Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Church Will Not Change the World Unless...

Last Thursday, I had a powerful, genuine, moving spiritual experience, something I haven’t had for a long time.  A small group of passionate people gathered together and sang and spoke over the injustices happening around us, and we mourned and raged at the lack of real, compassionate response.  We celebrated a safe space for people of all ethnicities, political beliefs, genders, and sexual-orientations.  Hope was offered that the tragedies of this life don’t have to continue.  We mourned that Freddie Gray would’ve turned 13 that day had he not been killed.  We talked about mental health issues and celebrated that people can find hope outside of their depression or bi-polar or schizophrenia.  And at the end of the night, I and others like me left feeling like we could change the world.  I felt on fire!

Do you know what is sad though?  This experience didn’t happen at a church.  This wasn’t a Christian event.  In fact, a good majority of the people present were probably atheist. It was a punk rock show.  And I left feeling like maybe punk rock could change the world because it was willing to stand up for something real, for something right and to call its congregation to action; for some reason it embodied Jesus’ ethics without even believing in Jesus.

The problem is, I’m not so sure that the church in America is going to change the world because it does not have the courage to live like Christ over and against the way that popular Christianity is choosing to live.

In Matthew chapter 7, Jesus tells a parable of two builders, one who wisely chooses to build his house on a foundation that can withstand a strong storm, and the other who chooses to build his house on a weak foundation which will be destroyed by the wind and waves.
He uses this parable as the capstone of the entire Sermon on the Mount to say that it is the wise person who hears these words and founds his or her life on them by following them.  Anything else will lead to destruction. 

The question we are left with is, do we follow or not?  It’s really a simple question, but our response carries immense repercussions. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Jesus Does NOT Care About Your So-Called Gun Rights

On June 17th, our nation bore witness to another mass murder at the hands of a person who should not have had access to a weapon.  Predictably, the internet is also bearing witness to another flood of gun-supporters advocating that it’s not really about guns and that stricter laws won’t do anything useful aside from turn our nation into some authoritarian Marxist paradise led by Herr Obama (see crazy fantasies of a dystopian future).  At this point, I cannot imagine what it would take for gun-advocates to concede, even a little, that America has a gun-problem.  Yes, these shooting deaths are is related to mental health, no, they weren’t using automatic weapons, yes, people will access guns illegally if they want to, and no, a total crackdown wouldn’t solve all of the problems.  But for crying out loud, waving our 2nd amendment flag surely isn’t changing anything!  You do know what the definition of insanity is right?  Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.    

But this post isn’t simply about gun-control and gun-violence.  This is directed at CHRISTIANS who believe that it is their God-given right and duty to bear arms, and that nobody, especially the government, can take those rights  away.

I want to let you in on a little secret…are you ready?

…Jesus doesn’t care about your gun rights!
 In fact, Jesus doesn’t care about guns at all, except that they are an expedient method of violence and death which serve as tools of the enemy to bring about division, destruction and tragedy.  Although I would imagine that he is extremely disappointed that for a large percentage of Christians, guns and the kingdom of this world is trumping peace and the Kingdom of God.  Nowhere in the Bible does it suggest that a person has the right to take up arms against their fellow person, or to own weapons to protect the lives of themselves or others.  Not one single time does Jesus command us to encourage a culture of violence so that we can own the freedoms of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” (where is this found in Scripture again?)  And Jesus certainly never asks us to tout what we believe to be personal freedoms as Americans and Westerners at the clear expense of the lives of others, especially the innocent (i.e. children).  (By the way, I find it fascinating that those who are the most vehement supporters of the right to bear arms, which has indirectly caused the massacres at Sandy Hook and Columbine as well as all of the accidental shooting deaths of children across America, are also rabid pro-life missionaries, whose stance is that all children have the right to live, except if that interferes with the right to bear arms.)

Friday, June 5, 2015

What I'm doing with My Summer Vacation.

So, less than a month ago, I graduated from Ashland Theological Seminary with my Master's of Divinity.  This degree was ultimately a six year journey through various levels of heaven and hell through which I believe I have become a richer (spiritually speaking, not fiscally obvs) person.  Since then, several people have asked, "What are you going to do now?"  I find this question to be funny; it makes sense to ask a high school graduate what they might do, or even someone graduating college.  I on the other hand, am married and 5 years into my career at Oak Grove.  So what I am going "to do" is continue on this path. (When I'm asked this question, I can't help but feel liking I'm being asked the recurring, cyclical question and answer from "Pinky and the Brain")

On the other hand, I haven't not been a student since I was six years old.  For 23 years I have been a part of some form of educational institution.  It is part of my identity.  Because of this, the question then becomes very real and very valid.  What am I going to do now?

In some ways, it is difficult to know how this change will affect the way I view myself.  Right now, I'm on summer vacation, which would've happened whether or not I graduated.  It probably won't be until the fall that I begin to feel the emptiness (joy) of not registering for and attending classes.

But part of the reason that I was so bent on attending grad school and finishing my degree even though I moved several times during and transferred through different schools is because I am driven on bettering myself.

What am I going to do now?  I will find different ways to better myself.  I recently took up yoga, which has been a fantastic relaxation exercise.  I also purchased a road bike and am working towards increasing my mileage each time.

Recently I finished a book entitled "The Year of Reading Dangerously" by Andy Miller.  (It's fantastic by the way, I would highly recommend it.)  The premise of the book is that the author decided it was high time to pull down all of those books from the shelf that he had been intending to read for years and just finally DO IT!  By sheer will, he managed to read 51 books in a year, including such mammoths as War and Peace and Middlemarch.  It really was an incredible feat.

This got me thinking, I have a whole shelf of books that I have all kinds of intentions of reading.  But as long as I just let them sit there, they become pretty dust collectors.  So I decided to take a cue from Miller and come up with my own "List of Betterment."  My goal this summer, then, is to read:

1) "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Graham
2) "Silence" by Shusako Endo
3) "The Autobiography of Malcolm X"
4) "The Handmaiden's Tale" by Margaret Atwood
5) "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac
6)  "Dr. Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak
7) "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking
8) "Trainspotting" by Irvine Welsh
9)  "Slow Food" by Carlo Petrini
10) "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo

I admit it's a pretty ambitious list, and I realize that I'm incredibly good at creating lists that I never complete.  But I'm feeling pretty motivated this time around.

So far, I have completed #1 and #2.  It was quite the transition from a lighthearted book about friendship and loyalty between animals to a historical fiction novel about martyrdom of Christian missionaries in Japan and wrestling with the silence of God.  But both were excellent.  I am currently 2/3 of the way through #3, which has been eye opening.

So there you are, that's my summer vacation, and "what I hope to do" following grad school.  It's another leg the journey of my life; I certainly have not "arrived" nor do I plan to anytime soon.  But I find that all experiences, good or bad, shape me into who I am becoming and allow me to see the world in new lights.  May you find what you will "do" too!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What is Justice?

What is justice?  This is the question that many are asking in regards to yesterday’s grand jury decision to not indict officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.  For some, Officer Wilson’s actions were just because he was executing his legal right as an officer of the law to defend his life against an aggressor.  For others, the decision to not bring Officer Wilson to trial is an injustice because he caused the death of an unarmed civilian and should, at the very least, have to answer for this.  For many, this is only another example of racial bias in regards to the law and further promotes the idea that Police Officers, especially white ones, live above the law.
The challenges faced in fully understanding this situation involve a lack of hard evidence, conflicting witness testimonies, media bias and interference, and a high degree of emotionalism for people on all sides of the issue. 

Beyond that, we are working with an imperfect justice system (broken) in a fractured government in which race and politics colors the way that we receive and interpret information.  And culturally, there is still a racial divide in our nation, both explicit and implicit, which unfortunately spins our thoughts, actions and reactions to this controversy.

So again I ask, what is justice?  What is justice to Michael Brown and his family?  What is justice for Darren Wilson?  What does justice mean to the community of Ferguson?  What is justice for the minority population in the United States?

One of the wonderful surprises that we find is that in contrast to our society, which favors the powerful over the weak, Godly justice, according to Scripture, is defending those without power from the oppression of the powerful.  It is a dramatic reversal from the norm of our society which tends to give the most favor to those who pull the most strings while robbing any favor from those who are in the most need.  Yet over and over again, Scripture attests to God’s desire that His followers seek justice for the oppressed. 

Isaiah 1:17
Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.
Jeremiah 22:3
This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.
Micah 6:8
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

Our nation measures justice according to the laws of the land, which allow for a person of power to make the discretionary decision as to whether or not someone can live or die.  And we cannot avoid the reality that those discretionary decisions are influenced by one’s position and privilege.  Nor can we deny that historically, the powerful (often white males) have been given preferential treatment over and against minorities in the eyes of the law (which is supposedly blind).  And finally, we have to reconcile the fact that, no matter the circumstances, an armed police officer charged with protecting citizens shot and killed an unarmed man.  Legally, it was decided that he had the right to do so.  But does that mean that Michael Brown did not have the right to live?  And are we now in a state where enforcers can act as judge, jury and executioner without any form of punitive action being brought against them (as long as they testify their lives were being threatened)?

So once again, it would appear to many that the powerful triumphed over the weak, which is ultimately the inciting reason behind the cries of “injustice!”  It would seem that this could be a continuation of racial subjugation which has plagued our nation since its inception. 

The question remains, what is justice in the eyes of God?  All of humankind has been created in the image of God and therefore have divine worth, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity and the like.  And Paul tells us that in the Kingdom of God, the distinctions which divide us no longer exist.  Therefore, it is unjust to give preferential treatment to a person or people group based on race, title or position. 
Additionally, we will all have to make account for our actions in this life, whether or not they are legally justified.  Officer Wilson will have to deal with the fact that he killed another human being, and only he knows his true motives.  Any murder or killing is an unnecessary tragedy in the eyes of God, who is actively working at reconciling the entire world to himself. 

Justice, in the eyes of God, is the Church, His physical representative here on earth, standing up for the rights of those whose rights have been taken away.  Michael Brown’s right to a trial for the robbery and (potential) harassment/assault of an officer of the law were taken away.  Maybe he gave his rights away through aggression; in any case, he did not receive due process.   The black community’s right to receive fair treatment from the legal system in Missouri was, as perceived by many, taken away.  And whether or not this is completely true is not the point; the point is that once again the weak were made powerless, and serious reparations are in order.

So where do we go from here, as a church?  First, we need to stop the violence we are doing to one another.  Not only was violence done in the incident, but violence occurred by protesters and the government’s reactions to the protesters.  Also, many are doing violence to each other in their discussions, as well as violence to the life of Michael Brown, to his family, to the African-American community, and to Officer Wilson in the words being said and typed.  Violence takes many forms, but violence will never ultimately stop violence.  The only thing that can overcome violence is love.

Secondly, we need to educate ourselves on the realities of oppression in America.  We need to stop infusing our faith with our politics and rather see people through the eyes of God.  Whether they are undocumented immigrants, Muslims, politicians, or black, God sees all people as his unique and important creation.  Imagine how our culture would look if we stopped viewing others as “problems” and instead viewed them as irreplaceable. 

Finally, we need to seek justice in our own communities.  Where are the fragmented places in our own lives, in our churches, schools and cities?  And what efforts could we make to bring those broken pieces together?  What is our part in all of this?  We need to stop being armchair politicians and protestors, and we need to stop being satisfied with the broken system we live in, and instead be an active force for God’s justice here and now.  The world is not going to Hell and we are not called to stand idly by and watch it destroy itself.  The Kingdom of God is here and now and we are called to be ambassadors for His reconciling work.  We cannot change the decision made in Ferguson, but we can change the unjust system which led to these tragic events.  Let us learn to stand together, to support one another.  That is justice.   

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sabbatical Reflections

90 days off.  How often in life can someone say that they've been afforded 90 days for “renewal,” and that they would have the privilege of determining what that renewal would look like? 
Firstly, I’m eternally grateful to the congregation at Oak Grove Mennonite Church for allowing (encouraging) me to take on such an adventure.  It came at the exact right time in my life and gave me an opportunity for much needed rest and reflection as well as allowed me to develop a vision for the direction that I would like to go from here. 

Erin and I at the Stoltzfus-Prall wedding.  I officiated,
and pretty much rocked it, if I say so my self.
During the last three months I was able to take part in several incredible opportunities that I otherwise would have not been able to.

To begin my sabbatical, I spent a week at the Gethsemani Benedictine Monastery in Louisville, KY.  It was a week of complete silence and structured prayer.  For some this might sound like torture, but for me it was illuminating.  I was able to read from one of my favorite spiritual authors (Thomas Merton) at the place that he had lived and written from.  Also, I got to sample their famous bourbon fudge, which was phenomenal!

Two weeks later, I served as the nightly speaker in Indianapolis for a youth mission week with Mission Indy.  Erin and I had worked there for the summer before moving back to Ohio and owe much of our development and growth to the organization, so it was a blessing to be able to return and share some of what I’ve learned since then.  Also, I got a chance to read “The Lorax” out loud to a group of teenagers as an illustration for “God is Restoring Creation.”  The Lorax! Enough said.

Several weeks later I embarked with my parents for Chattanooga, Tennessee to begin the world longest yard sale.  This is not a joke, it is a real thing.  Every year in August, flea markets and yard sales appear along the route 127 corridor stretching from Alabama to Michigan.  The official length of the event is only supposed to be around 4 days, though I heard that some vendors had been set up for at least a week before it had even started.  Thousands of people from all over the country make their pilgrimages to this mecca of junk shopping to look for that perfect coca-cola sign or antique wrench or set of thimbles.  Many even drug U-Haul trailers with them up and down the highway to make sure that they had enough room for their “treasures.”  It was quite the experience, to say the least.  I wasn't looking for much in particular (except for vinyl, of which I had several good scores), but instead was looking forward to the extended face time with my parents. We had a blast sorting through people’s things and most importantly, people watching.  It was like a veritable people of Wal-Mart hall of fame.  (Side note, at the Amish roadside stand, they had a horse walking on a homemade treadmill to turn the crank to make homemade ice cream.  It was fantastic; unfortunately my phone does not take good pictures, but trust me that this was a sight)

Cuz baby you're a firework...
I wanted to book end my trip with silent retreats, so towards the end of September I spent several days at the Hermitage Retreat house in Three Rivers Michigan.  Let me tell you, if you ever get the opportunity to go, take it!  The land is so beautiful and serene; the lodgings are in an old barn that had been completely renovated into rooms and apartments.  During the week I was reading “The Fellowship of the Rings” at night and felt like I was living in a hobbit hole in middle earth-very cozy.  The Retreat master was very kind and made delicious (healthy) meals for us each day.  Additionally, I got to enjoy a campfire with Alf, the SOOP volunteer who played a mean harmonica and was a master marshmallow roaster (seriously, golden brown and perfect). 

Erin and I were also able to take several trips during this time.  We attended the Fashion Meets Music Festival in Columbus, which promised to have some pretty good bands and a festival atmosphere (i.e. fried food vendors).  Unfortunately, the “urban camping” was vastly undersold and we found ourselves in an abandoned field behind Clippers stadium camping on rocks and dirt with no access to water; also, the largest homeless population lived across the road and stole essential parts to the shower trailer, so no showers.  And after a downpour filled our tent with water and soaked everything we owned, we quickly packed up and moved our camping to Alum Creek State park.  It was ridiculous, but fairly routine for a Dye vacation.
I'm pretty sure I birdied every hole on this game.
But I don't have the score card, so I guess we'll never know...

We were also able to visit her dad and our college friend Will in Nashville.  We had a great time catching up, listening to music, eating sushi, and attending a very friendly charismatic church.  It was the perfect way to end the sabbatical.

During the weeks in between trips I was able to spend time with family (including my amazing nephew Charlie), do some housework, generally pester the staff at Coffee Matters in West Liberty (thanks for giving me such a peaceful place to read and write), and play a little golf.  Additionally, I began my final year at Ashland Theological Seminary, taking classes in leadership, Ethics, and Spiritual Disciplines.

One of the best things about my Sabbatical was that I was finally able to say “yes” to things.  When engaging in full-time ministry and full-time school, my schedule often gets very busy and so I spend a great deal of time saying “no” and apologizing.  But I could say yes this summer.  Yes to my friends and family, yes to my wife, and yes to God.  (Side note:  More than abs, more than flowers, more than almost anything else in the world, your significant other loves it when you do the dishes without asking.) 

I come back to church refreshed and renewed, ready to seek God’s vision and to lead God’s people.  Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers; I’m looking forward to catching up with everyone!  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Monastic Retreat Part 1: Overview

This last week, I took my first monastic retreat of the summer.  In planning out what my sabbatical would look like, it made sense (to me) to take the first week at home for rest and then spend the second week in the solitude of retreat, focusing on reading and prayer, which would hopefully shape the spiritual plane of the weeks to come. 

Now, I have never been to an operating monastery, but I was extremely excited for the opportunity.  As a church history aficionado, I have a great respect for the monastic movement and their alternative brand of spirituality that, in many senses, served as the backbone of the church when it was in the midst of its doctrinal and dogmatic infighting. 

Beyond that I am, by nature, an introvert, who also happens to love people.  So while a perfect day might include coffee with my wife at Coffee Matters or a campfire with good friends, I ultimately get my energy for those activities by spending time alone.  The opportunity to spend a week in relative solitude, keeping company with nature and my books, sounded fantastic. 

I had decided a long time ago that my first monastic retreat had to be at the Abbey of Gethsemani, located about an hour west of Lexington, Ky.  One of my favorite authors in Christian Spirituality is Thomas Merton, and Gethsemani was the monastery that he committed himself to as a Benedictine monk as well as the place where he composed some of the most important writings in the 20th century. For a good start, check out his book "New Seeds of Contemplation," and be prepared for your mind to be blown.

For the uninitiated, there are many different types of monastic orders, and within those orders there are various degrees of severity in their spiritual practices.  Gethsemani is a Benedictine monastery, in particular part of the Cistercian order, and would be considered one of the more austere groups.  This meant that those who would join the order were committing themselves to prayer, manual labor, and silence.  Yes that’s right, silence.  Complete silence. 

My week at Gethsemani would be completely silent, except for the community prayers that happened 7 times a day (the first being at 3:15 AM…I didn’t go to those…)  And though it might seems strange, this was an aspect of the retreat that I was looking forward to.  Even though I talk for a living, I also enjoy my times of silence.

For me, this wasn't an awkward practice at all because it was expected of everyone there.  And because we weren't allowed to talk, this kept us focused on the purposes at hand, namely prayer and spiritual reading, rather than getting caught up in small talk. Of course, we couldn't have possibly forgotten this rule, since there were signs every several feet that read something like “Silence is Spoken Here.”

Lest it seem, though, that I am the perfect Benedictine candidate and had zero struggles with the abrupt transition into this silent bubble, I want to share the first thing that I wrote only several hours into my week (I am human too.)

“No television.   No air conditioning, no internet access.   Complete silence.  What have I gotten myself into?  Already I've had the thought of, “Well, this is quaint and has been fun, now where’s the hotel with the pool and the cable and the pizza place on speed dial?”  God has brought me here for a reason; maybe the instigating factor was the romantic notion of monastic life like Thomas Merton.  In any case, I have three complete days of solitude and silence and seeking.”

God definitely brought me there for a reason; He revealed some important aspects of my personality that need addressed, questions about my vocation that need to be explored, and several practices that I would like to implement into my Sabbatical time.

And so, if you’re interested in hearing more about this, check back as I will be sharing more of my experiences, thoughts and musings.  This could take a while, and I want to make this blog digestible for those reading.  

Sabbatical Homily

Leviticus 25:1-7
25 The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: 2 Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. 3 Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; 4 but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5 You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. 6 You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you;7 for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.

One of the important laws that God established for the Israelites at the outset of their lives as a people of God is that every seven years they would let their fields lie fallow for the year; this means that they would not plough the ground, sow seeds, prune the branches, or mass harvest the crop, although they were allowed to eat of its fruit.

Leaving a field fallow serves several purposes in farming; first, by placing a cover crop over the field and then plowing it under for the next year, the farmer can help return important nutrients to the soil which will produce more abundant harvests in the future.

Secondly, leaving a field fallow can help starve out pests in the field whose lives determine on the crop that would normally be grown.  One of the pests that the Israelites would have dealt with was locusts; because locusts appear every seven years, if the fields were left fallow at that time, then the locusts would be unable to produce, grow and destroy the fields.

Not only was this a practical command for the agricultural of Israel, but it was also meant as a spiritual command.  Sabbath has been an important practice for believers since the beginning.  The creation account in Genesis 1 tells us that God spent six days making the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested.  His example shows us that even though there is value in productivity, there is also immense value in rest, and as his followers we are to imitate his example.

The reality, though, is that we live in an overly busy culture and oftentimes, to continue with the analogy, we continue to plant in the fields rather than allow them to rest, so that although there may be a harvest, the yield is not nearly as great.

In that same way, according to the guidelines of the Mennonite Church, I have come to an opportunity for a 3 month sabbatical.  Its purpose, then, is to rest, so that my own spiritual, physical, mental, relational, and emotional nutrients can be replenished so that God’s harvest can yield greater results.

Additionally, being about the work of the church and the work of God, while riddled with blessings, can also introduce certain pests into the field of the minister, pests such as exhaustion, and doubt and disconnect; so having the opportunity for rest and renewal can also help to starve out those pests which are introduced by the evil one so that the work of the kingdom of God can continue unharmed.

I have been so blessed and am so grateful for having the opportunity to live and work in this congregation and community.  Over the last four years, I believe that we have grown together towards the Lord, with each of us teaching the other what it means to be a faithful disciple.

I am also grateful for this sabbatical opportunity.  I am looking forward to rest, retreat and study, and reconnection with my wife and family.  During this time, it is my prayer that God can help to clarify my calling, re-energize my spirit, and strengthen my resolve as a minister here at Oak Grove.  Additionally, I will be praying for you all during this time that you may continue to experience the love and peace of God and that through you, our community might know the saving grace of Jesus.

Practically speaking, I will be taking this time to disconnect from the intricacies of church life in order to connect with God.  What does this mean, then, if we run into each other at a store or on the street?  It means we can still say hello, still talk, still catch up.  Sabbatical doesn’t mean that I am going to ignore you or that you need to ignore me; you are all still very dear to me.  It just means that I can take a mental break from my involvement with the life of the church.

Know that I will be praying for you and that I covet your prayers during this time.
I want to leave you with one verse that will help to guide my time away.

Psalm 46:10
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”