Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Adventures in Missing the Point: Worship

I'm close to wrapping up Adventures in Missing the Point by Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo. It's a great book that takes a look at a variety of theological/ecclesiological/practical topics and challenges the way we have typically thought about such things. I think this would be a great book to do for Sunday school or an adult book study. It includes great discussion questions at the end of each chapter.

Anyway, today, as I was reading the section on worship, I came across these words by Brian McLaren:
Worship leadership that fails to explore new territory (but rather dispenses products designed in an industry that has as its unspoken aim to deliver a good feeling 52 times a year) can inadvertently lead us not into worship but into temptation. And that's missing the point.
For some reason, I found these words to be particularly profound. He goes on to challenge those who claim that worship is all about attaining "The feeling" or "The High" that comes from encountering the presence of God. I often wonder if, in the course of 52 weeks in any given year, we worship leaders are intentional about exploring the depths of spiritual expression as found in Scripture. To be sure, the Bible isn't just a long list of people for whom life is fabulous and joyous. Do we avoid lament Psalms because people might leave worship feeling blue? Do we stay away from the Prophets because they sound too political, and we might offend someone? Do we go for the "feel good" moments instead of the "faithful to the text" moments? Definitely some questions to keep me thinking for awhile.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

In Today's World, the Well-Rested Lose Respect

This morning, when I got into my car at 8:30, after sleeping in on my day off, this newspiece began to play on NPR: In Today's World, the Well-Rested Lose Respect.

For those of you who don't want to follow the link and/or listen to the 8 minute story, the basic gist is that sleeping less has become a certain badge of honor in our contemporary culture. People brag that they only need five hours of sleep, when in reality, they probably need more. This story also addresses the prevailing myth, propagated by morning people, that success and productivity are directly tied to getting up early, even if it means losing sleep.

As someone who much prefers to get up between 8:30 and 9:00, I can tell you that I am often a victim of prejudice at the hands of the early risers. Somehow I'm seen as lazy or non-productive because I don't want to be up before the sun. I can tell you that on more than one occasion I've wanted to say mean things to those who chastise my desire to be well-rested. I mean, especially considering my occupation, what good would it really do for me to be up at 6:00 everyday. Are the youth at Harpeth clamoring for theological inquiry and pastoral care at 6:00 am? I doubt it. Is the Holy Spirit more likely to breath inspiration into Scripture at 6:30 am? Doubtful.

Anyway, it's good to hear that there's some scientific basis for my claim that being well rested has its advantages in overall productivity. Perhaps my next blog entry can be about my concerns with "productivity" as the gold standard by which our lives should be measured. For now, though, I think I'll enjoy my day off.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Mr. Alan

When I was home for Christmas, I was telling a story about the amazing, brilliant, precocious Lucy King and I quoted her as calling me "Mr. Alan." My family all chuckled. You see, in the midwest, we don't call adults by Mr. (insert first name). If we use Mr. or Ms. or Mrs. we use their last name. Otherwise, we just use their first name. This causes me to wonder why, in southern culture, adults are called Mr. or Ms. or Mrs. First Name. Is it a hybrid of respect for authority and familiarity? Anybody have a good answer for that?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Last Sunday's sermon

I'm not usually one for posting my sermons online (mostly because I know there are a dozen people who are better preachers than I am out there reading this), but I've received some good feedback on this one and thought I'd throw it out there:

The Story Goes On
by Alan Bancroft
Preached at Harpeth Presbyterian Church 12/30/07

Isn’t Christmas a lovely time of year? There are presents to open, cookies to eat, friends and family to see, parties to attend, songs of cheer and joy to listen to, twinkling lights to see on houses and on trees. Christmas really can be a lovely time of year. We love watching the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and the Peanuts gang make a lovely Christmas out of a spindly tree. We think about Rudolph and Frosty and Santa and oh, of course, Jesus in the manger…God with us…joy to the world…peace on earth…all that good stuff. And then we come to church on the last Sunday of the year and we get slapped in the face with this story of Joseph and Mary fleeing in the middle of the night, with Jesus in their arms, for fear of infanticide at the hands of Herod’s men. Some of you might want your money back, and I wouldn’t blame you.

This is one of those stories we don’t like to tell very often. I didn’t check for sure, but I doubt it’s in the scope and sequence for our workshop rotation Sunday school. Most of the time, we read about the shepherds, then the wise men, then something about Jesus being smart in the temple as a kid, and then, wham! Jesus is in Galilee preaching and teaching the good news.

But, I have a feeling that the early hearers of this story, probably Jewish people…Jewish people who knew the stories of the Hebrew Bible, those early hearers would have found this story quite fascinating. In a short ten verses, Matthew manages to evoke some of the greatest stories of the Hebrew Bible. Before I read it, I asked you to put on your Hebrew Bible/Old Testament listening ears. Did you hear anything? Did you hear echoes of the great dreamers of the Old Testament like Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Samuel who are told by God to go somewhere? Did you hear the echoes of the story of Moses and the liberation of the Hebrew people as Joseph fled to Egypt? Did you hear the cries of the Hebrew women of Moses’ time as Pharaoh murdered the innocent children so that the Hebrew people might not become too powerful? Did you hear the voice of the prophets who promised hope for people who were exiles in a strange land during the Babylonian occupation of Israel? If you didn’t, you must not be a very good Jew.

This story not only hearkens back to the history of Israel, but actually foreshadows what is to come in the life of this infant who is whisked away in the middle of the night. Just as Herod was threatened by the rumor of a new king being born, the people in positions of authority and power when Jesus is an adult will be threatened by the many ways in which Jesus threatens the status quo. Jesus will spend his life under threat of destruction, and, even though it may seem strange to talk about it the Sunday after Christmas, we know that the powers eventually succeed in taking Jesus out and shutting him up, even if only for a little while.

You see, that’s what people like Pharaoh and Herod and Pilate do. They go to any length to hold onto the earthly power that they’ve been given. They will dismiss those who ask too many questions about the least of these and the way they’re treated. They will actually destroy those who claim an authority and power that doesn’t bow down to their own. That’s what the powers do. In the case of today’s story, Herod hears that one Hebrew child will grow up to be a king and the son of God, and when the wise men refuse to come and give him the exact identity of the child, Herod decides it would be better to destroy every child two years and younger in and around Bethlehem. Take a moment and think about that. Every child under the age of two was torn from the hands of its mother and mercilessly slaughtered. For years and years to come, the absence of any children of those ages would be felt. Imagine if every year, for 12 years, two grades of children were missing. It’s gruesome. It’s awful. It’s unimaginable. How could people in that time be so evil and twisted and unconcerned for the welfare of innocent children? It seems unfathomable to us, and yet…and yet, folks, every generation of powers does it, and the powers are still doing it today.

Some of you lived through World War II and saw the abominations of the Holocaust, and after that horrible atrocity, the world said, “Never Again,” but it keeps happening. A couple of weeks ago, I asked Ooney Dreher, who is deeply involved with the Nations Ministry Center, to give me some insight into the story of the Burundi people who have been resettled in Nashville over the past year or so. Here’s what she had to say:

This past summer, over 100 people, men women and children from Burundi, were resettled in Nashville. They came from a refugee camp in Tanzania but that is not where their story begins.

Burundi is a small country in Africa, next to Rwanda and Uganda. In 1972, the government ordered politically motivated mass killings and chaos ensued. Families were torn apart as everyone literally ran for their lives. With crazed militants bursting into homes, the people of the villages scattered, ruining families and leaving many with no family at all. A group of wandering Burundis were accepted into a Rwandan refugee camp. Over the years, new families were formed from men, women and children who arrived with no one. These people adapted and made the best of the crowded, minimal camp. They rebuilt their lives and regained order and routine. The ugliness of their past became a memory but the loss of loved ones remained fresh.

Twenty years later, in 1992, the Rwandan genocide happened. Again, these refugees found themselves running for their lives. Unable to understand why this was happening, they scrambled and eluded the crazy men with guns again. This time a group of the Burundis’ found a refugee camp in Tanzania. Again, they settled in and made their new homes. The Tanzanian government offered them some primary schooling primarily to teach them Swahili so they could communicate with government officials. These refugees were not allowed to work, or leave the camp so they kept themselves busy with gardening and bartering goods for services. The UN brought in 3 meals a day, and the refugees learned to survive…again…in tents and overcrowded conditions.

This past summer, the United States offered refuge to over 300 Burundi refugees from the Tanzanian camp. The Tanzanian government wants to reclaim the refugee camp site for their own people. There are many refugees in this camp from all over, but the Burundi group are unique because they have no homes to return to. They are a generation or two removed from actually living in Burundi. Most of them have been born into or have only known refugee camp life. Some of them remember their Rwandan experience, and most of the adults speak of the loss of children, parents and extended family with an eerie detachment, as if they are quoting history, because senseless death is such a reality for them.

Friends, this oppression and slaughter of the Burundi and Rwandan people is what the powers do.

Many of you have probably seen Save Darfur signs around Nashville. The current crisis in Darfur began in 2003. After decades of neglect, drought, oppression and small-scale conflicts in Darfur, two rebel groups – the Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) – mounted an insurgency against the central government. These groups represent agrarian farmers. These were people who saw that the government of Sudan was selling all of the nation’s oil to foreign countries and failing to use that money on behalf of the Sudanese people. When they called for liberation and justice and equality, the central government of President al-Basihir responded with brutal force, by supporting local militias who rape and murder people suspected of supporting change in Sudan. Many people still live in fear of their homes being destroyed for no other reason than the powers asserting authority. World aid organizations estimate that 500,000 Sudanese have been murdered and nearly 2.5 million people now live in refugee camps in the bordering countries of Chad and the Central African Republic. This is what the powers do.

Just this past week, Bennizier Bhutto, who was a voice for democracy and justice in Pakistan, was murdered as she called for free elections. This is what the powers do.

Our story for today tells us that God, in Jesus, was forced to leave his home and live in a country where he didn’t look like anyone else, where he didn’t know the language, where some of the people still thought of his people as slaves, and where his future was uncertain. Even when Jesus’ family was able to return, they didn’t really get to go home for fear of being found out. Think about it: It would be pretty obvious if they moved back to town and Jesus was the only kid within a two year age range. Having experienced all of that, I wonder if God doesn’t have a special place in God’s heart for the refugees of Burundi and Rwanda, and Darfur. I feel quite certain that God looks at the state of affairs in Africa and cries long, heaving, sobbing cries.

And you know, I believe God invites us to mourn as well. I wish, in my preparation, deliberation, meditation, and prayer over this passage, God had sent me a revelation of what to do about Burundi and Rwanda and Darfur, but that didn’t happen. I did see three things in this passage, though, that, I think, offer some hope:

One: God refuses to let foreign occupation, genocide, or any other violence thwart God’s plans on earth. God is determined for the incarnation to reach its fulfillment in the teaching, preaching, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whether it is through dreams, hasty trips in the middle of the night, or maybe even our own participation in seeking justice in the world, God fulfills God’s purposes.

Two: As I looked back in Jeremiah to find the original context of verse 18 where there is said to be weeping in Ramah, I found these wonderful words of God in response to the lamentation of the mothers of Israel in the midst of exile:

Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work,

says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future,

says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.

As I think about the millions of refugees living in camps and who have made their way to other countries, I cling, even if slightly, to these words of hope…these words that God promises to fulfill…these words that assure the mourning mothers of refugees and exiles that they will eventually get to go home and live peacefully.

Three: The story goes on. The story of Israel goes on. The story of the Christ child goes on. The story of the followers of the way that become Christians goes on. Just as Jesus finds himself fulfilling a dozen stories from the past, so do we find ourselves in the story of God’s designs and dreams for creation. We find ourselves as people called to respond to God’s dreams as we search for the image of God residing in everyone who is a refugee or an exile. Despite what the powers do, the story of God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy goes on and on and on. Amen.