Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Importance of Rituals

A few days ago I visited with one of our church members who has two young children (ages 5 and 7). These kids had serious questions for me – the preacher man! They asked: Why does the church have Bible classes? Why do we have trees in the church building? Why do we give money to the church? Why am I afraid of going to heaven? Why do we get baptized? Why doesn’t every church “look” the same? Why did God send Jesus to die on the cross if it’s unfair? Why do I always do bad things? Why do people get married? And the best one, why do girls like flowers? I was impressed with these kids curiosity. In that sense they are more honest than many adults. Adults stop asking questions when they think they know the answers. Questions are good. Questions are the “anti-complacency.”

But how do we pass on the answers to deep questions? It hit me last July 4th (aka Independence Day). I was with the American mission and medical team on the banks of the Zambezi River in a little town called Luangwa in Zambia. That morning we sat at our table under a large tree, eating breakfast. We wore shirts with U.S. flags, we decorated the table, and we sang the Star Spangled Banner. Never did I feel more American than that day. And yet we were thousands of miles away from America, isolated from the fireworks and parades. For dinner we ate hamburgers in Lusaka. The answer is ritual. Rituals forge identity. Rituals form bonds of community. Rituals motivate purpose. Rituals keep answering questions. I felt like an American on the 4th of July because of a song and a hamburger! Why? Because millions of other Americans around the world were doing the same thing.

That’s true in the church as well. And in a sense, America is like a big metaphor for the church – all people from every background can forge a new life and a new identity by adherence to a few core beliefs and practices. The power and necessity of ritual hit me when those kids peppered me with questions I had taken for granted. If our worship is ritualistic, all the questions will be answered – except the one about girls and flowers. Ritual is not stuffy, corny, or sinister. We cannot abandon ritual, because without ritual there is no memory. This understanding of the indispensable role that ritual plays in remembrance is the secret to the survival of the Jews. Ritual is the means by which, for thousands of years, Jews have been able to remember who they are. In the same way, Christians “eat the body” of the Lord, and “drink his blood” every Sunday to remember, re-enact, and pass on the gospel story. Jesus died for us, he rose from the dead, and he will return some day to claim us as his bride. Let’s never forget!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Wonderful Things I've Learned From CNN and FOX News

Since last Wednesday when Matthew Winkler was shot - "allegedly" by his wife Mary, I've been resisting the urge to comment publicaly. However, the silence is deafening. Watching Nancy Grace on CNN last night sent me over the edge. Here's a brief list of things the "experts" have offered up in this case:

The Church of Christ is a cult
The Church of Christ is part of the Pentecostal movement
The Church of Christ hates and suppresses women
Matthew was abusing Mary (physically, mentally, emotionally)
Matthew was abusing the kids
Matthew threatened to shoot the neighbor's dog - therefore Matthew was a violent man
Women can't stand up to the pressure of being preacher's wives
Mary wanted a divorce, but the church wouldn't allow it

I heard all of these things (and more) on CNN, FOX, and MSNBC

But the best (and I actually mean worst) was displayed on the Nancy Grace program on CNN last night. (thanks to my buddy Travis for pointing me in the right direction on this.) Read this transcript:

GRACE: A well-respected and much beloved minister in the Church of Christ, Selmer, Tennessee, gunned down in his own home. His wife, according to many reports, has confessed to police. They say whodunnit is not the issue, it`s why she did it. That is the question.

I want to go to pastor Tom Rukala, joining us tonight, a special guest, a Baptist minister. I`ve been researching the Church of Christ. I don`t know that much about it. What can you tell me?

PASTOR TOM RUKALA, BAPTIST PASTOR: Well, the Church of Christ is a relatively new church. It was started about 150 years ago by Alexander Campbell (ph). And it`s, unfortunately, a very legalistic sect, and they tend to use methods of intimidation and pressure tactics. They claim that they are the only ones going to heaven, and all other people are condemned to hell. So in case...

GRACE: Uh-oh, I`m in trouble. But I already knew that.


GRACE: Now, wait a minute. What more can you tell me?

RUKALA: Well, they claim that if you`re not baptized by one of their ministers, that you`re doomed to hell, even if you`re a believer in Jesus Christ, which, of course, breaks completely from the traditional Christian view that all those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved because we`re saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose again. For the Church of Christ folks, that`s not enough. You have to be a member of their narrow sect. It`s a very exclusive group. And if you`re not a member of their sect, you`re condemned.

GRACE: You know, Pastor, you keep saying "sect." "Sect." You make it sound like a cult.

RUKALA: It kind of is a borderline cult, unfortunately. I don`t want to make it out to be some kind of Hare Krishna group, but it has cult-like characteristics and...

GRACE: In what sense?

RUKALA: Well, in the sense of the exclusivism, the attitude that they are the only ones who know the truth. The tactics that they use are sometimes just -- not only un-biblical but unethical, and they can be very ungracious, unfortunately.

So there you have it. I guess there is such a thing as bad publicity. Maybe fundamentalist Baptist preachers shouldn't throw stones though - you know, glass houses! This is a big problem with the 24-hr news networks. They report on things they have no clue about, especially religion. My advice? Watch the Colbert Report on Comedy Central. You'll get the same news, but at least you'll laugh about it.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Updated Sermons

I want to remind you all that I have been updating my sermon transcript site. If you're so inclined, check out for parts 2 and 3 in my series "The Family of God."

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Choose Life

The book of Deuteronomy has a wonderful admonition: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

As I have studied the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) and read commentaries on Exodus, it has become clear that Jewish values are a rejection of the values of ancient Egypt. Egyptian civilization was steeped in death. Its holy book was the Book of the Dead, and its greatest monuments, the pyramids, were gigantic tombs. One of God’s first tasks in molding the Hebrew people was to destroy the connection between religion and death. The Torah began this transformation by rejecting everything Egypt stood for. The ban on eating or even owning bread during the seven days of Passover, the holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt, was primarily a symbolic rejection of Egypt. The Egyptians invented bread as we know it. They discovered that allowing dough to ferment produced a light, expanded loaf, and they also developed baking ovens. Fermentation is likened to sin and death in both Jewish and Christian understandings of the Bible. The Torah also banned Jewish priests from coming into contact with dead bodies. I know of no other ancient religious system that banned its priests from any contact with the dead. Why? The role of the Hebrew priest was to consecrate life. The Torah's ban on sexual intercourse during menstruation is also a separation of that which represents life (intercourse) from that which represents death (menstruation). Biblically, it had nothing to do with women being “unclean.” “Touched by death” is a better translation than “unclean,” and it leads to a far better understanding of the text. The ban on eating meat together with milk is another example of separating life and death. Meat represents death; and milk, the life-giving food of mammals, represents life.

The biblical transformation of human thinking from death to life has been a staggering accomplishment. Many cultures around the world still have a death fetish. One of our duties as Christians (and Jews) is to proclaim life. What did Jesus say? “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

Monday, March 06, 2006

Marriage - Ten Big Questions

Since I've been a minister I've married almost 30 couples. I love weddings. I'm the "wedding guy." There is nothing quite like celebrating marriage vows with people who are in love. When I counsel with couples I go over this list of 10 questions with them. (The list is adapted from a series of Dennis Prager articles.) Let me know what you think.

1. Is the person your best friend?
If you cannot say that the person you are considering marrying has become or is becoming your best friend, you need to figure out why before you decide to marry. Over time, friendship is the greatest bond between a couple. If the person you marry does not become your best friend, you will either seek someone who will be or simply drift apart. What is a best friend? Someone you can tell just about everything to. Someone you want to be with as much as possible.

2. Do you enjoy spending time with each other?
This sounds small, but enjoying each other may actually be the single most important characteristic of a happy marriage.

3. Is there chemistry between the two of you?
As essential as being best friends and enjoying each other are, there should be a physical component to your relationship if it is going to survive.

4. How does the person treat others?
It should go without saying that if the person is not kind to you, quit while you can. But it is far from sufficient that the person you are considering marrying treats just you kindly. Watch how he or she treats waitresses, employees, family members and anyone else they come into contact with.

5. What problems do the two of you now have?
Here is a rule that is rarely broken: Whatever problems you have before the wedding day, you will have during your marriage. Do not think that marrying will solve any problem you have with the person. You therefore have three choices: Make peace with the problem, see if it can be solved before deciding to marry, or don't marry the person. It is imperative that you be ruthlessly honest with yourself. And that is very hard. Nothing in life is easier than denying problems when you are in love.

6. How often do you fight?
It may be normal for couples to fight, but it is usually a bad sign if you are doing so frequently while dating. If you do fight, do you quickly make up? Does he/she fight fairly and hear your side? Has either of you said, “I'm sorry” after a fight? Do you fight over the same issues with no resolution? These are important questions?

7. Do you share values?
Opposites only attract in the very beginning. People who are alike stay together for the long term. The more you share, especially religious and social values, the better your chances of a good marriage.

8. Do you miss the person when you are not together?
This is even true for men. Even though men are easily distracted by work, sports, computer games, and numerous other things it is not a good sign if you rarely miss her when not together. As for women, if you don't miss him, it is probably a really bad sign.

9. Is the person unhappy?
The importance of marrying an essentially happy person cannot be exaggerated. If you are basically happy, do not think that you can make an unhappy person happy by marrying them. On the contrary, the ability of the unhappy to make the happy unhappy is far greater than the ability of the happy to make the unhappy happy. In other words – misery seeks company.

10. What do people you respect think of the person you're marrying?
Young people are certain they know better than anyone else in the world what is good for them. So a lack of enthusiasm for the person you are considering for marriage on the part of family or friends may mean little or nothing. But if objections come from a parent you respect for reasons that are not easily dismissed, and if others you respect are unenthusiastic as well, you should take their objections seriously.