Houston is now the most ethnically diverse city in the U.S.

As this Hindu Temple in Stafford (just outside of Houston) attests, Houston is increasingly ethnically diverse.

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Here are some articles that track the growing diversity.

http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/1321089

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/us/what-ethnic-diversity-looks-like-fort-bend.html?_r=0

Houston has the highest concentration of consulates. Over 1M of Houston’s 6M residents were born outside the U.S. Houston has two Chinatowns, a Little Saigon and a little India.

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A Four-fold Benedictine Blessing

May God bless you with a restless discomfort
about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships,
so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression,
and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for
justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer
from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may
reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that
you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able,
with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

And the blessing of God the Supreme Majesty and our Creator,
Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word who is our brother and Saviour,
and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide, be with you
and remain with you, this day and forevermore.

AMEN.

Sr. Ruth Marlene Fox, OSB, 1985

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Vote early in Texas starting Monday

This is an important election in Texas. We will soon have a new governor, who could set the course of this state for the next decade.

If, like me, you are going to be out of town on voting day, Tuesday, November 4, you can vote early starting this Monday, October 20, 2014. To find an early voting voting location check out your county’s website: http://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/voter/links.shtml#County

Voting is privilege. It is also a responsibility. Having wise, broad-minded leaders can make all the difference in the world. Vote.

For my Montgomery county friends, here are the voting locations: http://co.montgomery.tx.us/election/pdf/EVGEN110414.pdf?ts=83869

You can vote at any of them:
This week: 8 AM to 5 PM
Saturday: 10/25 7 AM to 7 PM
Sunday: 10/26 12 noon to 5 PM.
The following week: 7 AM to 7 PM

General sample ballot: http://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/forms/sample-ballot-2014.pdf

Montgomery County Texas sample ballot: http://www.mctx.org/election/Samples/GEN110414/2014_Sample_ALL.pdf

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10.26.14 is Reformation Day (or Pentecost 20A)

Reformation Day
October 30, 2011
 (or Pentecost 20A below)

Jeremiah 31:31-34 – The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.
Psalm 46 – God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Be still, and know that I am God!
Romans 3:19-28 – For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
John 8:31-36 – True disciples continue in my word. If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.

Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, gracious Lord, we thank you that your Holy Spirit renews the church in every age. Pour out your Holy Spirit on your faithful people. Keep them steadfast in your word, protect and comfort them in times of trial, defend them against all enemies of the gospel, and bestow on the church your saving peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
OR
Gracious Father, we pray for your holy catholic church. Fill it with all truth and peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it; where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in need, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. If you continue in my word, you are truly | my disciples,
and you will know the truth, and the truth will | make you free. Alleluia. (John 8:31-32)

Color: Red

Pentecost 20A (or Reformation above)
October 23, 2011

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 – The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob , saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.
OR
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 – The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 - Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
OR
Psalm 1 – Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 – For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.
Matthew 22:34-46 – The Great Commandment and the question about David’s son

Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, you are the holy lawgiver, you are the salvation of your people. By your Spirit renew us in your covenant of love, and train us to care tenderly for all our neighbors, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. Beloved, since God loved | us so much,
we also ought to love | one another. Alleluia. (1 John 4:11)

Reform and Unity

Isn’t it tempting to tell the dramatic story of the Reformation from our one-sided viewpoint? The exploits of Pope Leo X provide so much luscious material: church offices for sale to the highest bidder, the lavish expenditures and crushing debt, the brothels, his sons made cardinals, one son becoming pope… The Late Medieval and Early Renaissance popes provide lectures of material.

But would that be a sermon? Is it instead a history lesson? Would it inspire the faithful to live and breathe the gospel, or would it just teach them to be suspicious of Catholics?

Could our Catholic brothers and sisters not have sermons focusing on Luther’s harsh rhetoric, his anti-Semitic remarks, and his supposed desire to have sex and divide the church? (See my upcoming LEAD article “Where Luther Got It Wrong” for more Reformation missteps.) Would that be an edifying sermon for the faithful? Would it just be polemics? And how would such a sermon proclaim the gospel?

Newsflash. We have a new pope. It’s no longer 1513. Giovanni de Medici is no longer at the helm. No one has been burned at the stake for several hundred years. The mass is being spoken and sung in the vernacular all over the world. The Vatican has signed on to the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Heck, “A Mighty Fortress” is even in the Catholic Hymnal.

I’m not saying we don’t have our differences. I’m saying perhaps the appropriate posture for this conversation is humility. It is a value that Jesus promotes frequently.

From Conflict to Communion,” presented by the Vatican and The Lutheran World Federation, is a 93-page report prepared by the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity. It points out:

“Relatively early, 31 October 1517 became a symbol of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Still today, many Lutheran churches remember each year on 31 October the event known as the Reformation. The centennial celebrations of the Reformation have been lavish and festive. The opposing viewpoints of the different confessional groups have been especially visible at these events. For Lutherans, these commemorative days and centennials were occasions for telling once again the story of the beginning of the characteristic – evangelical – form of their church in order to justify their distinctive existence. This was naturally tied to a critique of the Roman Catholic Church. On the other side, Catholics took such commemorative events as opportunities to accuse Lutherans of an unjustifiable division from the true church and a rejection of the gospel of Christ.”

I spent a significant portion of my sabbatical reading books on the Reformation. It became eminently clear that the Reformation was absolutely necessary. If our message is to be more than a 16th century history lesson or a rehashing of old feudal animosities, we had better stop worrying about the speck in our neighbor’s eye and focus on the log in our own eye.

From this standpoint, a true Reformation sermon should focus on the free grace given to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are loved with an everlasting love. God calls even us unrighteous folks to the party. The gospel frees us to love and serve our neighbor. The gospel frees us from all our futile attempts to justify ourselves.

If you’re in the mood for a fiery sermon on reform of church institutions, start with your own: first your congregation, next your synod/diocese/district/conference, then your denomination. But even then, it’s important to ask, is this a position paper or a sermon? Did Jesus need to die for this message to be proclaimed? Does the congregation really need or want to hear about institutional restructuring, or do they need the bread of life to get through another week?

To this end, the gospel text for Pentecost 20A is the Great Commandment: Love God and love neighbor. Jesus says the whole Law and Prophets rest on these two. Paul says this is the fulfillment of the law. The grace of God in Christ frees us to love God and neighbor, not to dogged adherence to an imperfect Law.

The gospel text for Reformation Day is about freedom: “If the Son makes you free you are free indeed.” It is also the freedom of truth: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

Reformation Sunday is a time to proclaim the truth of the gospel that we are a broken and imperfect people, and that God, nevertheless, loves us and invites all of us to be a part of the kingdom of God in this world and the next.

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Luther on James

Luther does not give all books of the the Bible equal weight. He evaluates them in their gospel content. John, Galatians and Romans get high marks. James and Jude (which were not considered apostolic by Eusebius), not so much. Here is his criteria, his true test:

“Now it is the office of a true apostle to preach of the Passion and resurrection and office of Christ, and to lay the foundation for faith in him, as Christ himself says in John 15[:27], “You shall bear witness to me.” All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach and inculcate [treiben] Christ. And that is the true test by which to judge all books, when we see whether or not they inculcate Christ. For all the Scriptures show us Christ, Romans 3[:21]; and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ, I Corinthians 2[:2]. Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching. Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it. But this James does nothing more than drive to the law and to its works. Besides, he throws things together so chaotically…

—Martin Luther, (LW 35:396-397)

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Subpoenaed Sermons

Update: http://www.houstongovnewsroom.org/go/doc/2155/2390022/

Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.

So yesterday I was contacted by folks here in Texas and also from other places in the country about a news story that claimed Houston city attorneys had subpoenaed some pastors’ sermons. As it turns out, the story is true.

I don’t have access to the lawsuit or the subpoena, so what follows is based on what we know at this point. I’ll update this post as things unfold.

Here’s what you need to know.

1. Houston passed an equal rights ordinance. We are the only major city without one. This is actually the city’s first nondiscrimination bill protecting any classification, including race, sex, and religion.

2. While many churches supported the ordinance, some churches opposed it, and petitioned to have it revoked.

3. The city determined the petitioners did not have enough signatures.

4. These churches filed a lawsuit.

5. As part of pretrial discovery last month, pro bono attorneys for the city subpoenaed the parties connected with the effort to get the ballot initiative, including all speeches, presentations and sermons.

6. Yesterday the blogosphere exploded.

7. Today Mayor Anise Parker said the request was “overly broad.” She and City Attorney David Feldman claim to have not known the sermons were requested. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/10/15/houston-mayor-criticizes-city-lawyers-subpoenas-of-sermons/

8. From a legal standpoint, sermons are public speech. They are protected, but not privileged. That is, you are free to say most things, but once they are said in a public venue they are a matter of public record.

9. From a PR standpoint, this was an overstep, creating a problem that plays right into the petitioners’ hands.

10. From a gospel standpoint, I would say:

• What’s the big deal? Share your sermons. Don’t be afraid. Let your light shine. Don’t hide your sermons under a bushel basket. What is there to fear?

• If your church’s goal is to proclaim the Good News of the gospel to all nations, then let them have the sermons, let them be published on the web, on your blog, podcast them, put them in the radio, televise them, go tell it on the mountain. Shouldn’t we want lawyers and city officials pouring over our sermons?

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Near death experiences

This morning I had a radio interview on near-death experiences. News radio is a quick medium. I enjoy doing it, but you have to talk in soundbites. It’s hard to get very deep into a conversation when it’s over with in a few minutes. So here are some lingering thoughts.

There is more to life than meets the eye.

Death does not have the final word.

Faith and Science

Most Lutherans do not see faith and science as enemies. Both are approaching the same mysteries of life, just with different questions. Science asks “How?” Faith asks the question, “Why?”

The scientific method has brought us electricity, antibiotics, anesthesia and other wonderful things without which 21st-century life would be a lot more miserable. I had a kidney stone this summer. I’ve never been so deeply grateful for a morphine drip, created by God, but harnessed by science. Don’t trash science. It’s been a wonderful thing. People of faith get it wrong when they conflate long-held cosmological assumptions with religious faith. We get it wrong when we try to import first century medical knowledge into the 21st-century along with spiritual and moral principles. The church got it wrong by declaring Galileo a heretic. Even Luther thought Copernicus was a crazy man trying to turn the world upside down.

When science helpfully reveals new realities about the universe, like a round earth or heliocentric solar system, it is an opportunity for people of faith to distinguish their religious beliefs from their cosmological beliefs. Today, lots of scientists are people of faith. Lots of people of faith are scientists.

On the other hand, science can sometimes have a low ceiling. No transcendence. The scientific method requires you to assume nothing but what you can prove empirically. Like all worldviews, this one has it’s limits. There are more things in the universe than what we can see at this moment in time, from this point of view. If the only thing I can believe is that which I can see and touch, that will be a pretty limited worldview. In 1492 Europeans didn’t know there was a whole other continent. Just because they couldn’t see it, doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

If science becomes our religion, there is a danger that we see ourselves simply as biological entities. Life, love and consciousness are nothing more than chemical reactions of the brain. Self-sacrifice and generosity become absurd.

Perhaps we can learn to see faith and science as complementary.

Near Death

A recent study showed that 40% of people whose heart stopped on the table had some kind of near death experience. Heaven, hell, a light, a tunnel, surrounded by loved ones, darkness, despair. These experiences have some striking similarities and also some striking differences.

I was asked if I saw near death experiences as proof of life after death. Of course the Christian tradition professes a belief in life after death. The cross and resurrection point to this. We believe that death does not have he final word.

But proof? That’s a science question. I have to admit, I don’t see near-death experiences as a litmus test for life after death. They are interesting. They raise interesting questions. Like all mystical experiences, they point to something deeper. But just as I’ve heard some people use them to describe life after death experiences, I have also heard neurologists describe near death experiences as simply the experience of a brain shutting off. I’m not a scientist. I have neither the interest nor the expertise to explore the neurological implications of near-death experiences. But as a pastor I think they have profound spiritual implications. That’s what I’d rather talk about.

Mystical experiences

Lots of people have mystical experiences. Pastors hear them all the time. They point to something. There’s more to life than meets the eye.

• Near death experiences
• Out of body experiences
• Hearing from dead loved ones
• Vivid dreams

The apostle Paul had a mystical experience. He was traveling down a road when he saw a flash of light and was then struck blind. A scientist would say “retinal detachment.” Could have been. That’s a science question. Faith asks “Why?” Why this? Why now? What does it mean? What should I do?

Paul was systematically executing Christians. He claims to have heard a voice. Jesus. “Why are you persecuting me?” After his conversion and baptism, he changed his course in life. That’s the religious question.

If you have a mystical experience, who do you tell? Friends, family, doctor? Who will listen without judgment? I’m not talking about psychotic episodes. If you’re anxious, scattered and having delusions, go see a doctor. In those cases, trained pastors will refer. But when someone calmly describes a profoundly religious or mystical experience, pay attention. Something is going on. A tipping point. A turning point. A break through.

A woman had been mournfully grieving the death of her husband for over a year. This is perfectly normal, but she felt stuck. Then one night he appeared to her. “In a dream,” I suggested. “No, he was there,” she said. “But it was at night,” I said, skeptically. “Yes, but it was real.” “Okay. Tell me about it,” I retreated. Her “real” apparition told her to move on. Then an amazing thing happened. She did. She moved on. She traveled, re-engaged, rediscovered joy.

Now was that real? Does it prove anything? Could she have touched him? Those are science questions. Faith questions look more like this to me: “What did this mean for you?” It was real to her, and it resulted in real change for her.

The Bible is filled with mystical stories. Story is the language of faith, which seeks to find images to describe the indescribable. We seek to convey mysteries beyond our scope of vision.

In my tradition we would view near death and other mystical experiences not as proof of some scientific hypothesis, but rather as signposts to a deeper, more profound spiritual experience of life. They move us past the mundane to a deeper, fuller experience of life.  

There is more to life than meets the eye.

Pastors aren’t into the why. We are more interested in what that experience means to the individual spiritually. I want to know, 
  • how does this affect the way you feel about life,
  • your hope, 
  • your joy, 
  • your capacity to love…

Life is more than a test tube. If you approach life as a spiritual adventure, you get something different than life as a series of chemical reactions in the brain.

If one has a near death experience, or a mystical experience of any kind, and afterwards,
  • they’re more aware of the profound death and mystery of life
  • they become more generous, giving
  • they’re able to move past grief
  • they start going out and staring at the stars

That’s real. Not test tube stuff. We seek to see life spiritually. Jesus pointed to the spiritual. He pointed to the invisible, intangible things: love, forgiveness, sacrifice, humility, hope, joy, peace and the like. The most important things in life cannot be boiled in a test tube.

The last word

But back to near-death experiences. Let’s not use them to prove we’re right and someone else is wrong. They may not prove anything, but they are interesting.

Why is it that some people experience light and joy, and are embraced by loved ones long gone, while others experience darkness, despair and horror? That’s got to make you think. Some have come back from near-death experiences and made significant changes in their life. Most have an altered perspective on life. How could you not?

The Christian faith teaches that there is some form of life beyond the grave. We believe death does not have the last word. 

We don’t understand how. We couldn’t describe life after death. Jesus doesn’t say much about it in the gospels. He just encourages us to trust in a loving God. He says enigmatic things like, “In my father’s house there are many rooms…”

There is more to life than meets the eye.

Maybe near-death experiences are the neurological phenomena of the brain turning off. We know brains turn off. We know they eventually turn to dust. This proves nothing. Our hope is beyond this space-time continuum. Faith is not about proof. “Who hopes for what he already sees?” Paul says.

Christianity is a religion of hope. We believe death is not the final word. We understand less than 1% of what there is to know about life, the brain, the cosmos. We live in a magnificently mysterious universe, or universes. Multiverse? We’re only seeing the veil in this life. “Through a mirror dimly,” Paul says. There’s much, much more behind the curtain. 

Bask in it. Embrace the mystery. Know that you’ll never know, fully, in this life.

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