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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Playtime at God's House

2013-05-05 Playtime at God's House

Luke 18:15-17
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus Blesses Little Children
15 People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. 16 But Jesus called for them and said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 17 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."

Matthew 11:16-19
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
16 "But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
17 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
  we wailed, and you did not mourn.'
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."[a]


So, in our first scripture, we find Jesus, welcoming the little children. Those little greenhouses of disease. He's actually touching them.

He says, "Let the little children come to me."

And his disciples' say, "Oh, grow up!"

And then, Jesus is criticized for having too much fun with the wrong kind of people. The religious leaders call him names. "Loooook! A glutton-ah and a drunkard-ah!"

They're telling Jesus, "Oh, grow up."

"Oh, grow up."
Because growing up solves ALL your problems.

"Oh, be serious!"
Because being serious makes EVERYTHING better.

As a religious person, it seems to me that religious people tend to think religion's better when you're really serious.

Jesus saw things backwards. He said being grown-up and serious IS the problem. Jesus said that if you want to see (and maybe even solve) the big problems of life and death and faith and stuff - you have to "become as little children." (Matt 18:3)

On the Sunday when the kids are singing and playing and speaking and praying, and leading us in doing these, I thought it would be a good time to ask, "Did Jesus really mean that?" And if so, what does "becoming as little children" really mean?


I don't know about you, but I think the world has a lot of problems. (You agree?) Surprise! Most of the problems weren't made by children. Mainly by grown-ups who should have known better.

Children didn't bankrupt the mortgage industry, or sell arms to Iran. And despite the fact that none of them can remember to turn off a light when leaving a room, children didn't create the energy crisis. Grown-ups made the mess. And we're good at that. Cleaning them up? Not so much.

And the world's messes are complicated. I mean, where do you start? We wring our hands and wonder, "Who's in charge?" "What are the rules?" Nobody knows. (Am I right?)

How are we gonna fix this? Who knows?


A lot of the time, religious grown-ups will say, "You just need to trust in the Lord. You just need to have a childlike faith and trust that everything's gonna turn out for the best."

I'm all for trusting the Lord. And I believe that in the end, God will triumph over the forces of darkness. But passive head-patting doesn't square with what I know about Jesus. In the Bible, Jesus never, ever sits idly, wringing his hands and waiting for God to make everything alright.

He slams over the moneychangers' tables. He stands up to the Pharisees who call him names. He doesn't tell the sick, "Just pray for better healthcare"; he goes out and heals them. No doubt Jesus trusts in God. But it's not the clueless drifting of someone lost in la-la-land, trusting that the bedroom will be cleaned by elves and that "A"s will be given if he or she just believes.

Jesus goes out and confronts problems, calling out the grown-ups who cause them, and calling up followers to do the same.

So when the disciples come and tell him he needs to "grow up," when the Pharisees come and tell him to "get serious," Jesus points out that the kids are not the problem.

Maybe childlike ways are the solution. And it's time we get to remembering.

Before we had our girls, I thought this was a cliché. I had heard people talk about giving a little child a toy, but what is it they really play with? The box! I always thought, "Yeah, right." But it's true!

And when you think about it, a box is SO much better. You can do anything with a box. All it takes is a little imagination. You can put it on your head and be Iron Man. You can make a house, and draw windows, and cut doors. You can put your little brother inside it. And tape up the lid. Print out labels and leave him for UPS.

There's a new study that talks about this, but puts a new spin on the implications. I've got the cites on the blog if you want to read it.

Little children, like, kids under 5, are natural born explorers. We know this. They live in curiosity. They use their imaginations the way their parents use cell phones: All the time. Everywhere they go.

What the research found, though, is that about the age of 5, give or take, something changes in our brain chemistry. We change. We change from "explorers" of our environments to "exploiters."

Now, "exploiters" is a harsh word. That doesn't mean that at age 6 our kids start exploiting us. Although if you've ever tried to logically explain to a 6 year-old why he or she doesn't need an iPhone, you may have felt exploited. "But I'm the only person in second grade who doesn't have one."

Around the age of 5, we change. Suddenly, the box isn't nearly as interesting as what's inside. And what's inside reshapes our imagination, directs it, teaches it to conform to the product and its limitations.

For instance: It's fun to play with one of those expensive dolls that looks like you. But what if she wants to dress up and go dancing at the club? She needs a new outfit. Ca-ching! And what if she turns her ankle? She needs a doll-size wheelchair from Amazon Prime.

Around the age of 5, and continuing into adulthood, we set aside the natural, God-given explorer. We put away childish things. We change - from creators to consumers. We look at the box, and instead of asking, what can it be? we ask, "What's in it?"

"What's in it FOR ME?"

We exploit our environment, instead of exploring it.

And wow. How many problems have come from exploiting our environment? How many problems come from exploiting other people? We don't mean to. But it's complicated.


Another thing this study shows is that little kids are experts at solving problems with more than one right answer. They still have their God-given talent for combining different things to come up with creative solutions.

You hand a little child a ball of string, a roll of tape, three paper towel cores, and a paperclip, and he or she will use them - ALL of them - to come up with something amazing. Little kids naturally solve problems by using the word, "And."

"Look, Daddy. This, AND this, AND this thing over here, when you put them all together will make… a new back porch and an in-ground pool." (If only they could be trusted with power tools.)

It's kind of the MacGyver, Tony Stark thing. Take what's available and create something amazing.

(I noticed I didn't name any women superheroes who take what's available and create something amazing. And then I remembered, Mother's Day is NEXT Sunday.)

Anyway. But around age 5 - give or take - instead of solving problems with "And", we start solving problems with, "Or." And this sticks, way into adulthood.

We see problems as, either this solution, OR that one. Either this is right, OR that is. Right or wrong. Working or broken. Black or white. Good or bad. Either-or. My way or the highway.

We turn into "ORs."

Now. Ask yourself: What kind of problem-solver are you? How do you see your environment? How do you look at the world? Do you see the stop signs? Or the open road?


And yet, there's hope. There are those who hold onto childlike ways. And, like children, they can be kind of irritating. We call them, artists. Inventors. Poets. Innovators. They get called names, just like Jesus. Nerds. Nutballs. English majors.
But when your resources are scarce, isn't it great to have a neighbor who can take discarded PVC and six rolls of duct tape, and build something amazing? When you can't say how you're feeling, isn't it so good to hear a song that makes you say, "Yes! Someone understands me!"?

"Imagination is more important than knowledge," said Albert Einstein. Look around at this complicated world with all its screwed-up problems. "Oh, grow up," isn't working so well.

But Jesus called for them and said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 17 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."

If we're ever going to make this world more like the kingdom of God, we're going to have to be more like little children. We've gotta stop exploiting and consuming, and remember how cool it is to be an explorer, a creator. Who can take randomness and make something awesome. That's how the kingdom of God always gets built.


Because the rules say you're supposed to title these sermon-things, I came up with, "Playtime in God's House."

And as soon as I saw it, I thought, "That's stupid."
I thought, "That sounds sacrilegious."
I thought, "Somebody's gonna roll their eyes and say, 'Oh, grow up.'"

And, that somebody was me.
That voice inside my head that says, "Church is supposed to be... serious."

"Oh really?" Said another voice inside my head. (It's kind of noisy in there.) "Oh really? Church is about being serious? Is this the church of Jesus Christ you're talking about? Because, he said if you really want to be his follower, you've gotta become -"

"Oh, I know!" Said the grown-up serious voice. "Be quiet! Don't you know that's the number one rule in church? Just be quiet."

"Yeah," said the childlike voice. "Guess I was being pretty immature."

But then, when the grown-up voice was talking on the phone, I snuck the title in just to irritate him.

If we’re going to make this world more like the kingdom of God,
it’s going to take a lot of people remembering how to dance and play and think like little children.
It’s going to take the work of remembering how to solve problems as little children.
Remembering that it’s not only OK to dance, but also to put together some new steps.
Wouldn’t it be great if the church of Jesus Christ led the way?

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Empathy: Standing in someone else's shoes

A radio show I love to listen to is Krista Tippett's "On Being." The blog that accompanies the show is a source of inspiration and challenge. Just this week, on the blog, I found a true gem, a video produced by the Cleveland Clinic about the power of empathy. While it focuses on hospitals, it makes me realize how little I really watch and connect with the deeper concerns of the people who pass by so quickly. The video is so simple, but so profound.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Accidental Racist

2013-04-21 Accidental Racist
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)
Titus 1:10-16
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
10 There are also many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision; 11 they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach. 12 It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said,
"Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons."
13 That testimony is true. For this reason rebuke them sharply, so that they may become sound in the faith, 14 not paying attention to Jewish myths or to commandments of those who reject the truth. 15 To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted. 16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. 
Titus 3:3-8
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water[a] of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6 This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8 The saying is sure.
I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone.
Lately, there's been a bit of discussion over the Brad Paisley song, "Accidental Racist." Have you heard it? It begins with the words,
To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say
is I'm a Skynyrd fan
To which I, would want to very pastorally respond to Mr. Paisley, "What??? Are you kidding me???"
"Mr. White Man livin' in the Southland, do you seriously believe the only meaning of the Rebel flag is support of a band from 1975? Do you honestly not know that there are a lot of people who find your T-shirt morally offensive?"
"Are their feelings less important than your devotion to Lynyrd Skynyrd?"
But, Mr. Paisley explains:
...it ain't like you and me can re-write history
Our generation didn't start this nation
And we're still paying for the mistakes
That a bunch of folks made long before we came
And caught between southern pride and southern blame
I guess that's all there is, then. Southern pride on one side. Southern blame on the other.
What about Southern manners? What about Southern hospitality? What about Southern courage? Courage that sat down at lunch counters and stood up to firehoses? What about Southern bravery that marched into places not all the different from Starbucks and said, "I am a man!"?
But no. Instead we get a song that says out loud what so many people feel. "Hey, c'mon. The War was over a hundred years ago. I'm sorry I'm not Politically Correct enough. I'm sorry you're so... sensitive."
I guess if racism is accidental, it's not as bad?
For a book of the Bible, Titus doesn't get much attention. Which is good. It's short, and blessedly so. The introduction says it was written by the Apostle Paul, but it wasn't. Frankly, the book is kind of a mess. Is it OK to say that about part of the Bible? Sorry. I'm just a White man livin' in the Southland. And Titus is accidentally racist.
The Book of Titus is in the form of a letter to the church in Crete. Do you know any Cretans? From the Isle of Crete? I don't. And, boy, am I glad. Titus 1:12 says Cretans are, "liars, vicious brutes, and lazy gluttons." They are detestable, disobedient, and unfit for any good work. They follow (quote) "Jewish myths."
Long pause. Titus is anti-Cretan, AND anti-Semitic. But wait. There's more. It also tells wives to be submissive to their husbands (2:5), and tells slaves to obey their masters (2:9).
I take back what I said earlier. There is nothing accidental about Titus. It's a piece of work. It's not OK to simply apologize for this book, saying, "Oh, it's just a product of its time." It IS a product of its time, but not "just."
Titus IS a product of the early church. As explanation, not apology, it was written in tricky times. The early church was trying to distance itself from the alleged "mistakes" "a bunch of folks made long before [it] came." It didn't want to be mistaken for being either Jewish, or pagan. Titus spews venom, but then turns around and teaches getting along by going along. Because Roman authorities aren't nice to Christians. Neither are Cretan villagers with pitchforks. That's why Titus says to
...be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work,  to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.
And on the surface, there's nothing wrong with that. Sounds like Southern hospitality. Sounds like keeping your head down and your nose clean. But that's not "just" all it is.
Titus is dangerous. Because the words of this book have been stolen from "just" its time. Across the centuries, they've been wielded as a hammer to justify oppression of one race, one class, one gender under another. Why? Because it's in the Bible. So it must be true in all times and in all places, or so its abusers claim. A simple apology isn't enough for a book that's so easily manipulated by very intentional racists, very intentional masters, very intentional Reichs.
I'm sure the writer of Titus didn't mean to be offensive.
Titus is kind of a mess. On one hand it describes people who don't agree with the Christian church in reprehensible ways. But on the other hand, Titus preaches that Christians should bend over backward NOT to offend anyone, that believers in Christ should be the most kind, sweet, PC people of all. But on yet another hand, Titus's Southern-style manners are pretty self-serving. They're a means to an end, that being, the end of staying out of trouble with the people you talk about behind their backs. Titus is complicated.
The world is complicated. I've heard people complain about the "PC Police." Complain that you can't say anything about anyone without being accused of being politically incorrect. The worry can be kind of tiresome.
Then again, exercising is tiresome. Eating healthy is tiresome. Turning away from naughty pictures on the Internet is tiresome. Speaking kindly to mean people is tiresome. Waiting in lines is tiresome. Homework is tiresome. Listening to customers is tiresome.
Most good things are a little tiresome. Because the work you put into getting past your accidental laziness turns out to be, in the end, a blessing. And, ironically, a lot of times you find the blessing has almost nothing to do with what you thought you were after.
And to this, Titus speaks, and maybe accidentally bears more truth than expected.
3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy....
Hmm. Complicated Titus gets it. Maybe accidentally. But God'll take that. Maybe what Titus is showing us is that if you keep your mind open just enough, you can turn into an accidental learner. An accidental learner from teachers you accidentally offended. An accidental learner from Jesus, whose ways are almost too simple - almost - for complicated people like you and me to get.
I hope that Brad Paisley and LL Cool J can get together and have that beer they sing about. Brad should buy. I hope he buys some new T-shirts, too. Their song? It's kind of a mess. But I hope that some good can come out of it by raising discussion about the things we all do that are so accidentally stupid, but still wrong. 
The Book of Titus is a mess. But you know what? So am I. So are most of us. Does that make it OK? No it does not. Does the fact that most of your sins are accidental make them less sinful? No. But the mercy of Christ can open your heart and show you the hurt your thoughtless actions cause. Pray that you will learn from the mercy of Jesus Christ, whose own wounds can heal us all.