Be good for goodness sake!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Local Washington, D.C. buses proclaim "Why believe? Just be good for goodness sake!" -- an ad funded by a humanist group who purportedly desire their members 'not to feel alone during a dominant holiday time.' (See the CNN report here.)

So, is it true? Can one 'just be good'? One humanist's answer is this: "In other words, you don't need a spiritual or supernatural foundation to be kind, generous or to enjoy the company of each other, especially, during the holiday season. Religious tenets should not get in the way of human behavior or relationships. We cultivate our relationships personally with each other." (from Mike Cubello in the Greenville News Online.)

Goodness is defined here as doing right for yourself and then later in the article as moral acts on behalf of others. It is linked hand in hand with ethics and morality.

Wouldn't it be nice to think that everyone behaved well? How much goodness in a person's actions does it take before we label them "good"?

Barbara Brown Taylor notes this: "'Responsible' sounds so conscious, so free and powerful. On the contrary, many of us upon reflection would say that when we engaged in wrongdoing we felt bewildered, scared, and weak. We did the awful things we did because at the moment they offered us our best shot at survival. In a pinch, hurting is preferable to being hurt, having to not having, and staying alive by any means is preferable to dying. Because such decisions seem driven more by necessity than by choice, we may opt for the language of self-defense. I did not mean to. I had to. Anyone in my position would have done the same thing. ... Either way, the point is to shift responsibility for failure elsewhere . . ." (p. 35-36, Speaking of Sin: the Lost Language of Salvation, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2000)

Taylor's point is that our default operation is pride over humility, lying over truth, or addiction over freedom, if we can preserve what we want to preserve. We can see this in our own experiences of life.

However, the "sin" word has been used as a bludgeon rather than as an instrument of detecting harmful and disobedient responses in ourselves. The word "sin" has been used to make sure people's "guilt meter" is maxed out. God used the word "sin" to bring us back into relationship with true goodness.

Goodness is not a meter of relationship. Goodness is the very essence of God moving in us and across the world for salvation. Taylor describes salvation, "that is, a transformed way of life in the world that is characterized by peace, meaning, and freedom . . . [where people are] involved in turning toward a new way that promises them more abundant life."

Goodness is short lived in this world. I remember how much I loved my children and enjoying them immensely when they were little and innocent of the dangers in the world around them. I remember watching over them and trying to keep them safe. I remember with joy the times of getting down on the floor with them and playing house. And then I remember replaying their Fisher Price tape recorder and listening to my voice reprimand them in the background. They are laughing and playing and I'm mad that they have taken out their toys everywhere right before company comes. It sounded so harsh. I was the one who had broken their innocence.

'Let's be good' is a great reminder about Christmas actually. We have a part in the Christmas story. But the story is because we absolutely needed a God for help in being good. God comes to save us. God with us in reality. Our part? To thank Him for coming. To follow Him for that perfect world. To rely upon Him for goodness and transformation. To seek Him with others. To worship Him with a local congregation of others 'trying to do good to all like Jesus.'

Creativity and Advent for worship planners

Saturday, November 15, 2008
How does the worship planner make ready for Christmas? We do the shopping. We get excited about all of the Advent activities. Long before "the day" arrives, we also are doing our best to listen to God in order to bring God's fresh message among us: the word made flesh. Here are some resources and thoughts I've collected today:

Mary . . .
A wondering question: I wonder what it was like to be Mary ... 13 or 14 y.o., hearing from God in such a surprising way?

"Our strategy was simple. Each service, entitled “Thirteen and . . .”, would feature a monologue presented by Mary. A teenaged girl (a different one each time) would come up the aisle dressed as Mary and dramatically recite a monologue. As she left, I would pick up my sermon where she left off. On the Sunday after Christmas, a woman representing Mary at an older age would present the monologue. Each worship service would include an instrumental or sung version of the Magnificat.

To avoid the pitfall of “psychologizing” Mary and making her the focus, we reminded each other that the sermons had to focus on what God was doing by using Mary. That helped us set the direction for the whole series."
From: accessed on 11/15/08.

Somebody's Coming!
"Imagine standing in the arrivals area at the airport, your heart pounding. Your beloved has been away on a long trip, and any second he or she is going to walk through those doors. In your mind you can already see the dear, tired face lighting up as your eyes meet. . . .

But there’s also another kind of waiting, and it’s the kind that evokes not anticipatory joy but rather a prick of anxiety or even of naked fear:

“Somebody’s coming! Run!”

“Somebody’s coming! Quick! Clean up!”

“Somebody’s coming! Hide!”

“Somebody’s coming! Get back to work!”

Jesus is coming. There’s definitely a “Look out!” element to the imminent arrival of Jesus as well."
From: accessed on 11/15/08.

What to expect when you're expecting.
"Advent is the time that both ends and begins the Christian calendar. So often the focus during Advent is Jesus’ first Advent—his coming as a baby born in Bethlehem. As a preaching group we wanted to focus on Jesus’ second Advent—his soon-expected return. As we discussed what such a series of sermons might look like, we came up with the idea of “expecting,” drawing a parallel to the expecting that a couple does while awaiting the birth of their child. In this way we drew a close parallel between the first and second Advent of Jesus. What to Expect When You’re Expecting (by Arlene Eisenberg) is the title of a popular handbook for parents expecting the birth of a child. We borrowed that title for this series of six sermons. Our plan was to draw on some Scripture passages that compare the second coming of Christ to the pain and joy of childbirth."
From: accessed on 11/15/08.

Psalm 80 for Advent?
This site,, gives a brief but deep exegesis for each of the lectionary scriptures by date, and the week for preaching that lectionary piece, there is an audio blog from 3 or 4 professors on what they would preach.

"Three verbs dominate the refrain: Restore (Hebrew shub), shine ('ur), save (yashab). The psalm exploits a dual meaning of the first word (shub). In the refrain, the word means "restore," and is a plea that God would change the circumstances of the people. But in v. 14, the word means "turn," or "repent" (cf. Psalm 90:13), and is a plea for God to change God's will concerning the people's situation. The poetic play on these two meanings of the word amounts to a faith assertion by the community—the solution to the people's situation rests in the heart of God. The people cannot change their own circumstances, but God can—simply by willing that the situation be reversed."
From: accessed on 11/15/08.

May the words of Advent come quickly, for we need the words; but may we drink deeply in that quickness, and not miss the freshness of our Savior.

Biden and Palen Debate

Thursday, October 02, 2008
The debate and the pundits' spin has been interesting. I'm not sure that we learned a lot we didn't already know. I've been reading up a bit on economic philosophies and Obama and McCain take two very different tacks. All men (and woman) claim to be "for the little guy." Yet, they approach how to be "for the little guy" in very different ways.

Obama stresses re-distributing wealth through the way taxation is applied to those with salaries over $42,000 - according to the debates. The philosophy is that increasing taxes on higher incomes will pay for services (social welfare, health care) for those with lower incomes.

McCain stresses reducing taxes, apparently especially with businesses, according to the debates. This philosophy believes that by decreasing taxes, businesses have more capital to put into producing product, and therefore work for workers.

There are problems with both of these philosophies, as I understand them. I am not an "economics person."

With Obama's, critics will say that by increasing taxes and redistributing wealth you will essentially do something similar to the economics of Marx. In other words, you take away the "will of the worker" to create more wealth - because it's taken away in taxes anyway. There is little reward "for doing well." The reliance is upon the government to play judge and jury over who should get money rather than workers who made it.

With McCain, the critics will point to the "rich are benefiting while the middle class suffer" thought. Does giving the rich the tools to do well in business really mean they will do well in business and trickle down that "wellness" to other workers? How much a part does greed come into play? If the government doesn't 'regulate' will people play fair? Current history (loan shysters) has proven that they don't necessarily deal honestly and fairly with others.

Commentary on the Denver Post explains our current economic quandary: "It's the fault of those on the left who pushed the seductive idea that everyone should own a home whether or not they could afford it. And it's the fault of those on the right who didn't care that people were losing their homes until the dominoes fell all the way to Wall Street." (from, accessed on 10/3/08)

Doesn't anyone have a third way?

Working on Sermon Series: Jesus and the Goddess

"After years of studying the inner workings of Hollywood and its effect on American culture, movie critic Richard Schickel concluded, 'Celebrity is possibly the most vital shaping force in our society.' The late Peter Jennings concurred: 'No country in the world is so driven by personality, has such a hunger to identify with personalities, larger-than-life personalities especially ... as this one.' . . .

Vanity Fair said, 'Oprah Winfrey arguably has more influence on the culture than any university president, politician or religious leader except the Pope,' and Christianity Today lamented, 'To her audience of more than 22 million mostly female viewers, [Oprah] has become a post-modern priestess--an icon of church-free spirituality.'"

From a good read: The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity Lite by Dick Staub. (quote from pages 9- 10)

What do you think? Is Oprah a new goddess for spirituality?

Have you been to hell and back?

Friday, May 25, 2007
"I say, why not?"

"Why haven't you been to hell? We aren't called to live in hell; we're called to live in heaven. But as Dante found out, you can't get to heaven without going through hell first."

"The world is on fire--a world torn by hatred and strife, a world unredeemed. A world that is God's worst nightmare, of which God can no longer speak these words: 'And God saw that it was good.'
(p. 42 in Leonard Sweet's A Cup of Coffee at the Soul Cafe)

"The word came
and he went
in the other
God said: Cry
tears of compassion
tears of repentance; cry against
the reek
of unrighteousness: cry for
the right turn
the contrite spirit.
And Jonah rose
and fled
in tearless
-- Thomas John Carlisle
in A Cup of Coffee at the Soul Cafe.

Many times we cry out about the world gone bad, and we shake our fists at God because "He isn't doing anything about it!" But is it that God hasn't and isn't doing anything about it - or that we haven't been God's own by our thoughts, voice and actions?

What do you think?

Part 2A: Does God speak?

Sunday, March 04, 2007
In talking about adaptation for my neurologically impaired friends whose bodies weren’t very cooperative with direct communication, they were still able to communicate. The big idea of this piece is that God also “adapts” so that we can hear His communication. And there are specific ways God has made it possible for us to hear.

So, how is God’s communication identified?

Let’s start with the most direct route: Jesus Christ. Yeah, yeah, yeah – old news, huh? Jesus walked this earth in bodily form long ago. That’s easily identified and proven. What takes a little more digging is ‘why and what.’ Why choose this modality for communication? What was the communication? And what does that have to do with communication, or modality of communication, with God today?

Jesus demonstrated – in his actions - how to communicate with, and hear, God, the Father. There are four small books that chronicle what Jesus said and did. In them, we are pointed to see and hear God. Let me explain.

He said this: “The kingdom of God is at hand.” (the book of Mark, Chapter ) In our language today: ‘God is here – look and hear.’ That’s a bold claim – don’t miss it. Jesus said God is here and that YOU can look and hear God!

Let’s go further. Signs and symbols: healings, being among people in their real life, talking on the road with friends. “Jesus didn’t see his healings as a kind of premodern traveling hospital. He wasn’t healing the sick just for the sake of it, important though the healing itself was. God, the world’s creator, was at work through him, to do what he had promised to, to open blind eyes and deaf ears, to rescue people, to turn everything right side up. The people who had been at the bottom of the heap would find themselves, to their own great surprise, on top. “Blessed are the meek,” he said, “for they shall inherit the earth.” And he went about making it happen.” (from Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N. T. Wright, pp. 101-102.)

Let’s unpack for a minute.
o Healings are one way Jesus communicated God to us.
o It is God’s action by very real touch
o But it isn’t communicating to focus upon healing – but to focus upon what God is doing in the world – for you, but for all as well
o God made physical promises
o God is making good on that message of promises
o To see God’s voice in speaking those promises, we would have to read the whole Old Testament – so go for it sometime! But for today, God has spoken loudly enough that we actually know his promises.
o God is communicating through Jesus that he cares about everyone – even those who don’t think they’re worth anything – God values people highly
o Did you catch that message? That’s God’s message – heard, voiced and passed on to you. From Jesus to you.

God (Father) speaks through Jesus (Son) like one person talking to another through a telephone line (direct communication, modality, physical). Let me illustrate with Jesus speaking again – a story to communicate God’s message/direct communication with us - from God to our present world.

“These parables [stories Jesus told] weren’t, as has often been supposed, ‘earthly stories with heavenly meanings.’ The whole point of Jesus’ work was to bring heaven to earth and join them together forever, to bring God’s future into the present and make it stick there. But when heaven comes to earth and finds earth unready, when God’s future arrives in the present while people are still asleep, there will be explosions. And there were . . .

The younger of two sons leaves home, disgraces himself and his family, and then returns penitent to an astonishing [lavish] welcome. The older son, who stays at home, bitterly resents the father’s lavish welcome for the returning prodigal. . . . As with most of Jesus’ parables, the story compels the hearers to put themselves in the picture and thereby discover the truth about Jesus—and about themselves. The parable is told to make a specific point: This is why there’s a party going on with all the wrong people attending it; and this is what you look like if you’re refusing to join in. God’s kingdom is happening under your noses, and you can’t see it [speaking to those who didn’t want to hear Jesus’ words, particularly to the ‘rules of the church’ crowd].” (Simply Christian, pp. 102-103)

Jesus communicated God’s words for us to hear in a very physical way. Some wanted to hear. Others didn’t. Just like in our human interactions and conversations, we can choose to pay attention to the person talking and listen. We can tell when someone’s serious about what they’re saying – or we can let our mind drift to the party we’re going to tonight or the list we have to get done today.

In communication terms, this is called ‘direct revelation.’ Not only is it communicating, it is communicating on the deepest level – in person, direct and with a message that breathes the very soul of something that outlasts ‘how the weather is going to be tonight.” It is communicating the person himself – in this case, God himself.

One way to hear God speak today is to listen to Jesus. Other ways, modalities, next.

Part 2: Does God really speak?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Link to Part 1
Part 2: There must be identifiable ways in which God speaks or a “modality” that shows us God speaking.

Recap from where we left off about communication as direct communication in Part 1:
- direct communication is words spoken
God has spoken his words and we have accounts from people hearing

- direct communication is also more than words (body language, tones, passion, etc.)
God doesn’t have a “body” so how do we hear if God’s communicating?
direct communication is “revealing” – i.e. it shares personhood in a process
- this is God’s primary objective

- the problems of direct communication for us
+ intellectually we find it hard to allow for the possibility of God speaking
+ historically the Bible has been used for reasons other than God’s
+ deeper communication, into revealing, is challenging work

We’ve already glanced at the problem: God doesn’t have a “body” per se, like you and I. Does that necessarily mean God doesn’t speak and can’t be heard? Or has God in history addressed that issue? Are there identifiable ways in which God speaks?

Looking from a human perspective, it’s difficult to imagine communicating taking place without some physical form. I have a hard time thinking outside of these standard ways of communicating: picking up my cell phone to call someone requires a body/physical interaction, typing into this blog or IM-ing requires physical touch, and writing a note or sending a birthday card requires my hands (and money). When I worked as a nurse with neurologically diseased and partially/severely paralyzed persons who couldn’t communicate in our ‘standard’ ways, I could watch their eyes, get a blink for yes, or help them adapt with what they could do. Still a body and physical interaction was able to take place in some way between us.

Perhaps that’s the clincher though. Adaptation to what is available to us. As a nurse one of the most important jobs I had was to find ways to help these patients be able to communicate with their outside world. Someone who didn’t know their challenges and hadn’t worked through those challenges with them, or who hadn’t spent time watching their normal behavior – would not understand how one of the nurses knew what a person was “saying” or “asking for.” It didn’t make sense to them.

I had learned to identify their “signs” and “behaviors.” Our communication efforts with them were based upon a couple of assumptions found to be true. First, we assumed that they wanted to communicate with us. Second, that we could mutually find ways for that communication to happen. Third, that they would want to find the means to do more than exist, but find ways of sharing with us who they were, what they liked, what they were thinking, and how they felt – personhood or the revealing side of communication. So, our team of medical staff set out to find and invent modes for them to communicate.

One patient was able to move one toe and one finger. Our medical team made a computer control pad that could be attached to their toe. One patient was deaf, and so our team worked with this patient to learn American Sign Language. One patient was mute and blind but could smile and nod their head. We found modes of interaction that worked. They were able to reveal to us who they were because each had a very different personality, liked very different things and expressed emotions or feelings in different ways.

I want to make two points. They are both about the modes in which God communicates, and I would simplistically call them “adaptive modes” God uses. First, is about the physical modes God employs to communicate personhood. That will be in Part 2A (God’s communicating in general) and 2B (a human body in Jesus Christ). Second, is to stay tuned for how we’re made to adapt to those modes on a soul level for Part 3.

Does God really speak?

Saturday, February 03, 2007
I'll get back to this subject this week. Sorry things have been crazy, and I haven't had the time. Part 1 and beginning explanations are in Nov. 2006 blogs.

What does God ask? Reconciliation.

Reconciliation: Statue by Josefina de Vasconcellos, “two former enemies forgiving”(6)

“Reconciliation may be seen as part of a process of restoring a relationship gone wrong … by substituting for one of peace … This may be the relationship between individuals or between nations or between God and human beings.”(1)

“Sudan's government and pro-government Arab militias have been accused by human rights groups of carrying out genocide against black African residents of the Darfur region.”(2) In Sierra Leone a man begins, “Once upon a time, a bad spirit came and turned the heads of the children against their own parents. With the help of guns and drugs coming in, the children fought amongst each other.”(3) St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church is involved with the Children’s Rescue Center in Sierra Leone, one spot of hope in an otherwise devastated country.

In the years following apartheid (South Africa), the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation has struggled. The past is being ignored. Reparations, media spotlight, and real change have faded.(4)

Humans have been known to do some awful things to one another. We can name places: Rwanda, Cambodia, Germany, our communities, our homes, and our churches. Yet, we tend to cover over rather than work to reconcile and change for the future.

“That keeps us vigilant, you can be sure … Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own … All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We're Christ's representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God's work of making things right between them. We're speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; he's already a friend with you.”(2 Corinthians 5:11-21, The Message)(5)

God intends that we would be reconciled between things that are not right and things that are. This ‘ministry of reconciliation’ is challenging. In fact, the Apostle Paul in Corinth, 60 AD, has to do a lot of explaining. When we were far apart from God, God came close through Christ, and offered us an outstretched hand. Reconciliation is the message of God’s love for everybody, from the worst of all possible situations to the best.

This Christ-style love compels Paul to shout from the roof-tops: God wants reconciliation. Specifically, it is God who made it a costly priority to bring us closer, reconciled. Therefore, Christ’s love obliges him to keep offering reconciliation.

As disciples of Christ, we now follow in those footsteps through our service, words, and existence pointing to reconciliation with Christ and one another.(7) “Where else but in church could I hear … with news of more bombs going off in Iraq and of an older parent preparing to see her forty-something daughter die, that God’s comfort means eternally righting the world—and learn, with assent, that we are called to that tortuous work?”(8)

Reconciliation is possible - through the power in Christ to reconcile the world. We can become a new creation in Christ. We cannot forget.


[1] "Reconciliation." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 24 Jan 2007,
[2] “Analysis: Defining Genocide.” BBC NEWS, 1 Feb. 2005,
[3] Braima Moiwai “Children of War and Hope,” Tambou/Tambour, Fall, 2002,
[4] Wandile Zane, “The Challenge Is To Change Ourselves,” The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, April-May, 1998,
[5] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message Remix, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003), 2 Corinthians 5: 11 – 21.
[6] Rebecca Kennison, “Designed by Josefina de Vasconcellos, the statue of Reconciliation in St. Michael's Cathedral in Coventry depicts two former enemies forgiving each other.” 21 May 2001. In “Reconciliation.” Photographer. Picture taken in West Midlands, England. Dual-licensed under GFDL and Creative Commons Attribution 2.5:

[7] Walter Klaiber and Manfred Marquardt, Living Grace: An Outline of United Methodist Theology, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 185.
[8] Michael Vander Weele, Context: Marty E. Martin on Religion and Culture, Volume 39, Number 1, January 2007, B: 1.