Archive for January, 2015

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.