone willing to give you the easy answer. 

But here's a hard answer. Do we really know what it is like for God to love us? We imagine God as a grand parent, who, will spoil us any chance He gets. Without repercussion, God coddles us, spoils us, and yields to us for all of eternity. 

Is that love? 

In your version of heaven, are we all consumers taking holy handouts?
 Or is the greater love the love of a parent, who video tapes us while we walk for the first time only to watch us fall. In the long run, giving us free will is showing us the greater love.  
The shooting of beautiful children of God by a mentally ill child of God is just about the worst thing I can think of. This is a time when the whole notion of free will seems like a failed experiment.  Tragedy of this magnitude is so horrible that the desired response is to react quickly to ensure it will never happen again. 

We must fight the notion to become "Post" Sandy Hook by buying weapons, beefing up security at elementary schools, or shielding our children from all people with mental illness.

We will never fully get over this. Just like we were never "post" Columbine, or 9/11, or Oklahoma City, or the Holocaust. 

We must remember to breathe. We must be committed to each other's humanity for the long run. We're all in this together. 
Look at the outline of human history: the journey from learning how to use tools, to building pyramids, to establishing currency, to the evolution of medicine, to the beginning of democracy, to the end of slavery, to the end of the cold war, to the rise of the internet. 

We're getting better and better at a lot of things.  

But human suffering still remains. Sometimes those with Mental Illness know only suffering.

As my favorite theologian Pastor Martin Luther King, Jr says in his letter from Birmingham jail, "The arc of history bends toward justice" 

Do you know who Dr. King was writing the letter from Birmingham Jail to? 

Clergy who opposed the Civil Right movement. Even clergy sometimes fail to see the justice that we are being called to.

The world is united in the 21st century in a way that it never was before. Lives change quickly as we move on to the next big thing. We are never really "post" anything, because the past is never really gone. We carry the memories of the past forward as we continue to love each other for the long haul.

 Building the Kingdom of God is a marathon, not a sprint. This Christmastime and every time, we weep with those who weep, and we rejoice with those who rejoice. We live in hope. We love in hope. 


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Santa Claus is coming?

There I was opening my big fat mouth in a recent Sunday School class designed for parents with young children.
As a pastor I have a certain credibility because God and I are close. As a parent, I'm less experienced than many of the other parents in the class. But that didn't stop me from talking too much about what to do about Santa.

I don't believe that parents ought to perpetuate the lie of Santa Clause. Realizing that your parents lied to you is awful.  Then turning right around and lying to your own kids is just plain cruel. So, I spoke with some authority about what I think parents ought to do.

Here's what I said:
"Don't spread the lie. Tell them that Saint Nicolas was a real person, a really good person, and one we ought to emulate. But he died. When we lie about Santa being real, and that lie is revealed, it causes our children to question if Jesus is real, too. If your kids already believe, help them realize on their own that Santa is a myth"

My wife Ashley was sitting next to me. She is my biggest critic, especially in public. Sure, she loves me without ceasing and in the privacy of our home tells me how much she enjoys my sermons and is my biggest supporter.  But she doesn't put up with BS. After my Santa smear campaign, Ashley grabbed my arm as if to get me to shut-up, and said politely to the group that we have not talked about this much as a couple and still haven't had to make up our minds on the idea of Santa and our kids, as if to soften the blow of my anti-Santa stance. She was perhaps right to do so.

Most people aren't on board with killing Santa. Maybe I'm not either. Santa can be fun and magical. I just don't like lying to my kids. I'd like to think that I could let my kids down about Santa honestly and sincerely, and then tell them that we're going to go on pretending just the same.

But what will they think about how we should view Jesus? I dare say there are many Christians who treat Christ in a similar fashion.

We talked in code in the car on the way home:         

Ashley: Our kids already believe.
Me: Not because of me.
Ashley: So what- they learn about it from kids at school, still they believe.
Me: Let's call him St. Nick. At least that way there's a historical figure.
Ashley: Is he alive?
Me: No.
Ashley: Good luck with that. 

Later that night my son Jacob asks me a question to check my resolve on the issue of Santa. He's always a critic:

"Daddy, what if Santa dies before Christmas? How will I get my presents?"

Ashley looks on with the grin on her face, and offers up support for Jacob, "Yeah Daddy, how can you answer that?"

Before I give my answer, I'd like to point out that I've had solid motives here. I don't want to perpetuate a lie only to disappoint my kids later. I also don't want to disappoint them now, only to have them be the ones to ruin "the magic" for all the kids at their schools. Imagine the phone calls that would come pouring in if Jacob's dad- the Minister- ruined Christmas for everyone...

So, I caved- but just a little.

I said; "I can't tell you what would happen if Santa died, but I can tell you that Mommy and Daddy would make sure you got your Christmas presents. Do you believe that?"

He said, "I know. I was just wondering. Thanks, Dad." And then he hugged me, unprovoked.

Nailed it.

The fact of the matter is, each parent has to negotiate their own traditions with their kids. It wouldn't be helpful to set your child as counter-cultural. They'll have plenty of time to do that in their angst-y  teen years. But here's where I think I have firmer footing: We don't have to always give our children answers. The number one thing that happens when you grow up is learning how few things in life have easy answers. When you're a kid, the world can seem simple. But the older I get, the simple things- like how eating gives you energy- have become extraordinarily complex answers.
Imagination is a good thing and arguably a dying art in our culture.
So I say this: Resist the impulse to give answers to mystery. When your child asks you how Santa can be at every mall at one time, or how reindeer fly, or how Elves survive north-pole winters, or how Santa reaches people who don't have chimneys, ask them to imagine it. I've even heard it said, "Well, how do you imagine it?"

If you have to say something about Santa, why not use the words, "The story goes" or even better "The legend goes" to preface your explanation. Because that's what it is: A Legend. We don't use legends much because our culture demands that we take a harsh stance on the historicity of everything.

The Real St. Nicolas was a wealthy man who felt convicted to give all his money to the poor after reading Jesus say, "sell all of your possessions and give your money to the poor." He was later made a Bishop at a young age, and eventually went on to be a the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, where they wrote the Nicene Creed and established a universal church that believed in the trinity and the divinity of Jesus. Because of this council, they were able to have another council in 333, which decided the books of the Bible.

The Legend of St. Nick usually involves a story of a man and his three daughters. The legend says that the man could not afford the dowry for his daughters so that they may get married. Hearing of this tragedy, Nicolas came at night and tossed a purse of gold coins in the window for the first daughter to get married, on the night before she came of age to get married. He returned the night before the second daughter came of age and tossed another purse of gold coins, which landed in the stocking of the daughter that was hanging to dry above the fire place. The father wanted to know who the benefactor was, so he stayed up all night before the third daughter came of age. On that night- the legend goes- Nicolas climbed up on the roof and dropped the coins down the chimney so as to go unseen.

This story is great on so many levels: a minister living up to his vows, daughters who get the life they could not afford, and a parent in distress who is aided by a Saint. Does it have to be true down to the last detail to send the message of near miraculous intervention by one of God's agents?

The reason for the season is to celebrate the birth of the Messiah. The spirit of the season is to spread peace and goodwill to all.

The real St. Nick died on December 6th, 343 AD. His spirit lives on in our imagination.

So my advice regarding jolly old St Nick.

1. Tell children about the real St. Nick.
2. Let their imagination be their guide- not you.
3. Learn to love legends again.

Merry Christmas to All, and to all a Goodnight. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Reformation Sermon

Lutherans: Smart-alecks For Christ.

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. And Might I add, happy reformation day. The one day of the year when even the proudest Norwegian might have just a little bit of German in them. And why shouldn't they. Reformation day is the day that we can proclaim boldly those words that Martin Luther made famous: Here I stand, I can do no other. And on this day we have been given brilliant texts to communicate this occasion. Each of them contain a beacon of light for the people who they were written for. It starts in Jeremiah 31, which is one of my favorite texts in all of scripture. No longer shall you turn to your brother and say, 'Know the Lord' for all shall know me" From the least of them to the greatest. For I shall make a new covenant with them. I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more. Just a great verse. 500 years before Jesus we hear these words of forgiveness and new covenant.

And then there's Psalm 46, "God is our refuge and strength. An ever present help in our times of trouble. Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea... we shall not fear." These words of comfort came from captive Jews, who had to believe in the hope of the future, believe in a God who was big enough to follow them to Babylon. These words formed their sense of freedom in the face of captivity.

And of course we have these great words from Romans chapter 3, words that Martin Luther used time and again, "Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is Christ Jesus." This becomes the center point of martin Luther's argument against the catholic church and the selling of indulgences. Because he starts using these words "Solo Gracia" by grace alone we can be saved. There is nothing we can do to earn it. It's all what God does for us.

And of course these words from John, chapter 8. This discourse between the Jews and Jesus. They say they have never known slavery, because they are children of Abraham. Really? And Jesus says, "all who sin are slaves to sin. But the knowledge of the truth of God will set them free. These are all great texts, and each of them deserves their own sermon. And, put together, they are really a sermon of themselves, so, we could just sing A Might Fortress and go home.

But these texts have so much to offer us, and what I want to get across to you today, is that the Reformation ought to be as alive today as it was nearly 500 years ago. As we said with the Kids, we should be asking the questions. We should be working on our tradition. We should be forming it around these wonderful texts that have been past down to us.

I want to tell you my favorite story of the reformation that you've probably never heard. Do you remember a man by the name of John Tetzel? Tetzel, like pretzel with a "T" He was the man who was hired by the catholic church to go from town to town selling indulgences. He would go into the town square and talk to the crowds. He was known for two things. First, he would scare people. He would take his hand, and put it over an open flame. And he would talk about the evils of hell, and how there your flesh would burn, and he would put his hand into the flame and burn his own flesh. And the putrid smell of burning flesh would permeate the air and the people there would react out of fear for what he would tell them next. Tetzel's second famous thing was the catch phrase, "When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs."

This meant that if you gave money to the church, you would receive an indulgence that would move a loved one from purgatory to heaven. This one of the biggest offenses that Martin Luther was against. He would use things like we have here in Romans 3, and he would say, "No, no, no ,no. There's nothing you can do to earn it, it's a gift. A gift is free! There is nothing you can do to earn salvation, it is given to you. Well, anyway this man, John Tetzel goes around selling indulgences, as the Reformation is building. And Martin Luther keeps writing, and Gutenberg invents the printing press- you learned all of this in eighth grade history- right? Gutenberg starts printing Luther's works, and the documents proliferate German culture, and Luther translates the bible into German- the language of the people- for the first time. People can read it for the first time. And people start asking questions for the first time. And you get this rise of what I like to call, "Lutheran Smart-aleck" and they start showing up to John Tetzel's organized activities. And they start heckling him at his rallies, and booing him. And one man even goes up to Tetzel and asks, "can I buy an indulgence for a sin that I haven't committed yet? And Tetzel sells it to him. And later that day, the man and his friends jump Tetzel and beat him up. When Tetzel goes to press charges, the man shows up with his indulgence, signed by Tetzel himself on the same day saying that he is forgiven of his sin, and the man walks away a scot-free. This is what I mean by Lutheran smart-alecks. A couple of us are descendents of them.

So, things don't go well for John Tetzel. As the protest reformation grows and swells to an overwhelming amount of support, the catholic church has not choice but to scapegoat John Tetzel. They start blaming him for everything and they say, "it was all his idea, that not really our theology, what we meant was something closer to this, but John Tetzel, he did that all on his own, that wasn't done out of our jurisdiction, he was doing his own thing. And they excommunicate him. And they hid him deep in a monetary, away from the public eye, and his health starts to fade very quickly. And he's on his death bed- and on his death bed, John Tetzel receives a letter from Martin Luther. We don't know the contents of that letter, but if it's anything like everything else he wrote, it probably mentioned Romans chapter 3. He imagine it said, "John, don't you know that by grace that you have been saved, and there is nothing you can do to earn it. Don't you know that this is the gift given to you. Don't you know that this idea that you go to purgatory for your sins- that's bogus- don't you know that God gives you the gift of salvation and there is nothing you can do to earn it.

We do know the last line of that letter. Martin Luther writes, "I know that [this movement] has another father." Which is his way of saying that I know that you're not to blame, I know that you got scapegoated. You are forgiven. Tetzel died shortly after receiving this letter from Luther.

And I promise you he didn't spend a single day in purgatory. And it wasn't because he bought anything.

I love that story because it shows a Martin Luther who lives what he preaches. It tells a story of a guy who went out of his way to love his neighbor.

See, Luther has this idea of sin. He says sin is the heart curved in on itself. Luther says that sin is when we receive this gift of god and we try to horde it, we try to keep it, and hide God from the world. the heart is not meant to be curved in on itself, it is meant to be open. And when your heart is facing out, Luther says, your neighbors will see it and know it, and the will see in you God's grace that fills your life.

Luther says, now that we have nothing to do- we ought to love our neighbor. Now that we know there is nothing we should do or can do to earn salvation, we ought to turn our attention onto our neighbors and share with them the story that has been given us.

When I was 15 and 16, I started hanging out with these Christian friends. We would meet for bible studies at lunch, and after school. We got together to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which made little sense to any of us. But we tried it, all the same. And I started to realize that every time that we started to talk about salvation that I was sort of at odds with the group, and I realized that they were all Baptist or non-denoms and I was Lutheran. And we would talk about infant baptism, and they would say, how can you believe that you can be saved before you have faith, and you're just sprinkling water, you're not even dunking. And then one day they said, Daniel we're worried about you. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior? can you tell me about the time that you converted, and you came to Jesus? And I became really worried about my own salvation. I felt like I was speaking a different language.

And one day I came in and said, "I have recently been confirmed in the Lutheran church and there's a scripture passage that I would like to share with you and it's Ephesians 2: 8-10, it is by grace that we have been saved through faith, and not of works, so that no one can boast."

And would you believe it, one guy said to me, "I think you've got that backwards, I'm pretty sure that it is by faith that we have been saved through grace." So I said, "let's look it up."

Ephesians is clear, "by grace you have been saved," It ain't backwards. That's the way it is. God saves us before we do anything.  That's the point. That's the central narrative of Christ's life, death and resurrection.

A few days later this question came up again. We were at my house, it was around one or two in the morning. "Daniel, when were you saved? When do you come to Jesus."

I said, "Guys, I don't know what to tell you. I'm Lutheran. I didn't come to Jesus, Jesus came to me." Some of that Lutheran smart-aleck quality shining through there.

And I don't mean to make light of anyone else's faith, all I can do is tell my own story.

Jesus Christ came to me. I didn't go to him. That's the beauty of Lutheran theology that has been passed down to us for 500 years.

And I can tell you this. Of that group of guys, most of them went to seminary. And each of them, in turn, called me to say, "I just got a hold of Martin Luther's Basic Theological Works... I just read Freedom of a Christian for the first time... I just read Babylonian Captivity.... I just read Martin Luther's commentaries on Galatians... I just read his sermon on Ephesians, and I understand better Lutheran theology.

And I'm not saying that any of those guys converted to Lutheranism, but I am telling you this:

500 years later, Luther is the only theologian that you cannot do without if you are going to study theology. Luther is indispensable because of Solo Gracia, the idea that we are saved before we do anything.

And I want to say to you that I think our society needs more of that. I think we live in a meritocracy. What we think we earn is stuff that has been given to us by God. We live in a society that we think we earned it, whatever we have we earned using our own gumption and hard work. And I'm here to tell you Romans 3 and Ephesians 2, there is nothing we can do to earn the only gift that matters. I think our world could use a little more of that. So I want you to take your bulletins home with you to equip you in these conversations. The John text today says, "the truth will set you free"
If you need to have a conversation with someone, have it. You can say, I just want you to know, these are the texts I look to when I build my theology.

Just remember the difference that all of these writings made to the people they were written for.
Just as Jeremiah and the Psalmists were freeing to the Hebrews in captivity, and just as

Paul's writings were freeing to the Ephesians and the Romans, and just as

Luther's writings were freeing for John Tetzel, myself, and my friends,

who will your writings be freeing for? What will your good news look like?

When we continue to tell the story, others can find freedom in our truth. And that is the calling that we have as Lutherans. Because, let's be honest-  we are the reformers, we are the ones who are called to be smart-alecks, to ask the tough questions.

And we know this: God's grace isn't just for keeping- it's for sharing


Monday, October 22, 2012

Reformation Day and Halloween: A spooooooky coincidence?

Halloween has been a night about spirits and ghosts for over a millennium. But in the early part of the 16th century, the holiday underwent a revamping. The story goes that on All Hallows Eve in 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Thesis to the door of the church, marking the first Reformation Day. But why do it on Halloween?

 I'm glad you asked. For hundreds of years before Luther, the Catholic Church hated Halloween because it was believed to have pagan roots. In order to oppose the spreading of it, Pope Gregory IV started All Saints Day on November 1st in the year 835. Posting the 95 thesis on this day was an intentional effort to stir up the papacy. Nailing it to the doors of the church the day before All Saints Day made sense, because it was one of the biggest days of the church year and would be seen by lots of eyeballs. Fun Fact: the church in Wittenberg was commonly referred to as The Church of All Saints.
            The 95 thesis was predominately railing against the selling of indulgences- which were pieces of paper to get you (or your loved one) out of purgatory and into heaven. Thesis 86 says, "Why does the Pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?" Ouch. The problem with indulgences for Luther (other than stripping poor people of their money) is that they suggested that anything other than God's grace alone would land us in heaven. What's more, part of the festival of All Saints Day in Wittenberg also included viewing ancient relics, which were items that we said to have belonged to Saints of old. Similar to indulgences, it was believed that viewing these relics could shorten your time in purgatory. Luther was undoubtedly against this practice as well, and perhaps his posting his letter to the Pope on Halloween was also his protest to the local community.
            And forever since, Lutherans and Halloween have been taken together. Luther intentionally used the holiday as his vehicle to the Reformation to "frighten" the Pope into a dialogue. A conversation he was never fully granted.  
The pagans believed that Halloween was a day for conversation between the living and the dead. They believed that October 31st was the last day of the year, when the door between the land of the living and the land of the dead was opened so that old souls could seek resolution to their lives on earth. And, after the dead had said their piece, the idea was that the living would wear masks and costumes to scare them back to their own world. How Spiderman and Snow White became acceptable costumes for the task: I'm not sure.
But I do know this. In Mexico, All Saints day is called Día de los Muertos or "Day of the Dead," which is a conglomeration of Halloween and All Saints Day. And from what I have seen, this is predominately happy celebration. Every year our men's mission trip was met with the awesome site of Día de los Muertos, where thousands of people gathered in cemeteries, bringing sugar skulls, flowers, and colorful garments to the grave-site of their loved ones. It's about honoring the previous generations, recounting their lives and remembering what they taught us. 
Halloween and Reformation Day ought to inspire us in the same way. We have a lot to learn from all the Saints that came before us. And yet, we do not live in the past. We must also live with the "spirit" of Luther and perpetually work for a better church and a brighter future. The future shouldn't be scary for our young trick-or-treaters.
So grab your small catechism and your Spiderman mask: it's going to be a long night.
Spookily Submitted,
Pastor Daniel Pugh

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Ethics of a Democracy

What one word would you use to describe the government? Think about it.

Do you see that word as positive or negative?

In a recent poll, people were asked to come up with one word to describe the government. Most people came up with a similar answer to my own: Government is Big. And we don't usually use the word "big" here in a positive sense. I have seen a lot of rhetoric lately that places "Big Government" as the cause of many of our problems. Politicians on both sides have talked about deregulation of the private sector as a good thing, and it seems every person who has an opinion is pushing for smaller government.

But is smaller government better? I'm speaking here, ethically, of course. I am a no politician.

What I am is a concerned minister. I search for ethics in a world that desperately needs them. And although I'd shy away from calling myself an "expert" on ethics, I am most definitely in the business of ethics. 
Enter Kohlberg, who says that most people think at a stage 4. The government runs at a stage 5. Those of us who see universal ethics as the key to a better future, are operating at a stage 6. Kohlberg is concerned with our moral reasoning, not necessarily our moral action. It is our moral reasoning- regardless of our moral action- in which we participate in politics. After studying Piaget's stages of development, Kohlberg adapted them and then tested them. For reference, you can use the chart below:

 As you can see, we work our way through these levels. Kohlberg says that most people never get out of level four. Which means that most Americans are probably fours. Above you can see that for fours, rules are paramount."Fours" tend to they take care of and prefer their own family to others and to view ethics as belonging to "the group". Because of the group mentality, "Fours" tend to root for the sports team from their city exclusively and conveniently think their opinions are the only right ones. "Fours" are likely to think that the Bible is perfect and unquestionable, that authority is authority and that breaking rules and laws should have far-reaching consequences. Because of this, "Fours" tend to push for their beliefs/opinions to become laws.

The next step up the ladder is Stage 5.
From Wikipedia:
In Stage five (social contract driven), the world is viewed as holding different opinions, rights and values. Such perspectives should be mutually respected as unique to each person or community. Laws are regarded as social contracts rather than rigid edicts. Those that do not promote the general welfare should be changed when necessary to meet “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”. This is achieved through majority decision, and inevitable compromise. Democratic government is ostensibly based on stage five reasoning.

Indeed, I mentioned that the U.S. Government runs at a level five, according to Kohlberg himself. Simple majority almost never runs our country- just ask Al Gore. We have an electoral college because it is more fair to represent the country than a simple majority. Most votes in Congress require more than a simple majority to pass. We have rights that protect minority groups, such as Affirmative Action and Title IX.

So here we are: Stage 6.
(universal ethical principles driven), moral reasoning is based on abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles. Laws are valid only insofar as they are grounded in justice, and a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. Legal laws are unnecessary, as social contracts are not essential for moral action. Decisions are not reached hypothetically in a conditional way but rather categorically in an absolute way. This involves an individual imagining what they would do in another’s shoes, if they believed what that other person imagines to be true.The resulting consensus is the action taken. In this way action is never a means but always an end in itself; the individual acts because it is right, and not because it is instrumental, expected, legal, or previously agreed upon. Although Kohlberg insisted that stage six exists, he found it difficult to identify individuals who consistently operated at that level.

The belief for many is that deregulation and free economy is more free and natural. But is it more ethical? 
The idea is that if people are given the freedom to choose for themselves, then people will make the right decisions for themselves. I know- wretched man that I am- for that not to be true.Tell churches that are trying to worship God that they are the only ones left to feed the poor and hungry with their limited resources and see how that works out. Give individuals money that should be saved for my retirement or health care, and see where that money ends up. Put me in a room with fried chicken and sweet tea- things I know to be bad for me- and see what happens. How long can we 
 allow people to harm themselves and others        in the name of freedom?

So should the government be big or small? I don't know.  But what I do know is that most people operate in stage 4 and our democracy operates in stage 5.

There is something else, something obvious. Kohlberg believed that showing people the steps to take could actually improve their moral reasoning; meaning, people are not destined to stay in the level where they currently find themselves.

Remember, there is no need for big government at Stage 6. Think of Stage 6 Icons such as Jesus, Ghandi and MLK. Each of them worked against an oppressive government. Each of them acted because the action was in tune with their moral compass. And, each of them protested nonviolently.

 If you want smaller government, the simplest answer seems to be to raise your self up by your own ethical bootstraps. Become more ethical than the government. Now wouldn't that be radical? 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sermon: Change your Mind

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Changing one’s mind is not a popular idea in American culture. 

Especially for Politicians. We call them flip-flippers and waverers.

 I know as a Parent, changing your mind is seen as a weakness. If my children see even the slightest notion in my eyes that I might change my mind about something, they pounce on me like a wounded animal on the Serengeti.  
Changing your mind is not widely appreciated in our politicians, our judges and juries, military leaders, our clergy people, or basically any leader in our culture.

It is because we view changing your mind as a sign of weakness.
And yet, the more I read scripture, I wonder about God. Does God change God’s mind?
Whatever the answer is, this is a problem!
If God doesn’t change God’s mind, then we have a problem. If God is immovable, then what’s the point in asking God to intercede on our behalf. I believe in intercessory prayer. When I got to visit people in the hospital, I pray that God may intercede, that God may offer healing and mercy for the person in the bed.
But if God does change God’s mind, then we have a different problem. Then, it seems like God can be manipulated. It seems like if I pray the right way, then I can get that sports car. Or, if I dance a certain way, then I can make it rain. Somehow we need a God who is flexible but not too flexible.
One thing is for sure, the God of the Old Testament isn’t afraid to change his mind.
In the 18th chapter of Genesis, we Find Abraham pleading with God to save the righteous people of Soddom and Gomorrah.
Abraham asks God, “Suppose there are 50 righteous in the city, will you destroy it?”
And what if 5 of the 50 are lacking?
What if there are only 40 faithful, will you still destroy the city?
Eventually Abraham haggles with God to save the city if God finds 10 righteous people there. As the story goes, indeed the only people who are found righteous there are Lot and his family, and God intercedes on their behalf.   
Even earlier than that, in Genesis chapter 3, God indeed changes God’s mind. He tells Adam and Eve that if they eat from the tree of knowledge they will die. We sometimes interpret this to mean that God meant that he would make them mortal and kick them out of paradise. But that’s now what the Hebrews meant. The story goes that God said they would die if they ate, and after they ate, God saved them from death and instead exiled them. This is a God who changes his mind.   
In our Gospel lesson today, God the Son makes a trip far way to Tyre. He goes out of the way, perhaps for some rest and relaxation, to find a place where no one knows who he is. But his reputation precedes him, and this woman comes asking for help with her daughter who is dying. Jesus says:
27 He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
This is a grave insult, in any culture.
And she answers: "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
This is Mark 7. Earlier in this gospel, Jesus has already preformed the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 where there was food left over. Apparently this woman believes that Jesus has salvation in abundance.
Jesus says, miraculously, “"For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter."
She gets him to change His mind and convinces him that she was capable of receiving his grace. The word “table” shows up twice in Mark’s gospel, here, and when Jesus is turning over the tables in the temple. There is a parallel to that scene here, whereby the woman is “turning the tables” on Jesus.  
After that, Jesus continues his journey to the Decapolis, another Gentile area.
He goes there in hopes of R and R. Again his reputation precedes him.
A man is brought before him who is deaf and mute. Jesus speaks the words to open the heavens, and the man is healed.
Jesus puts up no fuss this time. Is it that Jesus was in a better mood this time, or did that woman in the previous story change Jesus mind about all gentiles?
Think back again to that phrase from last week’s text, “It is not what goes into a person’s mouth that makes them unclean, it is what comes out of it”
The woman’s tongue changed Jesus’ mind, just as this man’s tongue, which was unusable previously, can now go and preach the gospel. What comes out of the mouth in both stories is profession of faith in Jesus.
The heavens have opened up, and God has expanded his chosen people to all people, even the most marginalized because of nationality, gender, or handicap.
By healing this man, Jesus has fulfilled the promise read in the Old Testament lesson of Isaiah and guaranteed that he represents the same God of the Old Testament.
The God we worship today is the same God willing to change his mind for Adam and Eve, for Abraham and Lot, for the Woman and her Daughter, and this man and his friends.
Because the one thing that has never changed about God is God’s willingness to go to great lengths for us.
But make no mistake about it- God does Change.
He started with a covenant with Israel, a covenant which they broke. So God did a new thing, he sent his Son to save us. You could say, if you wanted, that that was the plan all along, that God doesn’t change.
But throughout scripture, God listens to his people and reacts out of love for them. God listens to us, because, well, that is what a relationship is.
Being in a relationship is about , making room, making time, making space for the other. God made time. God made space. Literally.
And remember this:   
Once upon a time, God changed his mind about you. You were a condemned sinner, a gentile unacceptable for salvation. But by the grace of God you were saved, not because you deserved it, but because God interceded on your behalf.
So today, let’s take a lesson from God.
Being willing to change your mind is not a position of weakness. It just means that you are in a relationship with other people. And that’s a good thing.
How many of us men would go unloved if we hadn’t convinced a good woman to change her mind about us?
Let’s face it. You’ll do crazy things for the people you love.
Just ask him.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Kumbaya: Fire in the Fourth Gospel

I'm listening to Zac Brown Band's "Stuck in colder weather" and it got me thinking about the changes our beautiful earth will cultivate over the next couple of months. Here in North Carolina, we'll go from hot to cool, with leaves abounding, and although I'll continue to dress appropriate for work, I'll be wishing I could return to my seminary wardrobe of bluejeans and hoodies. I love the fall. My birthday is fast approaching (I'll be 29- lame) along with football, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. Also, the house we are renting has a fireplace. Many people who know me know that I love a good fire, whether roasting marshmallows (one time I cooked an entire Totino's pizza over the open flame) indoors or building a bonfire by placing old Christmas trees through a wood-chipper. I love fires for their warmth, their beauty, and their ability to bring people close together.

When I was a youth director, every year we would take a mission trip to Mexico to build houses. Every night by the campfire we'd sing songs, tell stories, and grow closer to God. When I left that church to head to seminary, it was around that campfire that I said goodbye. Like all fires, this one came, roared, and eventually went out.

The writer of the fourth Gospel (we'll call him John) is one of the best writers I have ever read. No kidding- this guy is better than Shakespeare. The Gospel of John is one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. There is so much rich depth, skill, intentionality, and long-running themes unlike anything else ever written.

For example, John opens his gospel with a re-writing of Genesis 1, a theme he is devoted to throughout. He uses the symbolism of still water and running water/ light and dark/ day and night/ up and down/ etc. to show how God reveals God's self most fully in Jesus Christ and throughout all creation. John writes that creation isn't complete until Jesus dies. His last words on the cross, "It is finished" are the same last words uttered by God in Genesis 1.

Jesus is the epitome of God's good creation, and sin (according to John's gospel) is simple disbelief that Jesus is God's son. So when Peter denies knowing Jesus three times, he is of course, committing the one sin. And wouldn't you know it, where is Peter when he denies Christ for a third time? He's warming himself by a campfire.

Fire is good when it helps us cook food, sanitize objects, and warm our bodies. Fire is bad when when we let it burn us, when we fear it, when it makes us think of hell. There is no hell, really, in John's Gospel. Just fire.

Earlier that night, Jesus is confronted outside the garden of Gethsemane ( a clever parallel to the garden of Eden) and the guards ask him for Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, three times, responds, "I am he" The words, "I am" are big in John as they are in Genesis, because only God says, "I am." Conversely, when Peter asks if he is associated with Jesus, he says, "I am not" because he is scared. He goes to the campfire for earthly comfort and warmth. In the flickering of the firelight someone recognizes him and asks for the third time, this man being a relative of the man whose ear Peter cut off. This man says to Peter, "Didn't I see you in the Garden?" Again, such wonderful allusion to the Garden of Eden, as God looks for Adam when he is hiding after his sin. Peter denies being in the garden to the brother of the man he assaulted in the garden, as they sit watching the fire. When Peter denies it this time, the rooster crows. It is now morning. The dark night has passed away. The fire is no longer necessary for light and heat. A new day, a new creation, a new chance to seek God is dawning. Of course, this is the day that Jesus dies. It is the day that He gives up his spirit, his Holy Spirit, which he promised to leave behind when he exits this world. This is the day that Jesus finishes Creation.

We pick up in John 21*

Three (or four) days later, again after daybreak, Peter, John and some other disciples are fishing but not catching. They see Jesus from far away, and he asks them to put their nets on the other side of the boat. When they see all the fish they catch, Peter jumps into the water and swims to Jesus, having now recognized his Lord. And guess what Jesus had prepared for them. Yep- a fire. By this fire he and Peter have "the talk" of reconciliation. Three times- the number of times that Peter denied knowing Jesus- Jesus now asks Peter if he loves him. Peter grows indignant. "You know that I love you," he says. Jesus responds, "Follow me," which are first words that Jesus said to him when asking him to be a disciple.

The circle is complete. Peter was a fishermen, Jesus came and told him to follow him. Peter denies knowing Jesus by the fire, and at the second fire Jesus forgives him.  He again tells Peter to follow him.

The inclusion of the fire is to show the link between these two stories of denial/repentance or fear/trust. In the archetypal sense,  fire represents, "knowledge, light, life, and rebirth," all of which are happening in the second fireside scene. Perhaps this is why I have always liked fires so much.

Have a Happy Fall everybody.

*John 21 was an added text by the editor of John's Gospel. While it follows the same themes as the rest of the book, it also pick up on stories that are in Luke, not John. Peter, James, and John are fishermen at the beginning of Luke where Jesus says, "Follow me." The editor weaves the stories together to form one narrative.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Kids Brought Me Back

The Kids Brought Me Back
by Pastor Daniel Pugh
“Daddy, how come there aren’t any dinosaurs at the zoo?”
A fine question for a three-year old. It belongs to my son, Jacob, as he turns back to the entrance of the zoo and begs us to return and find the dinosaur habitat. “Dinosaurs,” I say, “are all gone. They died a long time ago.” I answer timidly wondering how to approach death on a massive scale to a sponge-like and often sensitive mind. We continued leaving the zoo. My answer had sufficed... or so I thought.
A few days later the question of Dinosaurs comes up again. Jacob looked deep in thought as he spoke, “Daddy, did Dinosaurs die a long time ago, like Jesus?”
After first considering whether or not I should comment on his confusing the Cretaceous period with the Roman Empire, I decide to simply answer his question:
“Yes. Along time ago like Jesus. Except Jesus rose from the dead and is now in heaven.”
I waited for his rebuttal: “Well, aren’t there dinosaurs in heaven?”
His line of questioning seems so matter-of-fact. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was scripted. I wonder if, someday, he’ll be a lawyer...He’s staring at me, I’d better answer:
“Heaven is a wonderful place” is all I can manage to say. He seems momentarily satisfied, but now I’m less sure of things.  
The thought of T-Rexes awaiting us at the pearly gates is an image I cannot seem to get out of my head. Since that conversation a year ago, my thoughts of the afterlife are colorful and imaginative scenes where all things are possible and all dreams can be realized. Prior to this encounter I had imagined the afterlife as a place where people sit in La-Z-Boys made out of clouds, but now that utopia seems boring. Where is the creativity? Where are the dinosaurs? I now see this former vision as what it really is: a sedentary lifestyle devoid of work.
At the time of this conversation, I was a pastoral intern (or Vicar) whose work was taking over my life so much that my notion of heaven was designed around avoiding it. I began to realize that this is spiritually and theologically dangerous for me as a pastor.
It starts out innocently enough, a council meeting here, a confirmation class there. Then there’s new members classes and home-communions; liturgies, bible studies, and sermons to prepare for. Every time I left the house, Jacob asks me if I’m headed to “work,” a question to which he already knows the answer. He asks, I imagine, as if to “let the records show” that I’m out the door again. And as the court reporter in my mind hacks away at a typewriter, the bailiff and judge in my mind shake their head simultaneously.
Here’s the problem: I like what I do. And it is not the hours that I spend at “work” that were the problem- it is that I find it irresistible to stop working once I’ve left the office. I write sermons in the shower. I plan bible studies while playing with the kids. I construct emails in my head while I eat. Over the period of a couple of months I had found myself always spinning my wheels. If I couldn’t sleep I would get up and check email, or check for more sermon ideas.
Clergy burn-out is something taught in seminary. But like most things that need to be learned, it is best learned the hard way. I was burning out. I had found a use for every second of the day. I answered emails within seconds of their arrival. I was on-top of everything: the master of my domain. But spiritually I was running on empty. I was like that race-car driver who refused to take the pit stop and was going to ride of fumes until the finish-line. Except, in my case, there was no finish-line in sight. I hadn’t prayed in weeks. I hadn’t taken the time to read scripture or listen to my own thoughts. I had thought that efficiency was the key, but I was dead wrong. I now realize that when it comes to being a good pastor, efficiency is not effectiveness.
After finishing internship I was given a book by a friend. This book is the memoir or renowned writer Eugene Peterson, and it is simply titled, The Pastor. In it Peterson recalls his own run-in with burn out, where it had gotten so bad that he tried to resign. In a meeting with the church elders, he explains, “I pray in fits and starts. I feel like I’m in a hurry all the time. When I visit or have lunch with you, I’m not listening to you; I’m thinking of ways that I can get the momentum going again. I don’t want to live like this, either with you or with my family… I want to be a pastor who prays, I want to be an unbusy pastor.” For Peterson as it was for me, his efforts to be efficient were eating away at his calling. We feel called to be ministers, but we get stuck administering. For Peterson, stopping ‘work’ long enough to have this conversation with the church elders awakened his calling and renewed his spiritual being.
As for me, there was only one person who could get me out of my funk. My favorite theologian, the person I plagiarize in all of my sermons, my son Jacob. After a day at his Lutheran Preschool, Jacob turned to me and asked, “Daddy, how can God be in everything?”
I froze. The hamster wheel in my brain stopped. My heart-rate slowed down for the first time in a long time. I picked my oldest boy up and hugged him, grateful for lifting the spell that was over me. Out of the fog I searched my mind for a satisfactory answer to the first true theological question I had pondered in months. Finally an answer came, not from my logical thought process, or the automated biblical messages I was used to giving people, but from my own sense of self. “Because God made us that way. There is part of God in everything. That is how we love.”
“Even rocks?”
“Yes, even rocks.”
Our other son, Thomas, is 19 months old. I can already tell that he will push me to grow in new and brave ways like his older brother does. There is something about kids that stretch your limits of time, sleep, and imagination. It was my kids that brought me back. I started praying again, seeing again, believing again.
Around this time every year I think about all the kids out there who show up to Sunday School. Kids whose parents were brought back to church after years of being away, wanting their families’ lives to be shaped by the church. I pray that new and casual worshipers are given a warm welcome. I also pray for parents who don’t believe, and I wonder how they get by. I hope they find networks of people who love and care for them as well.
They say that it takes the whole village to raise a child; but to me it takes a village of children to remind the rest of us what life is about.   As Paul tells us, “love knows no bounds.” And when I think about it, kids know no bounds. Dinosaurs in heaven, rocks that love us, fathers who are worth talking to even when they are clearly disengaged. Kids are amazing. They bring us back. May they one day teach the rest of us to act like children of God.  
-Pr Pugh