Monday, August 21, 2017

As the World Turns


Like many of the rest of you, I have been captivated for the last couple of hours at the partial solar eclipse.  From our house in Oxnard, California, which is usually overcast with coastal fog in the morning, there has been a rare break in the clouds so we have been able to see the intergalactic wonder with all of its "finger-nailed" splendor.   What I have been equally interested in is the split/screen television coverage that has taken place simultaneous to the 99 year annual event.  On all of news stations covering the event are other news stories that are taking place that seem of equal, if not greater importance (an Afghanistan troop buildup, a US Navy ship that has broadsided an oil tanker, a terrorist in Barcelona has been shot, an American Presidency that seems to be in peril).  And so, the world turns...

The message seems to be that as the skies have a miraculous event taking place, as a once in a life time event occurs, so does life move on.

As the World Turns

Of course it wouldn't be the first time that people on earth are more caught up in the regular day to day events, than the spectacles that have lit up the skies.

*  One wonders if in 1,500 BC, in the land of Egypt, as frogs were leaping out of people's bathrooms, and locusts covered the skies, and blood ran red in the Nile River, if there weren't people at beauty parlors getting their hair done for an evening dinner party that would take place.  People had things to do, and places to be.

*  In 3AD when an odd, and out of the ordinary "star" appeared on the horizon in the small town of Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, historians tell us that the emperor of Rome, Octavian (Augustus), was vexed by Germanic troops (terrorists) that were coalescing on the northern edge of the empire, in the Teutoburg Forest.  Augustus was, at that moment, of Jesus' birth and the star's shining, planning for a Roman troop buildup in an unruly part of the world

As the World Turns...

*  In 79AD (though Tacitus records the event as having happened in 63AD) when people in the small town of Pompeii, at the base of Mount Vesuvius, were finishing their morning breakfasts, plooms of smoke and ash began to emerge from the huge summit that dwarfed the city, and later covered it with molten lava.  People had things to do, places to be.

As the World Turns...

No matter what the cosmic events of our lives, the main theme from those who live on the planet earth has always seemed to be that life moves on, events continue, time moves forward, the activities of our lives commence.  But will they?  But do they really?

I do not think, as some of my religious friends do, that the full solar eclipse is an omen of the end of all things.  Eclipses have come and eclipses have gone.  But who knows?

As Robert Schuller, the late pastor of the Crystal Cathedral once said, "I always bet a million dollars with my friends who say that the world will end.  If I win, the world goes on and I am a million dollars richer, if they win, the world comes to an end, and who cares, I am in heaven!"

But for now, the world continues to turn!

As the World Turns

All For Now,

GB






Monday, August 14, 2017

The Seeds of White Supremacy


Like many of you, my family and I have been watching our television screens about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia with a mixture of grief, anger and outrage.  It simply boggles the imagination how anybody could espouse the kind of hatred and evil that the White Supremacists who are marching there, and marauding there, have within them.  Most of the television news coverage of this event has boiled down to political analysis.  This problem in our country does have political dimensions, but the roots of it, the seeds of White Supremacy, are much more nuanced.  What has been missing from this national conversation so far, has been the recognition that this kind of evil (White Supremacy) exists all around us, and how we as a society and a country must address it and stamp it out whenever it emerges.  To this end, I wanted to share in my blogpost today about one young man who got caught-up in the White Supremacy movement in one of the churches that I grew up in.

In the late 1970's my father was a pastor of a wonderful church in Boise, Idaho.  The church was an incredible family of faith and body of Christ, and one of the most Holy Spirit-filled church experiences of my life.  To this day, I still look fondly back on my years growing up in Boise and attending that church.  Church Potlucks, Bible Studies, Family Camps and All Church Barbecues were the mainstays of that church.

Like most churches, the church had some of the most amazing and Godly people in its membership.  Also, like most churches, it also had one or two of the attendees occasionally had some emotional challenges, and mental problems.  One of the young men, who had emotional challenges, and mental problems, and who sometimes attended that church, was a teenager named David Charles Tate.  "David only occasionally attended", my Dad told me once, and "often when he did, would sit at the back, by himself".  He was a loner.

Around ten years later, (and it should be said, nobody knows the exact chain of events) David moved to Northern Idaho, near Hayden Lake, and got caught up in a very sinister group of people known as "The Order" [The picture above is of young men doing a Nazi salute in Hayden Lake, Idaho in 1989].  The Order was a group of "Christian Identity" followers who were led by a very nefarious man by the name of Richard Butler.  The Order's so-called theological underpinnings stemmed from a very twisted, evil, and wrong-headed view that, "white Americans and Canadians are the real tribes of Israel", and that, "Jews are descended from an Asiatic tribe of people known as the Khazars". (from researcher Nicole Nichols, an expert on far right racist groups in America - 2003).  David, it is assumed, found a personal-identity in a group of equally emotionally deviant and mentally challenged people.  Soon, David found himself the subject of a national manhunt and on April 15, 1985, after he and a handful of members of his cult killed a fellow member of "The Order".  David  found himself in a stand-off with two Missouri State Troopers, who were conducting a random vehicle and license plate check.  David killed one of the troopers and critically wounded the other.  The state trooper, Jimmie Linnegar, only 31 at the time, was one of those killed by David.  Tate was later convicted of assault and murder and sentenced to life without parole.  One silver lining to this very sad story,  is that, "Federal authorities used the Tate incident, and Tate's testimony, to arrest many other members of the White Supremacist cult in Hayden Lake."

News reports of the profile of the young man who is being charged with the crimes in Charlottesville, Virginia, James Fields, sound similar to the accounts I heard of David Tate.  He was confused, misdirected, had mental health issues, deep-seeded misplaced hatred, and perhaps most of all, found a group of equally broken and misguided people, to affiliate who were members of a religious cult.  A medical health professional recently told me that many of the patients that he sees, have personal associations with hate groups.  This is not to say that all people who face mental health challenges are racist, but that psychological stability is one important component to understanding this form of evil.

I am sure that as the weeks and months emerge, more information will come out about this very sad incident in Charlottesville.  Suffice it to say, though, on this Monday morning, after the weekend of violence in Virginia, that White Supremacy exists, it is very sinister, very dangerous and very evil.  And right-minded people in an advanced society like ours must stand against it at all costs!

All For Now,

GB






Monday, August 7, 2017

When Everything Seems To Totter


I am reading a lot of Karl Barth for my doctoral dissertation.  Wait!  Before you close the link to this blogpost, let me try to convince you that Karl Barth may not be the preaching dogmatist that you have considered him to be (if you consider him at all:-).  I grew up with a father/pastor who clung to the theological mainstays of Barth's theology like a dryer sheet clings to laundry.  "Karl Barth saved Christianity against the Nazis", I grew up to think.  And then, when I went to seminary, Barth was taught by so many theological hardliners in classes with titles like, "Church Dogmatics", and "Systematic Semiotics" that it nearly drove me away from his writings entirely.  But I have just rediscovered what a poetic person that he was, and also, frankly, a non-systematic thinker in many ways.  Here are some of his great poetical phrases;

"At some point, the fellowship of those who hear Scripture's voice, again finds itself on solid ground, WHEN EVERYTHING SEEMS TO TOTTER." (Church Dogmatics, IV, part 2, p. 673).

Is that not a good definition of our world today?  A place where everything around us is seeming to totter?

Here's another;

"The Bible will become more and more mysterious to real exegetes.  They will see all the depths and distances.  They will constantly run up against the mystery before which THEOLOGY IS LIKE TRYING TO DRAIN THE OCEAN WITH A SPOON." (Homiletics, p. 128)

I love this!  The Bible is a mystery, not meant to be understood fully or dissected entirely.  And theology, I have always thought, had the tendency to systematize ("mathematicalize") the most vast concepts in the universe.  The God's truth is an ocean, deep, mysterious, complex and vast.

One of my favorite pictures of Barth is the one above with the late great Martin Luther King Jr.  MLK actually criticized Barth, in his own doctoral studies, about Barth's view that, "God is the unknowable and indescribably God."  But MLK loved the idea that, "man is not sufficient unto himself for life."  The above picture was taken in 1962 at Princeton University just six years before MLK's assassination.

This past week I emailed my friend, Will Willimon, writer of one of the best books on Barth, Conversations With Barth on Preaching, to ask if he thought that Barth was a kind of Samuel Johnson (Dr. Johnson) of his era.  Both thinkers were so widely read, ubiquitous in their thinking.  Willimon had never heard this formulation about Barth, but agreed that, "it fits".

So, the next time you hear Barth's name spoken from a church pulpit, think of him less as an old religious stalwart, and more of a poet, and imaginative genius. He was less the man that modern theologians have wanted to create, and more of the man that he really was.

All For Now,

GB

Monday, July 31, 2017

Embracing and Separating


Recently, I heard a podcast that has caused me to do some major thinking.  The podcaster, and I can't remember who it was right now, said that the basic philosophy of all good parenting has two basic parts.  Ironically, these two parts of parenting would seem antithetical to one another, but they are actually inter-related, and sometimes inter-twined.  All good parenting involves two basic actions:

Embracing and Separating

From the moment a child is born a parent does everything they can to provide a child with as much nurture, love, encouragement, tenderness and compassion as possible.  This is the embracing side of parenting.  Sometimes this embracing takes the form of encouraging a child when they fall down or get discouraged; "Come on, you can do it, Mommy is here to catch you.  Try it again."  Other times this embracing is more basic.  My own kids say to me almost every day, at some point in the day, "Daddy, I love you."  And, of course, I say, "I love you too."  I take these gestures of love to be both a sense of how they are feeling at the moment, sometimes a desire to get something from me (like a snack), but most of all to simply check-in; "I'm here Daddy, are you here too?"  It is Embracing at its best.

And yet, at a certain point in a child's upbringing, a healthy parent must prepare every child for separation.  Some day, the child will grow up, and move on.  In most cases, and especially in the millennial generation, this moving on happens in stages (college, move back, first job, move back, second job, move back, marriage...hopefully not move back:-), but you never know!).  A healthy parent needs to offer children the opportunity to do things on their own - take walks, do sleepovers, go to summer camp, take jobs, have girl friends or boyfriends - have autonomy in particular areas of their life.  This is all preparation for separation.  An unhealthy parent, obviously, does not prepare a child for this stage of separation, and then when the time comes, there is sometimes an unhelpful attachment or "enmeshment".

What I have been thinking about is how leading a church also has a similar;

Embracing and Separating...

dynamic.  A healthy pastor embraces a congregation as much as possible.  When a congregation is in a time of crisis, like Goleta Presbyterian Church has been recently, where I now serve, in the midst of a major forest fire, a healthy pastor embraces them, prays for them, makes visits with them, loves them.  When a congregation experiences a joy within a community, like a wedding or a baptism, or a member accomplishes something fantastic, there needs to be an embrace; "Great job!  I'm so proud of you.  You are incredible!  I love you!"

And yet, a healthy pastor must also prepare a congregation, at a certain point of maturity, for separation.  Sometimes this separation occurs when staff members come and go from a church.  Sometimes separation occurs when members decide to leave a church and go to another church, for whatever reason.  Other times the separation is about sending people out into the world, to serve where they live, from week to week.  Churches that offer constant mid-week programming for members sometimes do not prepare their members for an adequate level of separation.  Still other times this separation takes the form of a member deciding to go into full time mission ministry in a foreign mission field.  Some of my best leaders over the years have gone on to great ministries of their own.

Jesus epitomizes this embracing and separating dynamic in his last official pronouncement before ascending into heaven;

"Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!'" John 20:19 - (Embracing)

"As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you." John 20:21 - (Separating)

"And with that, he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." John 20:22 (Embracing)

"Therefore, go an make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Matthew 28:19 - (Separating)

"And surely I am with you always, to the end of the age." Matthew 28:20 (Embracing)

This double bind of embracing and separating is such a hard balance to keep.  For parents, it is so hard to have children who they have embraced for nearly 20 years leave the house.  For pastors, who have invested so much love into a congregation, it is so hard when they leave for various reasons.  And yet, that is what is necessary, in the end, to be both a healthy parent and a healthy pastor.

Embracing and Separating

But for now, speaking for just myself, I am going to go give my kids one more hug for the morning!

All For Now,

GB









Monday, July 24, 2017

Livingston's One Regret


Recently I discovered a book that was given to me by my fourth grade Sunday School teacher named Mrs. Richlin in Boise, Idaho.  To be honest, I had never read it before, and it has remained on my shelf, and in packing boxes for the better part of 40 years.  The book is entitled, Heroes of the Cross and is a story of the great 19th century missionaries in Africa.  In a frantic search for something to read to my own budding fourth grader, Haley, I found it, and have been reading the stories within it about the great adventurers of faith.  One of these stories is about the great Scottish missionary - David Livingston.  By an interesting twist, I also happen to be reading about David Livingston at the moment for my Doctoral dissertation.

You remember David Livingston, I presume?!?  He was the pith-helmeted missionary who worked for the London Missionary Society in eighteen hundreds.  He was the one who, "opened" the continent to Africa to the west.  He was the one who pushed further north on the continent of Africa than any other white person.  His writings journals have been the thing of legend since they were written.  Who can beat lines like; "The great God had an only Son and He was sent to the earth as a Missionary-Physician."  Livingston discovered the mammoth waterfalls on the Zambezi river, and named them after his queen - Victoria Falls.  His most famous exploit was a conquest of the origins of the Nile river.  It was on this trek that he was feared to have died, and where H.M. Stanley found him in 1873 and declared, with a stiff British upper-lip; "Dr. Livingston, I presume?"  Livingston did all of this.  And yet, did you know, that Livingston also lived with a deep and abiding personal regret. This was;

Livingston's One Regret

Livingston confessed to his dying day that his one regret was that he had not taken an hour a day to play with his children!  A wikipedia article on Livingston's family says it best, "While Livingston had a great impact on British imperialism, he did so at a tremendous cost to his family."  Livingston had six children, Robert (who died in the American Civil War), Agnes, Thomas, Elizabeth (who died at two months), William Oswell and Anna Mary.  For whatever reason, Livingston sent his family home to live with his wife Mary, for most of his missionary career, even though the family could easily have stayed with him in Africa.

Having been the product of many previous pastors, I can say that not spending time with kids can be seen as an occupational hazard.  My great-grandpa, Jesse, who did so many great things (moderator of General Assembly, president of a seminary, many books), never spent much time with his kids.  My grandpa, a church builder and denominational leader also never spent much time with his kids.  I can remember my dad saying wistfully to me once that, "My dad never even came to one of my swim meets."  My own dad was considerably better than his progenitors and did spend time with us.  But he still did attend a lot of night meetings.

It is probably unfair to lay the blame for dads not hanging out with kids solely at the feet of pastors and missionaries.  A recent Pew Research Poll found that most dads today spend less than an hour a day with their kids, and less than seven hours a week in total.  This is actually a positive trend, since similar statistics from the 1940's show that most dads spent less than four hours a day with their kids.

My own ministerial career has recently taken a bit of an unexpected turn in trajectory since I stepped down as senior pastor of The First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs.  While I was pastor of that church, however, I can say that I almost never saw my kids throughout the week.  The first year of my daughter's life are an erasable blur to me.  My previous call of founder of Highlands Church in Paso Robles was better on the daddy front, as I spent more time with Haley.  But not much more!  In my current call, I have been able to spend more, "quality time" with my kids than ever before.  And the blessing has been all mine.  I have learned that it is possible to both be a good pastor and to be a good dad - simultaneously.  But it does require several hours a day in commitment to my kids.

Garrison Keillor, the great writer and story teller, who has also, often been obsessed with his career to the detriment of his family, has said, "Nothing you do for children is ever wasted."  Livingston, if he were alive today, would surely agree with this sentiment.  And perhaps, at the end of his life, he might not only have been able to point to a great water-fall as his primary legacy, but rather to an even deeper reservoir of love, connection and relationship.  Who knows for sure.  All I can say for certainty is that;

Livingston's One Regret

Will not be my own:-)

What about you?

All For Now,

GB






Monday, July 17, 2017

The Power of a Spot


A few weeks ago, NASA's spacecraft named Juno did a quick fly-by, from 2,000 miles away, of the largest planet in the solar system - the planet Jupiter.  Jupiter being 89,000 miles in diameter is over 1,000 times larger than the planet earth.  Most scientists think Jupiter is more of a swirl of gas than it is a solid planet.  But the size of Jupiter is not what Juno's cameras were focussed on, nor was its gaseous nature.  What Juno was focussed on was the iconic and ever-famous "Giant Red Spot" that swirls upon the surface of that planet like a gargantuan, red Christmas tree ornament.  "For hundreds of years scientists have been observing, wondering and theorizing about Jupiter's Giant Red Spot," said Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.  In my own elementary school studies of the solar system, I can still remember my teacher discussing the "Giant Red Spot," and I remember wondering in my own developing young mind what that spot exactly consisted of.  I remember my teachers telling me that "The Spot" as it became known is 10,159 miles wide and 1.3 times larger than the earth.

But the question I want to ask in this morning's blogpost is more basic than the dimensions of this planetary anomaly.  What I want to know is, why does anybody care about the spot?  What is it that attracts us to the spot?  Why are we obsessed with the spot?  There are other spots in the universe, "bullions and bullions of them," in the innimicable words of the late astronomer Karl Sagan.   What is it about the Giant Red Spot that caused NASA, with its dwindling federal financial support, to send one of its spacecraft a long way out of the way to see the SPOT?   And what I have concluded is that there is an obsession in the human consciousness with SPOTS.  It is;

The Power of a Spot

Yesterday after church I was eating at my favorite restaurant in Santa Barbara, Via Maestra 47, a tiny but delicious Italian eatery on State Street.  My oldest daughter loves the homemade spaghetti and marinara sauce.  As I hoisted a forkful of the glorious stuff into my mouth, by some happenstance, and it always happens, a flick of red marinara sauce landed on my best Sunday shirt.  For the rest of the afternoon I was obsessed with the red spot.  It may not have been planetary in dimension, but it occupied a "Jupiteresque" space in my own mind.  Whenever I looked down, it was staring me right in the face.  No body else seemed to notice it much.  But I saw it.  I knew it was there.  The rest of my shirt was pristine with perfection, but all I could focus on was the SPOT.  Again, it is,

The Power of the Spot

For my Doctorate I have been reading a lot of theology lately, trying to determine how some of the great people of the faith (John Wesley, George Whitfield, CS Lewis, Augustine) came to the Christian faith.  For many of them it was an understanding of God's "prevenient Grace".  God's free gift of eternal life.  But before the discovery of eternal life through Jesus Christ, there was always the SPOT.  For John Bunyan, writer of the great book, Pilgrim's Progress, "Wherefore I began with all seriousness to examine any former comfort, and to consider one that had SINNED as I had done, might with confidence trust upon the faithfulness of God."  There it was, the SPOT.  Almost every one of the great people of faith have been consumed with focus on the blot, the sot, the sin, the SPOT.

The Power of the Spot

What's really interesting about the Giant Red Spot on Jupiter is that at least in cosmic terms, it really isn't that big.  At 10,000 miles wide, it is only 10% of the size of the entire planet.  And, of course, Jupiter is a tiny spec of dust when compared to other planets in other galaxies...far, far away...

Who knows what draws the human eye to the things which aren't perfect over the things that are?  Why do we enjoy the evening news?  It seems often to be a highlight of all that is wrong with the world?  Why does our eye and focus go to the tiny bit of marinara sauce on an otherwise white shirt.  Perhaps, that is really the power of sin, to make large the things in our own own minds, that are really not that large at all.  And, perhaps that, in the end, is one of the great powers of the cross.  To wash clean all the SPOTS of our lives.  The prophet Isaiah said, "Though your sins are like scarlet (GIANT RED SPOTS), they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool." (Isaiah 1:18).

All For Now,

GB








Monday, July 10, 2017

The Gospel of Nadal


I want to take a break from my usual blog that focusses on theological topics, to write about a person who embodies so many of the great attributes of strong character.  He is a person who is easily one of the most exciting professional athletes in the history of athletics.  I want to write about Rafael Nadal, or "Rafa" as he is called, tennis player extraordinaire!

Just moments ago, Rafael Nadal was in the "Final 16" of Wimbledon (the famed grass, tennis -tournament set in Great Britain, the birthplace of sport).  The game that Nadal and Muller played against one another lasted for over 4 hours, and it went five sets.  The match went on so long that the next match that was scheduled to follow it (Djokovic), had to be cancelled.  The final set, being played as the evening sun cast an orange glow on the beleaguered green court, and even more beleaguered players, was won by Gilles Muller, a 36 year old left hander from Luxembourg.

Not to belabor the point (no pun intended), but the overall set score for the match was:

Nadal 3, 4, 6, 6, 13
Muller 6, 6, 3, 4, 15

If you don't play tennis, you may not know that the usual match lasts just 4 sets.  Rarely does a match go to the 5th set, and if it does, it almost never goes 28 extra games!  As you can see from the score, Nadal was behind by two whole sets to begin the match.  But, one of the keys to Nadal's success has been the simple fact that he:

Never Gives Up
If Nadal is behind, he seems to be able to dig down deep and find some source of inner strength which tells him that even though he is behind, he can still win the match.  It's not over till its over!

One of Nadal's mantras is: "Playing well or playing bad, I have to play aggressive.  I must play aggressive."

Plays With Passion
Nadal is one of the most passionate players in the history of tennis.  His tennis stroke is famous for its wild swing, and his loudly audible grunts as he hits the ball.  When Rafa wins, he pumps his fist, when he loses, his face has a grimace upon it.

Of his own passion, Nadal has said, "I play each point like my life depends upon it."

Plays With Courage
There were so many times in this match, and many others that he has played before, where Nadal was about to lose the match if he made one bad tennis stroke.  This game, like many others that Nadal has played, went to 5 match points (that means that 5 times during the match, Muller was about to beat him),  But Nadal would come through with a huge, strong courageous shot, nonetheless.

With regard to his personal courage during tennis matches, Nadal has said; "Losing is not my enemy...fear of losing is my enemy."

Coolness Under Pressure
When large matches are played, the game is, of course, not the same as if it were two people batting  a ball around on a neighborhood court together.  There his huge pressure.  And this pressure increases all the more when there is a big point.  Again and again, Nadal would run to the ball, and hit it with total poise, when he was under pressure.

Again, Nadal has said of his coolness; "The only way of finding a solution is to fight back, to move, to run and to control that under pressure."

Of course, in the end, Nadal lost the match.  And he wasn't around afterward to comment on his play, which is already being dissected by the back bench tennis literati as I write this post.  But the truth must be faced - Nadal lost!  And that is just the point.  He will be back.  He never gives up.  In Nadal's own words; "When one player is better than you, at this moment, the only thing you can do is work, try to find solutions, and try to wait a little bit for your time.  I'm going to wait and I'm going to try a sixth time.  And if the sixth doesn't happen, a seventh.  It's going to be like this.  That's the spirit of the sport."

And that's the Gospel of Nadal!

All For Now,

GB