Finding Common Ground in our Cultural Divide

I have spoken to or overheard several people in the last few weeks and months say something along the line of, “I have stopped watching the news.  I just can’t bring myself to turn it on.”  Now most of these individuals were not saying that because they believed the news to be inaccurate or “fake.”  They were feeling as though the news itself is simply too painful. The shared feeling is that it puts them in such a state of either depression or anger that for their own mental and spiritual heath they had decided they needed to take something of a break from the constant barrage 24 hour news brings to us.  I understand that feeling.

I’m also aware that there are others, maybe others reading these words, for whom the news over the last year or so has been the kind of thing they have wanted to hear for years.  These persons believe that overall things are headed in the right direction politically and they celebrate what they see as positive changes.

Neither of these broad groups of people understand one another.  And we wonder if there was ever a time when we were so divided.  And while I find myself very clearly on a “side” in the debate, I am also as concerned as anyone about the state of the cultural divide in which we live today.

I know there have been many times when we have felt a similar cultural divide.  I mean we had a civil war where we were actually killing one another over issues that divided us.  In the 1960’s and 70’s the divide took many to the streets where tens of, hundreds, even thousands of people marched in protest of the US war in Southeast Asia and for civil rights.

Now, I am not at all trying to minimize the current cultural divide nor am I suggesting there are not some significant ways in which the basis for the current divide is not even more ominous than at other points in our history.  What I am suggesting is that the differences and struggles are not new.  While it indeed is difficult when, (as others I have spoken with express), the anticipation of Christmas dinner brings stress because we know those differences will show up and will make conversation and digestion problematic. We need in the midst of our differences to find a way to celebrate our sameness. I confess, I don’t always know how to do that in our polarizations.  Sometimes, often times, it would be easier to just stay where it is safe and people think as we do. But unless we at least prayerfully try to understand one another both in our broader culture, and in our divisions within the church (which is a whole other conversation!), we will continue to live life in isolation listening to our particular brand and perspective and seeing one another as “the other.”

2,000 years ago the one, the angel, called the “Prince of Peace” was born.  Would that we might discover, in these trying days, the gift of that One again.

Peace,
Bill

Bringing Peace to a Violent World

I don’t have the answer.  I wish so much that I did.  But I continue to struggle.  You see I believe Jesus when he says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword.  I love the name we give Jesus calling him “Prince of Peace.”  I believe that the concept of Christian pacifism is a very legitimate understanding of how we are called to live as followers of Christ.

But I just watched a 60 Minutes story on the ongoing struggle in Syria.  The story highlighted the work of Syrian doctors from the U.S. who have been going to Aleppo and other war-torn parts of Syria to provide medical care to all the people injured in the war.  The story reported the fact that Syrian president Assad has been targeting the hospitals where the doctors are working.  With both barrel bombs and chemical weapons the Assad government has targeted those already injured in the war.  This, as the reporters in the story pointed out, was the first identified war crime.  This war crime was the basis for the forming of the Geneva Convention and the founding of the Red Cross to stop this horrific behavior.

Whenever I hear such stories, (and there are of course many other stories of unspeakable violence carried out by individuals and governments), I struggle to understand and follow what Jesus seems to ask of us.

To most, even in the church, it feels like a “no-brainer.”  Of course we fight back.  Of course we must stop the mad men and women of the world.  And since most of them seem to have barrel bombs or AK-47s, we need to respond in kind.  And I understand the logic in that thinking.  I understand why I have had several calls over the past couple of weeks about having guns in church in light of the church shooting in Texas.

But it seems to me that Jesus often challenges us to go beyond logical thinking.  Jesus calls us to see the future not just the right now.  He invites us to see the long term consequences not just the immediate results.  Jesus seems to me to be inviting us to understand that every act of violence brings about the next and the next and the next and the only way to stop it is to not live by the sword anymore regardless of the situation.  It seems like that is what the cross teaches us too.

But just about the time I’m settled on that, I think of the people in the hospitals in Aleppo.  Do we simply pray while the bombs continue?  Paul gives us some insight perhaps when he speaks to the Romans about the government and its authority to “wield the sword” in Romans 13.  But is he simply outlining the way things are, or the way of Christ?

I don’t have the answer and people way smarter, with deep faith, come down in different places on this issue.  But as angry as I get at the injustice and violence in our world, the absolutely awful things that are done and especially the violence perpetrated against children; as much as my heart cries out for justice and for the offenders to “pay” or at least be stopped violently if necessary, a part of me still believes that Jesus has a way that is real and different.  It is a way that leads to life.  And it is a way that never includes a sword.

As we begin our Advent Journey this year, in the midst of a very violent world, may we consider how we might make peace, how we might find the alternate way, how we might be a part of fighting evil not with evil, but with love.  It won’t be easy.  Most will probably reject it out of hand as foolhardy, perhaps even unloving.  But if we truly believe in Jesus’ call to live, love even in the face of evil, then we need to continue to look for that alternative way to engage.  Perhaps a way that changes people and institutions instead of just trying to overpower the current version.

Peace,
Bill

 

A Snow Day!

Snow Day!!  Oh, I loved those two words when I was a kid.  The opportunity to turn off the alarm, roll over and sleep until I wanted to get up.  It was a wonderful gift.  This past Monday was a snow day for most kids in lower Michigan.  The various school district names scrolled across the TV screen all Sunday night into Monday morning as kids (and teachers too!) got the day off.

Snow Days are a surprise, they are a gift in the middle of the usual routine.  It’s a regular week and then the snow piles up and we get a day off, a break we hadn’t planned on.

As I was watching Monday’s snow day unfold, it got me thinking about Christmas and the coming of Jesus into the world.  I mean think about it, while there was anticipation, while there were indeed prophesies and promises, life was going on pretty much the way it always had.  People went to work, politics were politics and the Temple activity carried on as it always had.  But then, as Luke tells us, one night, into the usual routine of caring for their sheep, some shepherds receive an announcement from angels in the heavens.  A remarkable star shone in the sky and wise ones took time off from their usual routines to follow that star.  And the Good News ─ he had been awaiting for many years ─ came to a devout man named Simeon.

So, what I’m wondering as I enjoy this opportunity to work at home ─ rather than drive to the meetings I would have been attending had they not been cancelled due to this snow day ─ is what Christmas surprises are in store for us this year?  What is it God wants to show us, to help us see, to enable us to experience this Christmas?  My guess is that whatever it is will not show up on the crawler at the bottom of our TV screen!  We will need to look for it.  We will need to pay attention so that we don’t miss it.  But I do believe that God does want us to receive a gift this Christmas.  God wants us to receive the precise gift that God has for us whatever that may be.  And God knows what that gift is.

It may be a fresh vision for our ministry. 
It may be a new awareness, a deep reminder of just how much God loves us. 
It may be the gift of another snow day so we can rest! 

But whatever it is I pray that we will receive it, that we will find in it the gift God intends, and we will be blessed.

Peace,
Bill

P.S.  This will be my last Castings for 2016, so have a blessed Christmas and a wonderful New Year!!

Sharing the Message of Hope

I just sent a picture of myself at 21 months of age in response to a request from Mark Doyal.  He is doing something with it for the Full Cabinet Christmas gathering next week.  It should be fun.

As I looked at the picture, I thought about the 59 years or so that have passed since my father snapped that photo.  All the experiences and events, the feelings, joys and sorrows along the way.  For the most part I have been blessed.  I have always had food to eat and a roof over my head.  I have always had people who have loved me and cared about me.  I have been blessed in so many ways.  And I’m grateful to be at this point in the journey.

Some people I talk to wish for earlier days.  They long for times past.  They wish for days when things were different, before specific decisions were made or their physical body changed.  And while I wouldn’t mind being 30 pounds lighter as I was some years ago, or perhaps being able to get up from a sitting position on the floor with a bound instead of a groan, I really wouldn’t want to go back to any age in the past.  As I have said many times, “I accomplished that age!”  And life in this moment, while different, has much ─ so much ─ good in it.

Contemplating this from a personal perspective got me thinking about our churches.  So often I hear people in congregations talk about former days.  They talk about the way things were with a kind of wistful longing.  And I get the fact that many of our churches are not what they once were.  I get that for many of us the struggles before us now are significant, and making the shifts we need to make to be effective in today’s culture is tough.

But friends my advice to us all is engage the now!  The past is never coming back and there are people in every one of our communities who need to know the good news of Jesus Christ and God’s rich love for the world and for them.  There is no better time of year for us to share the message of hope than this season of Advent and Christmas.  I hope that all of us are strategically looking at ways we might reach out and share Christ’s love with our communities.  I hope all of us are praying for opportunities to invite our neighbors, our co-workers, our family members to a Christmas Eve service or some gathering where they might encounter the message of hope God offers at Christmas.

We, as the body of Christ, can spend our time looking back at what was and wishing we were younger, stronger, or whatever, OR we can appreciate that we continue to possess a message of hope that the world desperately needs and then find new ways to offer that hope and love to all those within our sphere of influence.  That’s still our calling, and we can do it!

Peace,
Bill

December 16, 2015

We are getting close again to the celebration of Christ’s birth.  We have been lighting our candles and singing our Advent & Christmas Carols.  We have been preparing and anticipating and looking forward to what will be as we gather in our congregations and gather in our homes this year to give thanks for God’s greatest gift.

As I walk alongside you through these days, my prayer continues to be that God will birth something new in us all this Christmas.  That in our congregations a new spirit of cooperation and mission will come forth.  That in our denomination there might be a willingness to listen and engage one another in conversation, in real holy conferencing that new life and hope might be realized and incredible ministry might be created that pours out into significant disciple making and transformation of the world.  I pray that new birth might reach to the depth of our individual lives quelling fears and discouragement and creating in us a fresh joy that fills us with the belief that through Christ ALL things are possible.  I pray that as we focus beyond ourselves in mission, in planning, in the offering of relevant and engaging worship, new persons will find their way to the knowledge and experience of God’s love deep within so that that their lives are changed and set free.

I pray for us all that this year’s celebration of Christmas might be so compelling, so inviting, so real that we are changed and revived in deep and meaningful ways.  I pray that the message given by the angels to the shepherds that night long ago might be as powerful for us as it was for them.  As we visit the manger again this year, may we go out to tell everyone we meet about the wonderful gift of Christmas.

Peace and Joy,
Bill

December 9, 2015

The day before Thanksgiving we had two new babies born into our family.  One to my niece on my wife’s side, one to my niece on my side of the family.  It was a great day!  Lots of Facebook activity and celebrating and pictures.  A wonderful day for rejoicing over the gift of these new lives.

Both children were very healthy.  Each mom received the good nutrition we would expect for pregnant women in our country.  Both had excellent medical care facilities where they gave birth.  It was just as we expect for those of us who live in this part of the world.

And while I’m very grateful for those wonderful gifts, and the multitude of other benefits we have as citizens of this wealthy nation, I am dismayed at times by the fear and unwillingness in some circles to offer even the basics of life to those most in need.  This is still true for far too many who live within our borders, but it seems especially true as we allow fear and greed to keep refugees from entering “our” country.  I can’t help but wonder what God must think of our behavior.  As we bask in the glow of our warm homes and abundance this Advent Season, millions are in need of care around the world.  Many refugees need safety, health and hope but instead are finding closed doors and the threat of a lengthier process than the already very lengthy and ineffective process that’s in place.

Scripture is very clear about the responsibility we have as Christ followers to care for the least and most vulnerable among us.  Scripture is very clear about the need to risk and even to give up at least a portion of what we have for the benefit of others.  In this season when we are preparing to receive again the gift of the Christ who let go of the glory of heaven for our sake, it is a sad state of affairs to see the firm grip with which we are seeking to grasp our own glory.

So may this season of Advent turn us, as individuals and as a nation, toward the goal of welcome and hospitality.  May we choose to let go of fear and overcome evil with good.  May we share out of our abundance with those in need, down the street and around the world.  May we be those who live up to our calling as followers of Christ to love actually and not just in theory.

Peace,
Bill