Archive for January, 2011

Change Brew

Posted in Uncategorized on January 31, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

This week’s theme for Religious Life centers on coffee. By that, I mean to say that we are not so much concerned about the commodity but about how coffee may become a foil for a much deeper conversation. This focus on coffee prompts two temporary changes both for the iChapel and for chapel itself.

First, this week’s iChapel comes in the form of a video,

Please watch it at your leisure. The video will help set the appropriate tone for our reconsideration of life, work, and purpose.

In addition, we are relocating chapel to the Student Center this Wednesday. The service will be like a coffee house. We will serve (free) coffee, and an acoustic Christian artist—Tom Conlon—will perform,

http://www.myspace.com/tomconlonmusic.

So, watch the video, visit Tom’s MySpace page, bring your favorite mug to chapel on Wednesday, and have a great start to your week.

A History of Change: The Unexpected Story

Posted in Uncategorized on January 24, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

“Only God can use crooked sticks to draw a straight line.” This oft-quoted line reminds us of a truth-claim from our faith. That truth insists that God is less concerned about finding the perfect person to accomplish a task. Rather, God is first concerned to find willing participants whom God will use to make the perfect happen. A common perfect thread woven through imperfect people embroiders an image of promise on the tapestry that is God’s story for us. A quick glace over the narrative of God’s people confirms this precept, establishing a poignant pattern.

Consider the story of Abraham and Sarah. Not only are they in the wrong place, they are the wrong age to become the new father and mother of a yet-to-be-born nation. Or, how about Jacob? Jacob was the second-born, trickster who deceives his brother and father, conspires with his mother, runs away from home, is conned by his father-in-law, only to return home hoping a wave of gifts will appease his brother’s presumed anger. On the other hand, let us take Joseph: the less-than-humble younger son of Jacob who finds himself in the bottom of a pit only to rise to summit of Egyptian politics. Or, how about David: the youngest son of an obscure shepherd in an out-of-the-way town who becomes king only to slip ingloriously from the pedestal of propriety. Or what about the leadership offered by women like Deborah in a time when women were the last you would expect to find guiding a nation; or the faithfulness of a woman from outside the faith named Ruth that became the grandmother of a king; or the unlikely heroine of Israel named Rahab who was both prostitute and improbable friend; or a young girl named Mary who risked saying “yes” to God when saying “no” made much more sense? This does not even take into account the dubious characters written into this story like Thomas the doubter, Peter the impetuous, Judas the betrayer, or Paul the persecutor. Clearly, this represents more than just a single thread but a broad pattern making a defining image.

In addition, this image of perfection through the imperfect is not isolated but extends across time and space. More than once and closer to home, God uses a seemingly imperfect choice to accomplish a larger purpose. Consider the failure of a young minister—John Wesley—whose disgrace in Georgia became the foundation for success in England . . . and eventually Georgia, too. What about the selection of a small, obscure place, isolated from influence and prospects but imbedded in providence and possibility that grew when growth was difficult and flourished despite unreasonable odds?

For more than one hundred years, Young Harris College has emerged as a place where God’s unexpected story is not just told but woven directly into that larger image of God’s perfecting imperfection. Probably not the most reasonable location to start a new educational institution in 1886, this valley has become an inspiring success for generations of students because of hard work, good guidance, and the abiding presence of a God committed to greater things, greater than we might sensibly imagine. One of those greater things is faith that our work and mission are greater than we are and serve a larger purpose than simply instilling knowledge where knowledge had not been before. As a college of the church, YHC has been and remains committed to nurturing the soul and serving the world. As long as we remain focused on those enduring principles of knowledge joined to vital piety, our College will remain tightly woven to providence’s fabric, providing the perfecting grace that lead lives in service to God’s kingdom. Join us this week at our chapel service as we recount those first 125 years and the lively and dynamic faith nurtured through this place and look toward the future as we struggle to grasp the tread of our own perfecting story that will be embroidered onto the our small part of the tapestry of faith still unfinished, requiring our lives’ threads to complete.

March for Change

Posted in Uncategorized on January 18, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

The steps of a man are established by the LORD, when he delights in his way . . . . (Ps. 37:23)

The energy stored in an object is called potential energy. This is the concept in physics that something might happen to or with that object. Like a spring compressed, the energy used to compress it—once the spring has been fully squeezed—is transferred to the spring and stored inside the spring waiting to be released. The release of that stored energy is called kinetic energy. When the compressed spring is loosed, the energy is restored from a passive to an active state. Several interesting theological observations lie imbedded in my rather rudimentary recollection of high school physics.

First, the Latin root for “potential” is potentia, meaning “power.” Second, the Greek root for “kinetic” is kinesis, meaning “motion.” In other words, in both instances action, change is assumed. In the first instance, change is coiled in the spring. The law of conservation of energy does not allow the energy used to compress the spring to dissipate. Rather, that energy is transferred to the spring itself and stored throughout the object, awaiting liberation. Similarly, the reality of change is static awaiting its opportunity to erupt. Potential has a real, tangible power. In the second, change is realized; motion is actual. Our spring bursts to life, racing from compression to extension, from what might be to what is. The change that was thought lost was only dormant, awakened to life. That is the third observation. The conversion of energy from potential to kinetic, the transformation of change from stored to sprung requires some catalyst.

Catalysts come in many forms and at many times, but in the case of our spring, they result in the same effect, i.e., the energy of change—often thought absent or destroyed—is made manifest, is incarnated in the objects now in motion.
Metaphorical springs are coiled all around us, awaiting release, longing for their catalyst to come.

Prophets often provoke change; their words recorded in both the Old and New Testaments echo this potential for change, often acting as the catalyst itself. Their words take dormant ideas and “enflesh” those ideas in the fervor and gesticulations of faithful servants of God, actively speaking latent truths before recalcitrant Powers. Their bodies become the incarnation of God’s liberating ideas for change as the prophet places himself or herself between the Powers and the people. This “enfleshing” of God’s words of liberation and change in our lives is the proper outcome for a life of faith.

Remember the words from the prophet Micah. He said:

‘With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)

Here, Micah is not dismissing worship. Rather, the prophet is reminding us that true worship begins in God’s presence at prayer but is realized in our active concern for those who are equally connected to God and us, i.e., our neighbors. We cannot have true worship if we neglect to live and enact, embody justice and kindness, particularly for those disempowered to do so on their own.

It is this active incarnation of God’s energy for change that imbues Abraham Heschel’s memory of his time with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965. He recalled, “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” Certain of the connection between faith and faithful living, between the potential energy of prayer and the kinetic energy of protest, Rabbi Heschel found a natural ally in King. Their common conviction that a faith embodied and lived is primary and the most authentic expression of faith united their mutual efforts and motivated their actions. That common action found particular expression when hands were clasped and feet hit the pavement. As an exercise in interfaith activism and the manifestation of a firm belief that the God of scripture was the same God opting for the disenfranchised, Heschel and King joined in a series of marches from Selma to Montgomery to promote equal access to the voting booth as a way of affirming the more general principle of the equality of all who are created in God’s image.

For King and others who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, the catalyst that sprung them to life was the hope for equality, for liberation, for recognition of their common creation in the image of God and their common destiny in the Beloved Community, i.e., the Kingdom of God. Such marching is the very essence of the incarnation because the incarnation was God’s effort to take the potential of communion stored in creation and convert that potentiality into actuality in the lives of men and women. The incarnation is a reminder that our God is an interventionist, agitating, active, kinetic God. And, as God’s people, so, too, are we. That means our faith must be a faith of transformative movement from what might be one day to what must be today. Such a journey of incarnated, kinetic faith requires taking sometimes small and other times grand steps.

Taking steps implies traveling, moving somewhere. Sometimes that movement is carefree and aimless. Sometimes it is misdirected. Sometimes it is imbued with such purpose its impulse can only have originated out of a Divine will straining toward something greater, more significant than we might ever have imagined when first begun. This kind of journey of Divine, transformative movement is captured in the above passage from Psalm 37.

There, the Psalmist assumes a Divine “establishment,” a potential for how things might be. Moreover, the Psalmist crafts a litany of complaints and affirmations, complaining of injustices that seem to dominate the world and affirming certitude in God’s inexorable will toward fairness and righteousness. By placing these two notions side-by-side, the writer both vents and hopes, venting against the obvious and hoping in what will, must certainly replace what is daily known. The catch for us is discovering what our catalyst might be. What will spring us from inaction to action, from sedation to consciousness, from potential to kinetic? What will our march of faith be? Where will we convert our stored energy for change and “enflesh” it with our lives of faith, representing God and the masses before the Powers that be?

May we keep our eyes open and our legs ready. Legs that can pray are still needed, today.

Year of Change

Posted in Uncategorized on January 10, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will sosei his people from their sins.’ (Matthew 1:21)

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ (Luke 4:18-19)

Yesterday, as part of the liturgical calendar, we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus. That celebration immediately follows the conclusion of the Christmas season and marks the transition of the church’s focus away from God’s arrival to God’s—inherently allied—works. More than just about gifts exchanged and a baby’s birth, Christmas is primarily a declaration of God’s unique effort to unite with humanity and the rest of creation through becoming one with us. The passage from Matthew’s gospel cited above alludes to this divine effort at communion with creation. Couched in the name given to the baby that is God’s incarnated-self, “Jesus” is as much a name as it is a descriptor. The name “Jesus” means “God saves.” Importantly, the Greek word in the original text we translate “save”–sosei—more regularly is translated “heal.” We still have this healing connotation of “salvation” imbedded in the toast “salud,” meaning “good health,” and in the notion of a “salve,” as a healing balm.

So what needs healing?

God’s incarnation and the name given at the incarnation discloses the nature of the healing, i.e., setting the broken connection between Creator and creation and restoring creation to itself. In other words, there is something inherent to the incarnation that assumes a healing is needed and that this healing will be actualized through God’s becoming flesh. However, assigning this name leads us to ask, what saving/healing is needed? In the text itself, the salvation brought is said to be “from their sins.” Yet, we cannot move too quickly to assume that we know what it means to save from “their sins.” Here, the Greek text uses the term harmartia. Harmartia is a general term for sin, meaning “to miss the mark.” More specifically, though, harmartia is a kind of error that negatively affects relationships. In other words, the kind of sin we are concerned about, here, are those practices that directly harm relationships.

Building on this concept of relational healing, the subtle ordering of the liturgical calendar supplies an additional nuance to the nature of this relational healing. The quick succession between the concluding celebrations of Jesus’ incarnation and the inaugurating of his ministry with his baptism implies a strong connection between the incarnation and Jesus’ ministry. The very first words of Jesus’ ministry shortly follow his baptism follow in Luke’s Gospel. Returning from his temptations in the wilderness, Jesus enters the synagogue for his initial public declaration of his ministry. Such an initial declaration carries additional weight because it proposes to shape all that follows.

So, what text does Jesus choose to read that will inform and forms his “saving” ministry?

The text Jesus uses as his ministry’s “mission statement” is from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus reads:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ (Luke 4:18-19)

The choice of this particular text from the prophet is highly significant both to explain the character of Jesus’ ministry and the notion of the kind of salvation /healing Jesus purports to offer.

Within the text Jesus read is a phrase that might seem innocuous to us, but the Jews sitting in the synagogue with Jesus would have heard it very differently. That collection of words, “the year of the Lord’s favor,” was not random but significant for Jews. The phrase did not simply refer to a time that God would act but it referred to an entire tradition of thought that had its own incarnational character imbedded within it.

The phrase “the year of the Lord’s favor” was a direct reference to the year of God’s Jubilee. The Jubilee was a tradition originating from Leviticus where the entirety of Israel’s existence was meant to manifest God’s divine character and their worshipful nature within their calendar. Just as God was thought to have rested on the seventh day and how Israel’s life was designed to reflect that weekly rest as an allusion to their alignment with God’s will, the weekly Sabbath was extended into every aspect of Israel’s corporate life as part of a tradition of the “year of the Lord’s favor.” In addition and more specifically, that sabbatical rest was institutionalized in Israel’s economic, political, and social existence with the celebration of the Jubilee. Recorded in Leviticus 25, Israel was commanded to allow all land to rest, debts to be forgiven, slaves to be freed every seventh year. Then, following the seventh seventh year, e.g., on the fiftieth year, a great Jubilee would be declared.

This Great Jubilee “Year of the Lord’s Favor” is inherently an incarnational idea because it takes an abstract theological concept, e.g., that God rested, and converts it to a practical reality! The Jubilee takes the past—how things were originally made—and the future—how things are intended to become—and joins them with the present. The Jubilee was the incarnation of God’s intentionality for all of creation. Jesus’ choice of the Jubilee as the foundation for his ministry links several latent ideas in the minds of the Jews. This reading binds together the idea that God’s character is meant to be taken from the abstract and placed into the concrete reality of our lives; it unites the idea that all of creation is to benefit from God’s transformative reality; it merges the spiritual with the practical; and, with the idea of salvation, it expands the concept to include not just our souls but our world, our politics, our economic, our societies, our whole existence; salvation becomes essential a relational category of restoration rather than an absolute abstract or idea because the Jubilee was meant to restore people to write relationships with each other and their world in practical, authentic ways.

At the beginning of another year as we conclude our celebrations of the incarnation and transition to a year of faithful ministry, may our prayer be that this truly becomes a “year of the Lord’s favor” in our lives. That means that we must come to understand the importance of taking our need to be relationally restored seriously, to recognize that God has already taken the first step to make this possible, and, most importantly, to understand the connection between our personal restoration and God’s desire that we actively manifest that healing in of all our material reality, i.e., in our relationships, our societies, our politics, our policies, our economics, our everything. Now, that is what I call a difficult New Year’s resolution to keep, but one well worth the try!

Happy New Year!