Sunday, November 10, 2019

Calmly and Faithfully


An article appeared last month in the New York Times with the enticing headline of: “How to Give People Advice They’ll Be Delighted to Take.”

It starts off with this:
A friend recently approached me in distress saying they weren’t sure if they should dump their boyfriend or not. With wide, wet eyes, they asked what I think they should do. It gave me pause. Of course, I thought they should get rid of the guy, but I didn’t want to put our relationship at risk in case they stayed with him after I shared my opinion.
As anyone who has offered guidance knows, giving spectacular advice doesn’t necessarily mean people will take it. Advice is a gift, albeit one bundled with inherent power dynamics. That “I know your situation best and here’s what you should do” attitude is what can make advice-giving so fraught.
“Expertise is a tricky thing. To take advice from someone is to agree to be influenced by them.” Sometimes when people don’t take advice, they’re rejecting the idea of being controlled by the advice-giver more than anything.
I’d guess that most of us have been in the awkward situation of being asked for advice that we know the recipient doesn’t want to hear! It’s a quandary with no clean way out. Pastors are asked to weigh in on all kinds of things and most of us dread the question: “What do you think I should do?” My prejudice is that people who ask that question already know the answer and are looking for confirmation so I typically turn it around and ask them what they think. If I agree, I’ll nod knowingly and reassuringly; and if I don’t, I might say, “well – that’s an interesting approach – how did you come to that conclusion?”

My ultimate goal is to protect the relationship and if I offer advice that’s not taken, or that’s taken and doesn’t turn out well, it makes things decidedly awkward! Hence, I treat requests for my opinion with kid gloves!

We talked last week about the difference in authorship between First and Second Thessalonians – “First” is a largely undisputed letter written by Paul, “Second” not so much! Few think Paul wrote it and it was probably written by a member of his community and possibly composed after Paul’s death. First Thessalonians is noteworthy in its compassion and pastoral tone; Second is much more parental, even stern – possibly in need of some of those kid gloves!

The issue at hand? Two-fold. On one hand, the early Christians didn’t seem to have a friend in the world. The Romans were running the place and were not fond of the Jews. They considered this splinter group of Jesus followers to be part of that same cult. The Jews knew the difference and had no use for the Christians either – they were taking heat from all sides! On the other hand, Paul had promised them in his first letter that to be strong because the end was imminent – Jesus was on his way back and all things would be over – good would triumph over evil and their suffering would be vindicated!

That lovely bit of reassurance, however, brought with it some unintended consequences: folks figured that if the end was indeed near why bother getting up and going to work or paying their credit card off or taking care of any of their responsibilities? Life is a giant party and it’s time to blow the savings on fun and frivolity!

Not hard to figure out that this may not have been the best advice Paul ever gave!

Enter the second letter with its more temperate admonishment: in essence – live calmly and faithfully.

This probably wasn’t what they wanted to hear. Frankly, it’s probably not what we want to hear either.

As I eluded in my weekly email – there’s a certain similarity between the frustration and anxiety faced by that early Christian community and that of this day.
Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.
The writer continues:
The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
In antiquity, evil was personified – the Devil, Satan, Beelzebub – all seen as agents that worked against the purposes of God and who had the power of temptation and deception and preyed on helpless and gullible humans!

Catastrophe and evil are still real – even if we no longer personify them. As one of the participants said on Tuesday morning in Bible study: “we don’t personify evil – we elect it!” Today evil permeates institutions, regimes, economic and political systems and legislation – evil incarnate.

Frustration and anxiety are rampant in society – it’s increasingly hard to watch, read, or listen to the news without yelling, throwing, or crying. I find it telling that the news program I watch at 6:30 p.m. feels the need to end the broadcast with a segment called “America Strong” that offers a heart-warming tear-jerker story of some do-gooder or courageous soul. We need to end the news with a 2-minute glimmer of hope since the previous 28-minutes make us question our reasons for living.

Wasn’t always like that. Used to be that America was strong all the time, when the “lawless one” was in Germany, or Japan, or the Soviet Union, or Iraq, or North Korea.

Wasn’t always like that – and won’t be forever. “Everything will be all right in the end and if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.”

Listen again to the end of today’s scripture, the pericope that Beth read earlier:
But we must always give thanks to God for you, [siblings in Christ], because God chose you as the first fruits … through belief in the truth. So then … stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
The lesson ends with gratitude and encouragement. Give thanks and hold fast to the traditions.

I read recently that one definition of “tradition” is “peer pressure from dead people.”

It’s funny – but it’s true – especially when we honor the people who have served their country and defended human rights throughout the world. Our veterans, whether by choice or conscription, represent the best our country offers and provide all a worthy tradition to emulate – the tradition of allegiance and service to a greater good.

So here’s the advice you didn’t ask for and probably don’t want.

Finding it hard to fathom the lawlessness swirling our most honored institutions as we witness advances in social justice, environmental health, and economic equity erode and erased? Service. Find a way to serve – give of yourself – do something for someone else without regard of recognition or reciprocity. Give. Serve. Help.

In the example I detailed in the email, 741741, it’s a Crisis Text Line and a means of persons in crisis to garner support via texting, you don’t even have to leave your home and still be the life-saving connection a troubled person needs. Anonymous and immediate.

The only way to endure troubling times is calmly and faithfully – and the best way I know to be faithful is to put into tangible practice exactly what we recite every week: Love God and love neighbor.
As anyone who has offered guidance knows, giving spectacular advice doesn’t necessarily mean people will take it.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

Sunday, November 3, 2019


This weekend has been dominated by being Unglued!

The “Unglued Project” is an initiative of the Presbytery wherein participating churches examine aspects that are “stuck” and that may need to break free and possibly embark on a new course. As we know, when organizations (or people for that matter) aren’t moving in either the direction or at the pace they desire, the knee-jerk reaction is to keep doing what they’ve been doing but do it faster, harder, and with increased urgency! All of that just means that they end up even more stuck and entrenched.

As you know, the Vision 2020 report provided excellent feedback and direction. It’s a rare gift to have the collective input of the entire congregation and Session is committed to employing that data to its optimal benefit. Part of that directive is to enroll in the “Unglued Project” which requires a group of elders to meet monthly with an advisor and work through various tasks – the latest of which was a “Neighborhood Exegesis” completed on Friday.

The linkage to the Vision 2020 is seamless as one of the recommendations was:
Conduct or review a needs assessment of persons within a two-mile radius of the church to determine how current or potential programs could better meet the needs of our community.
For the process on Friday, we reduced the radius as two-miles in any direction from the church is basically the entire city of Wilmington! We toured some of the new upscale apartments in the city center, ate at a coffee shop, toured and talked with folks in the Compton Village neighborhood south of us, the 7th Street peninsula, crossed over to the Northeast to the home of Urban Promise, stopped at the epicenter of gun violence, 24th and Market, drove through Midtown Brandywine near the Little Church and then to West Center City.

In the course of the 4-hour tour, we mused on the history of the church – both recent and at its origin – which spans over 282 years – and all started when the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in Wilmington, tired of traveling all the way to New Castle, desired their own meeting place and so on December 30th, 1737, they purchased from Timothy Stidham an acre of land for the sum of “three pounds of lawful current money,” at the southeast corner of 10th and Market Street. In 1740, a small brick meeting-house was built and a graveyard was laid out. The church had a high pulpit with a large sounding-board and the seats had high straight backs. The church was used as a hospital for wounded American prisoners after the battle of the Brandywine, and it was incorporated on December 23, 1789. Dr. John McKinly, the first President of Delaware, was elected one of the trustees.

That’s how it all began – at least, that’s how it all began for First & Central.

From that first simple building now perched on the Brandywine, came all of the other Presbyterian Churches in Wilmington, including this one, the result of the merger of the founding congregation and an offshoot.

One historian described that collaboration like this:

The project of merging First Church and Central Church took definite shape at a meeting held on October 31, 1919. The merger was effected on March 3, 1920 under the name “First-Central Church.”

On December 24, 1928, the congregation purchased the Draper property at the northwest corner of 11th and Market Street. During 1929 and until the fall of 1930 they worshipped at the New Century Club, where the Children’s Theater is today.

The cornerstone of the present church was laid on July 28, 1929 and the building dedicated on September 28 of 1930. This church property, with its more than fifty rooms is probably the best equipped in the State of Delaware for every activity associated with church work.

A bunch of immigrants, in a land that wasn’t theirs, put down stakes, built a church, and the rest, as they say, is history. We are here today because of their conviction to worship God in the particular way of American Presbyterians.

I’m going to leave the early history for now as we’ll formally mark the 100th anniversary of the church in worship in March of 2020 – and so for now – I’d like to return to the last comment in the quote…

“This church property, with its more than fifty rooms is probably the best equipped in the State of Delaware for every activity associated with church work.”

That was written in 1947 by amateur historian, and state representative, Frank R. Zebley, in his book, The Churches of Delaware. That’s quite a statement – the best equipped church of the nearly 900 churches in Delaware that he surveyed. That’s a lot of promise and potential, that’s a lot of pressure, actually, to do the work – it’s a “no excuse” thing to say. It’s like being white, male, educated, fully-abled, middle class, and straight in America – really, the system is rigged and failure is not an option.

But the system wasn’t always rigged for the Christian church.

If we lengthen our perspective away from the “best equipped church” of 1947 and wind the calendar back to the year 47 – right – 1900 years earlier – we find not only the best equipped church of its day – but the only church of its day, anywhere. See, this is a glimpse into another “first church” – the first Christian church – this is how it all began.

The earliest writing in the New Testament is First Thessalonians, one of the undisputed letters of Paul. Chances are that it was written sometime around 47, maybe as late at 49 CE.  It’s doubtful that Paul wrote Second Thessalonians as the letter is thought to be penned by some of his more ardent followers and assistants.

The legend is that when Paul was in Europe, he came across some day laborers in the countryside, likely in a field, and engaged them in a conversation that must have eventually turned to his profound relationship with the Risen Christ.

Something in what he said captured their imaginations and they wanted to know more. One can suppose that they went home, told their families and friends, and the message – halting, inconsistent, and flawed in some cases – began to spread and soon a small group gathered one evening in a modest home, they invited this itinerant preacher to speak, and “first church” was chartered.

It’s a curious thing…church. Don’t you think? This is a little unusual this thing we do in here. We’ve evolved into such a complicated, highly ordered, emotionally charged, and even controversial social entity – it’s amazing to think that all of this started with a few ranch hands and a newly converted Pharisee on the side of a dusty road.

How did they know it was church? What made that gathering different from other ways that first century folks used to hang out together?

The author gives us a clue in verses three and four:
We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.
One commentator referred to these verses as the “telos” of the church, the ultimate aim or goal, the “true north” by which every Christian community can measure its success as a church. That’s a pretty radical statement as there isn’t much that one can say about “every Christian community” but when this was written – the scope was limited!

The telos of every Christian community? Love for one another and love of God. It’s the only indicator of growing faith, it’s the only measure of church success – the love a church has for one another and of God.

It’s no accident that we recite the Great Commandment every single time we gather. Now – before we get nervous that this teaching is insular or limited to those inside the walls this church professes not to have, for is it possible to love God and not care for all of God’s creatures and creation?

The telos is clear, succinct, and boasts of simplicity and unambiguous proof of fulfillment. It was also original in its day: love is the guiding principal of the new communal structure.

Lest we think that the trajectory from that first church to our “First Church” was even, upward, and smooth – that all who precede were saints and apostles – it doesn’t take a Bible scholar to figure out that almost immediately there were theological differences and variant understandings. The foot Christianity got off on is the same one on which we hobble today.

We cripple ourselves with theological disputes and tension, we go a bit lame when trying to assimilate faith, culture, and politics, we’re more than a little disabled in our attempts to stay in relationship with folks who would condemn our social outlook (and vice versa), and our obsession with money and funding and buildings and stature handicaps our ability to serve the least of our sisters and brothers.

Yet despite that faulting gait, and often in spite of ourselves, we do good work – good faithful work – good faithful work that has as its intent loving God and neighbor, the fulfillment of our telos.

That’s what got started with those field hands a couple of thousand years ago; that’s what was built in Wilmington 1900 years later; and that’s what we have today at 11th and Market: love of God and one another.  

We are endowed with a facility and with a congregation that is so well equipped for “every activity associated with church work.” In that, our present day reflects so well our history and heritage. The challenges facing the church have changed, even expanded and convoluted, throughout its existence – but the telos – has not.

When people see First & Central today, or any of its people – really – what they should see and sense? A telos that says we may be an imperfect people pursuing a perfect love – but that we are claimed and called by Christ, who gathers us – as we are – into one body to serve God and neighbor with love and compassion, pursuing peace, and seeking justice.

That’s how it all began – and that’s how it still is today.