Archive for February, 2014

(re)Imagining Requirements

Posted in Uncategorized on February 24, 2014 by yhcreligiouslife

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jakjSwFioVg

“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? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8He 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

This past weekend, Young Harris College’s Campus Activities Board and Inter-Religious Council co-sponsored the college’s first-ever 30Hour Famine event. This event was created by WorldVision to help students gain an understanding of what it is like to go without food and to create bonds and memories while serving others. The 30Hour Famine began this past Friday at noon with a voluntary fast by the nearly 30 students who chose to participate.  The experience ended on Saturday at 6pm with a shared meal.  Before explaining the fast, understanding why a fast is important proves a good place to start.

According to World Vision, hunger persists around the world, on every continent and in every country.  In their estimation, more than 870 million people go to bed each night hungry.  Eight hundred and seventy million represents about 12% of the people who share the planet with us.  The world’s hungry include both those who suffer from starvation and those who suffer from malnutrition.  While related, starvation and malnutrition are different.  Starvation is the lack of food entirely.  Malnutrition results from not ingesting the right nutrients.  Starvation leads to death.  Malnutrition may lead to death and will certainly lead to the onset of many crippling and life-threatening diseases.  In the United States, nearly one in every five children lives in poverty, many of whom suffer from chronic hunger, too.

When some of our students recently learned of these issues around world hunger, they determined to do something about it.  Their first step was to raise awareness on campus about hunger’s persisting as an international, domestic, and local issue.  The 30Hour Famine was their creative effort to bring the issue of hunger into the center of our campus’ gaze.

On Friday, 30 students agreed to begin a fast as a way to experience—in a small way—what others experience every day.  To help pass the time and endure the pangs of hunger, students gathered on Friday night in the Student Center to watch movies and play games.  Saturday morning, they met in front of the chapel, carpooling to Ledford’s Chapel UMC in Hayesville to volunteer with Matthew’s Ministry, a local effort by several religious communities to fight poverty in the surrounding counties through the distribution of food and other essential goods.  After volunteering on Saturday morning, students took naps, already feeling the life-impacting effects of not having enough to eat.  Later in the afternoon, students finished their time together bowling in Blairsville and, then, sharing a meal in the Student Center.

These students’ weekend evidenced the increasing consciousness amongst our student body as to some vital and challenging issues in our world and that the ability to make a positive impact does not require tackling the whole issue at once but that the journey towards a solution begins with an initial step, possibly started one weekend in February.  As it turns out, faithfulness includes imagining new ways to live and engage the world through transformative love, as much if not more than believing the right things and offering the assumed necessary confessions.

Have a great week and see you along the way.

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

—Amos 5:24

(re)Imagine Life

Posted in Uncategorized on February 17, 2014 by yhcreligiouslife

burning bush

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.

 —Exodus 3:1-2

Recently, I heard that the Georgia Lottery Mega Millions jackpot had surpassed the $400 million mark, a threshold sufficient to whip-up media attention and our personal appetites for easy money and the anticipated leisure such winnings might secure.  Setting aside for a moment debates around the virtues of a lottery and participating in it, such a sum of money sitting out there waiting to find a home in some welcoming wallet sets a mind to thinking, particularly my find.  This leads me to ask what I would do with that kind of money.

Before we answer such an existential question, let’s get practical.  How much would I really win?

After taxes, the number seems to be in the range of $216 million, as a lump sum. I’d take it as a lump sum.  (Always take the lump sum!)  OK, now that I have $216 million burning a hole in my now necessarily oversized pockets, what do I do next?  What would I do with that kind of money?  We are back to our earlier existential thought.  And, it is this thought and the bubbling of possible answers that makes life interesting and brings back into focus the above text from Moses’ life.

What this hypothetical question and the passage from Exodus have in common is an interesting intersection of a present filled will unexpected possibility and a future just a step or two away.

If you were confronted with a seemingly unexpected yet expansive tomorrow where money no longer mattered (i.e., our lottery winner) and what you are doing does not have any bearing on what you might do next (i.e., Moses’ situation), then what would you do now that your whole life is open to you in an entirely new, ever-expanding way, unexpected way?  In other words, what is your purpose in life?

There might be several answers to that question, but this text from Exodus suggests a way you might hone in on one of those answers.  There seems to be a three-step answer emerging from Moses’ story.

First, to move toward your future, you need to be present, a kind of presence to be contrasted with perfection.  So, to rephrase my statement, if you want to move toward your entirely new and ever-expanding future, you need to be present not perfect.  Often, we assume that what is needed for a particular task is a person with the perfect set of skills, interests, etc. to meet the needs specific to that task.  While it would be great to match perfectly-suited aptitudes to a perfectly-suited situation, I imagine such an alignment is elusive if not illusory.  And, from the Exodus story above, we know that such perfect alignment was not what was needed either.

To say the least, Moses’ past was complicated.  He was born to an enslaved people at an exceptionally hostile moment, set adrift in a basket as a baby, adopted into the royal household, killed a slave master, banished from his home, spent the next 40 years working as a shepherd, possessed a profound speech impediment, and was less than a spring chicken.  He was unimportant, underprepared, under-suited, overwhelmed, and over-the-hill.  Yet, this is the very person standing before a burning bush facing his future.  It seems that what God needs is not someone who is perfectly suited but someone who is willing to be present, present in the moment to pay attention to what is before him and possessing the presence of mind to say ‘yes’ when called.

This preference for the willing and present participant as opposed to the perfectly suited candidate seems to be the divine modus operandi of scripture.  Consider the dishonest Abraham, the usurping Sarah, the tricked Isaac, the deceiving Jacob, the adulterous David, the outsider Ruth, the questionable Rahab, the unwed Mary, and uncertain Joseph.  These are just a few from a long list of divinely selected yet imperfect candidates that made themselves present to the possibilities for a future that unfolded before them.

So, lesson one:  Be present and don’t wait until you are perfect or assume someone more perfect will come along to accomplish the task.  This task, this possibility, this opportunity, this present moment, this bush is yours.

The second lesson is that that possibility, that right opportunity presented to you should cause a fire that burns inside you and not be a flame that consumes you.  Note, in fact it is hard to miss, that the bush in the story does not combust.  Rather, the fire and its would-be fuel seem to coexist nicely.  That future that opens before you and the tasks that define it should not consume you or cause burn out.  This future potential that is calling you to step forward should be the kind encounter that generates a self-perpetuating passion that burns and continues to drive you forward.  It must not be the kind of encounter that seems to consume more and more of you each time, leaving less and less of you as a consequence.  Said another way, a life aligned with a heartfelt passion actually fuels you and increases your energy.  It does not diminish or destroy.

So, lesson two:  If the fire is consuming and destroying, don’t step toward it!  Only step toward those activities, those possibilities that build you up rather than use you up.

This leads to the third and final lesson learned from Moses’ bush story:  you have to go.  We must go because our passion, while found in a certain place is not limited to that place.  In fact, it is more than likely to be found “out there” somewhere awaiting our arrival.  Moses was called toward the bush to find his calling, to find his purpose but was then sent away to live into it.  Living into our passion, our purpose is not just a matter of wanting it or agreeing to it but is doing it, becoming it.  Moses is not the liberator of God’s people because he step toward a bush and said ‘yes’ when it spoke to him. That was just one step in the process.  An additional step was putting on his sandals, heading back into the desert to meet his future.  The future that unfolds before us requires our moving from where we are to where we need to be and might require some adjustments and recalibrations along the way, consider Moses’ repeated conversations with Pharaoh, his need to move quickly and to think creatively.

So, lesson three:  Go.  Go and follow and find and pursue and become and actualize and embody and transform and reform and turn the future pursued into the present manifested.   

Now, recognizing our unexpected and open future might be more easily done if it presented itself as a talking, flaming bush or a winning lottery ticket—please be a winning lottery ticket.  However, such a blatant presentation is improbable.  Our purposeful future will more likely present itself in much more subtle ways, in a suggested kind and supportive word, a surprise opportunity, an opened door, a program discovered, a trip taken.  In the meantime, what you should do is (1) be attentive and present and willing, (2) be attuned to your passions and the fires that fuels you and doesn’t burn you, and (3) be ready to go and open to a tomorrow that is just a step away.

So, keep your eyes open, your heart ready, and your sandals at hand.

Have a great week and see you along the way.

Love (re)Imagined

Posted in Uncategorized on February 10, 2014 by yhcreligiouslife

love

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? 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 58:1-7

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 their 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 the 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 Hebrews 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 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 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 our 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, sometimes overshooting the mark and other times undershooting. 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.  In other words, 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 . . . .”

Using conventional language, Judah sees no connect between what they do on Sundays with what they do Mondays. 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?”

Specifically 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 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 our 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.

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

For Judah, in the 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.  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. That is why Jesus, when asked, did not tell the Pharisee the best rules to follow to avoid sin and live righteously. Instead, Jesus focused not on the negative retributive nature of laws but upon the positive redistributive character of love as the basis for the holy life.

In this week that finds us racing towards Valentine’s Day and all of the saccharine sweetness that has come to define that 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 concerned about the wholesome, remembering that “. . . these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Every week but especially this week, love well and see you along the way.

(re)Imagine Winter

Posted in Uncategorized on February 3, 2014 by yhcreligiouslife

Winter

After a frenetic and disjointed week caused by a winter’s snow, it seems seasonally appropriate to offer a winter themed iChapel this week.  In addition to last week’s frosty interlude, several yearly events crept across our calendars over the past seven days.  Frist, Friday brought the Chinese New Year, Saturday was the celebration of Imbolc, and Sunday was marked by a ground hog’s showdown with his shadow.  While separate, these three events over the weekend share in common a peculiar marking of the calendar, symbolizing the passing of time.

The Chinese New Year is a lunar celebration commemorating the end of one year and the arrival of another.  Importantly, this is a celebration less about the progression of time, as the Chinese calendar does not traditionally mark years to accumulate them.  Rather, it is a celebration that focuses on the circular, repeating rhythms of one year’s ending to being the cycle of life, again.  Imbolc, a Celtic winter festival, signifies the midway point of winter, a pivot point between the Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox.  Similarly, Groundhog Day is that moment drawn from deep Teutonic roots, relying upon the mercurial disposition of a land-beaver to predict the remaining length of winter.  While certainly disparate, the Chinese New Year, Imbolc, and Groundhog Day share more than a weekend on our calendars.

All three signify a 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 last week’s winter weather reminds, this frosty season is certainly in control.  But, as these three festivals uplift, 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 Nikki Giovanni, 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.

“Winter”

Nikki Giovanni

once a snowflake fell

on my brow and i loved

it so much and i kissed

it and it was happy and called it’s cousins

and brothers and a web

of snow engulfed me then

i reached to love them all

and i squeezed them and they became

a spring rain and i stood perfectly

still and was a flower