This blog is meant to be an encouragement to you as you journey through your day. If you have a question about the life of faith, please feel free to email me. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I welcome the conversation.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Reprising this blog from last December.

Advent Blessings!

Over the last several years, there has been quite a bit of consternation from Christians about what they perceive to be the "unChristianizing" of American culture. Now, I have quite a bit to say about that, and we could probably have a good time discussing it, but I'm not going to delve into that big picture conversation today. Rather, I am going to address just one small bite of it.

There are folks who get exercised because government entities, businesses, and media seem to avoid the traditional "Merry Christmas" greeting in favor of a more generic "Happy Holidays." Or, they are offended that some folks list out several other holiday greetings along with Christmas. Or public schools have "holiday" or "winter" programs rather than the explicitly Christmas programs of their youth.

I'm going to try and be kind here, and I mean this in all true love and affection:


There are many things to be offended about in our society that are explicitly anti-Christian, including the general coarsening of our culture. More importantly, there are aspects of our society that explicitly draw folks away from the love and grace of God and lead to idolatry, such as consumerism and idolatrous nationalism. If we were talking about those, I would be interested in participating.

But getting offended because someone greets you with "Happy Holidays!" Seriously?

The truth is, we cannot expect our local, state, or federal government - in all its manifestations, including public schools, and the public square - to explicitly tell the story of Jesus. We cannot expect businesses to go out of their way to remind folks of the true reason for the season. We cannot expect the media to get the Christian story correct. After all, every time I see a news article, TV report or internet story reporting on something about which I have a direct connection, the media gets it wrong.

It's not the government's job to declare the Incarnation. It's not the bottom-line mission of most businesses to  preach the gospel. And it's not the media's responsibility to bless us with the message of the birth of the Savior.

It's the job of the church.

And if my community is being inundated with the message of "BUY, BUY, BUY" but not hearing about a virgin with child who is the Messiah, then it is the fault of my church and the other churches in our community. And if our children are so busy learning "Jingle Bells" and other secular songs - and even songs that celebrate the holidays of other groups and traditions - and are not learning the songs of the real meaning of Christmas, that is not a failure of our schools, but a failure of our Christian homes.

The story of Christmas is our story to tell. We tell it first with our lives, with how we treat people all year long. And by building relationships, we earn the right to tell them about the Christ and how his birth changes everything.

And, to be honest, I would much prefer that people smile at me and say "Happy Holidays" then swear at me with a frown and a look that can kill. Although, I must admit, that doesn't happen as much in rural Pennsylvania as it used to in Boston.

Some of those folks could make "Merry Christmas" sound like a curse.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

We're Not Dead Yet

Guest Writer - Carissa Schutz
September 20, 2013
We're not dead yet
I want to dedicate this post to some of my favorite people in the whole world: my cousins. Right now we are all in a state of transition, including starting a new school year, starting high school, celebrating a 1st birthday, turning 18, starting college, living off campus, starting a new internship, starting grad school, and beginning married life. I love you all and you inspire me: )

I also want to apologize for the overuse of parentheticals, caps, and exclamation points!
There is a concept in literacy education that students should be given materials that are at their level plus one. The idea is that reading should be challenging, yet within reach. I think this is also a theory in exercise, but I wouldn't know because I haven't exercised in a while.

Teachers should provide their students with appropriate material. Any objections? I didn't think so. We would all agree, I hope, that students should be challenged in a supportive, encouraging environment.

So why...and I mean WHY... do we sell ourselves short?

In an incredibly informal study of everyone I know, the majority of people said WOW, MONGOLIA.

80% of people said "YOU are so BRAVE." (And I don't think they were referencing my resemblance to the Disney character in the movie of the same name. I think they're under the mistaken impression that anything awesome about going abroad was somehow related to my personality. Nope.)

50% of people said "I could NEVER do that." And unfortunately I think they really meant it. People, and yeah I mean some of YOU, think that if they were called to a foreign place (or a crazy new job, etc...follow the metaphor...), they could not go. Not that they don't want to go. But that they are somehow incapable. So I wonder, what other things do you think you can not do? And what do you think our Father can not call you to? And do you think He will not call you because you say you are not able? Are you perhaps trying to pull a Moses, literally and metaphorically stuttering in disbelief? Huh? Huh?

I'm a little passionate about this. I know. But recently I've heard people my own age complain about how boring life is. (And how boring Christians are, but THAT'S a topic for another time!) And yeah, sure, there are times where work or school or life's responsibilities are not super thrilling. However, our Father is doing crazy stuff in your neighborhood, your town, and around the world. Shut up any voices that say you can't be a part of this exciting work. (And if you don't think it is exciting, you are not really seeing it, my friends.)
Our Father is the best TEACHER there is. He knows all about giving his students material that will challenge them. He knows exactly what each student needs to learn and grow. For example, He knows that on my own, I'll choose to reread Harry Potter instead of Steinbeck, and watch episodes of Fringe instead of reading, say, the newspaper. I don't really like to challenge myself.

I also don't have an accurate idea of what I'm capable of. I spent the first week of grad school being completely overwhelmed by all the super smart people around me. And then the professor said 90% of our grade is class participation, so now I have to talk in front of these people! But THEN a classmate asked me for advice because I seemed to know everything and she seemed overwhelmed! (I'm not kidding, that totally happened.) While I know this semester will be ridiculously difficult, I'm not out of my league here. I'm just being challenged. It's a "plus one" situation. (Or maybe if you saw my homework for this weekend a "plus three hundred" situation.)

The point is, who am I to tell my heavenly Father that He can't call me to certain things? I would never let a student tell me he wasn't smart enough for a class assignment. Let's stop underestimating what Love can do to, with, and through us. At the very least we need to be open to the possibility that there is an adventure around the corner.

For more blog posts by Carissa Schutz, visit http://beyondideas.blogspot.com/

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Different Perspective on "Plagiarism" in Preaching

I've been reading several books on the history of preaching, most recently Richard Lischner's excellent The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr and the Word That Moved America.

I am about to make some sweeping generalizations, in order to encourage discussion.

I think the concern some have expressed over plagiarism in preaching is misplaced. It seems that our concerns in this area come from a desire to make a connection between preaching and academic research - that the work of constructing a sermon is comparable to writing a term paper or essay. And this is not surprising. After all, most of us learned the means of constructing a sermon from our professors - academics at home in the world of research and necessarily obsessive about documentation.

However, preaching is not really like writing a research paper. It is the telling of a story. Really, it is the retelling of a story. And we pull as much from the "oral tradition," the years of hearing the same story told multiple times, as we do from any commentary or other secondary source.

An illustration: I suggest that it would be pedantic if we were to hold FDR accountable for failing to attribute his famous quote, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," because he neglected to document the quote as a paraphrase from Seneca the Younger. Of course, you would lose points on your high school paper if you did not do so - if your high school teacher knew enough to accurately translate Seneca, or even knew enough to look it up. However, we recognize that FDR had more important things to do in his first inaugural address than cite proper sources. Nor do we criticize MLKJr for misquoting FDR as "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." My point is - we don't care whether or not the statement is original to FDR. We only care that it was exactly the right thing to say to move a nation to action in the middle of the Great Depression.

The problem comes, it seems to me, when we are forced to suggest that anything we are saying is an original idea. Not only is what we are preaching not original, but we should not strive for it to be. If I am telling the story that has been told for thousands of years, if I have an original thought or perspective, that should serve as a red flag that I am not correctly telling the story. After all, my task as preacher is, in the words of C.S. Lewis (note the attribution) not so much to offer something new, as to remind the congregation of that which they have heard many times but seem to have forgotten. Possibly more accurately, we are called to be like the grandparent who, sitting on the front porch or around the campfire, is asked to "tell us the story again," the story that was told to me by my grandparents.

When I was a college chaplain, I had the opportunity to bring to our campus a gifted preacher and storyteller. Now I knew that some of the stories he told were not original to him, even though he presented them that way. (Truthfully, he did receive some flack for this from other well-known preachers, but he really didn't care.) All I know is that the students who heard him, some 20 years later, still speak of these moments in chapel as seminal to their walk with the Lord.

Now, this is not offered as an excuse for preachers not to do their homework, to reference the scholarly research in order to rightly divide the word. Nor am I suggesting it is appropriate for preachers to pull entire sermons off their shelves or off the internet and present them as their own. What I am suggesting is that we do a disservice to the preaching enterprise when we tie it to the rules and rigors of academic research, an activity that is meant to enlighten, but not meant to move people to passionate action, as preaching is called to do.

Do we really think anyone in our congregation wants to hear multiple citations?  Are we expecting every preacher should have the burden of writing "original" material every Sunday? I don't think so.

What do you think?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Hard and Holy Conversations

Over the last few weeks I have participated in some interesting conversations.
Should national flags be in the church sanctuary – and who gets to decide?
Is marriage a civil relationship the church blesses, or a sacred covenant of the church that the state chooses to recognize?
Is it possible for the church to have a reasonable conversation with and about believers who are homosexual and choosing abstinence, when we really don’t have a fully developed theology of human sexuality?
What is the role of the church in addressing unjust societal conditions, when the congregation disagrees on what would constitute justice?
Is it a legitimate kingdom response for the church to provide food and clothing assistance to those who are in the US illegally? What about for those who are citizens, but who have developed a generational lifestyle of reliance on handouts?
Is it appropriate for a Christian to share his opinion concerning what he considers to be the inappropriate actions of the government, knowing there are those in the congregation who have participated in similar activities, and will be highly offended by his words?
How can the church respond to those whose presentation of the gospel is diametrically opposed to what we believe to be Christian?
How should the church respond to someone who has violated the congregation’s trust?
Is the drinking or not drinking of alcohol a matter of personal preference, or evidence of Christian holiness, or an issue of creating a loving environment for those who struggle? How much should the church speak to such questions of personal behavior?

And the list just keeps going.

I have been involved in these conversations with members of my own congregation, with other pastors in our community, and with friends and colleagues from around the world. Spurred on by Dan Boone’s excellent book A Charitable Discourse, I have invited folks to "gather around the table” and discuss topics that the church tends to avoid. Some of them are essential for the Christian life, some not so much. But all of them produce strong opinions. As we have had these conversations, here is what I have found.

1.    A lot of folks assume that everyone else agrees with them. In fact, as you read the list, you might have thought, “Well, that’s obvious. Of course the answer is _____.” What do you say to those who don’t think in the same “obvious” way you do?
2.      Quite a few people consider conversation about these and other uncomfortable and potentially divisive issues as to not be worth the trouble. And I certainly understand. After all, we value relationships, and we don’t want to hurt feelings.  Except these conversations are important. You see, many of our young people are having these and even harder conversations outside the church. Shouldn’t we be able to talk about such things together.
3.      Pastors are no better at talking about these issues than anyone else. We might even be worse. We tend to be conflict-averse. We often feel like we are supposed to be the expert. We know that when we share our opinion, even when we try to clearly differentiate between our personal perspective and our pastoral conviction, it isn’t often heard that way.

After reading Dr. Boone’s book, and after participating in numerous hard and holy conversations, I am convinced of their importance for the health of the local church and for our denomination. Gathering around the table to have honest conversations about potentially divisive issues, we are able to live out the essential tension of our Wesleyan theological perspective – the via media  – the middle road. By this we do not mean muddled, sloppy thinking that refuses to define parameters of right belief in the name of pleasant relationships. Rather, we seek doctrinal clarity in an environment that demonstrates holy love and grace. Believing correctly should not be the adversary of loving one another. How we finish conversations – whether we still love one another and value one another’s perspective – is as important as the points argued.

The ability to have hard and holy conversations begins with a skill that seems to be lacking in our cultural discourse – the ability to listen. It is absolutely essential that we take time to hear one another’s story in order to frame each other’s opinion within the larger picture of their lives. For example, to use the illustrations stated above, children of alcoholics may have a very different perspective than those who were raised in an environment where alcohol was used but not abused. Those who have several gay friends or family members may have life experiences that dramatically color their picture of those issues. Can I sit with you, listen to your story, and take the time to hear?  Can I refuse to place you into the political, religious, and social categories we often use as a shorthand to define, minimize and even demonize one another?

It is important that we not gloss over how difficult some of these conversations can be. For some, they are the front line of reaching their generation with the gospel; for others they are the issues which indicate a loss of the faith of previous generations.

Last week, in the middle of one such conversation, I read the opinion of an articulate friend whose perspective differed from my own. She didn’t change my mind, but she helped me to see the value of the conversation. And in that moment, I realized that this was exactly the kind of issue that would have led some people to leave the church just a few years prior. And I thought – “Is this difference worth breaking fellowship?” “How can I, as a pastor, create an environment where we can talk of such things?”

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What We're Not Having

Recently, I joined with three other adults and we took a trip. One of the things that become apparent right away was that stopping for a meal was not as easy as it used to be.

One is a vegetarian.
Two are gluten-intolerant.

We just couldn't pull up to the rest stop Mickey D's and order whatever sounded tempting. Did you know that McDonald's adds gluten to their fries? Did you know that many restaurants add pancake batter to their omelets?

And since the reason for the trip was a wedding, there was the reception. And the rehearsal dinner. Three of us don't drink alcohol. I've known for a long time that I would probably handle certain social situations better if I did drink. Doing life sober when you are an introvert should get me some extra points, don't you think?

Which brings me to my point.

There once was a time when certain folks understood holiness to be primarily about what folks didn't do. "No, I don't do that."
"No, I don't go there."
"No, I won't be having any of that."

(When I was in college and being introduced to this way of thinking, a girl turned me down for a date by informing me that good Christian girls don't go to the Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey Circus. It wasn't the first nor the last time I was turned down, but it certainly was the most unusual.)

The folks that believed holiness was primarily about what you didn't do also believed that this lifestyle would be attractive to those who did those things. That abstinence would encourage folks to ask about the Jesus who was supposedly behind all of this. (Yeah, I know -Jesus went to a wedding and turned water into wine. That requires some of the most creative biblical exegesis imaginable.)

Well, I don't drink. and I still think it is a pretty good choice. I don't consider myself better than those who do drink, but doing life sober - apart from the awkward social situations  - is the best choice for me. However, I would suggest that what we don't do is not near as attractive as what we do: things like loving our neighbor as ourself, showing compassion, and turning the other cheek.

You know - like Jesus did.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Remembering a Bad Time

On this week, 35 years ago, as a 22 year old, I traveled from my parents' home in the suburbs of Baltimore to Columbus, OH. A month earlier I graduated from college, and was now about to pursue my first graduate degree - a M.A. in counseling at The Ohio State University.

It was the worst year of my life.

While I had experienced anxiety in the past, and had even tried - and failed - at talking to a therapist, everything just got worse once I arrived in Columbus. I experienced panic attacks, followed by anticipatory anxiety. then free-floating anxiety. For a number of reasons, I lost connection with my college friends, and failed to develop new relationships. I was fairly competent in my coursework, but pretty much failed at the normal logistics of everyday life. I was okay at work (cataloging and shelving books in the OSU law library and working with junior high kids of divorced parents), but otherwise could not figure out how to do life.

You would think that, as the year drew to a close, I would have been excited to finish up and get out of that place. However, the anxiety just got worse. I was afraid to be alone, yet did not know how to relate to others. On one occasion, out of desperation, I asked some people I knew if I could just sleep on their couch. I needed to know that I was not losing my mind. They saw my heightened state of anxiety and stayed up with me. We sat up, talked philosophy (even though I was the only one interested in the subject), and played cards. And we prayed. They saw I needed the human contact, even though I seemed to have forgotten how to respond to it. Their ministry of presence was a saving grace to me that night.

Looking back, remembering that year, I am thankful for it.

I learned that I experience life differently from other people. I learned that I know little about the normal human interaction that most folks take for granted, and is the core of their relational life.I learned that I may never be very good at the daily, normal activities of life. However, I also learned that I have an acute awareness of the existential pain that is just under the surface for many of my fellow humans, and I can often see it in their eyes, and hear it in their voice.

Mostly, I learned that there is such a thing as a ministry of presence, and it is often the most helpful way to offer grace in the world. I can let others know that they are seen and heard, that they are not alone. I can let them know that they are not being judged, categorized or critiqued. I can let them know that I was once where they are, and am not there now. But I remember.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


This is another post from Odist Abettor, a singer/songwriter living in Nashville.  He always gives me something profound to think about. And he reminds me that hope is seldom comfortable.

Why I Write Angry Songs About Hope

And that's why we speak of hope like a spark.

It ignites.

It begins.

It can, at times, be so visibly different from its environment that the contrast--which may one day be quite illuminating--is in the moment glaringly offensive.

Hope isn't the butter on your popcorn when you sit down to watch a movie about the good ol' days.

Hope isn't the cool glass of lemonade you sip, sweet and crisp, at the end of a long, hard day.

Nah, hope...

if it comes in any liquid form besides an infinitely corrosive and foul-smelling acid...

if it's any sort of refreshingly cold water...

it's the kind they chuck at runners as they pass.

if it's water at all...

maybe it's the violent rushing stream from the hose...

pushing you down

and back

and letting you know that you got someone up there angry enough to slip up

because hope is the spark

and Eden is burning.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Guest Post - New Shoes

Today, my guest blogger is Odist Abettor. Actually, it is my son Luke Schutz, who is a poet, singer and songwriter living in Nashville. I appreciate his journey and the honesty he shares in his poems, songs and blogs. If you do not follow him, check him out at http://odistabettormusic.blogspot.com and 

sometimes, walking in other folks’ shoes
means walking down their street in their shoes
hearing the jeers and the cat calls
as you speed up in their shoes
getting stopped by the police
for wearing their shoes
having to listen to the ignorant disregard
of those who still wear your shoes
because you wear their shoes
letting your shoes become their shoes
and their shoes become your shoes
while still knowing they can never be our shoes
because each have their own
in which we all must walk
our own shoes for our own roads
yours, theirs, mine
but what matters is what happens
when you put back on your shoes
knowing all along you never really took them off
and let your time in their shoes
affect where and how and why you walk
in your own

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Guest Post- Uncomfortable

Today, my guest blogger is Odist Abettor. Actually, it is my son Luke Schutz, who is a poet, singer and songwriter living in Nashville. I appreciate his journey and the honesty he shares in his poems, songs and blogs. If you do not follow him, check him out at http://odistabettormusic.blogspot.com and 

In continuing my thoughts on actual utopia (remember not the silly individualistic kind but the real better world), I’d like to say something about equality.

I think it shouldn’t surprise me as much as it often does when the words of those critiquing inequality in society make me uncomfortable. When a world exists where a significant shift has occurred toward racial, sexual, ethnic, and/or class equality, my upbringing and current existence within a culture of inequality will make living in such a new society very uncomfortable for me. No matter how good my intentions or how open-minded, tolerant, and loving I can try to be, I must accept that this is all so new to me.

It’s okay to be uncomfortable, confused, even scared. Change feels like that. Even good change is hard to come by. The fires of revolution line a road of glass and coals not soft grass.

This not only means that I need to grow toward bravery in terms of speaking the hard truths I know need to be said but also in the humility of being able to listen to the hard truths that others have to say and I desperately need to hear.

It’s okay to be uncomfortable.

In fact, it’s necessary.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Launching Butterflies

Monday mornings are fairly structured for me. I arrive at church around 7:30am, check correspondence, and then listen to the sermon from the previous weekend. I spend a few moments beating myself up for missed points, poor transitions, muttering, stuttering and other problems of delivery - but then I move on. I go into the sanctuary, onto the platform, and stand at the pulpit. Bible in hand, I read the Scripture passage for the coming week's sermon. I pray, and then I begin expanding my initial outline. This is a process I have followed rather compulsively most Monday mornings for a decade.

This Monday I was in the middle of it, standing in the pulpit, when I received a phone call from Kathy, our Academy director. It is unusual for her to call me, as she usually texts me with any normal situations or prayer requests, so I quickly answered the phone.

Kathy: Hi Mike. Are you busy?
Me: What's up?
Kathy: We are launching butterflies, and it is really special.
Me: You are launching fireflies?
Kathy: No, we are launching butterflies that we have in the classroom as cocoons. You will want to see this.

So, I put down my books, set aside my iPad, and left the sanctuary. I walked across the parking lot to the front of the Academy building. There were several preschool classes standing on the front lawn, watching the kindergarten class carefully removing butterflies from a netted cage. The children cheered as each butterfly took flight.

One boy came over to me, told me how much fun this is, and showed me where some of the butterflies had landed in a flower patch. Other children giggled, smiled and laughed.

Kathy was right. This was special.

So, the next time someone invites you to launch butterflies, I encourage you to put down your books, turn off your computer, and go watch. And, if you ever have the opportunity to launch butterflies, make sure to invite someone to join you.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Holy Week with Kathryn and Bill *

I met Kathryn and Bill* during the week between Palm Sunday and Easter - the week Christians often call Holy Week.

Kathryn came by on Good Friday to get some food from our compassionate ministry program called The Bridge. This is not the first time I have met Kathryn, but she thinks it is. All of us at The Bridge have known her since we started the ministry in 2003, but she doesn't remember. It's not that she is cognitively unable to remember. Kathryn is fairly intelligent. It's just that she has trouble keeping track of all the churches and ministries she has visited over the years. Kathryn is one of those folks who visit the hodgepodge of programs, ministries, and volunteers to get what they believe they need. And she is fairly good at it. And she is very good at wearing down those who try to help her. She will let you know if she is unhappy with your offer of a box of food or clothing. "I really need gift cards. Don't you have some supermarket gift cards? This food is just not good enough. You people really don't care about my family." Kathryn is the type of person folks who work in these ministries know all too well - the folks that make it hard to believe that the story you are hearing is the truth. You always feel like you are being duped - kind of like how you feel when you talk to a car salesman.

When I received a call from my friend at another church, saying Kathryn had been in touch ("Mike, do you know anything about her?" "Oh, yes, we all know Kathryn.") and needed food for her family for Easter, I told him to have her come by. He said she wanted gift cards, and we don't have them, but I would give her a box of food. I knew she wouldn't come during our normal hours on Tuesday evening, as she doesn't like to stand in line, or sit in a room with others, waiting.

Kathryn came at 6:45pm on Good Friday, just a half hour before our area ministerium's Good Friday worship service, which we hosted this year. I was just showing the speaker for the evening where he could wait for the other ministers, when word came from the foyer that someone was here needing food. This is not unusual on a Sunday morning, and we usually have folks at that time to help, but our regular greeters and ushers were not here, so I went to the foyer and saw Kathryn and a young teenager. It was Cindy,* who I remember as just a toddler when we first met her mom. I took them downstairs to sit while I prepared a box of food. As I brought out the box Kathryn asked if we had any sheets, so I invited her into the room where we have such things. I tried not to rush them, but all the while I was aware that I was supposed to be upstairs, being a good host to the ministers and guests who were arriving for the worship service. Kathryn and Cindy spent about 10 minutes looking through and choosing several things. I gave them two bags to carry the sheets, pillow cases, blankets, a teddy bear and a vase. I then carried the food box to her car. A man whom I did not recognize was driving, and we smiled at each other. I placed the box in the car and, as I walked away I heard Kathryn say, "They gave us crap. I was promised an Easter dinner and they gave us crap."

I thought a lot about what she said. And I realized that I'm a lot like Kathryn.

An hour or so later I met Bill. It was after the Good Friday service ended and folks were leaving the sanctuary. I looked over and saw a young adult man praying, sitting with head bowed in a pew. Just then Ray, a tall, friendly man with dreadlocks who owns a barber shop and sends his daughters to our preschool, came up to tell me that his wife is pregnant with their fourth child - and we can expect this child in our school in 2016. He saw me look over toward the man who was praying and said, "That's Bill. He was in the shop. He just has a scooter and it was starting to get dark, so I offered him a ride. He said, 'I'm going to the Nazarene,' and I told him I was coming here too, for the service. Don't know much about him, but he's a good guy." Ray thinks everyone's a good guy.

I walked over and sat next to Bill. We talked for 20 minutes or so, easily moving between conversation and praying. He told me he had sensed a peace during the service, and it was just what he needed. He also said, "My life is pretty much a disaster. But I feel good here, right now." We prayed again, and I told him how he can reach me, and that I hoped to see him on Sunday - and maybe he'd like to come back on Tuesday night to get some food and maybe help out.

Bill came back on Sunday morning, and we got to talk again. He hung around for fellowship time afterwards, ate a cupcake and some fruit, and made conversation with several folks. He said he'd be back.

* of course, not their real names

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Evolution? Creation? I am not sure

I am not sure.

I am not sure if the Genesis account of creation should be taken literally. I am not sure how it was understood by those who first received it. I am not sure if they asked the same questions  I ask today. I am not sure if they cared about the same issues as those who sit in my congregation every Sunday morning, or those who sit in our Sunday school classes and Bible studies. Were they asking  “How did God do this?”  or were they asking “Why did God do this?” Which question is the story of creation answering?

I am not sure.

I am not sure about evolution. I rely on scientists to understand and interpret vast amounts of data and develop a coherent explanation. In some ways this is a fiducial relationship – I have to trust that they are honestly handling all the information available to them, and not simply cherry-picking data to confirm their own biases. And I know enough about human nature to know this is a tall order. And, to be honest, it seems scientists change their mind every few weeks about what is best for us to eat, or how to prevent disease. If they can’t get on top of those, how can I be sure they know about something that happened thousands – or millions – of years ago? When I visit Ken Ham’s Creation Museum I realize that the arguments presented there sound persuasive. I read articles by my good friend Karl Giberson, refuting Ham, and I am attracted to those. I can see both sides. And I know that I am not smart enough to decide for myself. I need help dealing with these dualing experts (or at least self-proclaimed experts).

I am not sure.

My lack of certainty about the whole evolution/creation question might not be a very big deal – after all it doesn’t really influence the way I live my everyday life. Except it does. I’m a pastor, and one of my roles is to help folks live their Christian lives in the real world. Thinking about the  teens in my church. sitting in high school classrooms and preparing for college, I am aware that this is a big deal. Thinking about the new person, who just moved to our community to attend grad school, I am aware that how we deal with this issue matters. And that member of my church board who has been inviting his neighbor to worship – and his neighbor happens to be a scientist – I know this question matters.

And that brings me around to the problem of litmus tests.

Over the years, everyone from pastors to Sunday school teachers to camp speakers to youth leaders have offered our young people, and our not-so-young people, quick and easy answers as to how to know whether someone is one of “us” or one of “them.” All you need do is ask for their opinion on one or two issues, and you would know. Sure, they might say they are a Christian, they might say they follow Jesus, they might even go to church, but we cannot be sure unless they pass our test.  Abortion? End Times? Politics? Alcohol? Creation?


As a Wesleyan, I’ve always been comfortable with a bit of mystery. We don’t claim to know all the answers to every question. We don’t demand adherence to one stance on every controversy to come down the theological pike. There’s room for diversity about many issues that other groups argue over, even split over. We talk about unity on essentials, and freedom on non-essentials. While we might even disagree a bit about what constitutes an essential, we’ve done a pretty good job of keeping the list short. And when we use a non-essential issue as a test, in order to figure out someone else’s spiritual state – well, the litmus test goes both ways. What happens when that same young person who was told that every good Christian always votes with the __________ party finds out differently in the real world? And what happens when that student meets a professor  –  at a Christian college – who does not match up to the litmus test?  And what happens when our young person’s own views no longer match with the “correct” answers? Do we really want them to believe that to disagree with our opinion on a non-essential means they are no longer one of us – and that opinion separates them from the church, and from Christ?

You see, as a pastor in the Wesleyan tradition, I’ve tried to preach and teach that we look to the Bible to answer the most important questions of our lives:
“What must I do to be saved?”
“What constitutes a meaningful life, and how can I live it?”
“How am I to treat others, myself, and creation?”

This is different from going to the Bible to answer every question of life. Scripture does not answer every question, nor is it the source of truth for every issue. When I misuse Scripture by expecting it to answer every question, including questions it was not designed to answer, I not only disrespect Scripture, but I find myself drawing strange lines that separate people in places where a separation is just not necessary.

And for me, this issue is not just a philosophical question, or some abstract problem.
It has a face, several in fact.

It is the teenage girl in my church who will be attending a major, prestigious university next year – and majoring in science.
It is the young, intelligent husband and father who has been coming to my church for awhile, and wants to know if his head as well as his heart is welcome in our church.
And it is the young adult who wants to know if there is room in the church for people like him, who are not satisfied with simple answers to complex questions.

I am not sure.

Monday, January 14, 2013


Probably nothing has been more important to me these days than this stream of thought. I’m not sure I can communicate it in a way that makes much sense to anyone, but I will give it a try.

God loves you. I am absolutely sure of this.

God loves everyone else too. I am just as sure of this as I am that God loves you.

God’s love for everyone else includes the OTHER – that person whom you cannot imagine loving, that person whose very existence is a cause of inconvenience to you, or frustration to you, or pain to you. They are different from you in some way. You may even hate this person. That is why, in your life, they are the OTHER.

Not only does God love this person, but to God, this person is not the OTHER. They are the beloved. Just like you are the beloved. You may think that God has a hard time loving this person, but God does not. It is as easy for God to love your OTHER as it is for God to love you. Sure, there are some things in the life of the OTHER that God does not like, just like there are some things that God does not like in your life. That doesn't stop God from loving either of you. That’s just how God is.

I hope you are aware that there are persons in your life who love you very much. There are, and they want what is best for you. There are persons in the life of the OTHER who love them in much the same way that you are loved. These persons absolutely want what is best for the one they love.

Are you following so far?

Now I need to change the word “you” to the word “me” – because this is about a realization God has given to me about how I relate to the OTHER and to those who love them.

When I do not love the OTHER as God loves them, when I hate them, or ignore them, when I speak words of cursing rather than blessing, I attack not only the OTHER, but I cause great pain to those who love them – all of whom God loves. I am attacking God, cursing God, causing pain to God. I am breaking relationship with those God loves, and whom I am called to love as well. I am breaking relationship with God.

That is sin.

I am tired of sinning. I am tired of hurting those whom God loves. I am tired of people hurting the ones I love. I am tired of sin.

I am sick and tired of having OTHERs in my life.

I am sick and tired of labeling people as OTHERs in order to justify the way we treat them. I am sick and tired of our political process, our economic process, requiring OTHERs in order for us to do business as usual. I am sick and tired of us needing to have OTHERs just so we can feel good about ourselves.

I am sick and tired of sin. And I am sick and tired of saying that certain sins are just what the world is like, and there is nothing we can do about it. I don’t believe that, and I certainly don’t believe I am called to participate in it.

I am sick and tired of having OTHERs in my life, because I am called to be in the process of becoming more Christlike.

And to God, there are no OTHERs.