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June 18, 2019, 5:00 PM

The Ending and the Beginning



And so it ends...And so it begins.

My pastorate and my career as a full-time United Methodist minister will come to an end on Sunday, June 30.  Counting student pastorates in college and seminary, I put in just shy of 44 years in the ministry.

On July 1, Nina and I will move into our new house...the first one we've ever bought, and begin our new life.  We will be living at 612 S. Surrey, in Carbondale.  You are welcome to drop in!  But, be warned...I might be the one doing the cooking.

This Fall, Nina will become a graduate student at the SIU School of Music.  She will be continuing her musical career and her regular job working online for a St. Louis based PR firm.  So, she is going to be busy!

My path is less clear...

I plan to volunteer with CASA of Williamson County.  That stands for (Court Appointed Special Advocates).  It is an organization that provides caring adult advocates for abused/neglected children who are going through the court system.  As the son of an abused child, this is near and dear to my heart.

I also hope to do work as an environmental advocate/activist focusing on getting congregations to become more green.  I am convinced that we face a truly existential threat due to the grossly irresponsible way we have treated our environment, and that our children and grandchildren face terrible threats as a result.  I think it is truly sacred work to promote care for Spaceship Earth, and I hope and pray I can make myself useful in this crucial struggle.  I am convinced it is a genuinely spiritual issue, but just how I will do this is something to be worked out.

I'm thinking about creating a blog about environment/spiritual issues entitled "Livin' La Vida Eco."  I'll let you know if it happens

If possible, I may also find a way to serve a church, part-time.  Whether it will be a United Methodist Church or not, remains to be seen.

You may see me at the Health Center at Logan, or elsewhere around town.  I have some projects that will bring me over here.  But, I will no longer be your pastor, and cannot perform those functions for you.  Larry Gilbert will be your pastor.  He will be a fine one.

Larry's a good guy and a very capable and experienced minister.  He also retired this year, but will be serving this church on a half-time basis for the next year.  During this time, it is our hope and prayer that church giving will be maintined or increased.  The money saved by having a half-time, retired pastor will allow the church to have funds to do some much needed maintenance, such a replacing aging HVAC units (a project that could cost $35,000-$40,000) and I hope the church will also be able to install a solar array.

At the end of that year, a new pastor will be appointed who will serve 3/4 time here, and 1/4 time at the Wesley Foundation at SIU.  There will also be an emphasis on creating a Young Adults Ministry.  This will, no doubt, require changes in the way this church does ministry.  But, without such changes, the future is not promising.  The church needs to do some new, innovative, and creative ministry to bring in people who have not yet been reached and to show them a vision of the Gospel which they will find convincing and inpsiring.

To be blunt, too many churches have failed to do this.  They have simply clung to old ways of doing things, and focused more on maintenance than ministry.  The inevitable result has been a death spiral.  I hope and pray for better from this church.

In the midst of all these transitions, our denomination faces an uncertain future.  The struggles over how we are to minister to LGBTQ people have divided the United Methodist Church and threaten to split it.  A Special General Conference in the Spring of this year barely approved a policy that denied ordination and church marriage to such people.  But, another General Conference is coming next year, and in a stunning development, there was a huge wave of resistance which manifested itself in the election of an overwhelming majority of delegates who disagree with that policy.  The upcoming General Conference is likely to change things, but it's difficult to predict, how.

The one certainty is that God's grace will ultimately prevail.  But how that happens, and when, is anybody's guess.  There have been surprises aplenty, already.

Our task, is to be faithful to our understanding of God's will, and to be open to the possibility we might have more to learn.  Our task, even in times of uncertainty is to be selflessly and humbly loving.

I see no way to retire from that.  So, through all the changes, let us strive to love God and one another, whether we are at the beginning or the end.

May God bless and guide you all.

Thank You and Peace Be With You,

Bob Morwell

 

 

 




April 15, 2019, 3:28 PM

The Black Hole & the Resurrection



Big news was made in the scientific world by the first-ever photo of a black hole.

But the black hole wasn’t what you saw…precisely because it’s a black hole.

Black holes are stars (actually this one and many others are conglomerations of stars) which have imploded, becoming unimaginably dense.  The black hole in the photo has the same amount of mass as 6,500,000,000 stars the size of our sun. 

All these swallowed stars, planets, cosmic dust and gas, etc., have been crushed down to what astronomers call a “singularity” with a gravitational force so titanic that not even light, moving at 186,000 miles per second, is fast enough to escape it. You can escape Earth’s gravity by going a paltry 7 miles per second.

The complete lack of light coming from a black hole is what makes it utterly, absolutely black.  And in the blackness of space, that makes it effectively invisible.

What you see in the picture is material orbiting the singularity just far away enough and moving just fast enough, and an angle oblique enough to barely avoid being sucked into the black hole.  The speed of the material causes it to take on that weird orange glow.

So, you’re not seeing the black hole so much as you’re seeing an effect of it, known as an accretion disk. We know the black hole is there because of the effect it has.

We will never see a black hole, itself.  But, there can be no doubt they exist, based on their effects.

The most powerful objects in the physical universe are beyond our ability to see.  Followers of Jesus believe in a powerful and unseen God.  It’s fair to ask, “Where’s your proof/evidence?’

We live in skeptical times, and that part about his resurrection was hard to accept in a simpler era.  I mean, after all, there’s no photographic evidence.  In fact, NONE of the Gospels actually depicts Jesus getting up and walking out of the tomb.  The Gospel of Matthew, describes an angel rolling away the stone at the entrance, but it seems to have been rolled aside so the witnesses could get in, and not so Jesus could get out.  He’s already gone.

Matthew does set up the basis of the claim that Jesus’ body had simply been stolen.  Many skeptics maintain that this is what actually happened and the whole resurrection story is a massive con.  There’s no photographic evidence with a Risen Christ glowing like the halo around a black hole, or the disciples skulking away with his shattered corpse as the first step in an elaborate hoax.

So, let’s look at the effects of the story…

The claim the Jesus was raised in a physical manner was considered deeply subversive by the Empire and the Jewish religious and political establishments.  Their response to the proclamation, “He is risen!” was brutal, repressive, and sometimes lethal.  The disciples who made this claim painted targets on the backs, and they would never draw another safe breath.  Still…even at the cost of their lives…they insisted that Jesus was not merely a sainted memory who “lived in their hearts” but the Chosen One whom God had raised from death. No matter how ludicrous, treasonous, or blasphemous that sounded, and no matter the price they paid for saying it.

But, it wasn’t just their wildly improbable proclamation that won over people to what Jesus’ earliest followers simply called, “The Way.”

What really proved convincing was the transformation they underwent.  They became people of extravagant  love and extraordinary generosity.  They backed their wild words with a wild grace. The kind that only comes from people who have been profoundly changed by something truly extraordinary.

It seems to me that the church’s problem is that we have grown entirely too tame.  We are not wild enough with our grace.  We have settled for being “nice.”

Everybody likes “nice.”  It causes no controversy.  It does not upset the privileged or the powerful.  It doesn’t challenge the status quo in any fundamental way.  Nice is satisfied with dispensing band aids and bland smiles.

I had a nerdy friend who once remarked, “I don’t know if all the spiritual stuff is true or not, but I think Christianity is the greatest system of etiquette ever created.”

Jesus as Emily Post.

The wild and dangerous proclamation of the Gospel is not that Jesus was a really nice guy.  Clearly, He made some people very unhappy, and they didn’t find him that nice or polite.  The proclamation is that this man who so offended the rich, powerful, and pious that they utterly crushed him, was raised from death by the Creator of the Universe as the ultimate validation of what He had to say.

We have looked into that universe and seen an example of the most powerful physical force in it…a force more powerful than even light…the fastest thing in it.  But, we also proclaim Someone who has not been swallowed by the darkness.  Who, despite our best and most violent efforts to smother it, is the personification of the Light we need.

People need to see that Light now.

We know there is a black hole in that picture because of the halo of light surrounding it, which gives evidence of its effect.

People will only know of God’s presence, if we give evidence of it through our willingness to love. 

Our willingness to love is pinned to our willingness to see Jesus as more than just a “nice guy,” but the wild, boundary breaking love of God, which not even death can stop.




December 26, 2018, 3:05 PM

A Need for Disillusionment



A NEED FOR DISILLUSIONMENT

To be disillusioned usually means to be disappointed. The disappointment comes from having an unrealistic expectation dashed.

But disillusionment is not necessarily a bad thing, even when it is hard.

One can imagine the shepherds and the Magi…maybe even Mary and Joseph, themselves…being seriously disillusioned by the birth of Jesus.

The common expectation with regard to the Messiah was that he would be born to royalty or at least the priesthood.  This would give him power with which to rally the people of Israel and make their occupied and humiliated nation great again.

No one expected God’s Chosen to be born to a couple of hillbillies from a town so tiny, it literally did not even appear on most maps.  No one expected his mother to be a teenaged girl who would become pregnant out-of-wedlock.  No one expected the father to be an obscure woodworker.

Actually, no one expected the father to be God, either.  Decades after Jesus’ coming, Matthew would cite a passage from the Book of Isaiah as a prophecy that the Savior would be born of a virgin.  But there is a complicating factor…

The original language of the prophet Isaiah,  was Hebrew, the Hebrew word he used was almah which simply meant “young woman.”  Might be a virgin, but no specific claim was made to that effect.  Centuries later, the Book of Isaiah was translated into Greek, which was the language most commonly spoken in the Mediterranean world…much as English is the most common second language in the world, today.  This Greek translation, known as the Septuagint,  was what Matthew used.  In that version, almah was translated as parthenos which is the specific Greek word for “virgin.”

Most Jews didn’t use the Septuagint, so they were unaware of any references to a virgin giving birth.  The whole notion would have come as a surprise to Mary…and especially to Joseph.  Also, the people of Nazareth would not have expected such a thing, so it would have been pointless to tell them that Mary had conceived without benefit of a human partner in accordance with prophesy.

If they had  told their families that the child was conceived by God, it’s not likely they would have been believed, and it only would have made an already problematic pregnancy worse.  No mention is made of their reaction in either Matthew or Luke’s accounts.  But, it is significant that in Luke’s version, the couple travels all the way to Bethlehem when Mary is in the last stages of her pregnancy, and there is no indications that they were accompanied by any other family.  Their absence and silence seems to indicate a strong possibility of rejection.

It’s highly unlikely that anyone expected the birth of the Messiah to be accompanied by such scandal and hardship.  Mary and Joseph could be forgiven for wondering why they were being put through such hardship, as she went into contractions in a stable, far from home, and possibly discarded by their families and condemned by their little village.

Luke says that shepherds were the first to hear of the birth, and they came looking for the child.  We rarely consider how preposterous it would have sounded to be told they would find the baby in a livestock feeding trough.  The conditions in which they found him must have seemed shocking and well…disillusioning.  How on earth was this kid supposed to save Israel, much less the world?

Still, they took it on faith that somehow, this birth and this child were part of God’s plan. .  But, God only knew how.  All their prior expectations were shattered.

The Magi (Wise Men) would have been no less baffled.

Despite what pretty much every Nativity set depicts, the Gospel of Matthew does not say they arrived at the stable.  Instead, they found the family in a house some time afterward.

These men were priest/astrologers of the Zoroastrian faith, the only other monotheistic religion in the region.  It was based primarily in Persia (Iran) and though its doctrines were different in a number of ways, the Jews and Zoroastrians felt a certain kinship in their belief that there was only one God.  There is evidence that each faith had an effect on the other, and it’s quite possible the Magi were familiar with the Jewish concept of the Messiah.

But we’re told that, when they got to Judea, their first stop was the palace of King Herod the Great.  They also expected the Chosen One to be born to royalty.

They too, would have been disillusioned to find a peasant child born to a couple of nobodies.  Things weren’t playing out the way they expected.  They even had to skulk out of town because of a warning that they needed to do so.  Not exactly the end to the adventure they had expected.

What follows in Matthew’s account is an act of mass murder and the child and his family being reduced to refugees.  One more thing they didn’t expect.

Yes, the story is full of disillusionment.  Expectations are shattered.  Innocents suffer.  Today, we gloss over these parts.  I know a pastor, who in nearly forty years of ministry had never preached on Herod’s slaughter of the children.  Too much of a downer.  But the story is there.

But, there it is…in black and white.  The story of an unready world into which the Chosen One must silently, silently sneak like a thief in the night.  We have always overlaid our expectations and illusions on him, demanding he live up to our demands for power, piety, propriety, and pomp.  When he refused to do so, he was ultimately tortured to death by believers and unbelievers, alike.

He saw that coming, and yet refused to back down or back away, even from those who would lynch him, out of their disillusionment.  They had expected him to forcibly fix the world according to their terms and conditions.  He called on them to fix it, by fixing themselves, and giving up many of their illusions.

He challenges us to admit that WE are the problem.  He renounced power to show us we will not find peace or happiness in pursuing it for ourselves.  He embraced service over dominance, because that heals us.  He showed compassion and mercy, because trying to crush and dominate our enemies only makes more of them.

Such lessons are hard for a broken world, caught up in the illusion that power rather than love, will fix it.  We need to be dis-illusioned for the sake of pour salvation.  And, it is for this purpose that he embraced both his life and his death.

 




August 21, 2018, 2:28 PM

Fighting the Monsters



The horrific accounts of sexual abuse and exploitation which have made recent news, point to a problem that goes beyond the Roman Catholic Church. (Indeed, it goes beyond churches.)

I think you need to know how our church responds. And I can tell you, based on personal experience...

In forty years of ministry, I have reported four cases of clergy sexual abuse.

One involved a member of the clergy from another denomination who was working in a counseling setting. He made an improper advance on a teen aged boy who had come for therapy.. I reported it to the proper authorities and the man quickly left the state. I do not know what happened to him.

The other three offenders were United Methodist pastors. Two became involved in sexual relationships with adult women who came to them for counsel in times of crisis. While the relationships involved no force, they were exploitative and both men turned out to be predators who had done this to several women, a couple of whom attempted suicide, as a result. When their victims came to me, I reported it to my superiors and they acted immediately to remove them from their pulpits and offered professional therapy to the women. Upon completion of the investigations, both men were permanently removed from the ministry.

The third case involved the abuse of a young child decades ago in another state. I only learned of it many years after the fact. The survivor had been too terrified and ashamed to speak of it. But, eventually she and I reported the assaults to the police and church authorities. Both were sympathetic and kind…but the passage of time and the lack of forensic evidence made it impossible to prosecute.

Even though she had no legal case, church authorities did offer to pay for therapy for the survivor. Decades later, she still suffers PTSD and long struggled with the feeling that God actually hated her.

Most ministers never encounter a case of clergy sexual abuse. Somehow, I’ve dealt with four. Not once, did it ever occur to me to hush anything up. Not once, did anyone at any level in the church leadership suggest that I do so. Not once, did they hesitate to take active pastors out of their positions so that they could not harm anyone else. Most importantly, not once were any of the survivors blamed for what happened to them in any way. All of them were offered care, at the church’s expense, from therapists of the survivors’ choice.

The sad reality is that some people in “helping professions” like clergy, therapists, doctors, police, etc., treat their credential as “hunting licenses.” They exploit the trust their positions give them, and the weaknesses of people who often come to them in deep crisis. It is a heinous thing which particularly enraged Jesus.

Jesus darkly declared, “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” For a guy who was so focused upon mercy and forgiveness to utter such iron hard words, meant he saw this behavior as especially contemptible and vile.

Sadly, we have come to learn that it is all too common. The vast majority of clergy do not and would never engage in such atrocities. But those who go over to the Dark Side, are often driven by such a terrible compulsion that it leads them to victimize one person after another until they are caught. Just a few such monsters can wreak widespread damage…unless they are stopped.

It is estimated that one in four females in our society will be sexually assaulted. One in eight males will be sexually abused. This kind of atrocity is pervasive. No part of society is immune to it.

The truth is that we don’t know how accurate those numbers are because so many survivors remain silent out of fear and shame. They fear they will be condemned and disbelieved. They feel shame because their abusers often tell them what happened was somehow their fault. And too often, other people say the same.

IT IS NOT TRUE!

Please know that you are not alone. There are people who will believe you and support you. There are people who will offer help without condemnation.

I am one of them, and I have found others.

If you have struggled with the emotional and spiritual effects of sexual exploitation and abuse, there is help available.

You will not be judged. There is grace for you. If you need a caring listener, and an ally in the fight. I am one. I know others.

Together, we can fight the monsters.




July 11, 2018, 12:00 AM

Weaponizing the Bible



Let’s face it, the Bible causes us problems.

Sometimes, it troubles us because it calls for us to love in ways that we find difficult and challenging.  Loving my neighbor as myself is hard enough.  But Jesus kicks it up a notch and tells us to love as he loved!  Dude, seriously?!?  You are a hard act to follow!

Sometimes, it troubles us because it just doesn’t jibe with what we have learned about the universe. The Earth isn’t flat, and floating like a bubble in an endless watery ocean which extends both above and below us, with a solid dome forming the sky.  That’s the literal description given in Genesis.  And, there is ample evidence that the universe as we know it evolved into its current form over billions of years…not a few days.

The Bible describes God liberating a helpless people, and then giving them the right to enslave others.  Jesus treats women as people of equal worth to me, while other parts of the Bible treat them as little more than property that produces babies.

For a thousand years, the Jewish people were required to live by an elaborate dietary and ritual code which helped shape their very identity.  Then one day, it’s all tossed away with scarcely any explanation.  What’s up with that?  Which rules should we consider unchanging and which are disposable?  How do we decide?

And then there’s stuff like the Book of Revelation which is pretty darned weird, and which has been spectacularly and embarrassingly misunderstood throughout the centuries.

The truth is that we ALL bring our experiences, biases, hopes, fears, prejudices, and preferences to our reading of the Scripture.  Anyone who says, “I don’t interpret Scripture, I just take it as it is,” is simply not being realistic or honest.

The Bible itself shows the folly of that claim.  For, as Shakespeare wrote, “The Devil can cite Scripture for his own purpose…” which is precisely what happens when Satan seeks to divert Jesus from his mission during his temptations in the wilderness.  It is a battle of differing interpretations (Luke 4: 1-13).

But, this leads us to the question, “How DO I go about interpreting Scripture?”

The author C.S. Lewis provides some insight:  “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him. We must not use the Bible as a sort of encyclopedia out of which texts can be taken for use as weapons.”

Jesus’ relationship with Scripture was actually kind of contentious.  He flat out contradicted the “eye for an eye” rule in Leviticus 24: 19-21.  See what he had to say in Matthew 5: 38-39.  He took a commandment to Israelites to love their fellow Israelite neighbors (Leviticus 19:17-18) and dramatically expanded it to include neighbors who they even despised in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 1): 30-37.  He reinterpreted Torah concerning the Sabbath (Mark 3: 1-6) and keeping kosher (Matthew 7:15).

Clearly, he was setting a new standard…making a new lens, as it were…for interpreting Scripture.  And, that lens was himself.

In our reading and interpreting of Scripture, we must ask the question, “What would Jesus say and do in response to this?”  It is not enough to simply say, ”Well the Bible says…”  The Devil can do that.  That’s how the Bible gets weaponized.

If you are a Christian, you are called to read the Bible through the lens of the life and teachings of Jesus.  It’s that simple.  It’s that hard.

This is no easy process.  It requires serious study of the man and his times, gaining an understanding of his context, so that your understanding of him is as honest and accurate as possible.  To be a Christian is use Jesus as your “plumbline.”  You make him the touchstone of your biblical interpretation.  If you do that, you are guided by compassion, mercy, open-heartedness, and humility.

We are called to worship the Word of God, which is Jesus Christ, God’s grace incarnate…and not the words about God.  Even Jesus disagreed with some of them.

But there is a central narrative worth remembering.  Throughout all the stories, a relentless grace pursues people who need a love they can never deserve, often misunderstand, and sometimes reject.  But, through all of this, God does not give up on us, even when that means going to the cross to show the wondrous and terrible depth of that love.

This is the lens through which we should always read the Bible.


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