Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Quest

A while ago a friend gave me a copy of Nelson DeMille’s book THE QUEST to read.  The book was originally released in 1975, and was re-released in a larger re-written format last year.  The book almost doubled in size and I understand added more sex and adventure.

The book was given to me because of its “religious” themes and the person thought I would enjoy it.  The book was a fast read (despite its length of almost 500 pages) and well written.

It is the story of three journalists who find themselves in Ethiopia covering that countries bloody civil war.  Through, what they decide is divine intervention; they meet a priest who has been in solitary confinement for 40 years --- held there because he saw the Holy Grail and knows where it is hidden for safekeeping.  The Priest had been sent to Ethiopia by the Pope with the purpose of finding the Grail and sending it back to Rome.

When the journalists meet him, he is mortally wounded, but still manages to tell them of the Grail and its powers.  The rest of the story is, of course, an adventure to find the Grail and present it to Rome.  At times it borders on becoming another Arthurian tale of the quest for the Grail, at other times; it keeps you on the edge of your seat trying to guess what is coming next.

Of course, the story is filled with a love triangle between the three journalists.  That part of the story was probably the weakest, but I am sure that his editors wanted more sex and less religion.  The ending was not a big surprise, but even at the end, you were left wondering what made the journalist tick --- there was always something missing in their development.

It is not a great book, but also not a bad one either.  Overall it is a fun and fairly easy read.

Monday, January 27, 2014

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is "International Holocaust Remembrance Day", a memorial day for the victims of the Nazi genocide that resulted in the annihilation of 6 million Jews, 2 million Gypsies, 15,000 homosexual people and millions of others. This remembrance day was created by the United Nations General Assembly in November 2005.

One of the most powerful places I have ever visited is the Holocaust Memorial in Israel.  I have yet to visit the one in Skokie, IL (close to where I grew up) or Washington, DC.  I have been to the Memorial many times, and each time I am gripped by the absolute care for life that we often exhibit.

I took this picture on my visit in 2006.  It is of a train box car headed to oblivion.

There are many more pictures from Yad Vashem on my flickr account:

Monday, January 20, 2014

Do I Really Have To Love (Unconditionally)?

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

As we continue to look on the VISION statement of Ridge Church we are going to look at the second part of our statement:

We of Ridge United Methodist Church are united with Jesus Christ in His ministry of compassion for all people by offering HOPE, UNCONDITIONAL LOVE and MEANING FOR LIFE.

Last Sunday we talked about how we as a people are called to be people who bring hope. 

Today we are going to look at the most difficult --- and maybe the most controversial part of our vision statement --- but I think it is the cornerstone of who we are supposed to be.

We are to be a people who offer unconditional love.

What I am going to try and do, is look at what we mean by unconditional love.

“Love” is a difficult and problematic term on its own.

We use it to refer to everything from preferences
          “I love the Duke Blue Devils”
to appreciation
          “I love the way you arranged those flowers”
to emotion
          “I love Zeke" --- my dog by the way
to commitment
          “I will always love you”

But we also use this simple expression “I love you” to mean an apology
I know I upset you but I didn’t mean to, please forgive me because I love you
to a demand
          do this because I love you --- so you owe me
to a promise
You know I love you and I will take care of you for the rest of your life
or a way of avoiding a promise
          I love you, isn’t that enough?

But, when we add that one little word unconditional to qualify love, we narrow the possible range of meanings considerably.

I think that if we can really comprehend what constitutes a “condition”, we will find that the type of love which is truly unconditional is one with which we are not terribly familiar in our culture.

And I think, at a base level, we all like the idea of unconditional love.

We see it as the loftiest kind of love --- maybe even God's love --- but is it possible?

          Does it even make sense?

Let me give you a couple of examples as we wrestle with this concept.

A mother is having a test of wills with her two-year-old.

The young boy wants to continue playing with his toys, but it’s time for bath and bed.

Mom has already given him a five-minute grace period, after his first howling protests. Now she insists he will do as she says.
She is not being unloving; her firmness is an expression of her concern for his well-being.

Of course, the child doesn’t see it that way.
          Or doesn’t care.
He simply wants his own will.

If he could speak his feelings, he would probably say, “If you really loved me, you’d let me do what I want!”

As adults, we have little problem identifying with Mom here.
          We understand a child’s immaturity.
                   Mom really is expressing love.
But is it unconditional love?

Yes, in the sense that she will continue loving her son even if he disobeys (if she is a healthy mother).

But no, in the sense that, in this as many other situations, love itself requires conditions.

A harder case: Dick and Jane have been married for almost twenty years.

It’s been a good marriage over all, with a couple of healthy children.

But problems have sprouted in the past couple of years.

And recently Dick discovered that his wife is having an affair.

Jane wants to continue the adulterous relationship.
She also wants Dick to accept it, like an up-to-date, sensible person, and let the marriage continue.
What does real love mean for Dick and Jane in this situation?

If he really loves her unconditionally, won’t he accept his wife on her terms, as an expression of his love?
Or will genuine love here require Dick to say, in effect: “It’s either me or him.”

So does genuine love require conditions?

Maybe the first thing we have to ask ourselves is What does “conditional” mean?
          Conditional --- not limited by conditions
          Conditions --- a restricting, limiting, or modifying circumstance

So, if the presence of love is limited by any particular condition (circumstance or requirement), it is not, by definition, unconditional.

So we could take those examples I just shared a step farther and argue:

The love of parents for their children and vice versa is not unconditional.

It depends on the circumstance of being related by birth or adoption.

Sexual love is not unconditional.

It depends on the sexual attraction between the participants.

The love of one’s friends is not unconditional.

It depends on shared interests, mutual support, communication, and all the other things that make our friends our friends.

So can unconditional love really ever exist??

The crazy truth is ----

Unconditional love is not personal.

If you love someone for their sense of humor, personality, the way they make you feel, or any other aspect of their identity, your love is conditional.

It depends on the presence of that characteristic.

If the person ceased to be or have all the things that you enjoy, would the love still be present?

And here’s the real kicker --- unconditional love does not come and go.
          It just is.

That leaves us with the ultimate quandary . . .

If human love is seemingly always conditional --- is God's love unconditional.

The logical answer is NO --- even God's love is conditional.

And the church had argued this for millennia.

Howard Snyder, an evangelical theologian that I highly respect, especially for his views on social justice ---- wrote a blog piece on number of years ago.

He argues:

The love of God, “greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell.” Human love may fail, but surely God’s love is unconditional, right?


God created man and woman and put them in the Garden. Conditionality were there from the start: “You are free . . . . But you must not . . .” (Gen. 2:16-17 NIV). The same truth runs throughout Scripture. And the logic of it undergirds the whole meaning of Jesus’ coming, death, and resurrection.

If God’s love were unconditional, the cross would be unnecessary. God does not love unconditionally. He loved so much that he sent his Son. And he loves so much that he will not, cannot, forgive and accept us as his redeemed children except on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice. To do otherwise would betray the integrity of God’s own character. Precisely for this reason, acceptance without cost or sacrifice would betray the essential nature of love itself.

The cross is the ultimate proof that true love is never unconditional.

He makes a persuasive argument --- especially if you come from a Calvinist background

And I hear it all the time.

I was at a funeral this week and the pastor talked about the need to get an "eternal life insurance policy"

The implication is --- of course, that if you do not have a relationship with Jesus --- then you are not getting to heaven --- but instead are going to hell.

So, is God's love conditional?

Does God only love us if we believe --- mentally assent to ideas that the church has authorized?

And if we fail to agree with those statements --- then is God going to assign us to eternal torment?

Unfortunately --- over the years I have come to understand that our answer --- or our perception --- to the question on whether God loves us unconditionally or not is predicated on the baggage that we bring to the table.

We could stand up here and begin a quote fest --- on both sides of the issue --- to try and prove our point
          Is God's love unconditional or not

And many of the verses both sides would quote would be taken out of context to serve the arguers purpose.

Some of the verses I could quote would include:

1 Corinthians 13
Love is very patient and kind, never jealous or envious, never boastful or proud, never haughty or selfish or rude. Love does not demand its own way. It is not irritable or touchy. It does not hold grudges and will hardly even notice when others do it wrong.
It is never glad about injustice, but rejoices whenever truth wins out. If you love someone you will be loyal to him no matter what the cost. You will always believe in him, always expect the best of him, and always stand your ground in defending him.
All the special gifts and powers from God will someday come to an end, but love goes on forever...
There are three things that remain -- faith, hope, and love -- and the greatest of these is love.
1 John 4:10
          In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us

Exodus 34:5
“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness

Or Psalm 136 which reminds us over and over again that:
          God's steadfast love endures forever

And I could go on and on and on -----
          as could someone who wishes to argue the exact opposite
and we both can rationalize and explain away the other passages

But --- at the end of the day
          I think we are left with a choice
                   What type of God do we choose to believe in?
                             What type of God do we choose to emulate?

A dozen or so years ago ----
when the leadership of Ridge Church took a Saturday and spent it down the street at Westminster in retreat we wrestled with this very issue

At the end of the day we decided that we wanted to emulate a God who loves us unconditionally and who challenges us to do the same.

But what does that mean that we are to love "unconditionally"

I would suggest we frame it this way


Second --- Love is the only force that can change the world

We as Christians understand that Jesus is the embodiment of love.  So for us, we seek to emulate his way of life which was one of agape love --- or what we might call sacrificial love.

Martin Luther King put it beautifully:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

I have decided to stick with love.  Hate is too great a burden to bear.

At Ridge United Methodist Church we have chosen to try and emulate God's love for us

We desire to see all people as God's children --- worthy of God's love --- worthy of our love.

Does this attitude --- this approach create problems?

Will we succeed in doing it?
          Probably not

BUT  --- it is the call of Jesus in our loves!

It is the crown that Jesus holds over our heads and invites us to grow into!

I believe in a God who loves me without condition.

But I also believe in a God whose desire for me is to follow the way of Jesus --- not so that God might love me more --- but so that I might love more!

Monday, January 13, 2014

VISION: It's A Matter of Hope

I changed the last third of this sermon drastically between services.  I didn't like how it flowed and I felt like the ending was too impersonal and long.  The part about the study I condensed and in it's place I shared the story of someone who is bringing hope to others.

Jeremiah 29:11-14    (NRSV)
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Have you ever been on the top of a mountain?

Not just on top of a mountain --- but have you been on top of a mountain on a clear day?

It is one of the most amazing things, because when you are on a mountain --- or on top of a skyscraper --- or in an airplane ---- YOU CAN SEE FARTHER THAN YOU CAN SEE.

Too many of us however suffer from a deficiency
          We can't see farther than what is in front of our faces.

If we want to thrive, we desperately need to be able to see farther than we can see.

The author of proverbs understood this when he wrote:
Proverbs 29:18 (KJV)
Where there is no vision, the people perish

Nothing happens without vision.
The world hungers for people with vision à
for people who look farther than they can see.

An African American pastor led a thriving church.
Many of its members were actively serving the surrounding community. Asked the secret of his success, the pastor responded,
“I hold a crown above my people’s heads, and watch them grow up into it.”

That’s the power of vision.

Sometime around the year 7 BCE, the planets Jupiter and Saturn appeared very close together in the night sky, casting a bright glow similar to that of a single large star.

The following year, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were also closely aligned.

Some scholars believe one of these two events produced the bright light in the sky the biblical wise men followed when they came to Bethlehem two thousand years ago.

You know the story.

What fascinates me is this: hundreds of thousands of other people living in that part of the world saw the same bright light in the sky, but they did not leave their homes to go find the newborn king.

What was different about these magi?        

These magi were searching for something that was real
something that would transform their lives.

For the next couple of weeks, we are going to talk about what Ridge Church is all about.

Who we are ---

And what drives us to do what we do.

The mission statement of Ridge Church is the same mission statement that all United Methodist Churches have:
Ridge Church exists to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Pretty simple and pretty obvious for all Christians
As Christians we want to become Disciple for Jesus who seek to change the world

It is our Vision however that sets us apart.

Our Vision defines how we are going to go about becoming Disciples for Jesus

Our Vision is the crown that we hold over your head and watch you grow into it.

Our vision is also pretty simple:
We of Ridge United Methodist Church are united with Jesus Christ in His ministry of compassion for all people by offering HOPE, UNCONDITIONAL LOVE and MEANING FOR LIFE.

For the next couple of weeks we are going to look at those three key components of our Vision
          Today --- HOPE
          Next Sunday --- Unconditional Love
          January 29th --- Meaning for life

When we talk about Hope --- there are primarily two types of hope that we speak of
1.    We believe that with Jesus' help --- WE CAN transform the world and make it a better place

2.    We believe that death is not the end --- that God has something more for us

More often than not, the church likes to focus on the second kind of hope --- but the truth is it just is --- there is nothing we can do about it --- It is God's promise for us.

It is the first one, that, together with Jesus --- that we can help make happen.

If you can, try to remember how you felt when you heard the news about each of the following events:

  • The massacre of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado by two students in April 1999;

  • The killing of five young girls and the wounding of five others in an Amish school by a lone gunman in Pennsylvania in October 2006;

  • The slaying of 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech by a deranged student in April 2007;

  • The killing of 6 at Northern Illinois on Valentine's day in 2008

  • The gunning down of 13 people at a community center in Binghamton, New York, by a lone shooter in April 2009;

  • The killing of three women and the wounding of nine others by a lone gunman at a fitness center near Pittsburgh in August 2009;

  • The murder of 13 soldiers on the grounds of Fort Hood in Texas, November 2009.

  • Six killed when gunman tries to assassinate US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson Jan 2011

  • Twelve killed at Aurora Co movie Theater -- July 2012

  • Newton, Ct 27 killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School Dec 2012

  • Boston Marathon bombing last April

  • 12 killed in the Washington Navy yard, September 16, 2013

If you are like most people, you experienced a sense of deep shock and dismay on hearing the news of those events.

But unless you were personally connected to a victim of one of the subsequent tragedies, it’s likely that each one had progressively less emotional impact on you.

Mass killings -- defined by the FBI as four or more victims, not including the killer -- have occurred across the U.S. at the rate of about one every two weeks since 2006

In fact, by the time the last of these was reported, your reaction may have been little more than a sad shake of the head and a weary utterance of:
          “Come on, not again!”

And you probably turned your attention away from the news much more quickly than you did after Columbine.

Not surprising is it?

We lived through 9/11

Our news is filled with reports on bombs and deaths from the war on terror, and drive by shootings from our own back yard.

On, the TV and internet we have witnessed such awful stuff that our shock threshold has been raised.
Now when we hear of such tragedies our reaction is more controlled.

Following the Virginia Tech shootings, columnist Daniel Henninger, writing in the Wall Street Journal, commented on this growing numbness to bad news.

He suggested that it may be that as a nation we have reached “tilt“ with tragedy.

By TILT he was referring to the old classic pinball machines which would stop working if you banged on them too hard.
          Sure you could bang on it pretty good --- but there were limits.

It seems like, as a people we have been banged on pretty hard.

Later in the same column he wrote:
          “Our capacity for shock at genuine violence has been recalibrated.”

It is sad, but true.
When tragedies become commonplace, it just isn’t humanly possible for us who are at a distance from them to experience the same level of emotional distress as those who are close at hand.

And our lessened reaction has nothing to do with not caring or a lack of empathy.

It is simply that we have a survival function that causes us to become protective of our emotional energy.
We cannot continue to dump it out day after day on extreme events and have any left for daily living.

And so a kind of numbness creeps in, and to some degree, it needs to.

It’s a defense mechanism that keeps us from reaching our personal tilt point.

That said, such numbness also gives us a jaded view of life,
a pervasive pessimism that whispers to us that the cards really are stacked against us,

and that no matter how much we think we’ve organized our lives, the forces of chaos and destruction will ultimately prevail.

We hear some of those whispers after almost every one of these shootings.

Some commentator says the incidents should reignite the debate about gun control --- Certainly that was the assumption after New Town --- but those of us who have been around awhile find ourselves thinking something such as:
Yeah, this latest tragedy might cause some debate, but even if some changes are made, it won’t make the kind of difference we need. People who are determined to kill others will always find a way to do so.

But do you hear in that admission deep pessimism --- that nothing could have prevented it,
          or something like it ---
that neither arming everybody nor disarming everybody would make much difference?

That’s a fatalism we don’t wish to surrender to, but it nibbles at the edge of our minds when we contemplate awful things.

Fully developed, it can cause us to doubt God’s existence, or at least God’s goodness.

And while we begin to wish we could do something, we know that nothing will change.

Do you hear the pessimism in that?
“We Wish it could come true,“ which implies, --- but it we know it won’t.

That is the problem, when we can’t see farther than we can see.

So, how do we find hope in the world today?

As we live on this side of eternity, what we need to know is that God is still here in this life, that God has not left us, that God is our shepherd, God has plans for us.

Did you listen to the words from Jeremiah?

Jeremiah 29:11-14    (NRSV)
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

God reminds us that it is in community --- when we gather together with others that we can find hope.

We support and encourage each other.

Following the Virginia Tech shootings, the university reacted by holding a convocation, by creating a place for people to come together and talk about God.

In an essay on about the tragedy, religion correspondent Lauren Green wrote,
“So where is God?  He is in the prayer vigils. He is in the rivers of tears flowing from everyone affected. He is in the community coming together to offer support to the families. He is at work in the love and strength people are offering each other. God is with us.”

We shouldn’t discount the power of corporate worship to help us when numbing news bombards us.

A recent study by a Harvard researcher, in conjunction with a UC San Diego researcher, gives us some evidence in that direction.

In 2003, this pair gained access to some old papers found in a storeroom in Framingham, Massachusetts.

They were the handwritten records of 5,124 male and female subjects from a heart study done in that community in 1948, looking for risk factors for heart trouble.

It wasn’t so much the heart information that caught the attention of the latter-day researchers, but rather some clerical information on the forms.

The original Framingham researchers had noted each participant’s close friends, colleagues and family members simply so that if the participant moved away, the researchers could contact the friends to locate the participant.

Looking at that information, the 2003 researchers realized it could be transformed into a detailed map of the human relationships of those folks.

Two-thirds of the adults in Framingham had been included in the first phase of the study, and their children and grandchildren had participated in subsequent phases.

Thus, almost the entire social network of the community was chronicled in these old records.

It took nearly five years to input all that data into a computer format, but once that was done; the current researchers were able to construct detailed diagrams of the social networks of the Framingham residents.

As they began tracking those people as an interconnected network rather than as a mass of individuals, they discovered that the social networks influenced the behavior of the people involved, even as the participants spread out over a larger geographic area.

Because the study had kept track of the subjects’ weight, the current researchers first analyzed obesity trends.

They found that in 1948, fewer than 10 percent of the residents were obese.

By 1985, 18 percent were, and today, 40 percent are.

That equates with national trends, but looking at it from the social-network angle, the researchers realized that while the whole group discovered fast food at the same time, the social-network effect was what caused obesity to begin to spread, almost like a virus.

In other words, when your friends change their eating habits, it’s likely that you will, too.

They found a similar trajectory with smoking. In the early 70s, 65 percent of Framingham residents between the ages of 40 and 49 smoked regularly.
          But by 2001, only 22 percent did.
The researchers found that friends and family had a positive influence, and that people quit together.

Both eating habits and smoking are behaviors, but the researchers went further and found that such things as happiness are also influenced by our social networks.

Because the original study asked people to describe their moods, the latter research showed that essentially, happy people have happy friends and unhappy people have unhappy friends.

In other words, gloom is contagious, but so is joy.

It doesn’t take much thought to apply that same dynamic to people who worship together.

One thing that helps us maintain hope when soul-numbing bad news is all around us is that we’re coming before God in company with others who share that hope.

There have been enough awful tragedies caused by somebody with a grudge, or paranoia or evil in his heart, or a desire to get even or whatever, that we assume similar things will continue to happen from time to time in some place in our society.
Evil is real, sin rages in people’s hearts, madness descends, despair begets chaos.

What’s more, there’s no guarantee that we or our loved ones might not someday be among the victims.

But standing here among the people of God, in the place of worship, we can sense the truth: that good is stronger than evil, that there is something --- something --- that cannot be taken from us because God has given it to us.

And furthermore, we together know that nothing --- nothing --- can separate us from the love of God.

It’s that knowledge that helps us not tilt when bad things happen.

We at Ridge Church offer hope to people by being hopeful ourselves.

By looking for the positive,

By being creative in our search for solutions to life’s problems

By helping one another to see, farther than we can see

"Killing Jesus" a fanciful take on Jesus last few days

Last spring I watched the National Geographic special based on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book Killing Lincoln.  I need to state, right off the bat that I am not a fan of Bill O’Reilly.  I find him smug and often times condescending.  I think he is very intelligent, but gets wrapped up so tightly in his world view that he can’t see the forest for the trees.

I was not overly impressed, with Killing Lincoln, I found nothing extraordinary in the production and overall no real revelations.  It was a nice retelling of the story in a narrative form, but nothing more.

A friend shared with me their copy of Killing Jesus: A History and asked me to read it. The title was a giveaway that I would not like it.  Calling anything written about Jesus as the definitive history is a bit presumptuous since the main source for all of their material is not history but rather “theological history”.  They conclude their introduction with these words:
“the incredible story behind the lethal struggle between good and evil has not been fully told.  Until now.”
I guess for 2,000 years we have gotten it wrong --- thank God they came along to straighten us all out.

Unfortunately there book is filled with so many FACTUAL errors that it made me laugh out loud a number of times.  Unfortunately, most casual readers of the story would never know that they are wrong and would just be taken in with the narrative.

And in that regard, I think they do a good job.  If they were to have called this “historical fiction” I would not have nearly the issues with them.  But Mr. O’Reilly, in his usually smug manner wants us to believe that he has it all figured out (and Geraldo Rivera found Al Capone’s filled vault).  I felt like I was reading one of Max Lucado’s books which present a very definite theological understanding of “historical” events.

When I began reading the book, I started writing down all the errors that I caught.  I got so busy taking notes that the flow of the story was lost, so eventually I quite.  First and foremost is a presumption that they make: that the authors of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were eyewitnesses to the events that they record and that they did so in an objective historical fashion.  That view is so far off the mainstream that it is laughable.  The Gospels are not “history” as we tend to define it today (objective accounts of events), but rather theological narratives of Jesus to help us understand who they believed he was.  There was nobody writing the stuff down --- nobody thought it was important until after the resurrection event.

A few other glaring errors; on page 14, in a footnote, they state that the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Philistines in 722 BC.  Unfortunately, the northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians.  On page 90 they tell us that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  Nowhere is that found even in the Biblical text.  The idea comes from Pope Gregory the first (Gregory the Great, c. 540-604) during a sermon on Mary he declared that Mary was the prostitute from Luke’s Gospel. 

On page 147 (again in a footnote) they make this ridiculous claim.  “Women in Jesus’ time were considered equal to men”.  In other words, for the next 2,000 years we went backwards in equality.

I could list many more, but I think you get the point.

Killing Jesus is a good novel, a good piece of fiction of what it might have been like during the last few days.  But overall it misses the point.  If you want to read about the passion of Jesus, and are up to the challenge I would suggest Raymond Brown’s classic (outdated but still valuable) Death of the Messiah.  Or for a more modern take: Borg and Crossan’s The Last Week.

I do not recommend this book!

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Update from the holidays

Wow, I actually stayed away from work during my holiday which began at midnight Christmas Eve.  We had wonderful worship at Ridge Church and I was exhausted!  My holiday got extended a little with the major snow and cold that we are going through, but I am enjoying the slow pace of getting back into the groove.  I "preached" last Sunday, but it was nothing that I had prepared.  With the terrible weather I decided to hold the original sermon that I wrote and preach it on the 12th.  I will begin a three week series looking at Ridge Church Vision Statement. In case you don't know it (or have forgotten) the Vision Statement of Ridge Church is:

We of Ridge United Methodist Church are united with Jesus Christ in His ministry of compassion for all people by offering HOPE, UNCONDITIONAL LOVE and MEANING FOR LIFE.

Over the next three weeks I will look at those three components that make Ridge Church what we are.  This is something that I started doing a few years ago, and think it is important that we as a church do often to remind us of our core purpose.

The rest of my time I spent cleaning my basement (which desperately needed it).  I wish I could say I finished the project, but in truth I am only about 1/3 done.  But I did manage to find some time to try my hand at kegging beer rather than bottling it.  With some of the money I received as presents, I went out and bought a beginner kegging system.  I had two beers that were ready to be finished, so I bottled the Bourbon Barrel Porter and I kegged the Scottish.  The advantages to kegging are many!!  First, it takes a lot less time.  Be beer is ready in a week or so rather than two weeks, and there are ways to even speed up that process. Second, you don't have to fill 50 bottles or so, you just fill one 5 gallon keg!  And I think the beer tastes great coming out of the keg.  I am building a keezer to hold my new creations (taking a freezer and turning it into a keg dispensing system).  There is a great video on how to make on on the Northern Brewer site: Keezer Video  I hope to stain the collar tonight and finish it this weekend!

Keep warm my friends, and if you want to try one of my homebrews stop on by.  I have six available right now.
1.    Black IPA
2.    Coffee Stout
3.    Vanilla Bean Porter
4.    Irish Red               bottled 10/25/13
5.    English IPA
6.    Bourbon Porter       brewed 11/10/13    bottled 12/27/13

7.    Scottish Ale            brewed 12/1/13      kegged 12/27/13

Unto You A Child Is Born --- CHRISTMAS EVE 2013

Dec 24, 2013
Unto You A Child Is Born

Luke 2:1-20   (NRSV)
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Luke is my favorite version of the Gospel.

To me, Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is the “real one” --- and for me, it would not be Christmas without hearing it.

Luke adds all those wonderful details that make the story come alive.

Luke’s wealth of names --- dates --- places --- and events animate the ancient world, making it seem less like scripture and more like story time

What would it be like if we put Luke’s gospel into a more current historical context --- would that help bring Luke a little closer to home?

In the sixth year of the administration of President Barak Obama, when Mike Pence was governor of the State of Indiana, when Joe Simonetto, John Reed, John Edington, David Nellens and Andy Koultourides were town Council of Munster, during the time when Mike Coyner was Bishop of the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Word of the Lord came to . . . YOU!

And you went out into your neighborhood,
         Appeared before your town council,
Proclaiming the good news of a great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David, a savior, who is the messiah, the Lord.

Suddenly ---- the beginnings of the Christmas story seem a bit too real --- don’t they?

It is so much more comfortable and cozy to just read Luke’s version ---- to feel the life pulsing through ancient characters and too sit here safely in the 21st century and know that this happened --- like Star Wars tells us ---- “Long ago and far away” . . .

We don’t want the Christmas story too up close and personal

Because if it becomes too close and too personal --- it might expect something from us!

There is an apocryphal story that during the Civil War in America, --- during one of the worst times of the war as Grant was driving on Richmond.
This was in 1864 and Grant’s troops had been unable to successfully take Petersburg VA, so an almost year long siege was set up.
On Christmas Eve, 1864 --- for whatever reason the continuous battle ceased.
There was no official truce, but both sides withdrew their pickets, and throughout Christmas day Union a Confederate bands exchanged tunes
including renditions of "Dixie by the Yankees and
"Yankee Doodle" by the Rebels

During the day word had passed across the lines that Union General James Stedman's wife had delivered that morning a baby girl.

Word must have spread, because later that day Confederate General William
Malone, considered by many to be one of the toughest fighters in either army, who then commanded the entire sector, sent a messenger across the lines to convey his respects to Mrs. Stedman and her new baby girl.
Isaiah 9:6
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given;
And the government will be upon his shoulder.
And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Have you ever gone to visit someone who just had a baby.

When you get there everybody goes to see the baby and says all kinds of dumb things like:
"My doesn't he look cute?"
"He looks just like you"
"I think he has your eyes"

Then comes the moment you either long for or fear, depending on your temperament.

When they ask you: "Do you want to hold the baby?"

For many people, that is a great moment.
They love to.
They want to.

But for others, it is a bit scary.

There is always the fear that I will drop the little guy.
What if he cries? --- What do I do then?

Worse yet, what if he spits up?

What if some bodily function, that he has been saving up suddenly erupts?

Then you start asking yourself: how long will I have this child?

Because, once you are holding a child, it is pretty bad form after a few seconds to say
"OK, I'm done --- take the kid back".

Some of us long for those moments when we get to hold the child.
We love it and yet others fear it.

In both cases, it is because of the same reason --- when you hold a baby, that baby becomes real to you.

When you hear about a baby, or even see a baby from across the room, the child is still just some kid in theory to you.

You may believe it is a child,
but as long as it is kept at a safe distance - it really can't effect you.

But when you hold the baby, in some small way you are making a commitment.

You are committing to being careful, and gentle, and even committing to holding that child until someone takes it away.

And when you feel that warm bundle in your arms, well, then it is real in a way that it was not before.
It is not theoretical at all, but one of the most real things in the world.
In that moment, all of your joys, as well as your fears and feelings of inadequacy come to mind

I remember when each of my girls were born.

I was there in the delivery room and when they were born, the doctor turned and said "Mr. Conger, would you like to hold your daughter?"

It should have been an easy question, but it was anything but easy.
At that moment I did not feel adequate, or responsible enough, or mature enough to be a father.

Yet there was the question, I could say yes or no.
But if I said yes, I was saying yes to a whole lot more than just holding a newborn child.

That is what Christmas is all about,
so much of our worship tends to put God at a distance.

We sing and talk about God in the third person.

We throw around ideas, concepts, and philosophical theology in a way that makes God a God in theory.

But in Christmas, God gets beyond all that, and God comes down to us in the flesh.

Nothing theoretical here.
God in undeniable reality.

Yet we still make God theoretical by putting the advent at a safe time and distance.

Jesus birth is someplace else, and at some other time.

Yet the word of the angel is,
"Unto you is born THIS DAY in the city of David a savior."
Not just here and then, but here and now.

And if you dare to really believe that, if you dare in your heart to come to the
manger, then God will ask the inevitable question:
“do you want to hold the baby?”

Would you like to experience the Christ child in undeniable reality in your life?
Do you want to go past the nice ideas, and find a child that is God in flesh?

And we come that awkward moment, and God asks, and if we are honest, we might have a variety of feelings.

For some of us, the answer is an immediate YES!!  Yes. Yes. yes.

But for some of the rest of us,
we come with some fears --- as well as the longing.
If I say yes to the child, what will be required of me?
Am I worthy?
Am I good enough?
How long will I have to hold this child?

The fears are natural.

And the answer to our first fears is probably no,
we are not good enough,
or holy enough,
or together enough.
But that is OK.
Neither were the shepherds,
or the wise men,
and maybe not even Mary and Joseph.
But the gift of the child does not depend on our worthiness. It is because of God's goodness.

And how long will you hold this child?
Well, maybe forever.
Maybe this yes is an eternal one.

But that is OK too ---- because our yes to that question is echoed by God's yes for us.

And in the end, this child that we hold, will come to hold us, through all the uncertain times ahead.

For that child came as God's reality for us.

He came to love, and show us what God is like up close and personal.

He came as God in the flesh to live for us, and heal us, and to die for us --- and most importantly --- to show us how to REALLY live.

The child born in the manger for us tonight is the same child that gave his life for us.

He came on Christmas, and he comes tonight.

But the question --- and God's offer remains

Would you like to hold the baby?