Friday, August 18, 2017

Concerning History

We have a BIG problem. That may also be one of the biggest understatements I've ever made.

For this post I'm going to start off with a personal story. The year was 1998 and I was a 14 year old kid who was given the opportunity of my life (up to that point): playing in a soccer tournament in Belgium. This was something I was sent a letter and selected to participate in, and I was thrilled.

I remember the morning I left. We were going to be flying out of Toronto and my dad couldn't get me to our meeting spot in Buffalo without being late for work. So we decided that I would spend some time with one of my teammates for this trip, and he just happened to be a black kid. I'll freely admit I was nervous, not out of fear or anything negative, but because I hadn't spent much time around black people. I didn't know quite what to say, or do, they were listening to music that was foreign to me. Yet I wasn't afraid, or scared. I was just nervous, this was a fairly new experience. I think we ended up kicking a soccer ball around until it was time to leave.

We soon left for the bus to take us up to Toronto, and soon we'd be on our way to Belgium. Our time there was relatively short, just a bit over a week. Sure we'd have the games to play, but the rest of the time was spent sightseeing. We went to an amusement park, visited Brussels, Bruges, Waterloo, and a small fortification just outside of Antwerp, the city we were staying in. It was Fort Breendonk. Sure it's a funny name, but it has a terrible history.

It's service began shortly before the outbreak of World War I. The walls had been covered in five meters (over 15 feet) of earth to further protect it from bombing, and surrounded by a moat. It was built to help defend Antwerp, but the Germans found a way to capture the city without having to attack the fort. It's true horror though came during World War II when it was used as a prison camp and a transfer station to the bigger and more well known concentration camps. It was a particularly brutal camp. The prisoners were forced to remove the earth that had been built up around the walls of the fort, and they had to remove it often with little more than pick axes. The commandant would unleash his German Shepherd "Lump" on the inmates for his own amusement. "Trials" held at the fort often resulted in hanging or the prisoners in front of a firing squad, while the others watched. It is estimated that as many as 3600 people were held there between 1940 and the end of the war, though never more than 600 at a time.

The fort is very well preserved, actually considered to be among the best preserved prison camps from Nazi rule. The Belgian government has operated it as a museum since 1947, and it made quite an impression on me back then, and it still does to this day.

What I didn't think much about then however was how I initially felt just before leaving, and then seeing what fear, paranoia, and hatred of the "other" had led to represented by Fort Breendonk. It's easy to let fear, bigotry, and hatred get out of control and commit violent acts as a response. As much as we want to think our problems are in the past, they're not.

It would have been easy for the Belgian government to destroy the fort, to remove it from history because of what happened there. But they recognized that, as much as it represented evil, it could be used to educate future generations and maybe turn them away from the cruelty that occurred there and elsewhere.

That brings us to today, where we have the ongoing issue of whether or not memorials to the Confederacy should remain or be removed. I would say it's a debate, but that would be wrong because debates are supposed to be civilized exchanges of rhetoric to try to win support for your beliefs or cause and move others to join you. What we've seen in contrast is fringe groups on both sides turn to violent outbursts, even driving vehicles into a crowd. Meanwhile mobs have taken it upon themselves to not wait for official word and destroyed some of the monuments themselves. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I would hope we could all agree that the destruction of property by a mob is going way too far.

Getting to the underlying issue however is how should our history be remembered? Is it right to say that the Civil War was fought for nothing but the preservation of slavery in the South and the abolition of slavery in the North? Well, we could say that, but would it be accurate?

I think one of the most prominent beliefs is that nearly everyone in the South had slaves, but that isn't true. What is true however is that the Southern economy, mostly agrarian, was mostly dependent on slavery. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that what the majority of the Confederate soldiers fought for was slavery, but within the greater context of preserving what they had come to know. This may be especially true if we consider that politicians were convinced that they were losing their influence in Congress, and many preachers were combining a sort of nationalism with a little bit of scripture taken out of context. Given that this is what they were exposed to, they might see their fight in bigger and more important terms than slavery, though let's not forget that slavery did provide the foundation for their way of life.

What about the North fighting to end slavery? Well, I don't believe that's entirely accurate either. During its colonial history, New England had been the place where slavery in the United States developed with Boston leading the way. Slavery was still legal into the early 19th century, but even after emancipation was granted attitudes didn't change in any meaningful way. Even with emancipation in the North, the economy, in particular the textile and shipping industries was still dependent on the institution of slavery and likely wasn't in any hurry to see it end. Union general Ulysses S Grant owned at least one slave and managed his father-in-law's property which had several slaves that he looked after. His wife Julia also had slaves who had been her playmates when they were children.

Let's not forget that though the North may have been emancipated, it didn't stop slave labor from happening, in particular the Irish.

This all leads me to believe that while slavery was a central and an important issue for the Civil War, there were many other issues along with that, and it's not entirely clear which side was more right than the other, although I should make it abundantly clear that I believe slavery, whether in its historical context or in its contemporary iteration of human trafficking, is abhorrent and should be brought to an end.

For me though, the real fight that we're dealing with today began in the aftermath of the Civil War. If the Civil War was fought to simply bring an end to slavery and the attitudes surrounding it, then the conclusion of the war should have been the conclusion of the matter. However, Reconstruction proved otherwise. While the "Radical Republicans" wanted to punish the former Confederacy, Democrats fought back and galvanized support against inclusion of the former slaves and black people in their participation of American life and liberty, even up to the late 1960s, 100 years after the War had come to an end.

History really is a lot more complicated than what it's made out to be, and we do ourselves and future generations a disservice when we try to reduce the complexities down to whatever suits our own narrative. The bottom line for me though comes down to this: I learned some history on the day I visited Fort Breendonk. Yeah, I had an awareness of World War II and why it was fought, but seeing the museum/monument forced me to confront it in a way that, almost 20 years later, I realize it affected me even more than I realized at that time.

Had Fort Breendonk been torn down at the end of World War II, what would the lesson have been? And what does this mean for us in the early part of the 21st Century in the United States?

Well, if we reduce the Civil War down to just "freedom vs. slavery", then it would be easy to say "Yes, tear down all those monuments." But I hope I've shown that it is more complicated than that, and that there were people on both sides who expressed attitudes and actions that we find disgusting. If Confederate monuments must be torn down because they represent slavery in our minds, why not be honest and tear down monuments to the Union as well, in particular those to Grant? Why do we forget that Lincoln may have signed the "Emancipation Proclamation" but also supported the former slaves leaving the country rather than staying. So why not picket The Lincoln Memorial as well? Or does fighting for the end of slavery really cover over the others things they did and attitudes they showed that aren't so good?

Furthermore, I wonder if those wanting to tear down the memorials also express an appreciation for Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Chairman Mao. If so, I find that to be an interesting...and disturbing...irony. It means values aren't grounded in anything other than whatever the popular trend is.

These reminders of our past force us to deal with the realities they represent. Nothing is accomplished by tearing them down, in fact we might be doing ourselves a huge disservice in the long run. Yet we also do ourselves a disservice by not digging deeper and discovering the truth. These monuments should be put in a context where that can take place. As the saying goes "Those who don't learn from their history are doomed to repeat it", or something like that.

The last thing I wish to mention though is tearing down monuments and statues will not erase ignorance, hatred, bigotry, and it certainly won't fix the sins of the past. Better laws, education, opportunity, communities, and societies can only go so far, but they can't heal the wounds either. The only thing that can truly bring about change is a heart that is transformed by the God who created all of humanity in His image, and desires that all take His offer to become part of His family and to be freed from sin and the desire to sin.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

"McDonald's can be the new American church"

The title of this blog post comes from a line of dialogue in the biopic The Founder, which portrays Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton) as the milkshake machine salesman (later corporate shark) as he tries to convince Dick McDonald (played by Nick Offerman) and his brother Maurice "Mac" McDonald (played by John Carroll Lynch) to let him be their guy in charge of franchising their hamburger stand across the nation. You can view the clip below:

As a pastor who strives to see culture through a spiritual, specifically Christian, lens, this phrase really stood out in the movie for many different reasons, not least of which is how Ray Kroc made the comparison in the first place.

First, I'm not sure if Kroc actually said that or not, but whether he did or didn't, in my mind, is immaterial. The drive to make things orderly, efficient, mechanical even down to the movements of the people, to provide a consistent product regardless of what actual location you're in, has been a part of the American culture probably from the time machines began taking over manual labor. Henry Ford introduced the assembly line so that he could turn more cars in one hour than other auto manufacturers could in one week.

It's on this that I want to first write about. In this way of doing things people are no longer people. They're labor, they're part of the machine, a very specific cog that's a small part of a bigger whole. By all accounts, from Ray's version of events to those who cast a more critical eye of him, he wasn't impressed by how polite the workers were at the McDonald brothers burger stand. He was impressed that they were mechanical. He was impressed that some study went into the design of the kitchen. He was impressed by nobody having to do too much or think too hard about what they were doing.

I wonder if sometimes we fall into the same trap. How many times do we see people in a church? Real people that are worthy of more than just a handshake and a "Hey, how are ya?" as we rush quickly and efficiently onto the next, worshiper in line? How many times do we focus on the bodies that are (or aren't) present, rather than peer into their souls? How often do numbers become our indicator of success? The money in the offering plate that week and the number who attended the service? Why not put on our signs the number of people who prayed in our sanctuaries?

The second point I want to focus on is, in that clip, Ray mentions that every little town he's been in has one thing in common: a church and a courthouse; religion and state; cross and a flag; and the flag guarantees the right of people gathering where a cross is displayed. He's saying this as his pitch to the brothers McDonald in order to convince them that he should be in charge of their franchising. It's almost like he's advocating for a trinity of sorts. Except that, as he puts it, they'll be open on more than just Sunday.

In many ways this is how we think though. We wrap the cross and the Bible up in the flag and think that because we're the United States of America we have this whole thing about unalienable rights figured out. That somehow our greatness enables people to worship whatever and however they want. And helping to drive all of this is economy, corporations, the dream of taking what you have and multiplying it, replicating it, making more of it for less.

Except the Declaration of Independence states that there are rights granted to us from a higher authority than government. It isn't our nation that made worship of God possible, and it isn't our nation that can guarantee it. In more parts of the world than not Christianity is illegal, and Christians are prosecuted, persecuted, and put to death on a daily basis. But the Middle East is experiencing a move of the Holy Spirit nearly unprecedented throughout its history. Throughout Asia as well governments can't stop its spread. Rome of the 1st Century took violent actions against Christians, with Nero even blaming them for the burning of Rome. But that didn't stop it. In fact, persecution helped it to grow as nobody wants to die for a lie.

Yet I think that simple line in that movie also reveals religion, perhaps specifically Christianity, is seen as just another cultural touch point, where we can choose to gather (or not), and sing our songs and share our values, and then go our separate ways to live our lives. This is what Ray wanted, another place, open all week, for people to be able to do just that. And maybe that's how we think of church also. It's a place where we all can gather around and learn values and morals and become better people who will "break bread" together.

For all its financial success though, McDonald's isn't the only burger place. In fact, there are many national burger chains and I would eat most of their burgers before I would dare eat a McDonald's burger. Why is that though?

One of my favorite places to stop on our yearly trip to Kentucky is a restaurant called "Steak and Shake", home of the steakburger. Most of the burgers on their menu you can get for $5 or less, and it's a real burger. There isn't anything fake about them. They have substance. That along with "Five Guys Burgers and Fries" are probably my two favorite nationally available burgers (though I wish Steak and Shake were a bit more national). 

A McDonald's burger, on the other hand, is more filler than beef, with artificial coloring to make the meat look better than it actually is. And though it may placate a grumbling stomach for a short time, it's ultimately unfulfilling. And yet, nobody can deny that McDonald's became the corporate juggernaut that it is based on an inferior product, simply because it filled a gap.

I wonder if people tend to treat church the same way. They're looking for something to grab onto, something that's going to leave them feeling satisfied and content. We want morals, but church isn't the only place to get them. We'll convince ourselves though that it's the best place to get them. We want values. Politicians even refer to values we're all supposed to share growing up in and going to church. But church isn't the only place to get values. We want shared experiences, but you can get that anywhere too.

What I'm ultimately getting at is that the church cannot represent the same thing that Ray Kroc told the McDonald brothers in order to convince them to let him franchise their restaurant. It can't even represent the same thing our nation represents. Christianity is not McDonald's, it is not the United States, it is not the American flag or rights, it is not simply a place to learn good values and have a moral foundation. It is a relationship that transforms who we are from the inside out, so that we are not the same people we were before. It's not up to us to market the church and put it out on the buffet of beliefs. I can go anywhere to get a burger. There are other countries that have stable, freedom loving governments. There's only one thing in this world that truly transforms our lives and makes us into who we were made to be.

McDonald's will never be the new American church.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Not So Simple Question Asked Simply

It's that time of the year in the Dansville Free Methodist Church when we gladly endure what is known as VBS week. I wonder if there's a coincidence that it's so close to "Shark Week"? Anyway...

Last year I helped out with the music, and I was looking forward to doing that again this year. However my wife told me they were using videos, so I thought perhaps I could be of use for the story time sessions.

It was coming to the close of our second story time session yesterday when I said to the kids gathered if they had any questions or something they wanted to say, they could. We had just done a 10 minute overview of Moses' life, from his birth to when he led the people across the Red Sea. The story being conveyed to them was that when we have God with us, we can stand up to anything.

This one little girl though asked a very good question that really caught me off guard. She doesn't come to the church regularly, and I guess she had to be maybe 7 years old. She asked "When it rains does that mean God is crying?" It took me a couple seconds to come up with an answer, because 1) I thought it was a very good question, and 2) I wanted to tie it into the story somehow.

So I said to her "You know what? There are a lot of things that go on in this world that makes God very sad, and they probably do make Him cry. But He gives us His power to make things right, even when things are wrong. As for rain being God's tears, no they aren't, and sometimes rain can be a good thing. It helps pretty flowers grow, and farmers need rain." I should have followed that up with "But if seeing it rain helps you remember that God is sad about all those people who do bad things, and that He wants you to do good things that tell others about Him, then that's okay."

Some may have dismissed that question, or perhaps laughed it off or asked "Who told you that?" I, however, am reminded of Jesus' words in Mark 10:13-16, that the Kingdom of God belongs to those who receive the truth as a child does. This young girl knew enough that God can show emotions, such as sadness. She might not know that God created a perfect world that we brought sin into. She might not know about theodicy, or how can God be good when so much evil exists in the world. To her, evil might be someone who picks on her at school.

To me though, her question revealed that she knows, perhaps deep down, that God has a standard, and that our world falls short of that standard.

It's my calling in life to proclaim the gospel, and to help others mature in their walk. It's wonderful when God flips the script and uses the question from a child to help me better understand Him.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Bit of an explanation is in order

Hi everyone.

I took a couple week hiatus from posting on here, as I discovered that instead of this being a place where I posted my thoughts about life, the world around us, and how our faith intersects with it all, it became a place where I put the recordings of my sermons. When the Dansville Free Methodist Church's website was launched a couple months back, I posted the sermons in both spots, but found that it was redundant, and completely unnecessary.

It's easy to lose track when something starts out one way, but then goes another way. When I first began posting the sermon audio here it was because a young lady who was part of the East Otto congregation was going off to college yet still wanted to feel connected to the church. This blog was the only place I could post.

The intention was good, but after a couple years those sermons were taking over this space and I was focusing less and less on what I intended this blog to be. In a way I think that happens with all of us.

Things come up and get us sidetracked. It happens often enough that we often need to just take a time out and refocus. That isn't meant to say that the things we got sidetracked with are bad. Sometimes they're good. But if we're here for a reason, created for a purpose, it should serve us best to keep that at the forefront.

This blog started out as a place where I could share my thoughts and hopefully you would interact with me, and together we could go deeper in our faith. This blog is now going back to that.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Why Does Sin Still Exist? (audio)

It's a moment you can't ever really prepare for. You have worship service plans and then suddenly they're changed. You don't have any control over their circumstances. All you're left with is two options: panic or pray.

After last Sunday's sermon I discovered that it partially answered the question the youth group wanted to know, but it missed on their other question as to why sin still exists if Jesus died and broke the power of sin.

Have I mentioned just how blown away I am by our youth group?

Long story short I was planning on addressing that during the next Youth Group Sunday. It was just in my initial stages of planning, I hadn't even jotted down any notes for it yet. We still have Easter to get through! But that all changed on one call and some prayer.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Teen Sunday: God's Love and Forgiveness (audio)

Our youth group constantly amazes me. I'm always a bit nervous whenever I ask them what they want me to preach on whenever "Teen Sunday" comes around. Every time though they come up with a topic that reveals they're wanting to draw closer to our Lord.

This Sunday they came up with the topic of God's love and how He can forgive us. Even for the "experts" this is a difficult topic because how many of us can truly comprehend the deep love Jesus has for us? Or even how He can forgive when we have wronged Him as terribly and deeply as we have?

I commend our youth group for thinking along these lines. i know it is the Holy Spirit working in them.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Kingdom Parables: Wheat, Tares, and the Dragnet (audio)

The reality of the kingdom of heaven is that it exists here on earth. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish it from the rest of the world.

That is the point of Jesus' parables of the wheat, the tares, and the dragnet.

There are times when it will be difficult to distinguish the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven, the Church and the lives of Christians, from the rest of the world. But the differences will be made known, and it is God who will do the final separation.

This is the last sermon of the series "Kingdom Parables". Take a listen, and go back and listen to the previous sermons as well. I hope you have been challenged, but I also hope you have grown in your understanding throughout this series as to what the kingdom of heaven is all about.