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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Comfort, inspire, create


This has been a rough week for writing... the things which have been clogging my thoughts and prayer life simply do not belong on this blog. I tell you that only to offer an apology for the delay and  inconsistancy in my posting.


IF you are looking for the Lectionary Readings for Sunday July 28,   You can find them here

Today, let us start with the Collect for the week.... that our hearts and minds might be led by the Holy Spirit to discover words of life to inwardly digest in this moment. 
O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
As I was reading through each of the texts I felt a bit like Dorothy (from the Wizard of Oz) just after landing in Oz, 

Lions, and tigers and bears, oh MY

which really substitutes for

Prayers, praise, prophets and supplications...OH MY!

And as always, I look at the texts with basic questions. 

"What word do you have for me in this text, Holy One, and what word for others?
Who in the world will need to hear what I feel from the reading of the texts this week?"

The reply to that comes back:
"focus on your own understanding. Find life in the words for yourself.
Find inspiration and comfort. From that foundation move forward to create."


So with that nod from God I found myself plucked down within the Psalms.


Psalms are for everyday and every person, although it must be admitted that some days one psalm will fit more snugly and aptly than another.

Let's mark this one up and see what pops.....


I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with my whole heart; *
before the gods I will sing your praise.
I will bow down toward your holy temple
and praise your Name, *
because of your love and faithfulness;
For you have glorified your Name *
and your word above all things.
When I called, you answered me; *
you increased my strength within me
.
All the kings of the earth will praise you, O LORD, *
when they have heard the words of your mouth.
They will sing of the ways of the LORD, *
that great is the glory of the LORD.
Though the LORD be high, he cares for the lowly; *
he perceives the haughty from afar.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe; *
you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;
your right hand shall save me.
The LORD will make good his purpose for me; *
O LORD, your love endures for ever;
do not abandon the works of your hands. Psalm 138




No matter what I've been feeling when I read through the various texts of this week, there is one place where I can go to discover inspiration almost without fail. These are words that remind me where my source of strength comes from. These words call me to find sanctuary; safety within the "temple", a place where praise springs from my lips to the highest places, the outermost reaches where God abides. Yes, even the outermost inward place where God abides within me.

This is inspiration.
It is from the Source. From the Divine, breathing new life upon a parched servant.

These are words of assurance of a time, not yet fully present, when the reign of God will be complete, on this celestial ball.  

Even thinking about inspiration is a worthy place to put the heart and mind to work. Inspiration is a great word. It conveys the process of life sustaining force. God's spirit flowing within, working to transform each of us into the salved creatures of the creator. We are each of us creatures of this planet implanted with purpose which is to be uncovered and fulfilled.

Sadly though, I know many people are moving aimlessly about not aware of any sense of purpose. I know not whether they have any sense of spirituality. Never mind whether they have any religion. They simply have not yet had to any opportunity to be challenged to consider any thing remotely related to the question of purpose for their life. I cannot imagine anything more discouraging than to be in such a condition.


In- spire us Holy of Holies, remove the scales from the eyes of our hearts that we may come to see and know you thereby empowering us to be co-creators with you, that all people will sing your praises forever.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sidelines, onlookers, and meditants

Looking for the readings for Sunday July 14, 2013?

Find them right here


If you ever happen to visit an Episcopal Church for worship, and have been in Christian worship in other protestant denominations, there is something in our ritual which you may not expect. Don't worry, no snakes involved. Nothing bizarre or strange, at least not according to my range of experience. But there are movements and processions which carry meaning to those who gather.

The form and order of our Sunday liturgy, which is found in the Book of Common Prayer is a service of both Word and Table. Every week, unless an unusual situation exists in the congregation. The readers of the lessons (Old Testament and New Testament) are members of congregation. This is a ministry fulfilled by the laity, both female and male. Typically the readers come forward to the lectern to read and then return to their seats within the congregation. What I think you would be quite surprised by, if you first came into the church via another protestant denomination or independent congregation is the following: When the Gospel lesson is read, the reader, either a deacon or the priest, will "process" to the center of the congregation. High ceremony is to have a Crucifer lead the process, two torch bearers carrying lit candles, another person to carry the Gospel Book elevated high, and the Deacon/Priest following. The symbolism of this process seems quite obvious to me but I won't assume you already get it. So here is what it means to me. 1) This procession acknowledges the importance of the Gospel, our center or, as some professors of homiletic are fond of saying, our canon within the canon. 2) It also literally helps the congregation focus on the incarnation as present reality. Within our worship community, at the center, we can imagine Christ being "in our midst". The life of Jesus as handed down through scripture, is God's way of continually revealing Godself and speaking to us in the present age. Gods' word moves amongst us.

One other thing you might be surprised at, is the brevity of the act of preaching in most Episcopal Churches. Typically 12- to 15 minutes, and most focus on the Gospel.

The readings for this week are all wonderful words worth spending time reflecting on. I may even make time to write on more than one this week. But for now, let's read, mark and inwardly digest the Gospel for this Sunday, July 14, 2013. It is a familiar passage for most Christians. and often also referred to in our American secular culture.

"Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."  Luke 10:25-37


Yes, this is the story of the Good Samaritan. It's the ancient text that informs the concept of the Good Samaritan Law. The idea that one has a duty to respond to someone injured and in return is offered protection under lawsuit for the actions that are performed in good faith.

One of the ways in which I use scripture as a spiritual practice is  to look at a Gospel passage to imagine the cast of characters. I meditate upon the word as a living drama, unfolding across time and ask God's guidance in placing myself within the story in some way. This process is modeled after a form of Spirituality devised by Ignatius of Loyola. [You might want to learn more about Ignatian Spirituality. It can be practiced in community or with one other to guide you in the meditation, as you begin this spiritual practice. ]

So, this week I have been marking this story using that practice.

Here is what I noticed as I did so.

There are two casts: There is the interaction cast, and the parable cast. You might be guided to become a member in either of these stories. You might even find you move from one place of imagination to the next, moving deeper into the enfolded story.
The Scene: 
Jesus : Jesus
Lawyer :lawyer
casual observers- people surrounding the interaction (HOW MANY?)
disciples also surrounding

The Parable Cast
Victim :A man
Robbers
Priest :a priest
Levite :a Levite
Samaritan Traveler :Samaritan
Innkeeper :innkeeper

Using the imaginative process you may find yourself in the shoes of any one of the characters. Even Jesus. Ignatian Spirituality presents a request for guidance from the Holy Spirit to help one imagine which of the characters would be most instructive to the individual for spiritual growth and self-discovery. Entering into the process of this reading can be immediately fulfilling, or any range of emotions.

This week this passage really irks me. I realize, as I entered into the story that it evokes frustration when I look at the news of the current week.

I hope, that if I go into the details it will not forever shut down our relationship, cyber though it may only be,  because the frustration is a reflection upon the national politics regarding benefits (aka "entitlement" programs) to assist those at margins of economic stability.I'm also really frustrated with the outcomes of the Zimmerman Trial.

Lawyers :-(
Legislators aka Rule Makers { a Levite}

I personally feel like a bystander - a fairly powerless bystander at the moment.
I want to know where is God in this unfolding story of my life of politic and citizen responsibility, and what am I to do to correct this sense of powerlessness.

To heck with the question "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

I'm not worried about entering heaven, because I already know within myself what my relationship is with God. God's grace has already answered that question.

What I want to know is what can I do to proclaim and fulfill the unfolding and spreading of the Kingdom of God here and now? 

People I don't personally know ( are they "Samaritan" or "fellow citizen"?) are being left to go without. The measure that I see Jesus putting before this "lawyer" is a measure of compassion. Jesus invokes the relationship of God to all creation as the measure of who is one's neighbor. Mercy and compassion are the standards of care. Jesus didn't say anywhere in that story that the Samaritan checked to see if he might be repaid for the expenses incurred. The Samaritan pledges his own resources to care for the victim on the road.

But what seemed to be true in the story then seems to be true still today. The lawyer was looking for a way to do the least amount necessary. Could that be why, the latest Pew research shows lawyers are perceived as contributing the least to society?

The question the Lawyer placed before Jesus seemed so important at the beginning, but actually all the lawyer wanted to do was try to trip up Jesus. A device used in courts; seek clarification. But Jesus will not let that be the result of that exchange, so I also prayer, yes PRAY, that God doesn't let be the final result in the present day.

So, for me, as I've marked and meditated, inwardly digested the content of this passage, I'm left with questions and not solid answers for the present. I feel myself caught in the background of the story not yet capable of being engaged in the full work of caring and tending.

Where are you in the story?

Are you left feeling more uncertain than certain about the entire subject of "inheriting eternal life"?


Friday, July 12, 2013

Nearer to God

The readings from the Lectionary are here


In the church there is often heated discussion about mission work. How are we to do mission, who should go, what should be done, what should be said, where one should live, and what one should bring along for the mission work. How long should a person stay and what should be expected by the missioners from the community to which they go.

For a period of two years I worked in a church staff position at a church within the PCUSA. My job included maintaining ongoing communication and encouragement to the various mission projects, and missioners our congregation supported. It also included planning and participating in two short term mission trips within the same year (1995). One trip was a youth experience in Mexicali through Azusa Pacific University, and the other was a trip to Haiti. In that position I had ample time to consider the impact of mission as well as to consider how to recruit mission volunteers. In each case, the trip required extensive advance preparation with connections being made long before our arrival.

The Gospel for the week is often used to site the model of effective and proper mission work; at least parts of it are. Read on..

"After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.' "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me."

The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" He said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."                  (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20)

Several answers for all the issues I raised are provided within this passage. Also, we can learn the kind of expectations which can result from engaging in mission work.

  1. Do not go alone
  2. Step out in faith
  3. Know that the road will have dangers
  4. As you go prepare your heart and mind
  5. Take nothing with you.
  6. When you arrive, look for hospitality and receptivity
  7. Accept with graciousness what is provided you
  8. Use the gifts God has equipped you with to benefit others.
  9. Expect Mutuality
  10. Deliver the gospel message: The Kingdom of God has come near.
  11. Leave the community with a blessing, no matter how they receive you
  12. Be aware of the incarnational relationship; the ambassadorship which the missioner represents
With all of these instructions about how Jesus sent out the first heralds of the Kingdom of God, it seems to me that whether you are a Biblical Literalist or not, there are some massive guidelines for mission work to begin to unpack and put into action.

To start out, looking at this text and applying it to our present context has a profound number of differences, which need to be named straight away.

1)  We now live in an age where economics operates very differently. Very few social systems (you may prefer the term communities) operate at a level of open hospitality as the code of the community. I am told that still occurs in middle eastern villages. Maybe it does in remote places on other continents. It certainly doesn't operate as the community standard across the United States. Euro-American hospitality is generally wary, suspicious, measured and uncertain. Anyone who takes off without any money, purse, or extra clothes with them is very surely assumed to be quite out of their minds. Mad as a hatter. Crazy. The last person I heard of who took of in a similar of faith was a woman who called herself Peace Pilgrim. Even she carried something with her, a comb in her pocket. As a religious community founder-leader, Francis of Assisi established a rule of voluntary poverty. This order does still work at living very closely to the original rule which also closely models the instructions of this scripture passage. To be completely honest though, they have long relied on something of an artifice, the Corporation, which leads me to the next difference.

2) Institution building became the focus of the church somewhere around the time of Constantine. No longer did the proclamation of "the kingdom of God drawing near" mean what it meant to Jesus or his first followers. Now, in the post Christendom period, I think we are genuinely attempting to rediscover the truth in that message. What does it mean to proclaim that the kingdom of God has drawn near, or is near? Do we live out lives that with intentionality carry Christ into the world? It is all too easy to step out the sanctuary doors and forget that there has been a charge to "Carry the light of Christ in the world," or to "seek and serve Christ in our neighbor."

The records of the life and work of the Apostle Paul seem to indicate a ministry pattern which resembles the instructions Luke relates as the instructions of Jesus to the disciples. But then, how are we really to know? Afterall, Paul does not seem to depend on the people of the community to provide for his shelter and nourishment. In some cases his length of stay would surely wear on the patience of even the most generous host. Instead, Paul's model was to transplant himself into the new community. We refer to this model as tent-maker mission work. Perhaps I'm off base on this but that's my take on it none the less.

What I am struck with as I continue to work at digesting the implications for mission in the present age is this: Let's start looking at how to apply the gifts we've each been endowed with right where we are. Work together. Find at least one ministry partner, and go about your life in a way that brings about healing and wholeness in the present location. Stop looking at people in foreign lands as inferior and to be pitied. Put aside your own arrogance regarding your own set of beliefs in Jesus. See, The kingdom of God has drawn near and is here now! Receive from others in your time of need so that others will know what it is like to use their gifts. If you've never felt that you could give financial support to the church, start putting something in the alms basin. (Collection plate). Any amount, something to show God and community that you are sharing in the burden of being engaged in offering the presence of Jesus in the world, on your own block, in your own town.

Question:
What do you think was Luke's purpose in providing this account in the Gospel message? Do you think the Holy Spirit inspired the inclusion of this passage to serve as a permanent prescription for sending missionaries or was it simply meant to be descriptive of how Jesus used and empowered others to proclaim the message to the surrounding communities prior to his death?

You see, as someone reading Scripture for inspiration and as a medium for connecting with the Divine Source of life, with God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I think it is important to consider whether the text is intended to be prescriptive or merely descriptive. Clearly, for Francis of Assisi the text was more than just description of past events.

If it is intended to be prescriptive, I fear that much of what has occurred over the ages has quite clearly violated the rule of mutuality. Many people groups have been subsumed and coerced to "accept Christ" in response to the proclamation of the Kingdom of God drawing near. Instead of stamping the dust of feet and moving on to another place when not welcomed in their midst, missionaries have long persisted in their efforts to continue the announcement of Good News. Power and force have been exerted to squelch and dominate new territories. Not for the benefit of the people being engaged in the message (sorry, I call that dominated) but for the increase of wealth and might of the rulers of nations and empires. Imperialism has been the principle motivation, proclaiming the reign of earthly kingdoms, not the good news of encounter with the Holy. We can thank Augustine in large part for this persistent pernicious mode of operation. The Church became the principle means of assimilation. And much like the BORG, resistance was futile.

Then, what if we choose to set aside the issue of being sent (mission) to foreign lands and simply looked at the model of mission in our own country to our own neighbors. Do we even consider the work of members within a parish as missioners, people equipped and sent by the Divine to herald, care for, and in return receive adequate support for their service? I'm not referring merely to those that are ordained. I'm thinking about those who serve in many more ways to serve in both congregation and beyond to the glory of God and for the well-being of others. Proclaiming the kingdom, providing healing, encouraging and equipping the members to draw near to God as God has drawn near to them requires not only training, but also the devotion of time and energy which must be diverted from other activities which would provide financial support. The question grows larger with deeper implications to the welfare of all members of the Body of Christ. It seems that mutuality has gone by the wayside. The decision tree for the majority of faithful followers has been reduced to a path of gainful employment versus self-sacrificial volunteering which leaves the missioner with good feelings but an empty belly.

A closing thought, as it relates to mission ventures of the present age. It also seems to me that some hefty fundraising work by missioners and for the benefit of mission workers might be seriously in question. Just a thought.The only mission endeavors I ever took part in required hefty financial self-support. Not only did the mission team members have to give up their usual pay in order to serve on a mission team. They were also expected to pay their expenses while in the community they served. The missioners were expected to make a contribution to the receiving community out of their own resources. Missioners are somehow assumed to gifted with charisms of generosity supported by unlimited personal resources. That would be a different Scripture passage entirely.

Now, to you...

With the final message being the heralding of the kingdom of God drawing near, where do you see that in your life?

How do you respond to the call to work in the harvest field for the Lord?


Pop Quiz:
How many disciples did Jesus have?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Servants of the people

 July 7th, 2013

237 years and three days following the Declaration of Independence of the Colonies of from British Rule. Thanks to the practiced writing skills of Thomas Jefferson we now call ourselves a sovereign nation. Thomas Jefferson was a clearly a product of the new age of enlightenment. He had moral courage that was nourished as much by the words of Voltaire and Locke as the Holy Bible. He was an independent thinker, not to be told that scripture was infallible or without error. In fact, during his presidency and following he extracted what was most important to him from the Gospels and threw the rest away as dross. This work, commonly referred to as the Thomas Jefferson Bible  is an interesting work which many would like to forget when they claim "America is a Christian Nation". And, such is the long tradition of proof-texting in America. Yes, even I fall into that trap on occassion, but I do work hard to wrestle with the entirety of the Bible.  

Our ancestors became rebels and patriots simultaneously as they rejected the abuses of the Monarch and his government. This singular event became a watershed mark in history. Regardless what Scripture might have urged in such cases, remembering Paul also instructed the church to submit to authorities and pray for the Leaders of government,  my ancestors, the ones that came before the revolution, were no longer willing to endure the chains of tyranny.  I think the opening sentence to Galatians 5 must have been deeply embedded into their hearts and minds.

"For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."



"For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit." Galatians 5:1,13-25

The whole of this passage deserves to be broken apart in order to do justice to the message that has been handed down through the ages to us. Paragraph two and three offer deeper instruction on the first paragraph. Today,  as I read this text I find that I am placed needing to speak to about loss, for this has been a week of loss, more profoundly than it has been a week of independence.

This week has been a difficult week for the brotherhood of Firefighters. The week began with the news that 19 hotshots from Prescott AZ perished in the blaze. They dedicated their lives to the work of firefighting, dedicated to a cause of protecting live and property, and in that vocation each of them, without a doubt, understood the risks which they took upon themselves. Their families will forever be changed now that these firefighters have been snatched by the hands of death.

These were men who came together to serve their community, not because it would bring them great financial wealth. They worked with selfless devotion. They formed an esprit de corps for the common good. I doubt any of them would call themselves "slaves to one another" but surely they would not reject the moniker as public servants. 

Now, widows and orphans have been left behind to carry on life without them.The community of Firefighting Families throughout the nation join Yarnell Fire Fallen families to share their sorrow and to surround them with assurance that their loss is great, and has been noticed. We (yes, I am a mother of a firefighter serving in the City of San Diego) also feel a sickness inside as we confront death face to face; the risks our sons and daughters, husbands and wives face daily. Then, remembering the challenge of Jesus ask what more should be done for the living that have been left behind? The widows and orphans remain as our responsibility. Our task, as those who stand removed, is to make sure these survivors are cared for.

I, like many take comfort knowing that there is hope in life everlasting and pray for the repose of the souls of the valiant servants. As the memorial service allows time for remembering and committing their souls to the care of the Holy One, I will pray for peace and comfort to surround these families through caring individuals, chaplains, and many others. I will give thanks, not that they died, but thanks for their dedicated lives of service.Yes, it has been a difficult week for the brotherhood of Firefighters in our nation because a total of 20 died in one week.

Let me leave you with a pair of questions.

How does this passage about being set free speak to your spiritual nature?

OR

Do you simply read this freedom as a earthly material freedom?

And a final thought:

I consider myself blessed to have had the good fortune to be born in this country. I'm proud to know the rich line of ancestors who fought against tyranny at the birth of this nation, as well as those who served God as ministers of word and sacrament to the Glory of God following the establishment of this nation.Ultimately though, I believe my greatest freedom will never be lost. Being a child of God, an heir in the eternal kingdom cannot be taken away, no matter what happens to the civil structures of this or any country.

I am free in Christ no matter what flag flies over the ruling structures any nation.

If I was not granted a freedom by a government to worship God, I would nevertheless be free to choose to honor no other Lord, than the Lord of Heaven and earth. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Mentors and Emancipated Mentees




June 30 Lectionary

Have you ever found yourself in the perfect relationship for spiritual growth?

In that relationship, as it went along, it seemed that you were learning, and growing in confidence as well as grace because the other person just always seemed to have their own special. direct connection to the Holy, which spilled out on anyone that came within range of them.

Or

Did you ever have someone that always seemed to be able to provide the just the right perspective, was always willing to speak with clarity about how they perceived God was working within the situation at hand?

That special someone also had the knack of self-preservation. When things were getting incredibly difficult s/he may have retreated for a time to regroup but in the end was capable of returning into the thick of ministry and continue faithfully serving out the call that God placed on the person.



Maybe that person was the perfect fit because, in spite of your own doubt, or reluctance, s/he drew out of you the very best you could become. His/her ministry challenged you to strive to match their high water mark. Their courage, and example encouraged you.

What would you do if that same perfect mentor suddenly was no longer available to you?

How would you move forward ?

Would you start looking for someone else to fill the spot of mentor in your life or would you resolve that you now were drawn closer to the Divine, prepared to become mentor to another?

Here's the closing narrative in the life of Elijah today and the transfer of power to his successor, Elisha from Scripture  

When the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they went down to Bethel.
Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan." But he said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." Elisha said, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." He responded, "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not." As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, "Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, "Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?" When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over."  2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Scripture is filled with many stories repeating the themes of leadership, growth and coming of age.
Abram, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, Jesus, the Disciples are just a few of the most popular ones that are cited.

From where I sit in life, spiritual growth is the trickiest of all growth processes for Humanity.

Where are you in the journey?

Which person(s) has God drawn you toward to bring growth into your life in the Divine Dance with the Holy Spirit?

And when that person moves out of your life, through whatever circumstance causes that transition, what will you do? 

Remember those questions.

What would you do if that same perfect mentor suddenly was no longer available to you?

How would you move forward ?

Would you start looking for someone else to fill the spot of Mentor in your life?

Or

Would you pick up the mantle of the mentor and carry on the tradition?

Elisha is the model for how to transition from mentee to mentor. At some point in each of our lives we consciously or unconsciously move from the position of being in the shadow to being the one in whose shadow others will find strength, encouragement and growth if we are called by God to take up the mantle of leadership.

Choose well.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Mission Field Musing


Lectionary Readings for Sunday June 23

"O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving­kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen." BCP


The Gospel Reading for this week takes a very interesting turn in what most people have come to expect from Jesus. Here's the story from the New Revise Standard Version

Luke 8:26-39

Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me" -- for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
 There is just one point I want to draw your attention to in this passage.

The instruction Jesus gave to the man is a command to acknowledge publicly "how much God has done". In healing ministry terminology, this is a command to Glorify God, for what God has done. Give public testimony to the people who already know how far away and far gone he was. Instead of the comfort of staying close to the one who liberated him from his bondage, he was to stay in his own community.

Throughout my years in ministry this story has come up again and again as a place of personal challenge as well as confirmation of my own place in ministry.

Let me explain..

Since I took my first staff position within a congregation, I've been involved in providing support, emotional, spiritual as well as financial, to others who've responded to God's call to "go and make disciples". While thoroughly enjoying that position, I've also periodically dealt with a sense of being engaged in something "less than" fully faithful. In my head I understand that the Spirit of God is at work through my ministry, bringing comfort, encouragement and support as well as challenging members of the body to hear and respond to the needs of neighbors within our midst. I've reminded people that peace, justice and reconciliation occurs in local as well as global contexts. But, I have also felt some deep desire to be "sent" to a place of "unreached people".  I was like the man who begged to be with Jesus. While I prayed to be shown other places, the Spirit reminded me that my field was already in front of me. Even now, at this time in my life, I can still revert to the prayer asking to be shown to another place, rather than to continue in ministry where I've landed.

The work of telling people you already know how much God has done for you is just as difficult as it is to walk into a new environment. Maybe even harder. The foreign mission field offers everything new which is an excitement in and of itself. It is challenging to learn the culture and language of the people. Anonymity makes proclamation an easy task. Credibility and incredulity both are set at zero. However, I think it is far more difficult to continue in the same place, particularly if your past contains a checkered history.

Come to think of it, we don't read about Paul being successful at proclaiming about Jesus as the Son of God, and his Lord within Tarsus, his home town. Paul surely spent those many years in between his conversion on the road to Damascus and his first mission trip practicing day in and day out living life in relationship with the people of God in his own town before it became clear to Paul that he was being prepared to serve as the Apostle to the Gentiles.

From what I've heard from many missionaries after their return from the field, only the most mature members in the Body of Christ are capable of enduring the extra trials of foreign missions.

Here is my take on the whole of the story in the Gospel of Luke. Being made into a new creation, through the healing power of God places a new obligation on each person. We are not "saved" and invited into a cozy retreat or a bouyant adventure without obligation. We are made new creations and expected to put our weight into the work of increasing the Kingdom of God. That man had to prove and reprove day after day that God had fully transformed him into a new man. He needed to continue to grow in wisdom and maturity with God dwelling within the now vacated spaces where "demons" dwelt.His testimony was his every day living without the  "Legion of demons" that controlled him.

It is my opinion that some of us become so indebted to God for the transformation in our lives that we must strive to share in daily practice a living testimony to God's transforming power. Eventually, some of us become so completely regenerate that God does indeed move within us to also carry the Gospel into new places. But not until we have practiced telling others our transforming story enough times to gain credibility among those who knew us before the spirit transformed us from the inside out. All of us are called to preach that sermon with our actions, even if words fail to form on our lips in eloquent speech.

May your demons be conquered and your life transformed.

Tell the story of God's work in your life where you've been led, called, planted or drawn. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Song of Ancestors



You can find the entire Lectionary readings for this week here

This is one of the Sunday Lectionary combinations that really work for me as a preacher. I love the pairing of the Hebrew Bible's tradition of Elijah with the Widow Zaraphath with Luke's Gospel account of the restored life of the son of the widow. It makes the ideal apologetic pair. For preaching you don't get much better story telling connections than this.

AS great as those texts are, for today I'm going to spend time on the Psalm that has been selected. The Book of Psalms is often considered the oldest complete collection of ancient worship texts. It represents a sample of the oldest known worship music for Christianity. It's also a shared worship resource with the Jewish community.

Hallelujah!
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth,
for there is no help in them

When they breathe their last, they return to earth,
and in that day their thoughts perish.
Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!
whose hope is in the LORD their God;
Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them;
who keeps his promise for ever;
Who gives justice to those who are oppressed,
and food to those who hunger.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind;
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger;
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
The LORD shall reign for ever,
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.
Hallelujah!   Psalm 146
When I read this I can imagine that this Psalm helped form the mind and message of Jesus of Nazareth. Whether or not Jesus remembered with perfect memory that he had shared the Divine mind, co-eternally and had participated in the inspiration of the Psalm in prior centuries I can't say. I can imagine that this psalm helped form the message Jesus preached to later generations. I can even imagine that the people who flocked to hear Jesus teach out in the fields, on mountaintops, or at the shoreline, also were reminded of this psalm.

Here is a poem and song that carries hope, confidence, and a theology of liberation. It echoes the prophetic message of Isaiah  and recites the sacred history of the story of the creation. There is also the sound of warning and caution against placing any trust in the rulers of the world, a recurring theme in the Hebrew Bible. Yet, while there are words of confidence, I am confounded by the denial of community that comes from the text. Do you see it?
"Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them"
Given my own understanding of power dynamics and the frequency of abuses of power by rulers, I can see the merit in withholding trust in rulers of nations. But not any child of earth? Is there no one that can be trusted? Is no one able to provide help? Surely that isn't so, God. Aren't we to care for one another, and do for one another in the Name of Jesus? Maybe this is one of those places in time where YAHWEH could see that the message was getting all bungled up and would need a corrective measure centuries down the road.

In fact, this psalm creates tension the more I meditate upon it. That tension is present in the contradiction of the value and connection which I believe we are to draw from one another. Christians are called into a specific form of community. We are called to be the people who follow the way of Jesus. The gospels all make it quite clear that there is an interdependent relationship which forms when one follows the path that Jesus marked out.


The psalm forces me to shake my head:  what are we to do?
Look to God for relief?
or
Look to Community?

Well, it's not an either/or answer. It's a both/ and answer. The best is to take the middle road which recognizes God as the source of all good. Inspiring humans to reach out in care and compassion is how God delivers.

Here is why:
God is the source of all good inspiration.
Let me repeat that. God is the source of ALL GOOD inspiration.
Jesus, being the incarnation of God, gave sufficient instruction to the disciples that caring for one another is how we are to demonstrate our love for God. Christians really must put their hands and feet into action to fulfill the promise of the Psalm. And perhaps the best way to reconcile the contradiction is to look within the text for where the church, the community is within the psalm.

Look to what the LORD loves.

The Righteous are the Children of God. These are the ones who must be the deliverers of the message of hope and deliverance.

The message still carries significance. It is left to us, the readers to grasp that the psalm describes the natural man rather than prescribes what the redeemed in Christ are called to do.


In many ways as a people called to follow Jesus,  it seems that the project of modernity has decieved us into believing that each of us can live full and complete lives without any concern for the future of others. For several centuries, with the advent of Nation-States, during the gradual decline of Christendom, many leaders of the church have been handing down a message that misled the people of God. Instead of maintaining awareness that being bound together in the Body of Christ meant that all believers held an important role in manifesting God's concern for the broken world. It was left primarily to the religious (those who made life-vows dedicating themselves to God) and to the clerics.


If I stopped at this point you would miss hearing the exciting changes that are taking shape as the Holy Spirit has been stirring things up. SHE has been cooking up a renewal, a people who take on the life of service as bearers of the image and likeness of Jesus Christ.

This psalm starts the song of praise but it took Jesus to correct and complete the story.  .....

 Are you searching for understanding and the richness of the life of Christian discipleship in community? 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Who sent you?

And how do you know?


Anyone who has spent time studying the New Testament usually come to the conclusion that the Apostle Paul was a very humble servant of Jesus Christ. ;-)

NOT :-)

Actually the Apostle Paul makes huge claims in his letters. He, of all that are called Apostles, was actually the only one who never personally met or listened to the flesh and blood person, Jesus of Nazareth.

Still, what Paul wrote has influenced the development of our theology, our understanding of who Jesus was as part of the Godhead as well as what it means for all the people who gathered together as followers in the new way.

Paul's letters, which now form the largest body of writings in the New Testament, establish the theology of what it means to be ekklesia, a word which literally means "called out". That Greek word has gained common usage as "Church". He also makes it abundantly clear that he understood that he was engaged in work that was under the direct guidance of God with a very special purpose. His vocation was proclaiming the Gospel which brought life to all who accepted the message. He wasn't engaged in the enterprise for the purpose of garnering human approval. In his own words he wasn't prone to people pleasing activities. 

Here is the section assigned for this week: 


"Paul an apostle-- sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead-- and all the members of God's family who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Am I now seeking human approval, or God's approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ." Galatians 1:1-12

WOW!!!

What a rich text, full of description about who Jesus is, what the relationship is between Jesus and God, as well as some beautiful language to build an identity on for anyone that follows the path instruction that Paul claims Jesus has handed down to him for all other followers.

I find that the most intriguing aspects of Paul as a leader of the early church, is that he represents a continuation of the tradition found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul might be as much a mystic as a prophet if we take him at his word. Paul shot to the top of the missionary endeavors on the basis of his mystical engagement with the Christ Consciousness.-(of course he wouldn't have called it that.) He also went out to specific locations to do the work of proclaiming the gospel acting entirely out of his own agency and the call that he perceived having been charged with. I can clearly imagine that Paul listened to "still small voices" in order to perceive and receive instruction from the resurrected and ascended Jesus.Experience with the holy is what marked and changed Paul from being and enemy of the disciples to the first missionary and apostle to all nations. Experience, the fourth leg of the stool in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, was what changed Paul and turned his world upside down and thrust him onto the roads of the Roman Empire to proclaim the gospel.  

Over the centuries there haven't been many people who claimed direct revelation from Jesus. On the whole, the church is highly doubtful of anyone that makes a claim of such a thing. The reluctance is grounded in genuine concern and perhaps some fear that such claims will have actually been deceptions that will cost many their entry into eternal rest.

I can imagine that the reaction of people to what Paul had to say went something like this:

MEN: Who are you? 

PAUL: Paul, Apostle of Jesus

MEN: What? Who are you to say you're and Apostle of Jesus

PAUL: I'm Paul, student of the Law and Prophets. I studied with the best of the best teachers. And I saw Jesus. Jesus sent me to tell you about his sacrifice and the gift he offers to all.

MEN: Oh man, you're crazy, out of your mind! 

ONE MAN: Wait... say that again..what are you here for?

PAUL: To tell you about Jesus, the resurrected Christ

MEN: Go away, you're crazy! We heard about Jesus. He was a criminal, crucified by the Imperial Guard. 

PAUL: Sure, your right he was crucified but he was also raised from the dead. Resurrected! And reigning in heaven with God

MEN: Wait a minute. You have no authority to speak here. Are you a teacher? Who sent you? 

PAUL: Who sent me? I Told YOU! Jesus and God the Father sent me to tell you the Good News

I wonder how many people just walked away incredulous.
And...
I wonder what it's like to have such a sure and direct connection with God...How long did it last? How often?

What a joy it must have been to be able to write with such absolute confidence.
No wonder Paul comes off as arrogant, lacking in humility.

My own experiences of absolute certain connection have been just brief glimpses interspersed with prolonged periods of deafening silence...(Hello.. God speak up, I know you're there but I can't hear you! Will you be just a little more explicit PLEASE!?!) But, the times that were DC direct connect with the Holy there was such a powerful certainty it still remains as a source of encouragement. But I want more. I need more and I think it comes from time spent in community that desires to grow in the same relationship.  

Are you in the same boat with me? Do you want to have that confident relationship with God?

I think there is a world full of thirsting people, yearning for that same confidence.

What about you?

Speaking only for myself, I desire the deepest most confident relationship imaginable.

I don't expect to be like Paul, but I'm on a journey to grow in Christ connection. To bring myself closer to that goal I'll be exploring a course in Ignatian Spirituality for the next twelve weeks. If you're still sitting in this same boat named Yearning, what will you do?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Of the Elephant and Faith


The complete Lectionary readings can be read here


The Gospel reading presents one of the most often debates issues around the healing ministry of the Church in the present age. The issue is the question of the importance, or significance of faith for the manifestation of healing to occur.^1

Here's the text.

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,' and he goes, and to another, `Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,' and the slave does it." When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. (Luke 7:1-10)
So, let's just get down to brass tacks of this passage shall we?

What I mean is, there really is an elephant, not just one, but two elephants in the room. Not only do we have some sort of healing manifestation, but we also seem to hear a message that conditions the actual healing to the amount of faith that the person demonstrated.


As far as this passage goes, there is a just too much super-naturalism and fodder for bad theology for most people to take the text to heart; such a pity.

Speaking from my experience in seminary, most mainline churches don't like dealing with the healing ministry of Jesus. We live in an age of science after all, and miracles performed by faith healers are simply not the prescribed modality. In fact, the introductory Preaching Course practically outright banned the use of the healing stories or "miracle" stories of the Gospels.  To add to that, the Pastoral Care courses only emphasized development of a theology of Suffering. It felt to me that by the end of the course we had entirely neglected the concepts of developing a holistic ministry of caring and compassion that took on the troubling healing texts. Perhaps that was the best way the professor could navigate the diversity of theological traditions that sat within the room. We did conclude with a fair and liberal understanding of the vast complexity of possible issues one might encounter within the congregational setting, and tools to spot red flags of issues which should be properly referred to professionals fully trained and credentialed in therapeutic methods psychology and medicine.   

Sadly, it took me 3 years in parish ministry to begin to unpack the idea of having any form or resemblance of a healing ministry. Although the long continuous tradition of priests and pastors providing presence and support, prayer, confession, absolution and blessing for members at times of crisis and prior to death,  we simply weren't schooled in this tradition, in the more liberal framework. Sacramental  Theology did not actually fit within the framework of those pastoral care classes. We were coached and guided to place within our toolbox of intellectual material a sufficient introduction to pastoral care in a manner that most closely paralleled the counseling fields. At the same time we were strictly cautioned that we should never attempt, within the framework of pastoral ministry, to engage in anything other than "brief counseling". I have eventually come to a place within my ministry that I do indeed have a significantly broader theological framework, not just a vague and somewhat impotent theology of suffering, and death, but also a deeper and fuller theology of healing. And, rather than run for cover from a text like this gospel passage, I truly embrace it as a story that contains hope, and insight into the spiritual path available as a follower of Jesus Christ. In a very explicit sense this story helps me inwardly digest a deeper understanding of what it means to activate a  "healing" ministry in the world.


Enough about my contextual framework and back to the reading and marking of this Gospel.

When I start to really analyze a piece of scripture from the New Testament, particularly from one of the Gospels, I run through a few things in my mind because it helps me as I look for the salient message.

First; I remember the general rule of all ancient writers, the center of the book really represents a turning point. The drama usually is gradually building up steam before the middle of the book but will truly shift in the dynamics of the story after the center of the story.

Second; What came before the text is often an illuminating factor for the present text.

Third; What is the setting (location) of the story


So, just to demonstrate with this passage, the Gospel of Luke is coded into 24 chapters.
What came before this story in Chapter 7 was the teaching Jesus gives out "on a mountain" in chapter 6. Jesus has just really started becoming pretty darn popular and building a public reputation. Not so much to have yet acquired any ill will among any of the real Power Brokers. Jewish Leaders and Roman Authorities are not yet feeling any sense of antagonism from the following or teachings of the itinerant former teacher.

Present location: reflects movement, from outside of the town, where many were gathered, to within the town of Capernaum, with the disciples and possibly still some of the larger crowd following him,

I ask, finally:
Who are the characters in this cast?
The Cast of this Story
Jesus
the people (close enough to hear)

Centurion **
slave/servant
Jewish Elders
"the crowd"
"Those who had been sent"

Well, here is what I took note of:

Notice that the Centurion, while being a person with great power and material authority, maintained an attitude of humility toward the power which Jesus represented. The Jewish rulers made the point that he was worthy, but in fact the Centurion, declines any claim of worthiness. The petition for action came never came from the person (the slave) who was to be the object of the restored health. In fact, we cannot tell how many people were actually a part of the delegation. There was communal action to bid the restoration of strength to the servant's body so that the servant could resume duties in the household of the Centurion.

So, really, we are compelled to recognize that faith in and of itself is not at all a factor in the consequent healing. What may be far more important is the role of the community coming together, interceding on behalf of the one in need.

Also, in the end, the healing which occurs serves as demonstration that the grace and mercy of God boundless and available to all. There is no outsider to the grace of God. Servant, Centurion, Jew, Gentile. No longer are the only chosen people of God those who come from the Tribes of Israel. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, God's grace is available to all. Healing is a spiritual wholeness far more than simply a physical cure. Healing is experienced by many people that may or may not acknowledge that what has occurred is the result of a series of actions performed by a variety of people on behalf of one person in need. It is the work of the Holy Spirit manifested in diverse ways which result in a communal response of thanksgiving to God.   

^1. One organization, the Order of St. Luke the Physician, requires associates to the order to complete a 25 week study on the major Gospel Healing stories to help nuance this issue, quite well.

**Art from Brooklyn Museum by  James Tissot.

Note: Are you interested in the PROCESS I employ? See the page tab PROCESS at the top of this blog to learn more. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Duhkha - Suffering

      
Ancient Near East Funerary

Readings for Trinity Sunday

Three in One .....
or Side by Side      
ONE God or Three?

Yesterday was the day church fathers set aside as Trinity Sunday. The lectionary readings are at best, a bit of delicate proof texting, to create some context for engaging the deepest of all mysterious doctrinal positions of Christianity, a topic which the other Abrahamic faiths clearly find fault in. How can Christians claim to monotheistic, and claim that God is Three persons, and yet entirely one in existence?

Rather than spending time on the Doctrine of the Trinity, which preachers throughout the Church attempted to answer head on and probably will have left a flock of confused people in the wake of the final "Amen", I'm simply going to take the best of the verses, and continue looking at the idea of suffering: 

Suffering...what's it good for, and where is God in the midst of it?

In my last entry, on the passage from Romans I expressed some concern about ways people think about God being the prime mover in events which cause human suffering. This passage, also from Romans precedes the passage of last week. (I know, go figure, why is it out of order?- because..they could and did.)


"Since we are justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings,
knowing that suffering produces endurance,
                           and endurance produces character,
                                                  and character produces hope,
                                                    and hope does not disappoint us,
because God's love
has been poured into our hearts through the
Holy Spirit that has been given to us." Romans 5:1-5

Let's start by acknowledging that there is a huge diversity of opinions. There are those who believe absolutely in God being always at the root of every occurrence of their life. They hold that every action in nature is the direct result of God using nature to punish or reward the inhabitants of the universe. Their own success or failure is the work of God acting upon them. These will say, in the direst of circumstances, "God is in control." hhmmm really? 

I don't think so.

Here, just to take what I most recently wrote to a former co-religionist, on the topic of God being in control is what I said to her on this weighty matter...
I have to say, although I know you claim God is in control, and I assume that really does bring you comfort or reassurance, I don't regularly find that comforting or even accurate in describing God's hand in the universe. I do believe God is always working to bring about the best possible result out of the failures of human action. But too bleeping much that occurs in the world cannot nor should not be blamed on God. I know the Muslim viewpoint strongly holds to this as well, the idea that God is always in control...but really..asteroids, earthquakes, tornados, dictators, murderers, pedaphiles, predators, ...the list so long... is God in control of all that? Freewill and chaos reign, and God is still at work trying to create order out of it all...and somehow we are invited into that miraculous divine dance of co-creation, everyone needing to choose up sides, for ill or for good. Here we are Kin-dom weaving as best we can while forces tug to try to unravel what God so dearly desires for all creation. 
If you were to classify what I believe, it probably falls more akin to Buddhist philosophy: Suffering Happens.
So to be completely honest, I have to acknowledge all this discussion falls within what I call a big word category, that of "theodicy". Being rather evangelical and non-predestinarian I'm okay not spending huge amounts of time attempting to defend God's power through advocacy of Divine Punishment being executed in this life. Instead, I need something that answers the question what's good about suffering.This passage from the letter to the Romans was Paul's attempt to answer the same question.

I wrote several months ago about the topic of theodicy and referenced a book by Ethicist and Canon Theologian for the Diocese of Tennessee, Stanley Hauerwas, (Naming the Silences, 1990). I needn't repeat what was said before. I do want to suggest a few other things, which relate most specifically to suffering as a theological framework.

Suffering is wrapped up in all sorts of packages. A pregnant mother experiences pains as the child develops within her womb and then, the ultimate endurance test, the pain of labor resulting in the birth. Pain with gain; not bad overall. 

Suffering through persecution, as I indicated in the last post, which was Paul's objective referral, was not desirable per se, but would result in a reward, not measured in human terms. The reward to be received would be at the death of the mortal body. 

As a body of believers, other people's sufferings present occasions for the surrounding community to come together, particularly as we witness during natural disasters. In addition, individuals make it through the suffering of health, economic or natural disaster through drawing upon sources of external and internal strength. 

Like gravity, which holds us to the earth, some suffering does tend to increase the capability to both give and receive support over a lifetime. It provides genuine expression and recognition of what good exists in the universe. You might imagine that compassion is a muscle, and suffering is the stimulus for the compassion response expressed by another person. Internally, making it through an experience of suffering also increases the empathic response so that we can tend to the needs of one another over the course of our lives. But, for this to occur maximally, we require some form of community. 

Nevertheless we must be cautioned that we not become callous in our acknowledgement of suffering. One much overused statement is "No pain - No gain." Research has actually proven that "what does not kill us makes us stronger" is not true. Although we like to look for examples of this, employing what is known in research as a confirmation bias, actual research has clearly demonstrated that traumas repeated over time make the individual more fragile; weakened in ways imperceptible to the human eye. 

These micro-spiritual and psychological fractures require spiritual healing, supplied only by attentive care through a cohort of trained practitioners, among them, healing prayer ministers. It also requires general support and concern from a community. This is the place where I see God being the activating source and force. Through those who have been called into the vocations of healing through rescue, first response, medicine, research, therapy, spiritual care, pastoral and liturgical forms of attending God is immanent and manifesting concern toward the broken and injured of God's creation. 

In the final analysis, there is much suffering that concludes in death, sometimes, the worst being early death of children. The body is not made for eternal immortal existence. There will be a final hour, final minute, final breathe and completion of human existence. The promise of the passage Paul presents to us is quite simple. Being accepted as "justified", in right relationship, we need not fear some torturous existence in the next and eternal realm. The life death and resurrection of Jesus is the archetype of life cycle. Jesus' resurrection is God's final proof that God does control the most important thing, what happens to the spirit at the end of our mortal days. 

If you presently find yourself in the place of agnostic inquirer, I hope this will help you grasp the depths of the Christian message. I understand that it is incomprehensible by scientific method. That's why it's a faith tradition and matter of faith to accept and believe.



DID YOU KNOW?...
The Revised Common Lectionary offers something of a systematic plan of reading your way through the Bible? It is called "semi-continuous". It contains almost all books of the Old and New Testaments over a three year period. With some short breaks, and occasional slight switches in the ordering, overall, it provides a way in which the Church can be guided to read, study and be in conversation about the Word as it may be speaking to the Church in the present age.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Children of God

Romans 8:14-17

"All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him."

What an incredibly rich text we are given in this short passage from the Letter to the Romans which Paul wrote. Children of God, Spirit of God, Suffering and Glorification all woven together to describe the Christian life.

The Bible comes to us because of the dedication, the piety and devotion of men who through the ages worked to transcribe copies of the original manuscripts. Every bit of it down lovingly by hand. In many monastic communities artistry accompanies the words, to provide what are known now as illuminated texts.
If this blog seems curious to you because I highlight specific words or phrases, perhaps you can come to appreciate it against the backdrop of the more ancient tradition of illuminated texts.

What was Paul suggesting in the idea of being Children of God, experiencing a spirit of adoption, suffering with Christ and being led by the Spirit of God?

Well, here I'm going to test your Biblical literacy a bit. Remember the story that comes from the Hebrew Bible, the leading of the People of Israel from bondage out of Egypt? The entire book of Exodus, the second book of the Hebrew Bible, (to Christians this is often called the first or "Old" Testament). This story is the framework of understanding Paul held. He knew himself to belong to the Chosen People, and that history included knowing the narrative of God's Spirit leading the way for Moses. For the Israelites, the Spirit of God was manifested through visible phenomenon. Pretty easy...see..follow..arrive at destination...wait until the next movement..follow.. and so forth.  Paul, on the other hand, does not suggest any visual aides would be necessary, nor forthcoming. In Paul's teachings to the followers of Jesus, all of this happens in an invisible, and inner way within each person. It is a spiritual action with consequent manifestations within each believer. The sense of having communication from God to believer is also implied within Paul's various writings to the communities and individuals he mentored. He refers to visions and dreams from time to time, throughout his body of writings. This too seems to be important to the concept of being led by the Spirit of God.

What does it mean to you to be "led by the Spirit of God"?

Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park


Can you recount an experience in which you were particularly aware of the sense that you were being led by the Spirit of God?


I asked someone recently how this passage spoke to the person. I wondered especially about the idea of being adopted, whether there was any vitality in this passage. As I suspected, at least for this one person, the passage sort of landed lifelessly.  In the Twenty First century children are put up for adoption for a variety of reasons. Also, with blended families, there are many marriages where children may have step-parents who adopt the child of their new spouse. How can this passage, which is intended to convey a rich and special relationship for all believers become a life-giving text when adoptions are not wholeheartedly viewed  as great events by the adoptees?^^ 

Our practice of adoption is very different from the practice of adoption which Paul used for his analogy. In Greek Mythology, adoption of Hercules was executed by Hera as a sign of his inclusion within the pantheon of Gods. Also, in ancient Rome, Emperors were known to adopt adult heirs very near their time of death to assure the continuity of the throne and power. Paul was familiar with this tradition and a concept of adoption always being a beneficent act. In the New Testament then, Paul introduces a novel idea in coining this phrase.

Paul has built upon the tradition which Jesus emphasized that God is Father of all, at least that tradition which the Gospel of John also conveyed. Paul suggests, that in choosing the life that mirrors the life of Jesus, our previously unknown relationship with God is revealed. We are children of God in order that we may fully appreciate a living and communicating relationship with God. It includes a concluding and fully consummating action, to be received from God at the end of our earthly days, when our mortal bodies fail and our spirit breaks free of the body which encased our spirit.

While there is great hope intended in this passage I think it fair to note that there does appear to be a tension within the passage. There is after all, a conditional statement, and a call for co-suffering by followers with Jesus that will be expected  which exists in the fulfillment of the promises described.

So we are challenged to consider the troubling ideas of suffering.

What are your "God-Thoughts", your theology of suffering?

Do you look at all the suffering that occurs in the world today and point fingers at God demanding answers?

Does the idea of dying for a cause, in this case, the cause of placing Jesus as the first and only Lord of your life resonate in a good, bad or indifferent way?

Paul's letter was written to address a specific form of suffering, which is best classified as political oppression. Christians were ardent in their refusal to acknowledge the ruler of earthly principalities, "governments" as the ultimate "Lord". The refusal to pay honor to the ruler or surrogate was met with harsh punishment, torture and frequently death. This treasonous behavior earned followers the extreme displeasure but the followers held tightly to their profession of faith. Martyrs were the ones who testified only to the Lordship of Jesus. These received cruel treatment for their treason, and death. Paul's letter assured these and future generations that this loyalty which resulted in death would also yield a reward which he called the glorification.

I've held missionaries in great admiration because of the cost of their discipleship. For two years, one of my ministry positions was that of serving as the congregational coordinator of missioners which we funded with the general budget of the parish. I corresponded with them, offering encouragement and shared their stories with the mission committee and members of the parish.  In order to enter the mission field, missioners hear a message directed to them in the words of Jesus, "sell all you have, give to the poor, and follow me." To do that, they divest themselves of real estate, and adopt a modified life that fits within the community style to which they go to serve. In my short term mission experiences I've always come home deeply appreciative for all the comforts of home I temporarily left behind in order to serve in a foreign location.  Insignificant inconveniences compared to the men and women over the past 2000 years who died as a consequence of their love and desire to bring the Gospel to people who did not know the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. It's folks like David and Ann Dedrick  who listened to the call to follow faithfully to serve in a foreign land that leave me recognizing how little I have actually had to endure that might be construed as sacrificial living. I haven't experienced any form of physical suffering in the cause of building God's kingdom in the present tense. But don't think I have some great desire to endure it either. I am grateful that what I've been called to do hasn't included any form of physical torture.I'm not at all certain I could endure without denying Christ. But this was the very issue which Paul wished to address in the conditional statement.

In referencing suffering let me can suggest that Paul surely felt there is a gigantic distance between intentional evil, illness and mortality which is anchored in the temporariness of the human body, and the visitudes of life, which include natural disasters. All of these can be referred to today as sources of suffering. But, to find personal meaning in this text, and to avoid the temptation to propose what are truly abusive theological claims, it will be more wholesome if we replace the word suffering with the phrase and notion of "sacrificial living". Sacrificial living is a faithful life not centered in self but in the desires of God for all to experience wholeness of life. This is the heart of the message Paul presents to the church today. 

Frankly, the thing that troubles me is the plethora of negative theological reflection that occurs around the idea of suffering in the present age. Every time a disaster hits, or a terminal diagnosis is rendered statements are made right and left as to how God has caused or intended specific events as a source of punishment or judgment. But, if one stops and simply asks the question what could Paul have possibly wanted to convey to the early church, the people in Rome and beyond, about suffering, we clearly cannot draw out an intention to communicate some form of fierce and judgmental God. PAul was instructing and communicating an intimate and loving relationship that exists between believers, Jesus, God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Out of the conditions of his time Paul constructed a narrative of the path for Christians to achieve "glorification".

Glorification is both exceedingly direct and yet quite mysterious. Its' mystery is in not being capable of proving  with scientific certainty that something happens to our essential spirit, the "soul' after our body ceases to function. Belief and faith are what we must operate upon. Glorification is the final stage of  the Christian salvation, which includes life in heaven.

Now, because of the construction of the last verse, which includes conditional statements, we who are followers of Jesus Christ must wrestle with this. I end up asking myself, "how can I suffer with Christ" in order that I will "inherit" the promise Paul has spoken of? This very same question has been carried in the minds and hearts of an untold number of Christians, from the first century all the way to the present day. It has sparked some spiritual practices that have included forms of self-flagellation. Honestly, I don't ascribe to the idea that was the intention of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Living in each day as a vessel of the Holiness of God places a new awareness within us. It draws us into a place where, in spite of difficult circumstances followers of Jesus Christ are able to pull through each day strengthened and sustained to bring about greater good in the world. Each day of this form of living brings glory to God. It evokes praise and wonder out of others.

The take away from this passage:

Know that you are dearly loved by God as one of his own children. Then, in response, glorify your Father in Heaven through  your daily life of self-sacrificial living so that you may see, at the end of your life, your own glorification, which is life eternal in heaven.

Tomorrow is Trinity Sunday. You can find the texts for that and the entire quarter here

^^ Adoption is a sticky topic.  The statistics and the process for present day adoptions could distract us from the real message being delivered by Paul through all ages.