How many people have to be hurt?

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How many people have to be hurt in the name of flawed ideas?

How many people have to be wounded in the name of bad theology?

How many people have to be tortured in the name of country?

How many people have to have their livelihoods wrecked and destroyed in the name of being right?

How many people have to die for the sake of an ideology?

How many people have to be killed in the name of God, or freedom, or justice, or revenge?

How many people have to be hurt in the name of __________.

Why does your church exist?

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This is not an existential question that I’m asking here.  Why does your church exist at all?  If you asked the people who attend your church why it exists, I wonder what the answer would be.  Have you ever tried this?

I asked this question a lot when we were in Finland back a couple of years ago.  I received a variety of answers.  What I learned from it was that the church didn’t know why it existed – it just has existed for a long time.  This was a question that the church was struggling with as its influence in the Finnish society was declining.  There were individuals who were working to provide focus, were listening to what God was doing in Finland, were discerning what God was calling the church to do and be.

But how about where you are?  Why does your church exist?  If you asked 50 people in your congregation, would you get 50 different answers?  Would you get 2-3 answers?  Would you get a bunch of “I don’t know” answers?

Why does your church exist?

Hey, let’s talk past each other

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Have you ever been in a “conversation” where the other person just talks past you?  You know what I’m talking about – they say something, then wait for you to say something and while you are speaking, they are thinking of what they will say next.  They are concerned with either making a point, or shooting down your idea or argument, or having the last word.

This happens more often than we like to admit.  I’m not sure why though.

I wonder if social media has anything to do with this, or if it just a symptom of it.  I don’t know.  Maybe it has nothing to do with it.

When it comes to politics and religion, this happens a great deal.  We talk past each other on important and unimportant issues.  We talk past each other on immigration and health care and a whole host of topics.  Why though?  Are our beliefs about these things so shallow and weak that we can’t handle some questions and criticisms?  Do we believe that we must have all the answers and that our beliefs must be air tight?  Do we believe that if our opponent finds a weakness somewhere in our argument that the whole thing will fall apart like a house of cards?

This happens in religion and theology too.  We talk past each other when it comes to abortion, the existence of God, and high church vs. low church.  Why?  What do we have to gain by talking past the other person?

Talking past someone is a completely defensive posture.  In a sense, there is a belief that we have nothing to gain from the other person – nothing to learn.  We are afraid of losing something.  Here’s the real deal though – if this is your posture, you’ve already lost.  It’s just a matter of time until it all comes tumbling down.  You can’t survive by contracting and becoming smaller.  You thrive by expanding and growing.  Not necessarily in terms of literal numbers, but rather in terms of growing relationships, knowledge, wisdom, experience, being open and vulnerable.

So, what do you do if someone is talking past you?  Change things up.  Stop and ask questions.  Be honest about what is going on and confront the other person too.  Is there a willingness to change the conversation so it is really a conversation?  If not, you’re wasting your time.  If they are and you are, then you’ve just entered something great.

Quick fixes won’t fix us

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American culture has a fascination with quick fixes.  I don’t think I need to go into detail about this.  Just look around.  Think about the next time you are sitting at a traffic light and you grow impatient waiting for the light.  Or how about waiting in line at the grocery store.  Americans don’t like a church service to go over one hour.  Our political candidate “debates”, if you want to call them that, offer candidates 1-2 minutes to express their solution to any given problem facing the nation – as if fixing a large problem can be solved in a matter of a few sentences.

Quick fixes sound good on the surface, but they are like microwave dinners.  Sure, they look good on the packaging.  Sure, they smell good when you take them out of the microwave.  But if you don’t scare it down in a matter of minutes, the meal is cold.  And to be honest, it doesn’t taste nearly as good, and isn’t even close to as healthy if you took the time to make a proper meal.  But hey, who has time for that right?  Just don’t expect to be healthy then.

I don’t have the answers to our culture’s challenges that we face. I don’t know what policies we should be implementing.  Based on my experience, I do know this much – there are not one-size-fits-all solutions for any problem out there.  What works here probably won’t work in another part of the world, let alone in another part of the country.  That’s because there is a unique set of people, with their own experiences, knowledge, level of trust, and more.  It’s what makes us the context of an area.  It’s what makes it unique.  Sure, there are some overarching themes that can be taken from one place to another, but when it comes to implementing those themes, I’m willing to bet that they must be implemented in different ways for different cultures and contexts.

So, does that means we just throw our hands in the air like we just don’t care – no, of course not.  What are we to do.  Here’s a start – sit down with people and eat with them.  Sit and eat and drink and talk.  This is how community is created and sustained.  Eating and drinking with others has this weird effect – it slows things down, it forces conversation, it equalizes people, it opens people up.

I think this works in a variety of situation – not just people you have a relationship with.  Ever try eating with someone who is your enemy?  Try it sometime.  You might see someone different at the table across from you than you thought was there.  You might be different too by the end of the conversation.

I’m willing to bet that when we eat with people – regardless of friend or foe – we’ll come away with new insights.  We may find that the person across from us is a lot better than we thought.  Then again, we might also come away realizing that they are worse.  We aren’t living in la-la land here.  We may come away with brand new ideas, ways of doing things.  We also may come away having shared something incredible too.  And these things could take on a whole new life of their own.  Even if none of that happens, even if you head isn’t full of new ideas and options, even if your heart isn’t full of appreciation and love, your stomach will be.  And that’s a start.

What is Christianity?

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Is Christianity the culture?  Is Christianity tied to what it means to be American?  Is it counter cultural?  What does that even mean?

Christianity came about because of Jesus, who lived in the first part of the first century CE (or AD if you prefer).  He lived in Palestine, which was under Roman jurisdiction – actually it was under the rule of a client kingdom.  This may sound like a technicality, but it’s important.  It was an independent kingdom that paid tribute to Rome and did what it could to keep itself in Rome’s good graces.  This of course would end after Jesus’ death.  The Zealots (political extremists who didn’t like any dealings with Rome) were often causing problems for the ruling party and eventually created a rebellion that ended when the Temple in Jerusalem was leveled by Rome.

Christianity rose up in the midst of this.  It continued to grow, thanks to people like Paul, who spread the message far and wide throughout the Roman empire.  It grew large enough that it caught the attention of the Roman rulers who eventually persecuted Christians – they needed a scapegoat when things got bad and a minority religion was a perfect fit for this.  (Yes, I’m simplifying things greatly here.)

Because of this, along with the radical teachings of inclusivity, overturning honor and shame in society, monotheism, and more, Christianity was counter cultural.  A huge difference, and cause of great pain, for Christians was loyalty to the reign of God, rather than the reign of Caesar.

It was only later with Constantine that Christianity became a state religion, and then the official religion of the state.  He used it for his own purposes and power.  And it became a part of the state and what it meant to be Roman.  And as a result, criticism of the empire changed.  You can’t be criticizing openly the very people who are building you basilicas now, can you?

Yet here we are almost two thousand years later and an ocean and sea apart from the origins of Christianity.  A great deal has happened since that time.  If we are guilty of anything, it is thinking that we fit into the early story of Christianity – as if anyone around at the time of Jesus knew there would be a USA – let alone a land across the ocean, outside the known world.  The world was believed to be flat back then remember?

Is Christianity counter cultural?  It has been.  It has also been the basis for the culture, or so we like to think this way.

Is Christianity American?  Nope.  We can’t lay claim to it solely.  Besides, which version of Christianity are we talking about anyway?  What does it mean to be an American Christian?  Where do our loyalties lie?

When we look at the American landscape we see a wide variety of Christians which mean there is no one answer to these questions.  And maybe that’s the point and a good thing.  Uniformity is a nice idea, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said “Follow Me.”  I don’t think he meant that to mean “do as I tell you to do like a bunch of robots.”  I think it means variety and context.  And it will change over time and with location and different people.

Christianity might be counter cultural.  Or it might be totally consumed by culture.  Or, just maybe, it will be both depending where and when we are talking.

Control

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Humans love to be in control.  We love to determine who gets what and how much.  We’re really good at it too – or we should be given how so much of human history is made up about humans squabbling to control land, people, resources, etc.  In reality though we suck at control.

Most of our political battles are about control over something.  Take immigration.  The battle over immigration is about who gets to enter, how much they can get harassed, and how assimilated they need to be.

Same thing with poverty. The battle of control is over who gets what and how.  With poverty, there are assumptions made – that if you are poor you shouldn’t have anything (anything at all) that is “nice.” The assumption is that poor people are supposed to be miserable all the time.  So those that can implement policies that make sure they can control how the poor feel – miserable.

Politicians are big on control.  So are churches so very often.  Politics and organizational religion is often very focused on controlling what you can do and what you must believe and who you can talk with.  It’s been this way for a long time.  Jesus got himself in trouble for doing things that went against the norm, for restating the Law, and for hanging out with the scum of society.

Of course, not all politicians and not all religious leaders or denominations are control freaks.

Here’s the thing with having and using control over others.  Often it becomes subjective.  Those in control get to determine who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, who’s in and who’s out.  The problem comes when you go to a different jurisdiction (somewhere where other people are in control).  There is often a different set of good and bad guys.  They could, in fact, be the exact opposite of what you just experienced.  It’s all based on context and preference.  Mostly it ends up being someone in control determining who’s in and who’s out.  And then lots of people rationalize it to make sense of it.  There must be a reason, don’t you know.

Maybe if we spend less time trying to control people and more time trying to help people, we’d be better off.  But then again, we’d have to admit that we don’t have all the answers.  And then what? We’d have to get along with people.  Scary, isn’t it?  Control offers stability.  Yet, at what price?

Trees, Trees, Incredible Trees

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Going to Longwood Gardens around Christmas guarantees that you get to see many wonderful Christmas decorations – including some fabulous Christmas trees decorated way better than anyone could possibly do at home.

You know you have Christmas tree envy.  Admit it.

Here’s something else they have.

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I don’t even know what to call that, but I know it would look awesome our dining room table.  Then again, we’d probably have to knock out the ceiling in order to have enough room for it.

On second thought, maybe not.

Here’s a way to “fix” the country

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Want to fix what’s wrong with the country.  I have a solution.  We just had a snow storm with at least a foot of snow.  And I think this might be the solution for “fixing” the country.  Yes – snow.  Of all the solutions for the country, I bet you never saw this coming.  I bet you were thinking about some great policy initiative, or electing some great politician or leader, or something of that nature.  Nope – snow is the answer.  Here’s why:

We live in the Mid-Atlantic region of the USA.  Monday night into Tuesday morning we were hit with a nice snow storm that dropped over a foot of snow.  Schools were closed.  Things were delayed.  And inevitably, people started to come out of their homes to start shoveling and clearing out their walkways, sidewalks, and driveways.  Neighbors help each other, greet each other, show appreciation, and stop and talk with each other.  It’s a time to catch up and meet people we haven’t had the chance to meet before.

Doesn’t sound much like a solution, does it?  Well, here’s the thing.  As I cleared out my driveway, I watched as people helped each other – people who not so long ago were divided politically between Trump and Clinton supporters.  And here they were, setting all that aside to help one another out – joyfully too.

When it comes down to it, I don’t think the problems we face in this country have much to do with policy.  Sure, policy impacts people – make no mistake about that.  But that’s not the root of the problems – that’s more of a symptom.  I think if we dig down deeper we’d see the real problem.  We have a habit of not trusting one another.  And so, we treat each other less than we should.

But throw in a snow storm and see how much people change.  We break down barriers because we have a common cause.  We express gratitude because we recognize that we can’t go it alone.  We talk with people, even people we don’t like, because we see their humanity and how much they are just like us.

No policy and no leader can bring this kind of change.  There isn’t a speech or a slogan that can do it.  Nope, just regular life mixed with nature.  Imagine that.  And yet, there are so many that think that politics is the solution.  Maybe it’s more of a problem than a solution.  Snow, now that’s the solution.

Incredible Organ

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Longwood Gardens has some amazing things – flowers for sure.  But that’s not the only thing that is amazing.  So is this:

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It’s the organ.  And instead of trying to describe it myself, here’s the description from the website:

Composed of 10,010 pipes divided into 146 ranks, the Longwood Organ is the largest Aeolian organ ever constructed in a residential setting. Pierre du Pont was an organ aficionado who, in 1930, replaced the original organ with a much larger, custom-designed Aeolian model that remains in Longwood’s Conservatory to this day.

Source – https://longwoodgardens.org/events-and-performances/music-performance-and-theater/our-resident-instruments/longwood-organ

And here are some of those amazing 10,000+ pipes.