Just in Time for Lent

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It’s common tradition to burn the previous year’s palm branches from Palm Sunday to use on Ash Wednesday. I would like to suggest instead that we use the ashes of what’s left of the United Methodist Church for our service next Wednesday.

Because frankly, not much is left. The Traditionalist Plan which passed General Conference on Tuesday effectively dismantled the denomination for those who believe that LGBTQ persons are worthy of weddings and ordination.

However, I can’t think of a better church season to enter at this point than Lent. After the shock and disappointment of General Conference, we enter into forty days of fasting and prayer.

Like the ancient children of Israel, we walk into the wilderness, not sure exactly where we’re headed, but following a rogue cloud in the daylight and a fiery pillar at night.

Like Jesus, we enter the desert, where we encounter Satan, who is eager to sell us a false dream.

Like Paul, we are thrown into prison, where we can do nothing but sing and pray, while the earth shakes beneath us.

And so, in the words of our Methodist liturgy, let me beckon you to the church next Wednesday at 6:30 pm for a service of ashes:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church,

to observe a holy Lent:

by self-examination and repentance;

by prayer, fasting, and self-denial;

and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.

To make a right beginning of repentance,

and as a mark of our mortal nature,

let us now kneel before our Creator and Redeemer.

We All Need New Reading Glasses

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I don’t have a particularly good history concerning my eyesight.

I have always been terribly near-sighted. I started wearing glasses in third grade. It was a traumatic experience to walk into the classroom for the first time. I wouldn’t call it “bullying,” but I was called “four-eyes” more times than I cared to hear. It wasn’t helpful that my parents didn’t give me a style choice — I was stuck with black, horn-rimmed glasses all the way through high school graduation.

In college, I finally upgraded to contact lenses, which helped my dating life considerably.

When Lasik surgery came around, Leah jumped on the bandwagon, but I was hesitant. I simply didn’t like the idea of having my eyeballs sliced and diced. So I waited.

Then on a fateful trip to Vietnam in 2010, I found myself on a bus en route to the Mekong Delta. I closed my eyes momentarily and leaned against the window when we hit a huge pothole. My head slammed backward against the seat.

Later that night, I noticed that there appeared to be a growing black hole on the left side of my vision field. When I arrived back in Dallas a few days later, Leah drove me directly to an eye specialist who confirmed that my retina had been detached by the impact. I went immediately into surgery.

Though the reattachment was successful, I have never had perfect eyesight in the left eye since. I have lost quite a bit of my peripheral vision, and hard edges appear wavy, as if I have plastic wrap stretched over my eye.

And more recently, I’ve started to wear reading glasses on a regular basis, which I’m sure you have noticed.

So I understand that, in order to see things clearly, to view reality correctly, your eye must be clear and unhindered, free from distortion. Unfortunately, I will never be able to see things perfectly clearly — I will always see things through a retina that imperfectly stretches across my line of sight, and I increasingly see things through glasses, which are frequently smeared and dirty. At best, I am like the Apostle Paul, who said, “I see things now as through a glass darkly.”

That is also true about the way I read the Bible. I recognize that I do not read Scripture from a completely objective and value-free point of view. Nobody does. All of us come to the Bible and read it with our own wavy retinas, scratched glasses, and imperfect understandings.

This is not an excuse NOT to read it. No, even read poorly, the Bible is still an instrument God uses to touch hearts and move souls.

But this is the only way we can read the Bible. It’s impossible to read it any way except from the perspective of who you are, in the light of your own experience. There is no way to read anything at all without projecting something into the text. This is what we do when we read novels and poems and newspapers, and it's true when we read Scripture, too. It’s the way all people read.

However, this reality should make it clear that we ought to read the Bible from different perspectives as often as possible, to pick up reading glasses from other viewpoints. We should not rely only on our own understanding when it comes to Scripture but should try a variety of contexts, languages, and cultures.

For example, I’m a straight white male who studied the Bible in a Western, male-dominated institution. I ought to recognize that I have some blind spots when it comes to Scripture. What is it like to read the Bible as a woman, as a gay man, as a black woman, as a pygmy in the African rain forest? What do Palestinian Christians hear when they read about the Promised Land? What do Chinese Christians hear when they read Revelation?

As we begin the study of the Gospel of Matthew on Sunday, Sept. 9 in Sunday School, I am starting a twin class on Matthew on Wednesday nights called “Reading Matthew Through New Eyes.” Each week, I will lead the class in reading a passage from Matthew with the help of feminists, Latin American peasants, gay men, county inmates, and others. You’ll be surprised at how your eyes will be opened to new insights and revelations from Scripture.

However, that’s also the goal of the other Wednesday night classes. Mike Smith will be leading a study that uses visual imagery and symbolism to address theological and Biblical issues. Alison Garza is leading a class on Job: A Story of Unlikely Joy, by Lisa Harper, a female Bible teacher. The point is to try on some different perspectives on the Bible and on our faith.

Try putting on some different glasses to read Scripture this fall — what you see might change you!

A Domination-Free Gospel and Church

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At first glance, the scandal involving Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer who has a long history of harassing and abusing women, looks like a single, terrible story of a terrible man who got away with terrible behavior for too long.

But then 38 women came forward to accuse film director, James Toback, of similar behavior. Chef John Besh stepped down from the company he started after two dozen women spoke out about his behavior. And it hasn’t been that long since Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes were brought low by harassment claims. And then, of course, there’s President Donald Trump …

The point is, as any woman might tell you if they feel safe enough, that this behavior is far more common than we would like to admit. That’s why the Twitter hashtag #MeToo took off with such intensity.

Unfortunately, the institutional church is not exempt from this behavior. One of the worst cases in recent history involves the former pastor of First United Methodist Church, Fort Worth. Barry Bailey stepped down from his pulpit after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct; later, a judge ordered him to pay $3.7 million in damages to seven women.

I’m sure you can think of your own examples of pastors who have betrayed the trust that others put in them. Sadly, pastors are not some super-species of the Christian community who are above misconduct.

There is a common thread that runs through all these stories. These are all men with power, and their victims are always people who have less power and are more vulnerable to their advances. And even though these stories always involve sexual acts, the primary motive at work is not simply lust or desire.

The force at work is domination. Harvey Weinstein took advantage of women because he could; he felt entitled to take whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.

This dynamic isn’t something that only very powerful and wealthy men act out; it can happen anytime someone feels that he or she has power over someone else, and wants to take advantage of that edge.

It’s especially tragic when a pastor engages in this kind of behavior, because it is precisely this kind of behavior that the Gospel opposes. The entire story of Jesus is the story of a man who refused to dominate others. Jesus did not manipulate or coerce others to love him, follow him, or obey him. He let people walk away from him; he didn’t feel the need to prove his divine power or even his true identity.

As Paul said about Jesus in Philippians, “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself …” (Phil. 2:6-7).

As his followers, we are supposed to imitate this kind of behavior. In other words, even when we find ourselves in a position of power over someone else, we are not to use that position to dominate, force, or coerce. When we find ourselves in a position of leadership, we are to interpret our primary responsibility to be as one who serves, as one who is ready and willing to wash another’s feet.

As your pastor, I am committed to being your servant leader, to being a shepherd who cares for the flock gently and carefully. I am also committed to ensuring that Kessler Park UMC is a safe place for all people, where sexual harassment and abuse is not permitted or condoned, and where all people are treated with dignity and respect. If you have ever been harassed or received unwanted attention by any person at Kessler Park UMC, please notify me or another staff member, and your matter will be addressed immediately.

At KPUMC, there will be no domination, only mutual support, love, and fellowship.