Monday, January 31, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Made New

I had just finished reading Richard Rohr's daily devotion that discussed men and our resistance to change when I came to the lectionary readings for today.  I suspect that is why I heard the opening of Psalm 62 and Paul's words in Galatians the way I did, as about the need for God to change us.  That may not sound like a particularly remarkable observation, but it strikes me that religion is more often about add-ons than it is about real change.

Very often we want God to make things better for us without changing who we are in any fundamental way.  We would like to be happier, healthier, wealthier, more fulfilled, or more of something else.  But we do not want our lives turned upside down.  We do not want to become someone different from who we are now.

Perhaps Rohr is correct and this is more of a problem for men than women.  I don't really know.  I know that I like to be in control of things, and I know quite a few women who like control as well.  But if we take seriously biblical language about being made new in Christ, about the power of the Holy Spirit to empower, gift, and propel people into ministry and mission they would never have even considered on their own, then it would seem Christian faith requires letting go of control and a willingness to be changed at the most basic level of our being.

Speaking of "salvation" and of "being saved" is common among Christians, but all too often these words are understood to speak of nothing more than one's status.  Paul certainly included status before God in his understanding, but that was only the beginning for him.  He understood himself to be a totally new person, operating from totally new motivations, finding his greatest joy from giving himself, at great personal cost, to the work of sharing God's love in Jesus. 

I think that one of the great gifts our society has given us by no longer propping up religion, by no longer enforcing an ethos of "you're supposed to go to church," is a chance to rediscover the change and newness Paul experienced.  A new vitality in the faith is beginning to emerge as more and more congregations discover spiritual practices that shape them to be more Christ-like.  This new vitality is not restricted to any particular worship styles.  It is not a matter of traditional or contemporary.  It is about a desire to encounter and be transformed by the risen Christ.

When Jesus began his earthly ministry, he spoke of God's kingdom drawing near.  And he spoke frequently of that kingdom during his ministry.  While there has been an unfortunate tendency to turn kingdom into a synonym for heaven, Jesus was clearly speaking of God's rule on earth, a day when God's will is done here as it is in heaven.  And this means that where we are now cannot be where God plans for us to be.  As individuals, and as faith communities, we are working for and living by the ways of a day that is still to be. 

When congregations long for God's new day, that precludes longing for the good old days.  Longing for the old days is a depressing and life killing exercise that wishes for what is gone.  But longing for God's kingdom is a life giving pursuit that moves toward what God is still doing... which of course requires that you and I, our congregations and the world, must change.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

When we set the preaching schedule, I'm not sure I realized what "juicy" lectionary passages I was passing up by not preaching today.  Not only do we get the Beatitudes, but there is also the famous passage from Micah that asks, "And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

I think that both passages undermine some popular notions of faith.  The Micah passage speaks quite plainly against religious ritual that isn't accompanied by a changed heart.  The Beatitudes locate God's special favor in some pretty unpopular places.  And both passages challenge Christians to examine what it means to follow Jesus.

Over the years I have often heard people thank God for their "many blessings."  But rarely, if ever, are they speaking about the sort of things Jesus names on his list.  Very often, the culture determines what we think of as blessings.  In our country that means things such as a good job, a nice house, a new car, and so on.  Most Christians don't go so far as a Joel Osteen and his "God wants you to be rich" message, but we have difficulty conceiving of being "reviled and persecuted" as a blessing.

I think Jesus sees this as a blessing because he, like most prophets, has a clear sense of God's hope for the world.  Because Jesus lives in full communion with God, he longs for the world to be as God wants it, as God means it to be.  And so he is acutely aware of the tension between how things are and how they will be.  And he expects those who draw close to God through him will experience this same tension.  He expects that they will find it impossible to simply accept how things are and ask God to make it a bit easier for them.  He expects that, like him, his followers will live in ways at odds with how things are, in tune with how they will be.  And he is quite sure the world will not appreciate this.

Someone asked me the other day about how my spirituality and faith had changed over the past few years.  As I tried to answer her question, it occurred to me that the most profound change has been a partial bridging of the gap between spirituality and living the faith.  Though I don't think I ever would have articulated it this way in the past, I often thought of spirituality as an esoteric pursuit meant primarily to enhance my private faith life.  But I have begun to realize that those who do the most good in the world are more often than not those whose hearts have been bent toward God's vision for the world.  And at its core, that is what spirituality is about, about our hearts becoming one with God.  And with such hearts, it is hard to live lives that are out of sync with God.

I have to admit that as a pastor, I often spend far too much of my time trying to figure things out.  What programs will work?  What should I say in next week's sermon?  What does the Bible say about this issue of that one?  And while understanding is important, it is not the same thing as faith.  Faith is more of a heart thing, and I need to spend more time allowing God to work there, so that I can perceive more as Jesus does, and so act more as Jesus would have me act.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Seeing Things Differently

The new governor in my state has drawn some political fire for his  cabinet.  With two positions left to fill, every member is white, and opponents are warning that we could have the first all white cabinet since the early 1960s.  In his defense, the governor says that he does not pay attention to race but looks only for the best qualified individuals, and that he asked two African Americans to fill cabinets seats but was turned down.

Now regardless of how one reacts to this situation, it does point to racial divisions that persist in our country despite some hopeful pronouncements that we were entering a post-racial age.  For some reasons, we human beings are quick to notice differences and divide ourselves into groups.  Sometimes these divisions are relatively harmless, but often they form the basis of preferential treatment for some over others.  Certainly we have made tremendous strides in combating discrimination of many sorts in our country, but the tendency to highlight our divisions remains.

Someone who had read the New Testament but had never spent any time in a congregation might be surprised to learn that such divisions are often more prominent at church than in many other places in our society.  While there are many exceptions, congregations remain one of the more segregated places in America.  This despite the Apostle Paul's words, "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." 

In Paul's day, the big division was Jew and Greek, Jew and Gentile.  For Jews like Paul, this was how the world was organized.  It was simply how things were.  But when Paul encounters God's life changing love in Jesus, his world is turned upside down.  His old ways of understanding things disappear.  None of his human ways of seeing and dividing up the world work any longer, for all are one in Christ.

One of the problems of all religious institutions is a tendency for them to be domesticated by the culture they live in.  The religion is asked to bless the status quo of the culture.  This seems to be at the heart of Paul's conflict with Jewish Christianity.  Many of those first Christians presumed that the new life Jesus' resurrection ushered in still left old divisions in place.  Those others, the Gentiles, had to become Jewish first if they wanted to be Christians.  But Paul insisted that Jesus had fundamentally ended such divisions.

This may seem an odd transition, but I think that our continuing struggles with divisions of all sorts calls for a spiritual renewal.  It calls for a deepening spirituality where we go deeper into Christ, where we open ourselves more to the presence of the Spirit.  Often times people think of spirituality as a very private, personal thing with little connection to mission or social justice.  But Paul says that clothing ourselves in Christ, breathing Christ deeply into the core of our being, finding ourselves lost in God's love, is what changes us so that we see the world, and everyone in it, differently.  Only an experience of Jesus so profound that we can say our old self has died and a new one is born will allow us to live out what Paul experiences, a world where "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." 

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Welcoming Doubts

But I, O LORD, cry out to you;
  in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O LORD, why do you cast me off?
  Why do you hide your face from me?
Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
  I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
Your wrath has swept over me;
  your dread assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
     from all sides they close in on me.
You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
     my companions are in darkness.

I'm not sure that these words from Psalm 88 fit with some stereotyped notions of faith.  I know many people of deep faith who would never admit to doubts, much less allow themselves to complain to or blame God.  Doubts about God's presence and anger at God seem to many the antithesis of faith, and so many are loath to admit such "weaknesses" publicly.

I've never really known if those who tell me they never doubt are being dishonest with me or with themselves, or if they really don't know doubt as a part of their faith.  But I do think that this public face of faith as something that never doubts can be an obstacle to new people joining the faith.  When churches give the impression that faith is about being certain, that it doesn't experience doubts, questions, and times when God seems to have vanished, then they make church an uncomfortable place for those who are struggling to find God, for whom God and faith often seem a fleeting experience.

I have long been thankful for the many psalms that embrace complaint, doubt, and even anger toward God.  That Jesus voiced one of these psalms from the cross says to me that he also knew something of doubt and feeling abandoned by God.  And I think congregations that are open about their own faith struggles become much more welcoming places for others who are hoping to discover God's love in the midst of a broken world.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Wombs and Breasts

For some reason I have found myself talking with church members a lot lately about why people do or don't participate in the life of a congregation.  Some of these conversations have simply been about how the cultural landscape has changed, how the world I grew up in, where everything shut down on Sunday morning and people were "supposed" to go to church, no longer exists.  But often the conversation has made a natural progression to talking about how congregations are to connect with people around them given this changed landscape.

If people no longer come to churches out of habit or because they are expected to, then it stands to reason that they must discover something compelling about Christian faith or church participation to draw them in.  And congregations often have mission and service activities that help the community see how being in Christ makes a community and its members different and compelling.

But in my reading the last few days I have been reminded of how some traditional Christian claims can be extremely off-putting to people not reared in the faith.  I'm thinking especially about some expressions of "Christ died for you."  Often such statements are connected to the threat of eternal damnation to hell.  God must punish and condemn unless Jesus comes between us and God.

The problem with such formulations is they envision an angry, vengeful, easily offended God.  This God is out for blood, and only the substitution of Jesus' blood can placate this raging deity. 

Yet the Old Testament speaks over and over again about Yahweh's steadfast love and mercy.  In fact, the deepest character of God is sometimes stated as "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness."  And today's reading from Isaiah draws deeply from such a picture of God.  To exiles in Babylon who fear God has abandoned them, Yahweh says through the prophet, "Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you." 

I find the contrast between the prophet's description of God in terms of a mother's love and some Christians' picture of a God out for blood to be quite striking.  And I wonder if we church folks don't sometimes inadvertently give our non-church neighbors a frightening glimpse of a God they want nothing to do with.  But if God's love is so like the love of a mother, how could God be this scary?

Yesterday a colleague posted something on my facebook page that spoke to this.  It was a story  about Fred Craddock, great preacher and Professor of Preaching and New Testament, Emeritus at Candler in Atlanta.  While on sabbatical he visited a little Appalachian church one Sunday and happened upon a fire and brimstone sermon from Deuteronomy 23:2 about how no one from "an illicit union" could be admitted to God's congregation.  The preacher explained how this required sexual restraint for any child born out of wedlock would be condemned for all eternity.

At this point in the service several men in the congregation came down the aisle, picked up the pastor and his things and unceremoniously dumped him outside, telling him to leave and never come back.  As people milled around afterward, Fred Craddock asked what had happened.  When they explained that this is what they did to preachers that didn't preach the truth, Craddock reminded them that the preacher was quoting straight from the Bible.  To which they replied that even if it was in the Bible it couldn't be true. "There's not a one of us here that would do that to a tiny little baby, and we figure God's at least as Christian as we are." 

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Us and Them

I recently heard about a book I want to read.  It's entitled What's the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?  I think the title a bit misleading.  It's not about a minimalist understanding of faith but rather an attempt to separate the core of Christian faith and life from the image of Christianity that is sometimes out there in popular imagination.

Does God care about the planet, its animals and trees, or just about saving souls?  Can Christians embrace evolution?  Are Jews and others excluded from heaven?  Many who reject the faith have heard answers to such questions only through stereotyped visions of fundamentalist Christianity.  Many agnostics and even some atheists don't really have a problem with God, but with what they've heard about God from some Christians.

Questions about what God is like and what it means to be a Christian are clearly nothing new.  The controversy Paul addresses in today's verses from Galatians has to do with what is necessary to be a Christian, and Paul relates a conflict he had with Cephas, Cephas being the Aramaic version of the Greek name Peter.  Peter, one of the earliest leaders of the Church, seems to have bowed to pressure from James, brother of Jesus and head of the Church in Jerusalem.  He has withdrawn from table fellowship with those Gentile Christians who have not been circumcised, that is have not become Jewish as part of their becoming Christian.

That's hardly a pressing issue for me.  Issues over circumcision and Jewishness eventually faded away as the Church became majority.  So what issues are pressing?  What marks do I assume are necessary in order to be a Christian, and are they really necessary?  What beliefs are essential?  What ways of living are essential?  And which ones are artificial boundaries that I have drawn or simply become accustomed to that seek to confine God's grace to folks like me?

To live out a Christian faith that has any meaning, I need to know what is essential.  I need some guiding image of what it looks like to be a Christian.  But while such images are necessary, they inevitably get mixed with images from my culture, family background, political leanings, and so on.  And so there is always an "us and them" boundary comparable to the circumcision boundary that caused Peter to shun non-Jewish Christians, that prompts people of deep faith to say, "Surely God's love and grace wouldn't go there." 

And so I come back to that fundamental issue of what it means to be Christian and what sort of God I know in Jesus.  Lord, guide me into a faith, and help me lead a congregation, that knows love and grace as big as wide as that shown by Christ.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - If Only...

Do not put your trust in princes,
       in mortals, in whom there is no help.

When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
       on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
       whose hope is in the LORD their God.

Congregations sometimes lament, "If only our pastor was better at this or had more of that."  Likewise, pastors often lament, "If only there were more dedicated volunteers or leaders who would do this or that."  Sometimes these laments give birth to new hopes as a new pastor or staff member comes, a new governing board takes office, or a new person becomes chair of an important committee.

As a neophyte pastor 15 years ago, I complained to the pastor of the biggest, richest, and most impressive church in our presbytery (the regional governing body) about how hard it was to get things done, how programs rose or fell on the strength of an elder or committee chair.  He responded that it was not different for him.  He said he was "completely dependent" on the strengths and weaknesses of those in leadership positions at that time.

I don't want to make too much of his remark.  He was probably just trying to help me see that there was nothing wrong with my congregation.  He was trying to tamp down some of my unrealistic expectations.  But still, I wonder where God fits into such conversations about pastors and congregational leaders.  Where does God fit into those "If only" laments?

In today's gospel, Jesus comes to his hometown, and after a brief moment of amazement, the locals "took offense" at Jesus.  Presumably these locals are good religious folks, but they already knew Jesus and so they knew what he couldn't be the one they had been waiting for.  He couldn't be the answer to their "If only" prayers.  "And he could do no deed of power there."

It's interesting how much more "successful" Jesus is when he is outside outside of the religious establishment, beyond where he is known.  Curious that those he commissions as his disciples and emissaries are not from the pillars of the religious community.  And it makes me wonder about how I may miss the power of God at work in my very midst, simply because I am bound and blinded by my "If only" laments.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sunday Sermon video - Slaves to Freedom

Higher quality sermon videos available on YouTube.

Spiritual Hiccups - Is That Possible?

I've probably mentioned before that miracle stories often pose a challenge to me when writing sermons.  What does one say about a miracle?  Jesus healed a woman.  Jesus raised a little girl from the dead.  Of course there are interesting nuances in today's gospel story.  A woman whose illness has made her unclean and an outcast is healed by Jesus on the way to heal a religious leader's daughter.  Jesus calls this formerly unclean woman "Daughter."  She is restored to life in the community just as Jairus' daughter is restored to him.

Still, it all gets back to those miracles.  And to be honest, miracles are somewhat rare in my life.  In fact, miracles in modern American Christianity seem to be restricted to televangelists and other unsavory sorts who use their "power" to enrich themselves.  More mainline Christians like myself want little to do with the Earnest Angleys and Benny Hinns of the world.  We know what they are doing is a trick. It's not really possible.

And I think that may be where my problem with Jesus' miracles lies.  As a child of the Enlightenment and Scientific Age, I have a pretty good idea of what is and isn't possible.  And when it comes to my life, whether or not Jesus heals sick people or raises dead little girls isn't really my problem.  The bigger issue is whether or not Jesus can touch me in a way that changes me, that makes the things I think are impossible possible. 

Oh, I have some minor aches and pains that I wouldn't mind Jesus healing, but the bigger problem for me, and I think for a lot of congregations like the one I serve, is whether or not Jesus can turn us into something more than our assembled talents and abilities.  Can Jesus really call, empower, and gift us to be his living body to the world?  Are congregations any different from any other non-profits when it comes in terms of the power at work in us?  Or is that possible?

Growing up Presbyterian in the South, I sometimes snickered at the Southern Baptists I knew who insisted on some sort of "born again" experience for faith to be genuine.  I still have problems with what seems to me an overly simplistic faith formula.  But I have come to think that all of us need to have some sort of conversion experience.  If I do not experience the power of Christ at work in me, creating a person that would not have been there otherwise, I'm not sure I know anything of the faith Paul describes in today's reading from Galatians.  And my "knowledge" of what is and isn't possible may just be the thing about me that needs healing.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday Sermon audio - Slaves to Freedom

Sunday Sermon text - Slaves to Freedom

Matthew 4:12-23
Slaves to Freedom
James Sledge                                                 January 23, 2011

I once saw a not too original comic strip in the newspaper.  A teenager was angry at his parents for not letting him do something he wanted to do and so he yelled out, “I’ll be glad when I’m 18 and no one can tell me what to do!”  The final panel of the comic showed his parents doubled over in laughter.
As much as we celebrate freedom and individualism in this country, almost none of us ever reach the point where we can do whatever we want, where no one can tell us what to do.  It may be parents; it may be a teacher or professor; it may be our boss; it may be the speed limit sign backed up by an officer with a radar gun, but at various places in our lives, we either do as others say or suffer the consequences.
But that doesn’t stop us from trying.  It starts early.  Toddlers love the word “No!” Children and adults enjoy saying, “You can’t make me.”  Part of American mythology is that anyone can grow up to be president, or anything else he or she wants to be.  We know such things are not quite true, even if they are truer here than in most countries.  We know it isn’t true but we really like the idea that no one can tell us what to do, that we can simply decide, and if we try hard enough, we will make it.
Our love of personal freedom and choice means that our culture is particularly sensitive to anything that limits them.  In some countries, all children are given aptitude tests at a young age and then slotted into certain academic or vocational tracks before finishing elementary school.  But that would never fly here.
Yet despite all this, young people often ask themselves the question, “What should I do with my life?”  They may also consider what they want to do, but I think these are very different questions.  What I want to do may be purely a matter of personal choice, but what I should do speaks of something outside myself having some say in the matter.
Sometimes people go to career counseling services to help figure out what sort of thing they should do.  Some colleges offer these services to their students.  People who are thinking about changing careers sometimes use them.  And our denomination requires people who want to become pastors to be evaluated by a reputable career center.
Such career counseling usually includes lots of tests that chart personality and interests and aptitudes.  That’s based on the premise that certain traits will make some careers much more likely than others.  When I was 12, I would have loved to become a rock and roll star, but it didn’t take very many guitar lessons to convince me that would never happen.
So I’m wondering, what information would you consider in order to make a decision about what you should do with your life?  Whose voice would you listen to; what authority would you recognize as having a say in your decision? 
And we don’t need to limit this to decisions about career.  There are many questions about what we should do with our lives.  Where should I go to college?  Should I go to grad school?  Should we get married?  Should we have children?  How should we raise our children?  How should I spend my leisure time?  What sort of volunteer and community service should I do?  How should we spend our retirement?  What should we do with our estate?  The list goes on and on.
How do you answer such questions?  What resources do your bring to making such decisions?  Who gets a say in answering the question, “What should I do?”
I wonder how Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John answered that question.  How did they decide what they should do when Jesus showed up and said, “Come on, drop everything that you’re doing; leave everything behind and come with me?”  Did they even know what Jesus meant when he said they would be fishing for people?  What on earth would make them simply get up and go like that?
When Jesus begins his ministry, the very first words Matthew reports him saying, the words immediately before he calls Simon Peter and Andrew are, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  I think that a lot of people hear the word “repent” and hear a call to confess, to admit that you’re bad and need to turn from your evil ways.  But I don’t think that is what Jesus is talking about.  Jesus is saying that God’s rule, God’s new day is drawing close, and to get ready for it we will need to start living differently.  Peter and Andrew and James and John repent, not because they stop doing something that is bad or wrong, but because they go in a new direction when Jesus calls.  They hear Jesus telling them what they should do, what they must do if they are to get ready for the kingdom.
  Years ago, before I went to seminary, I recall taking part in a discussion with a group of youth at the church where I was a member.  At one point they were asked whether or not they would go overseas to some dangerous, poverty stricken country if they were absolutely certain that Jesus was calling them to do so.  I’m not sure a lot of us would have been as honest as they were.  Every single one of them said, “No.” 
I don’t recall much of the conversation that followed, but clearly these high school students understood their lives to grow out of the choices that they would make, and this choice would not fit.  It violated whatever standards, guidelines, or expectations influenced them, whatever authoritative voices they listened to.
Now in fairness to them, they had only said “No” to a hypothetical situation.  Peter, Andrew, James, and John might have said the same thing to a hypothetical question about leaving the life they knew behind and following Jesus.  But then they met him…
Our culture makes it quite easy to believe in Jesus.  Even though our society is becoming more and more secular, believing in Jesus is still something of a norm.  But I do not think our culture encourages following Jesus.  In fact, it tells us over and over that it’s a bad idea.  It might well deny us the prestige or wealth or possessions or any number of other things our culture tells us we need for a good life. 
Jesus calls people to counter-cultural lives, lives that love enemies, that take up the cross, that give themselves for the sake of others, even others who don’t deserve such a gift.  Following Jesus looks like a foolish choice, and it looked just as foolish back when Jesus called those fishermen, until they met him.
I think that a lot of us live with a significant, unresolved conflict in our lives.  On the one hand we know deep down inside that we were created for something, for a life of meaning and purpose.  There is a should for each of us, a calling.  But we have been well conditioned over and over again to think that happiness comes from being free to do whatever we want, from following our own wants and desires.  Some of us are virtually slaves to freedom, finding it impossible to trust anything other than our own wants and desires.  After all, how could anyone else direct our lives better than we can?
When Peter and Andrew and James and John meet Jesus, they drop everything.  They abandon all the plans they previously had and go with him, not knowing where it will lead.  I don’t think it was anything that they wanted, at least not until the met Jesus.  I’m not sure that following Jesus ever seems like something people would want to do at first, which is probably why so many stop at believing in Jesus.  But if we ever actually meet Jesus and hear him calling us…

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - God's Favor

Be gracious to me, O God, 
   for people trample on me;
   all day long foes oppress me;
my enemies trample on me all day long,
   for many fight against me.

O Most High, when I am afraid,
   I put my trust in you.

People routinely claim that God is on their side.  Any claim to be doing God's will is a claim on God's blessing or favor.  Any religious cause presumes God's favor.  Even politicians regularly claim to be guided by God, which of course claims God's favor on what they are doing.

One problem with this is that many of us are prone to think that God is for whatever we are for.  If we are conservative God is conservative and and if we are liberal God is liberal.  Perhaps God is one or the other, or perhaps this is simply a demonstration of the human tendency toward idolatry, to create God in our own image. 

Today's psalm seems to take for granted something frequently attested in both Old and New Testament.  God's favor is especially on those in trouble, on those who are persecuted and oppressed, on those who are poor and exploited.  Of course rarely are politicians or those who run churches and denominations persecuted, oppressed, poor, exploited, etc.  More often they are people with power, and often they will invoke God's blessing on attempts to maintain their power and influence. 

I do not intend to speak for or against anything in particular here.  Rather, I am simply wondering about the way that I and others go about claiming God's favor and blessing on our actions.  And that reminds me of something Bono said at a presidential prayer breakfast a number of years ago.  He was quoting someone - I don't know who - when he offered, "Stop asking God to bless what you're doing.  Get involved in what God is doing; because it is already blessed."

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Who Is This?

It's one of those Bible Stories I learned as a child.  Jesus and his disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee one evening when a gale arises and begins to swamp the boat.  But Jesus is asleep.  When the panicked disciples awake him, Jesus speaks to the storm and quiets it, then chastises the disciples' lack of faith.  The stunned disciples say to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

Who is this Jesus?  That's still a fundamental faith question isn't it?  And it's a question with lots of different answers.  The fact that the Bible contains four different gospels seems to suggest that no one answer is sufficient.  And I wonder if it is really necessary to decide on a single, correct answer.

There are certainly answers that I think are wrong, that cannot be reconciled with any biblical portrait of Jesus.  One popular image I find disturbing is that of the resurrected Jesus returning as an avenging warrior.  Those who embrace this image sometimes claim it is drawn from Revelation.  But a close reading of that book will find its main picture of Jesus as a lamb that is slain.

But as troubling as such distorted pictures of Jesus are, I think a more pressing problem for many of us is settling for an incomplete picture of Jesus.  For example, we can claim Jesus as Savior and simply stop there.  But of course the earliest Christian profession of faith said, "Jesus is Lord."  He is the one whose voice we are to obey, the one whose voice is to replace our own desire and will, the one who we are to give control of every facet of our lives, not just the "religious" part.

I wonder if many of us wouldn't do well to be more open to hearing additional answers to the question, Who is this Jesus?  Rather than trying to distill a single, neat answer, we might become more open to varied images and facets of Jesus revealed to us in Scripture.  Granted this will require us to become a bit more comfortable with ambiguity, but as Richard Rohr says in his devotion today, "Adult spirituality begins when you start learning to live with ambiguity, rather than insisting on absolute certitude every step of the way.  Why do you think we call it 'faith'?"

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Spiritual Maturity

In today's readings, Psalm 147 calls us to praise the LORD.  And the Isaiah reading opens with, "I am the LORD, and there is no other."  I'll have to admit that I am often so preoccupied with figuring out the faith that I can find it difficult to pause in awe and wonder, to offer praise simply for its own sake.  And I worry sometimes that this is a sign of real spiritual immaturity on my part.  Or perhaps it's just a form of spiritual narcissism.

Small children tend to think that the world revolves around them.  This is largely a logical conclusion based on their parents' doting on them and responding to their every cry.  Of course as they grow older, as they mature, they gradually discover that this was an illusion.  The world is not all that focused on them.  The world keep spinning and one day moves to the next with little regard for them.

But we never fully mature, do we.  We still measure things by how they impact us.  As we get older and wiser, it is not our only measure.  In most of us, it is tempered by concern for how things impact others, but concerns about number one often still dominate.  Most of us don't take naturally to be self-sacrificial. 

For me, this focus on self often leads to anxiety and sometimes frustration.  Am I doing a good enough job?  Do people like and respect me?  If there is difficulty at the church, is it my fault?  What should I do differently? 

Pastors have long been accused of having Messiah complexes, and to the degree this is true, I suspect it comes from thinking that a congregation revolves around us.  We're indispensable.  The sun rises and sets on us.  The congregation succeeds or fails because of us.

"I am the LORD, and there is no other."  That is true whether or not I figure out and understand the most difficult theological doctrines.  God is always God, and I am, always and finally, one of God's creatures, a vessel fashioned by the potter.  No amount of wishing or hoping will make me a different vessel than the one I am, and there is actually something rather freeing in that acknowledgment.

I frequently repeat a favorite quote from the opening of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion.  "Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves."  And I suppose that wisdom and maturity are not all that different.  True wisdom, true maturity, both frees me from my anxieties as well as freeing me to praise God.  I just wish I could mature a little faster.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - The Bible Tells Me So

We had a funeral at our church yesterday with a visitation and reception afterward.  The funeral was for a much beloved member and so there was a large crowd with many church members and many  friends from outside the church.  As I was talking to people at the reception, I struck up a conversation with a fellow who said he was Roman Catholic and asked for a my thoughts on the differences between Presbyterians and Catholics.

I mentioned that we handled Mary a bit differently and then said that we elevated Scripture over Tradition.  The Bible trumps our way of doing things, and if we come to see a practice as being at odds with Scripture, we change the practice.  For example, over time we came to see the prohibition on ordaining women as un-biblical.  We thought that the overall witness of the Bible was that God can and does call women and men to all roles in the Church, and so we changed our ordination practices.

My conversation came back to me this morning as I read today's lectionary passages.  Psalm 15 spoke of God welcoming those "who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors."  I thought of the recent talk about civility in American politics and wondered about all of us Protestants who take the Bible so seriously but who nonetheless slander with our tongues those with whom we disagree.

Then I read the passage from Ephesians and found myself even more troubled.  "But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not  even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely  out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let  there be thanksgiving.  Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any  inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God."  What troubled me is they way we Christians selectively emphasize what these verses condemn. 

Some Christians seem focused almost entirely on issues of personal purity, while others worry much more about problems of greed.  As a more "progressive" Christian, I find myself in the camp that often pushes issues of social justice and loving one's neighbor.  And people on both sides often point our fingers at each other and accuse them of perverting or distorting the faith.  It seems that Christians of all stripes are quite practices at selectively doing what the Bible says.

Now I do not for a second minimize the difficulty of interpreting Scripture and determining just what it looks like to live as the Bible tells me to live.  On many issues there are contradictory Scripture passages that require us to make judgments about the witness of the Bible as a whole.  But this process, as well as becoming mature in our faith, requires us becoming aware of the filters we use to weed out parts of Scripture we do not like.  Without doing this, we elevate our likes and preferences to a position of ultimate authority.  This not only is a classic definition of idolatry, but it makes it easy to demonize those whose likes and preferences are at odds with ours.

Perhaps this is why humility has traditionally been considered a Christian virtue, even if it seems to have fallen out of favor in our culture.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sunday Sermon video - Remembering Who We Are

Spiritual Hiccups - Earthy Faith

As the eyes of servants
   look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid
   to the hand of her mistress,

so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
   until he has mercy upon us.

Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
   for we have had more than enough of contempt.

There is something about these lines from Psalm 123 that resonate with me.  There is something plaintive about them.  There seems a longing here that both expects God to act and expresses anguish that God has not yet done so; "for we have had more than enough of contempt."

I sometimes think that the Christian faith lost something very valuable when the Church came of age amidst the Western philosophical mindset of the Greco-Roman world.  Greek philosophy conceived of divinity as steady-state perfection, and as Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, the Church conformed itself to such notions.  In the process, the more earthy and dynamic faith of biblical Judaism got displaced.  In Western thought, God could not change, could not know passion, could not, as God does frequently in the Old Testament, change God's own mind. 

I would never recommend my personal spirituality as a model for others, but one place where I have experienced some spiritual growth in recent years is in developing a more dynamic relationship with God, one where God is not quite so bound by philosophical notions of impassive perfection, one where I can be disappointed with God and God can respond to that disappointment. 

Over the years I have met very many people who are extremely loyal church folks, who never miss a Sunday and live exemplary lives, and who yet will not even entertain the notion of questioning God, much less being upset or angry with God.  Certainly this is not the way of the Hebrews nor the way of that Hebrew named Jesus.  He embraced a Jewish faith that could question God's plans, that on the cross could borrow from the psalmists and cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

We have been so acculturated to think of God in Greek philosophical terms that many of us feel it is an act of unfaithfulness to question God, to rail against God, to demand something of God.  Many recoil at the very notion of such things.  But I have found my spiritual life energized in discovering a more earthy, dynamic faith, one willing to join with Jacob in wrestling with God, and perhaps even limping away with a blessing.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Called

Today's reading from Ephesians begins, "I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called."  And the day when we remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. is perhaps an ideal time to think about what it means to be "called."  King, of course, understood his work on civil rights, justice, and peace to be a part of his Christian calling.

The Reformed/Presbyterian tradition in which I work and was raised has long emphasized the idea of vocation, which is another term for call, for something we are meant to do.  Yet even in my tradition it is common to think of faith as primarily about belief.  And I think such notions have contributed mightily to a loss of vitality in the Mainline Church.

A faith that doesn't make any difference in how I live seems terrible disconnected from life.  Such a faith implies that God isn't concerned with our life on earth.  This despite the fact that Jesus came healing and caring for people, that he taught us to pray for the day when God's will is done here on earth, that he proclaimed God rule had drawn near.  Jesus seemed remarkable interested in the shape and quality of our earthly lives. 

I don't think it an overstatement to say that any Christian faith that does not call me to live in certain ways is a distortion of faith.  Any Christian faith that does not manifest itself in the day to day is a distortion of faith.

I was just a young boy when Dr. King was assassinated, and so I don't have many vivid memories of his life.  But I do recall hearing adults I knew criticize his actions.  These adults were all church folk, and some of them were sympathetic to his goals.  But they couldn't get past the fact that he seemed to be "a troublemaker." This, of course, is one of the nicer things they said about Jesus.

The idea that faith should be no threat to the status quo might be valid if we live in the Kingdom, in God's rule fully come.  But short of God's rule, any faith that hears Jesus' call to take up the cross and follow him will often find itself ill at ease with the ways of the world.  And any such faith will find itself having to make choices between the ways of the culture and the ways of Jesus.  Martin Luther King could have been a very successful preacher and church pastor, could have kept to church matters and avoided causing trouble.  But he lived out the call God placed on him.  And many people caught a glimpse of God's coming Kingdom in the the hope Dr. King proclaimed and worked for.

"Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called."  We each have our part to play in moving the world and history toward God's end.  As Dr. King well knew, the arc of history eventually arrives at the destination God intends.  So why wouldn't we want to become a part of that arc, whether or not the world around us sees its trajectory?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunday Sermon audio - Remembering Who We Are

Text of Sunday Sermon - Remembering Who We Are

1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Remembering Who We Are
James Sledge                                        January 16, 2011

Many of you are probably familiar with the movie, We Are Marshall, and even if you’re not, you may know some of the story behind it.  It begins when a flight carrying to football team home from a game crashes, killing players and coaches and university officials.  It is an incredibly devastating event for the campus and the surrounding community.
But the tragedy of the crash is only the backdrop for the movie.  Its story is about trying to resurrect the football program from the ashes.  It is no easy task.  There are many at the university and in the community of Huntington, WV, including the school president, who don’t think the time is right, for whom the pain is too fresh and raw to even think about going to a football game again.
And of course there is the problem of starting from scratch.  The entire program is gone, save one assistant coach and a few players who had not made the ill-fated flight to that game.  But in the face of all these obstacles, with the urging of the students and others in the community, a coach was hired, and the slow process of starting over again began. 
It would be years before the football program returned to true respectability, but those who were there at the start turned in a remarkable performance.  With those few remaining players, walk-ons from other sports, and incoming freshmen, they fielded a team and even won their opening home game.
For the players and students at Marshall in 1971 when they won that first game, the cheer “We are Marshall” spoke of an identity forged from the horrible tragedy and the remarkable triumphs they had experienced together.  “We are Marshall” did not mean quite the same thing as when some other school shouted a similar cheer.  Other students might be proud of their school and thrilled with their team’s successes, but not many people can fully know what it meant for those students to say, “We are Marshall!”
To some degree, that’s probably the case even for current day Marshall students.  1971 was a long time ago.  There are memorials and other reminders.  The movie likely revived those memories, but it is not difficult to imagine a time when shouting, “We are Marshall” would not be much different from shouting, “We are Dayton.”   It would still mean that they are students at Marshall, but not much more.
It is perilously easy to lose an identity gained at great cost.  Our daughter, Kendrick, who works with Teach for America in New Mexico, told me an experience she has had of this.  While home for Christmas, she talked about her elementary students, all of them Navajo and many residents on the reservation adjacent to the small town where she teaches.  She said that these children are fiercely proud of their heritage, of being Native Americans and Navajos.  And yet, they seem to have little sense of what that heritage means or entails. 
Kendrick said she was surprised that she knows a lot more about Native American history than her students do.  Despite their deserved pride in their heritage, their “We are Navajo” cheer speaks of little more than an accident of birth.
It is perilously easy to lose an identity, and something similar to the experience of those Navajo children sometimes goes on in the church.  We have our own identity, our own cheer, “We are Christians.”  It is a claim to be a particular people shaped by a particular life lived “in Christ,” a life lived out in a particular community, the Church.  It is an identity that was forged by faithful disciples who walked in the footsteps of Jesus, who were willing to take up the cross, were willing to die to spread the good news of God’s coming rule.  But over time, the cheer “We are Christian” can come to mean less and less.  It can speak of little more than an accident of birth, little more than being raised in a society that, until a few generations ago, expected people to belong to a church.
When I first came to Boulevard some 10 years ago, we did some work in both the Session and Deacons to name who we were, to claim our particular identity as Presbyterians here on this corner of Grandview Heights.  One of the exercises involved trying to describe our core values.  In other words, what is genuinely expected of a member?  Not what would we like members to do, but what things are so integral to being a member here that not doing them would cause people to feel they had violated some key standard or norm.  After much discussion and debate, we were able to agree that the only things we truly expected members to do were attend occasionally, and be nice.
Imagine for a moment that you had decided to start a non-profit organization so you could change the world.  You want to invite people to join this group, and when you do they quite naturally ask what your group does.  If you answered, “Oh, we meet, and we try to be nice,” how many people do you think would be dying to become part of your organization?
We live in a time when a lot of people are hungry for meaning and purpose in their lives.  They would love to discover some sort of spirituality that made a difference in their lives, that helped them become something more than they are right now.  And for such people, I’m pretty sure that “We meet, and we try to be nice,” simply doesn’t cut it.
Of course, that is not who we are called to be as the Church, and Paul speaks directly to that in his letter to the Christians in Corinth.  The situation in Corinth is quite different from our situation, but before Paul gets to any particular problems, he introduces his letter with a general description of what it means to say, “We are Christians.”
It is a common calling.  Paul does not speak to the pastor or staff or leaders of the congregation.  He writes to the church of God that is in Corinth.  The church is a group effort, a fellowship together in Christ where all the necessary spiritual gifts are given to the community so that it can be Christ to the world until God’s rule arrives.
Paul says nothing about individual salvation.  Rather he speaks of a covenant people, sanctified, set apart and called to be saints.  The word saint means holy, and it is not a designation for certain, special Christians, rather it is at the very heart of what it means to say, “We are Christians.”  It says we are called to be a holy people, that is, a people consecrated to God, a people who by our lives show Christ to the world.
This call is common to all who are baptized.  At the font, whether as infants or adults, we are joined to Christ.  The old self is crucified with him and a new self is born.  In baptism we are joined to each other, becoming one.  In baptism the Holy Spirit is present and grants each and every one of us spiritual gifts so that working together, we can be the living body of Christ to a hurting world.  This is who we are.  This is our identity.
But when we forget that every person in the pews is our brother or sister and care for only those who are our friends, we lose that identity.  When congregations called to be one in Christ remain divided by race, we lose our identity.  When we “go to church” rather than “be the Church,” we lose our identity.  When we want the 10 Commandments displayed on public buildings but don’t live lives shaped by those commandments, we lose our identity.  When we think that saying “We are Christian” primarily means believing in Jesus, being good, and getting into heaven, we lose our identity.
But when we remember… When we remember that our baptisms have marked us and set us apart for distinctive lives; when we remember that God has both called us and gifted us to be saints, a holy people living as Christ’s living body at work in our community and the world; when we remember that we are one, a holy fellowship in Christ; when we remember and begin to live into our calling, the presence of the living Christ becomes palpable in us.  New life and vitality are breathed into us by the Spirit, a life and vitality that draw others into this holy fellowship.  When we remember who we are and live into that identity, the love of God again takes on flesh and reaches out as hope to the world.  The hope and promise of God’s new day begins to become visible in us… when we remember who we are.