Keep Moving Forward

Posted in Uncategorized on February 23, 2015 by yhcreligiouslife

Moving ForwardIn those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

—Mark 1:9-15

Jesus has a job to do.  According to Stanley Hauerwas’ interpretation of Jesus’ journey into the wilderness immediately following Jesus’ baptism by John, we get a glimpse as to the unique nature of the job Jesus is about to undertake.  As prompted by the above Lenten reading from Mark’s gospel, we might remember the threefold temptation Jesus endures, there, in the wilderness on his 40-day job interview.  Jesus is asked to turn rocks into bread to satisfy his hunger, to throw himself from the temple to be rescued by God, and to worship Satan in exchange for ruling the world.  And, following each temptation, Jesus successfully resists.

A Christian theologian and ethicist, Hauerwas reads this text as not just a way of demonstrating Jesus’ fidelity to and clarity for his mission and work.  Hauerwas sees in Jesus’ resistance a sophisticated literary presentation by the gospel writer, outlining the vocational character of Jesus’ work.

In resisting the temptation to speak rocks into bread, Jesus demonstrates that the nourishing power imbedding in speaking the word of God is not to be self-serving but to feed the powerful the truth of their abuses and to feed the oppressed with the hope of liberation.  In resisting the temptation to throw himself from the temple, Jesus acknowledges that his mediation of the Divine to the human is not to link himself to God but to serve as a conduit that connects God and humanity to each other.  In resisting the temptation to worship Satan in exchange for ruling the world, Jesus recognizes that the kingdom he is to rule is not an inheritance of power.  Rather, his ruling is but part of an entirely new kingdom yet to be made visible, a kingdom characterized not by present standards but by radically different conceptualizations of power.  In other words, Jesus’ job is uniquely defined by the characteristics of prophecy, priesthood, and kingship.  He is well suited for his soon-to-be-assumed profession.

Our word “profession” originates with a Latin word professus, meaning “to declare publicly.” Thus, someone’s profession is what one claims she is committed to doing.  And, the degree to which one is successful in her profession may be measured against the degree to which she adheres to the virtues and attributes associated with that profession. For instance, a successful teacher is someone who carries out well the tasks associated with teaching, including the virtues she might require to enable learning to occur.  If a teacher is to be judged faithful to the task of teaching, she needs to be knowledgeable in her field, understand techniques of communicating information, and create a trusting relationship with students that enable challenging instruction and exacting but affirming evaluation.  As an example, if a teacher makes her students feel disliked or disrespected, then those students will not trust their teacher, preventing those students from opening themselves up for the necessary vulnerability required for new instruction, expression of personal thoughts, critical evaluation, and radical change.

For Jesus, his job requires prophecy, priestliness, and kingship.  He is professionally successful in his work to the degree to which he serves those roles and (in some respects) the degree to which he helps redefine them to accomplish his chosen tasks.

As prophet, Jesus routinely speaks truth to power, the task associated with prophets.  Recall his encounter with Nicodemus, a leader in the Sanhedrin.  Nicodemus, a leader meant to guide the Jews in the light of God, meets Jesus in the dark.  In that meeting, the light of the world found in Jesus enlightens this leader with a declaration that leading is done more through self-sacrificial service than anything else.

As a priest, Jesus regularly mediates humanity with Divinity, the role of the priest.  In his ministry, Jesus explains and bodily demonstrates that the link between God and humanity is found in their intersecting love.  Consider his many conversation with the Pharisees, love serves as the origin and nexus of life, a life defined by a love that gives more than receives, lets in more than keeps out, and expands more than contracts.

As a king, Jesus rules with power.  Yet, his rule is defined by a power that seeks not to dominate but to empower the powerless.  Jesus encourages Mary’s position as a disciple; he lifts up Zacchaeus who was thought low; and, in the end, he authorizes his followers to embody the creative—not restrictive—power exuding from a life found through rebirth in him.

While unorthodox, in Jesus we find a model for work that conforms to our standards as to what we might expect and the realization that fidelity to our work does not demand mindless inflexibility but assumes some innovation to execute our work.  Underneath Jesus’ entire ministry, a singularly important virtue seems required, a virtue we might call flexible constancy.  Flexible constancy is that capacity to remain committed to one’s task while nimble enough to adjust as needed to different circumstances.

Recognizing the importance for flexible constancy as a cardinal virtue is important as we all move toward the embodiment of our own work and, possibly more importantly, in our own faith.  To be faithful does not mean we cannot innovate, as long as our innovations keep our proper end or goal in mind.  Such fidelity to the vision of who we are called, destined, or hoping to be will ensure that we arrive at our goal and do so virtuously, faithfully.

Like Paul might have suggested to the Corinthians, the faithful life requires our ability to bob and weave, as long as we keep pressing forward toward our final goal.

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

—1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Keep moving forward.  Have a great week and see you along the way.

A Different Kind of Holy Washing

Posted in Uncategorized on February 16, 2015 by yhcreligiouslife

Ash WednesdayAs he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

John 9:1-7

Often, one of the assigned scripture readings for this season in the Christian calendar is this story of healing from John’s gospel.  In this story, we read John’s recounting an occasion when Jesus met a blind man, engaged in a rather esoteric conversation with his disciples around the connection between sin and physical capacities, and, then, healed the blind man.  This story continues with additional debates amongst others regarding sin and various impairments and a realization that Jesus is the anticipated Son of Man.  This story captures many themes that define John’s text: (1) Jesus’ famous “I am” sayings, (2) the light and darkness contrasts, and (3) Jesus’ very public ministry, a ministry that offers repeated signs indicating who Jesus is.  This very public healing and the surrounding debate concerning the nature and propriety of Jesus’ actions amongst those within and outside Jesus’ inner circle stands in stark contrast to a similar healing story that takes place in Mark’s gospel.

In the middle of Mark’s gospel, Jesus encounters another blind man.  In that story from Mark’s gospel, Jesus, also, heals a man who is blind by rubbing saliva on his eyes.  Yet, there, in Mark’s gospel, the story has a rather different tone:

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village.’

 Mark 8:22-26

Instead of performing a public healing, Mark has Jesus doing two very different tasks, directly contrasting John’s story.  First, Jesus takes the blind man away from everyone else so that Jesus’ healing might not be witnessed by others.  Second, after the healing, Jesus asks the blind man to go directly to his home, avoiding the village (and, therefore, public recognition of what Jesus just did.)

Curious!

Why would John’s story and Mark’s story differ so significantly?  Why would John assume that Jesus’ healing was meant to give evidence as to who Jesus is while Mark wants Jesus to remain obscure?  The answer seems to reveal the agenda motivating and permeating both writers’ gospels.

On the one hand, Mark is writing for a community uncertain about Jesus’ ultimate character and their perseverance with a faith in the midst of suffering and an uncertain future.  Mark wants his community to understand that knowing precisely who Jesus is will always remain somewhat mysterious, blurry.  And, that such uncertainty about Jesus and their futures and faith is a natural and expected condition for a follower of Jesus.  In other words, they are in good company, and they are experiencing faith as it is expected to be experienced.

On the other hand, John is writing from a completely different perspective, penning his text much later in the life of the early church and writing from a position evidencing more confidence and certainty as to who and what Jesus is—I mean, just look at his prologue to the gospel!  In John’s text, Jesus never obscures who he is but boldly offers sign after sign and repeatedly declares “I am this” and “I am that,” intentionally echoing the encounter with Moses and God at the burning bush and Moses asking God’s name—a name recorded as “I am who I am.”  In other words, Mark’s gospel is about a faith that requires extra work to see well, while John’s gospel is about a faith that supplies a light, i.e., Jesus, by which to see the world better: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:5)

As interesting a point as it is that both these distinct healing stories sit within the same New Testament, it is equally compelling that both these healing stories are part of the assigned texts suggested be read during the season of Lent.  What are we to do with these two texts, and why are they both offered to us during this season of the Christian year?  While there may be several answers to these questions, here, I propose a few I find useful.

As already mentioned, these gospel writers seem to want to accomplish different tasks with their stories.  Mark wants us to be comforted in our struggles, while John wants us to turn our gaze upon the world, looking at it with the eyes/light of Jesus.  This last point leads to my second thought.

Typically, Mark’s text is assigned earlier in the lectionary cycle for the season of Lent, reminding us that as we being our introspective Lenten journeys that ignorance, uncertainty, and confusion are appropriate companions.  The time spent in introspection will lead to some clarity, but clarity is rarely found on the first try.  John’s text, conversely, generally comes closer to the end of the Lenten season, as a prompt to draw our thoughts out from ourselves and toward the world, beginning a transition from looking at ourselves with greater clarity to looking at our world through the eyes/light gifted to us via our recent introspection.  As it turns out, there are many ways to look at the world, and the Lenten season is but a reminder regularly to view it through the sight of love and grace, justice and peace offered through a life of faith.

So, this week, we are challenged to view the world with a greater level of intensity through an enlightened lens of love as the Christian calendar turns another page. The Christian tradition, as it is with many religious traditions, follows a distinct calendar revealing the contours of the faith.  That calendar turns a page, moving from post-Epiphany wanderings to the intentional journey of Lent that ends at the foot of the cross on Good Friday.  That page’s turning is marked with the ashes of a Wednesday service of humble reflection.  This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the start of a 40-day journey of introspection and transformation.

In the early church, catechumens—those preparing for membership in the church—started a 40-day journey, preparing for initiation into the church through a change in habits, perspective, and faith. Echoing Jesus’ 40-days of wilderness preparation as he initiated his ministry, these soon-to-be members would prepare themselves during Lent by looking inward in personal transformation before gazing outward in world re-imagination.  If you are able, join us this week at our Ash Wednesday service, laboring to see the world through new eyes.  And, regardless, continue your own journey of faith, struggling to see the world through new eyes of love and grace each and every day.

Have a good week and see you along the way.

A True Love Story

Posted in Uncategorized on February 9, 2015 by yhcreligiouslife

love-shoesWhy do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” . . . Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Isaiah 58, selected verses

In this passage from Isaiah, the people of Judah are angry. They feel as though God is not upholding God’s part of the bargain, the covenant that God established with Moses. In Exodus 6:7, God speaks, saying, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” This covenant forms the basis for Israel’s acceptance of the Ten Commandments and its abandoning other gods. In exchange for this loyalty, Israel returns successfully to the Promised Land, becomes prosperous, and presumes divine protection.

With the dividing of the kingdom of God into northern and southern halves and the advancing oppression of the Assyrians, Judah feels their loyalty to God has not been adequately rewarded. To underscore this point, Judah reminds God in the above text, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” These people of God complain that they have humbled themselves in submissive worship and embodied that faithfulness through ritual fasting, yet Assyria’s momentum and Judah’s inhalation seem inexorable.

However, God, through Isaiah, draws a different conclusion: God’s sees Judah’s fasting but glimpses it shallowness; God knows they worship but perceives their sinfulness.

While close, Judah’s efforts to worship and embody their faith have missed the mark.

In fact, the Hebrew word—chattah (and the later Greek translation—hamartia)—in this biblical text to describe the house of Judah’s failure by Isaiah is often translated as “sin.” Yet, the word literally means “to miss the mark.”

In Hebrew, three words are typically translated into English as “sin.” Each, however, means something significantly different.  Avon, translated as “sin,” means “iniquity,” “perversity,” or “depravity”. Pesha, translated as “sin,” means “transgression,” “rebellion,” or “revolt.” Chattah, the most common word appearing in the Hebrew scriptures that is translated as “sin” means “to miss the mark.” Each of these words covers a different kind of human failure, and it is this last one—chattah—that occurs, here, in our passage. So, Isaiah specifically accuses Judah of missing the mark in their effort to fulfill their part of the divine covenant.

So, how has Judah sinned or missed the mark?

To answer this, it might prove useful first to understand what it means to say that someone or some group sins by missing the mark.

Within scripture, there is no comprehensive, systematic presentation of what sin is. Rather, the theological doctrine of sin emerges from a constellation of images, stories, and statements, creating a general view of what it means to say “sin.”  Stated positively, our understanding of sin starts not with a human failure but with a divine gift. In the first creation story, humanity is fashioned in God’s image, i.e., the imago dei. Then, the classic story of the “fall” intervenes. There, humanity oversteps its authority by assuming God’s place as the arbiter of good and evil. Both of these formative stories, while not necessarily meant to recall historic events, nevertheless offer significant theological insight. In other words, they are not meant to tell us how things got the way they are but are a reflection on how things really are.  Theologians call these kinds of stories etiological.

On the one hand, the imago dei is the notion of humanity’s being created in God’s image that sets us up not for a “fall” but for a “high” destiny. We are positioned as children of God, not God but like God in love, freedom, and community. On the other hand, the story of the fall captures a propensity just to miss the mark when given the option between two similar “trees.” Sin, in this way, seems to be about both, positively, what we might become and, negatively, what we nearly get right.

The broadest concept of sin in the Hebrew scriptures—chattah—captures this dual notion by borrowing a term from archery. An archer may faithfully and earnestly attempt to aim at a target but still miss the mark. In so doing, the archer commits chattah.

In the text from Isaiah above, Judah worshiped and fasted but for the wrong reasons, embodying the wrong outcomes. Judah’s wrong reason is that they engage in faithful practices but forsake God’s righteous ordinances, i.e., they do not care for the poor or the oppressed.  That is, they do not connect faith to life: “Yet day after day [Judah] seek[s] me [i.e., God] and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God . . . .”

Judah sees no connect between the substance of their faith practices and the living of their lives. Specifically, this is seen in Judah’s practice of fasting, a fasting that does not but should lead to their feeding the hungry: “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. . . . Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Explicitly seen in this concern for fasting, Isaiah is reminding Judah that observing God’s ordinances should directly lead to righteous behavior. If not, the behavior is shallow; it is only two-dimensional. While on the surface, it looks right. However, it lacks the depth of true faith. Ultimately, Judah’s fasting misses the mark because regulating your eating in faith should lead to feeding those who need to eat. This failure by Judah is the very essence of “original sin.”

Original sin is for some a theological doctrine designed to offer a genetic explanation for our tendency for failure. However, I do not find such ontological gymnastics helpful. Rather, as I see it, original sin is but a way to describe the two-fold character of our propensity to miss the mark.

Historically, Christian theology, according to theologian Delwin Brown, classified sin into two categories: pride and sensuality. Classically, the word “pride” was used in a way that we tend not to use it today. This classic notion of pride, as Brown describes it, “is excessive self-regard, not adhering to appropriate limits, taking for oneself more than that to which one is entitled.” Today, we might use the word “arrogance” instead. In other words and to return to the story of the fall, pride is trying to act more like the Creator than one of the creations.

Conversely, sensuality is not a disparaging of our physicality but a way of articulating an excessive focus on our physical needs and wants. In the classical sense, sensuality was associated with the lower self, our physical being. Notwithstanding some of the potential problems with such a dualistic division of the self, placing this notion in a classical context proves helpful because it explains how sensuality is but sin to another extreme. Therefore, if pride is our trying to be more than human, then sensuality describes our being less than human, failing to embrace our responsibilities and rise above our mere passions. In summary, Brown says “sin is disproportionate love, love that is out of balance—excessive or deficient love.” By saying that sin has a two-fold character, we are saying that the sin of pride is loving ourselves too much and the sin of sensuality is not loving ourselves enough.  Both miss the mark!

Such excessive or deficient love as a descriptor of sin helps explain a lot.

For Judah, in this passage from Isaiah, they sinned because they did not love their neighbors who were poor, hungry, and disadvantaged. Rather, they loved their proximity to God but not the added responsibility of that position. For some, love in the excess leads to a selfish existence, being wrapped up in oneself, oblivious of the needs of the world and the love of our God all around us. For others, love in deficit leads not just to a selfless life but to a self-obliterating existence, allowing the self to dissolve and become of no value to oneself or others.

I could go on and on, but I think the point is clear. Sin and the doctrine of sin is not so much about violating clearly delineated rules and ways of living. To the contrary, recognizing sin can be as difficult as knowing true love. Nevertheless, we are compelled to search ourselves, our friends, our families, and our communities and to identify places where love has been misdirected, misused, or is simply missing. By learning to love well, our tendency “to miss the mark” on a variety of “sins” will diminish. Moreover, in our efforts to avoid missing the mark, to avoid sin, our efforts should focus on how we might love well.  Stated positively, we should be less concerned with “targeting” what is wrong than “aiming” for what is right.

As it turns out, a conversation about sin—something seemingly unavoidably negative in nature—is really a conversation about love—something inherently positive in nature.  Love is the key. In this week that finds us racing towards Valentine’s Day and all of the saccharine sweetness that has come to define the day, may our attention not rest solely on the love surrounding candy hearts and red roses but upon a love that leads to a life more reflective of the holy and less troubled with being just wholesome, remembering that “. . . these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Love well and see you along the way.

A Wet Winter’s Day

Posted in Uncategorized on February 2, 2015 by yhcreligiouslife

On theGround Hog day that Punxsutawney Phil caught a glimpse of his shadow, “guaranteeing” six more weeks of winter, it seems seasonally appropriate to offer a winter themed iChapel. 

Flowing from deep Teutonic springs, Groundhog Day is that moment when we rely upon the mercurial disposition of a land-beaver to predict the remaining length of winter.  While playful yet puzzling, our attending to this annual ritual of watching a groundhog dart in and out of a hole speaks to our lingering and latent desire to move from darkness to light, from the old to the new, from the chill of winter to the warming beams of spring.  As today’s brooding and dripping clouds remind us, this dark season is certainly in control.  But, as Phil’s prediction attests, winter’s reign is but for a season, a season shortening by the day.

To honor winter’s presence while, also, looking forward to spring, I offer this poetic reflection on this season.  Enjoy the poem by Matthew Holloway, keep warm, and share with me a hope for the coming of spring, a hope that lengthens with each day’s gentle celestial turn.

Peace and see you along the way.

“Ode to winter”

Ode, ode to the winter
What music plays to sonnet
While a world drifts to sleep
Leaves curl and flowers bow
Birds take flight to a further place
A touch of frost creeps in
Stealing the landscape of its colour
Soon all shall be held motionless
In the still of a winters season
Now in all its changing
The beauty and perfection of life
Is left open to be witnessed
Savoured by the eye of an artist
To feed the soul, nourish the heart
This melancholy season
This changing landscape
What beauty it reveals
In an ode to the winter 

 

Watered Down Faith

Posted in Uncategorized on January 25, 2015 by yhcreligiouslife

water-cascadesNow the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:1-9)

If you ask me, we need to have a faith that is watered down.  Let me explain.

The above story from the book of Genesis recounts the tale of the world’s people building a giant tower, hoping to ascend to God, making themselves equal to God.  The story ends with the people, who were one, being scattered into many people, living in many places, speaking many languages.  Biblical scholars classify this as an etiological story.  An etiological story is a story of origin.  The story is not meant to convey historical events but is one crafted by a people trying to explain a phenomenon they readily recognized, i.e., that there are many people in many places who speak many languages.  Why do the biblical writers feel the need to craft a story accounting for many cultures and languages?  The answer might be found in its placement within the biblical text and it function within the larger narrative of Israel’s understanding of God’ restorative work in the world.

First, it is interesting to note where the Tower story falls within the Genesis narrative.  It is no accident that the Tower story falls immediately between the stories of the flood and the call of Abram and Sari.  With the ending of the flood story, we have an accounting of prehistory that assumes a single collection of people, a small remnant descendent from Noah’s children.  The tellers of the Noah story were well aware that their audience would recognize that there were many nations and languages all around them.  This caused a significant problem:  How could they have just heard a story about one family surviving a flood yet regularly observe a diversity of people and languages?  The solution was the Tower story.  The Tower story helps to explain both how it happened, i.e., the proliferation of nations and languages, and why it happened, i.e., simple hubris.

Second, it is important to see that the story rests not just after the flood narrative but, also, immediately before the call of Abram and Sari.  The story of Abram and Sari begins with their living in Ur and responding to a call from God that leads to their forming a great nation, one people in covenant with God.  Yet, that people’s existence is not solely to be in communion with God.  Rather, Israel exists for a larger purpose.  We find that purpose in Genesis 12:1-3.  That passage reads:  “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

Interestingly, the text says, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  In other words, through the people called Israel, God is seeking not to bless just Israel but to bless everyone through an illustrative people who demonstrate that contact with God is not done out of hubris but out of humility, not out of assuming God’s place at the center but as God’s invited companions at this divine center.  In this way, the Tower of Babel story acts as the fulcrum, balancing the flood story with the Abram and Sari story.  Without the Tower story, we have both a logical hole in the narrative and a dissonance between what is told in the flood narrative with what is observed every day.

The entirety of the story of salvation is repeated in this observed rhythm of divine oneness, divine replacement, divine scattering, and divine return.  Think of the Garden of Eden story.  In that story, humanity is made in communion with God, humanity seeks to replace God as the arbiters of good and evil, humanity is cast out of the garden, and, yet, God makes for humans clothes to care for them.  The repetition of this rhythm in what I will call “The Flood-Tower-Call Trilogy” is important because it sets the stage for the whole salvation narrative being played-out across the remaining pages of the Hebrew Scriptures and into the New Testament.

If the pattern is oneness, followed by replacement, followed by scattering, and culminating in return, then the call of Abram and Sari begins a long-drawn-out account of humanity’s return from the many to the one:  one with God, one with each other, and one with all creation.  If the creation story is bookended by God making, first, the heavens and the earth and, then, the clothes for Adam and Eve, the story of salvation finds its bookends upon a tower and in an upper room.

If the Tower of Babel story begins with one, water-made people, i.e., those left after the flood, who eventually are scattered to the ends of the earth, then the Pentecost story concludes the narrative with many people drawn in from the ends of the earth, becoming one, water-made people, i.e., through the waters of baptism.  Consider the inverted parallels of the stories:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. . . .  Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. . . . those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2, selected verses)

In the Tower story, it begins with the receding of water.  In the Pentecost story, it begins with the arrival of fire.  In the Tower story, the people are one.  In the Pentecost story, the people are many.  In the Tower story, the people speak one language.  In the Pentecost story, the people speak many languages.  In the Tower story, the people ascend the tower out of pride and hubris.  In the Pentecost story, the people ascend to the upper room out of cowardice and uncertainty.  In the Tower story, floodwater is replaced by judgmental fire, as God descends out of wrath.  In the Pentecost story, fire is replaced by water, as God descends out of mercy and covers them with the waters of baptism.

This reversal of the division at Babel is central to the story of salvation because it dramatically recalls God’s desire is unity, a unity that inspires service not a unity torn apart by self-service.  It seems no accident that the Pentecost narrative ends as it does with the members of this new community holding all things in common, selling what they have, and distributing the proceeds to the poor.  The outgrowth of communion with God, the story intimates, is communion with each other and with one’s neighbors, especially those neighbors in need.

In a world defined by division as much as by unity and by self-advancement as much by service to others, remember these two scriptural stories.  Allow the stories to shape our lives, binding us together in mutual service and love.  A life defined by unity and service, that is what it means to have a watered down faith.

Have a great week and see you along the way.

Freed (To)

Posted in Uncategorized on January 20, 2015 by yhcreligiouslife

FreedAfterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.”

—Exodus 5:1

The situation had gotten desperate.  It just was not working out and was time to part company.  This passage from the book of Exodus records that moment when God issues Moses and Aaron a message on behalf of Israel to be delivered to the Pharaoh, representing Egypt.   Israel and Egypt are breaking up.  Essentially, Israel is saying to Egypt:  “It’s not me; it’s you.”

How did we get to this breaking point?

As the story goes, Israel, through Joseph—he of the multicolored coat, had been invited to live amongst the Egyptians to survive a drought and subsequent famine.  After a long while, Israel settled in to living in Egypt, and Egypt found itself with a new Pharaoh who “did not remember Joseph,” a euphemism for the Egyptian’s forgetting how helpful Joseph had been and, therefore, ceased to appreciate the Israelites’ beneficial presence.  So, long-story-short, Israel goes from being an invited guest to being a captive people, serving as slaves subject to the Pharaoh’s whims.  Concerned that the Israelites are growing too numerous, the Pharaoh has all of the baby boys thrown into the Nile.  Being clever and inverting the will of the most powerful in the simplest of ways, Moses’ mother places him in a basket and uses the Nile to be his river of life rather than his death.

Continuing the irony, Moses floats to the Pharaoh’s house, is taken in by the Pharaoh’s daughter, raised by Moses’ own mother as his nursemaid, and becomes a great leader in Egypt, next only to the Pharaoh.  Then, seeing the persecution of the Israelites under the harsh rule of the Egyptians, Moses strikes an Egyptian taskmaster, killing him.  Moses flees into the wilderness, meets Jethro and his family, gets married, talks to a bush, discovers God, and finds himself returning with divine demands to confront the very people who had banished him years before.

That’s about it.  Yet, as it always is with scripture, there is much more to the story.

Here, I am particularly interested in what Moses is about to say to the Pharaoh.  What I find most remarkable in the divine demand that Moses carries to the Pharaoh is not the first part of the demand but the purposefulness couched with the whole phrase. It is that first portion of the demand that garners most of our attention.  And, for good reason, it is a singularly momentous event with an appropriately powerful declaration.  Moses does tell the Pharaoh to “let my people go.”  That phrase is of great import.  In fact, the very words used there become the same words used in the New Testament to send the early Christians out into the world.  The original Hebrew phrase is translated into the Greek word from which we get our notion of “apostles” or “sent people.”  And, this notion of sending is highly important.  In other words, the idea imbedded in this phrase from Moses of “letting God’s people go” is as much about a releasing as it is about a sending, a sending with a purpose.  The purposefulness comes from the second half of Moses’ statement.

Note that in the second half of Moses’ message to the Pharaoh that the Israelites are sent with a purpose, and that purpose is to serve or worship God.  This means that at the heart of the liberation that is demanded through these words is a specific kind of liberation.  Israel is not so much being “liberated from” something as it is being “liberated for” something.  Rather than because of something done to them, the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery was more about liberation to be free to do something significant.  Israel’s liberation is forward-looking more than it is rear-looking; it is empowering to do rather than freeing from what was done.

Let us consider the dynamism of this notion that the liberation demanded by God for God’s people is about a freedom to press into the future with a divine momentum of purposeful opportunity to serve God in a new way, in a new place.  This kind of liberation is a freeing us from our pasts and the weight with which our pasts might burden us, an unshackling from guilt, from shame, from frustration, from self-loathing, from self-destruction, from what we have done, and from what others have done to us or in our name.  And, now untethered, we become free to act in new ways, purposefully sent, not aimlessly wandering.

Remember, Israel enters the wilderness following their liberation, but they do not wander without direction.  Israel heads toward the Promised Land, learning to serve their God and assume the character of their God and that God’s newly forming kingdom in the process.

It is this notion of purposeful liberation that is most striking to me.  I am particularly reminded of that demand to embrace a freedom imbued with a sense of purposeful service and divine possibility as I type these words for the week that we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  King’s strive toward liberation was always a labor of purpose.  That purpose was the embodiment of the Beloved Community.  For King, the Beloved Community is just another way of saying the Kingdom of God or, like the Israelites discovered, to pursue the Promised Land.

In 1957, King summarized his concept of that kingdom and the character of the kingdom by saying that:

the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all [people]. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of [people]. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.

King’s vision of the Beloved Community derives directly from the notion of purposeful sending, meaningful liberation imbedded in the demand delivered by Moses to Pharaoh.  The liberation wrought by God is not just liberation from our past nor an aimless future but a freedom to serve and to love and to sacrifice that we might create a global community more in keeping with God’s vision for the world than the kinds of political and social systems we humans seem prone to produce.  Regardless of our faith background, every time we choose forgiveness rather than revenge, every time we choose love instead of hate, every time we choose grace rather than “justice,” every time we realize that success is a tabulation of generosity not accumulation of materials, every time we welcome more and exclude less, every time we do these unexpected things God’s kingdom becomes more actual, the Promised Land that much closer.

Move with joy and with purpose this week and take care where you step because each step towards that beloved kingdom is a journey on holy ground.

Have a great week and see you along the way.

iResolve

Posted in Uncategorized on January 12, 2015 by yhcreligiouslife

connectI am no longer my own but yours.  Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing: I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours.

–A prayer from the Wesley Covenant Service

From top songs of the year to most important newsmakers or influential citizens to efforts at identifying the year’s best athletes, recording artists, or actors, it is virtually impossible to avoid lists and discussions attempting to assess and qualify the past year.  Equally, once the New Year has begun newscasts and newspapers, sermons and state governments not only review the past year but also imagine the possibilities for the year now underway.  Often, these imagined possibilities include a cataloging of resolutions.

Among the countless promises, we pledge to lose weight, to save more, to spend more time with our families, to volunteer, or to finish those project perpetually left undone.  Whatever the items crowding our personal and corporate “to do” lists, the start of a new year seems an appropriate time to construct such hopeful catalogues.  Much like us, John Wesley—one of the founders of the Methodist movement—was no different. 

However, more than generally assessing what we did last year and what we must do in the year begun, Wesley was specifically interested in encouraging the members of his Methodist societies to identify those intentional actions done in the previous year that moved his people toward perfection—i.e., toward loving like God would love—and in fostering an environment where members would find such a pursuit of perfection successful in the year just begun.  One means Wesley contrived to facilitate this pursuit was the Covenant Service.  

This idea of Covenant was basic to Wesley’s understanding of Christian discipleship. He saw the relationship with God in Covenant as being like a marriage between human beings (both as a community and as individuals) on the one side and God in Christ on the other.  His original Covenant Prayer involved taking Christ as “my Head and Husband, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for all times and conditions, to love, honour and obey thee before all others, and this to the death.”  Wesley recognized that people needed not simply to accept but also to grow in relationship with God.  He therefore emphasized that God’s grace and love constantly prompts and seeks to transform us, and so we should continually seek and pray to grow in holiness and love.  Importantly, the Covenant is not a contract in which God and human beings agree to provide particular goods and services to each other.  It is not something that we have to do to create a relationship with God. God has freely and graciously already made it possible.  Rather, the Covenant is the means of grace by which we accept the relationship and then seek to sustain it.

Since, covenant is about connecting and choosing intentional acts that maintain that connection, the Covenant Service is recognition that God regularly chooses us.  In light of this recognition, it is no accident that Wesley referred to the societies as the “Connexion.”  The Connexion served as a material embodiment of our intended destiny to share life with God, each other, and all of creation. 

This week, as we begin another calendar year together at Young Harris College, the need to remind us of our shared life and to affirm that shared life could not be greater.

In a world seemingly defined by seemingly constant war, inexplicable acts of terror, enduring economic strains, and crippling personal difficulties, we might be inclined to try to manage solely in the solitude of our own hearts, struggling alone with questions, doubts, concerns, and potential solutions.  The timeliness of the Covenant Service serves as a counterweight to the inclination to retreat from community into ourselves when faced with such a complex world.  Created to share life with each other, life shared must be relied upon at this and other moments.  And, despite what might appear evidence to the contrary, everyday-life’s separating energy is not the ultimate force around us.  Rather, the bonding power of God—so Wesley wanted to remind us—resists all straining, dividing powers, holding us to God and to each other.

This week, begin the new semester and New Year mindful of love’s enduring and connecting quality.

Have a great week and see you along the way.

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