Monday, February 28, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Remembering

I have discovered over the years that one of the great spiritual difficulties for me is remembering.  By that I mean that moments which were formative, that spurred me to make some change in my life or convinced me that God wanted me to take a particular path, become fuzzy, without the power they once had. 

I presume such many others have had similar experiences.  Remembering, at least meaningful remembering, can be a difficult thing.  Over time, couples often forget the feelings they once had for each other.  Current irritations are more vivid.  Sometimes they drown out those old moments to the point that people doubt old feelings of love, dismissing them as youthful infatuations. 

When relationships run out of steam, the present overwhelms the past.  All relationships deal with this at times, and remembering is essential.  Remembering old promises, remembering old commitments, remembering formative moments in the life of a relationship is necessary for it to grow and continue. 

Today's reading from Deuteronomy realizes this need for remembering.  Even the powerful experiences of God in the wilderness will lose potency in the face of the present if people do not work to remember.  "But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children's children."

When I was growing up in the Church, I was taught some of the history of God's people.  I was drawn into this remembering.  But too often, it seemed an academic exercise.  Faith was about knowing the material and agreeing with it.  But faith is about relationship, right relationship with God.  And relationship is not about knowing the correct facts and agreeing with certain doctrines.  But it is about remembering.

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Congregational Singing: "Stayed on Jesus"

It can take Presbyterians a while to get warmed up, but by the end, we're doing okay.

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

As a boy, I loved Mad Magazine and its slacker icon, Alfred E. Neuman.  Neuman's catchphrase, "What Me Worry?" seemed to bespeak more a devil-may-care attitude than his having figured anything out.  His lack of worry appeared to be the product of dullness and ignorance more than anything else.  Alfred E. Neuman doesn't worry because he doesn't know any better.

Small children and slackers may not worry, but that's only because they don't get it.  Anyone who pays much attention to the state of the world, anyone who has responsibilities and a family to support, how could she not worry?  And yet here is Jesus, suggesting we strike a more Alfred E. Neuman like pose in our lives.  "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life..." 

Our culture is certainly filled with worry and anxiety.  Much of the partisan rancor in our politics is driven by this.  People are worried and anxious and easily become afraid.  When we are frightened our actions become more primal, more primitive.  Those old fight of flight instincts kick in.

You see it in the Church, too.  With all the major denominations losing members, losing influence, and struggling financially, people of faith worry, they grow anxious and afraid.  Far too often, we lash out at those who disagree with us.  We identify "them" as the problem.

I wonder how one becomes less of a worrier without simply burying his head in the sand.  How do we find a way to say "What, me worry?" without it being a sign that we don't have a clue about what is happening?  Jesus is no Alfred E. Neuman, but he says stepping back from our worry is part of life in the Kingdom, in God's new day. 

I don't think Jesus means by this that we are not to respond to the situation around us.  After all, when Jesus saw people's needs, sickness and hunger, he tried to help, and he commanded his disciples to help as well.  But Jesus seemed unconcerned with whether or not what he did solved all problems or fixed everything.  He was able to live out his call and trust that God would use his ministry to bring about God's plans.  And I think that is exactly what Jesus is asking of us.

What, me worry?  Actually, I do more than my share.  But now and then I do experience a touch of what Jesus is talking about.  When I am willing to give up control of things, when I am able simply to do what I should, and let God do with that what may, there is a genuine peace there.  But that is the heart of the faith problem isn't it, really trusting our lives to God.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Are We a "Christian Church?"

I live in Ohio, one of several states currently considering legislation to curb the bargaining power of public employee unions.  While Ohio hasn't produced the sort of headlines coming out of Wisconsin, the rhetoric here is no less bitter.  Republicans are "attacking the middle class," while Democrats help unions gorge themselves on taxpayer money, totally unconcerned about the state's fiscal crisis.

American politics has long been a "contact sport," but it isn't all that hard to find instances where fights in the church don't look so different from the polarized, partisan bickering that passes for legislative debate.  I am over-generalizing and stereotyping, but I have seen debates on the floor of my own denomination's governing bodies that appeared to be opposing sides employing whatever carefully crafted strategy they deemed most likely to defeat their evil opponents. 

Contrast this with Paul's words in today's epistle reading.  He says that because it is only by God's mercy that he is who he is and engaged in his ministry, he does not lose heart even in the face of huge difficulty, suffering, or what appears to be defeat.  Because he doesn't measure by the world's standards he can say, "We refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God."  Paul doesn't need to employ a slick strategy to counter the equally slick strategy of his opponents.  He simply speaks the gospel and leaves the rest up to God.

And if that seems like an unworkable, impractical way of accomplishing anything, consider what Jesus says.  "Do not resist an evil doer... Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."  Now I've never been sure if Jesus expects people to employ such methods, or if Jesus would condemn force used to save someone.  And the Church has long wrestled with how to reconcile Jesus' teachings with the states need to employ force and "just wars."  But even if there are reasonable exceptions to Jesus' teachings on non-violence and pacifism, surely such exceptions must be carefully weighed and thought out.  Surely we must acknowledge that we are acting contrary to a particular teaching of Jesus, and own up to that.

One of the arguments that has become a part of America's current partisan divides is the question of whether we are a "Christian nation."  Without engaging that debate, it seems to me that, in light of Jesus' teachings on love, at times we would do well to consider whether or not we are even a Christian church.

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Dry and Parched

It seems that "dryness" as a synonym for God's absence, for feeling spiritually bereft, is an ancient one.  It's there in today's morning psalm.  "I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land."  That's how it feels to me. After I first experienced the stirring of a mature faith but before I had learned the language of "spirituality," I described my first real encounter with God's absence as "feeling dry."

Such dry times come over me with more regularity than I like to admit.  It is terribly frustrating to pray, to spend time in silence, and feel that I am alone.  It feels like being in the desert, aching with thirst, and lifting a water bottle to my lips to find nothing but dust.  My worst doubts emerge in such dry times.

I have often longed for a surefire way to quench these times, some magic formula or practice that would immediately leave me feeling spiritually refreshed.  But I have never discovered one.  However I have begun to develop, somewhat grudgingly, some appreciation for my dry times.  Not that I enjoy them, but they are often powerful motivators, and they also provide a contrast that makes me relish those times of God's bountiful presence all the more.

I think that much of my spiritual "growth" over the years has come out of searching for a presence that seemed to have become lost.  This dryness might be compared with a lover's longing for the other.  I cannot imagine a lover who has never experienced such longing. It may even be that this longing is necessary in order to validate and confirm a deep and abiding love.  So too with dryness?

I think it was Frederick Buechner who said, "Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith."  Perhaps dryness works in similar fashion, prodding us and drawing us deeper into the mysterious and wonderful life of God.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Not My People

"May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants."  If you knew that these words were from the Bible, but did not know the context, what would you suppose they meant?  In the Old Testament, Israel is often spoken of as God's servant.  In the Greek of the New Testament, the same word is sometimes translated "servant," other times "slave."  Paul writes of being a slave to sin, and Jesus speaks of a servant not being greater than the master.  Many of these uses speak metaphorically about relationship.

And so I think it would be reasonable to hear the opening sentence of this blog and presume it to be the words of an outsider, a Gentile perhaps, acknowledging God's grace and asking that it continue even though this outsider is not one of God's people.

I love to tell a story about my grandmother-in-law, a wonderful lady who was 95 when she drove herself to the doctor with "the flu," which turned out to be the heart failure that ended her life days later.  One time when I had replaced the filter on her furnace (a complicated procedure that required measuring and cutting filter material from a roll and fitting it onto a cage-like structure that went in the furnace), she wanted to pay me.  I objected but she insisted.  When my wife also objected, she said that she had to pay me because, "He's not my people."  

It was her way of saying I wasn't a blood relative, and as such I didn't have quite the same obligations toward her.  Not being "her people," I wasn't required to help her, but since I had, she felt required to pay me.  Strange as it might seem, by not being "her people," I had it better than those who were.  She treated me no differently from her biological grandchildren.  In fact her statement, "He's not my people," was so funny to all of us because there was nothing in her behavior toward me to bear it out.  And so the only difference between me and those who were "her people" was that I got paid and they didn't.

"May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants."  These are Ruth's words to Boaz after his kind treatment of her, kind treatment motivated by Ruth's loyalty to Naomi, and in spite of the fact that Ruth is "not his people."  

For most of modern history, Western Christians have tended to understand the faith along sharply drawn lines of "us and them."  But it is not clear to me whether these dividing lines are rooted in God's character or in our own.  And if the story of Ruth is to be read at all metaphorically, God's character seems not unlike that of my grandmother-in-law when it comes to those outside the family.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Call Me "Bitter"

Early today a devastating earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand.  When a horrific earthquake struck Haiti just over a year ago, televangelist Pat Robertson made headlines for blaming the quake on voodoo and deals with the devil that the Haitian people made during a slave rebellion centuries ago.  Today I saw a post on Twitter wondering how such logic would work with this latest quake, noting that it occurred in a city named, of all things, Christchurch, where the quake heavily damaged the city's wonderful cathedral.

Pat Robertson's foolishness strikes me as obvious, but still I think many of us struggle to understand how and where God is in the midst of such events.  Robertson's thought process may be extreme and even absurd, but his desire to find order and sense in the midst of such chaos is fairly normal.  We would like to think that the world is more orderly, that we can keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, that when we do what we are supposed to, things will work out well for us.  But the world keeps reminding us that this is not necessarily so.

When Naomi returns to Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law Ruth, the people recognize her after her many years absence and say, “Is this Naomi?” But she responds, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, (literally "Bitter") for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me."  Naomi has lost her sons and  has no grandsons in a world where such widows were in jeopardy of quickly becoming destitute.  She has good reason for her name change.  She has good reason to think God and the world are against her.

People of faith often think that faith gives them insight into why bad things happen, and they sometimes think that faith is suppose to protect them from such bad things.  There are certainly passages of Scripture that would support such a view, but on the whole, the Bible knows there is much suffering and tragedy that cannot easily be explained, and that people of faith are far from immune.  The story of Ruth does not hide from the reality of this, but it does still speak hope, insisting that God can bend to worst tragedy toward the good.

I think that biblical faith realizes that there is much we cannot understand and know, that any attempt to systematically explain all suffering and tragedy will, in the end, founder in much the way Pat Robertson's overly simplistic theology does.  But biblical faith does not simply shrug at tragedy.  Biblical faith has no trouble being "bitter," in calling God to task.  And I've long loved a quote from a letter the great preacher Carlyle Marney wrote to his friend and colleague John Claypool when Claypool's daughter was dying of leukemia.  After admitting that he did not know who to make sense of such suffering he added, "I fall back on the idea that our God has a lot to give an account for."
(John Claypool, "Life is a Gift" in A Chorus of Witnesses: Model sermons for today's preacher, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans, 1994) p. 125)

But if our faith at times calls us to shake our fists at God, it also calls us to embrace the power of resurrection, the certainty that God can turn the worst evil, the worst tragedy toward the good.  I'm not talking about pie in the sky by and by.  I'm talking about acknowledging the reality of tragedy while hoping that, somehow, this is not it.  Faith is about hoping and therefore working for the as yet new thing God will draw out of tragedy.  Faith is willing to embrace the name "Bitter," yet hope and trust and live in the certainty that this name is not permanent. 

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - From Unlikely Places

What makes for a hero or heroine in a religious story?  How must folks act in order to be religious heroes?  In my religious formation, faith was primarily about holding certain beliefs, and so it would make sense that any religious champion would have to have his or her religious beliefs correctly organized. 

Perhaps because they have often been a minority, Jews have a tradition of celebrating "righteous Gentiles," but I'm not sure we Christians have anything comparable.  That makes the story of Ruth an intriguing one, I think, for Christians. 

Going to Sunday School as a child, I learned the broad outlines of the story.  The events in book of Ruth's are fairly easy to tell in a "Bible Story" aimed at children.  But I'm not sure I ever picked up on an essential element of her story, the fact that she isn't Jewish.

It doesn't work that way in our world, but in Ruth's day, to say she is Moabite is just another way of saying she is Gentile, that she is not a Jew.  Because of dire circumstances Naomi's sons have been forced to take Moabite women as wives, but this is not the norm, and there are a number of places in the Old Testament where this is expressly forbidden.  Yet Ruth becomes a model of faithfulness, even though her faithfulness is not to a set of religious beliefs, but to her mother-in-law.

Nowhere in Ruth's story do we hear her spout any Jewish theology.  Nowhere does she proclaim that the LORD is the one and only God.  Ruth's only desire seems to be the welfare of her mother-in-law, and all she does is to that end.  It is for this that her husband-to-be will praise her and declare her blessed by Yahweh.  It is by this that she restores her mother-in-law and becomes the great-grandmother to King David.

More often than not, my experience in the Church has seemed to say that faithfulness outside the Christian circle is of little interest or use for me.  To see the actions of a Buddhist or a Muslim as somehow instructive or even helpful for a life of Christian faith sounds like heresy to many.  Yet right here in the book of Ruth, a Moabite woman shows others the shape of loyalty and faithfulness and is called blessed by the LORD.  Perhaps God's grace is at work in other places we think off limits.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday Sermon video - Kingdom Ethics: On Being Perfect

Sermons with better video quality are available on YouTube.

Sunday Sermon audio - Kingdom Ethics: On Being Perfect

Sunday Sermon text - Kingdom Ethics: On Being Perfect

Matthew 5:38-48 (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18)
Kingdom Ethics: On Being Perfect
James Sledge                                                              February 20, 2011

Recently, there has been an uproar around the book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which chronicles one mother’s attempt to raise her children by the strict methods of the traditional Chinese mom.  Much of the furor has been over the how this mother would not let her daughters go to sleep overs or have fun, requiring them instead to practice the violin or do homework.  People couldn’t believe she could be that demanding.
Hearing our scripture this morning, it’s not hard to imagine people reacting the same way to Jesus.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  And Jesus has been talking to us this way for weeks now about how our righteousness must be greater than the Pharisees, that being angry is as bad as murder, and today, that we have to love our enemies.
Yet Jesus made very few friends among Tiger Moms or religious overachievers of his day. They saw Jesus as a bad influence and regularly criticized him for hanging out with underachievers and trouble makers.  Jesus in turn blasted the scribes and Pharisees for teachings that he said were “heavy burdens, hard to bear.”  And Jesus called people saying, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Yet he tells us today, “Be perfect.”
Some years ago, we introduced a song in our more traditional, 11:15 service that was familiar to our early, more contemporary service, using it as a response to the prayer of confession.  Many of you probably know it.  “Change my heart, O God, make it ever true; Change my heart, O God, may I be like you.”
One of our members, someone thoughtful and very serious about his faith, came to me, saying he was bothered by this song.  At assumed he must have found its style a bit too casual compared with a traditional Kyrie Eleison, “Lord have mercy.”  But I quickly realized that his problem was with the line, “May I be like you.”  He had learned the same lesson I had been taught.  God is other; God is not like us.  God’s ways are not out ways.  God is holy and we are not.  What business have we got saying to God, “May I be like you?”
I could certainly appreciate his objection and was inclined to agree with him.  But isn’t Jesus saying that we should be like God?   “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  And it is there in our Old Testament reading as well. 
The law in Leviticus tells the people of God how to live.  They must not harvest all their crop, leaving some for the poor and alien, which in our day I suppose means that companies can’t keep all the profit for themselves but must share with the poor and immigrants.  God’s law requires the same justice for rich and poor, truth telling, and loving your neighbor as yourself.  And all of this seems related to the character of God.  The phrase “I am the Lord; I am Yahweh” is regularly interspersed between these commands.  And these laws are prefaced by God saying, “You shall be holy, for I Yahweh your God am holy.”
Perfect and holy; not words we normally apply to ourselves.  If someone says, “I am perfect,” hopefully he’s kidding.  The word “holy” may be even more problematic.  We know it’s a religious word, but when it’s used of people it is usually in a negative way, as in “holier than thou.”  But the biblical words translated “perfect” and “holy” may not mean exactly what comes to mind when we hear them.
When Jesus says, “Be perfect,” the basic meaning of the word is “complete, having fully attained its purpose.”  It also means “mature.”  And while this does not quite remove the sense of a goal that is not fully attainable, it does point out that Jesus is calling us from where we are, to something more, to a faith that grows and matures, to a purpose being fulfilled.  Jesus is saying that following him means changing, growing, and becoming new.
The word holy works in similar fashion.  It means “consecrated” or “set apart.”  And  I read an article the other day that suggested this meant that a good synonym for holy is “odd.”[1]  Think about that.  What if we heard Jesus say to us, “Be different, be set apart; be odd, therefore, as your heavenly Father is odd.”  But that’s the last thing we want to be, isn’t it.  Many of us became Christian or grew up Christian in a time when going to church was the epitome of normal.  We don’t want to be different or stand out.  We want to fit in. 
Nearly twenty years ago, when I was a corporate pilot was just beginning to hear a call to become a pastor, I got the clear sense that this call was related to an issue facing the church.  As I experienced the stirrings of call and a more mature faith, I struggled to see where God’s presence was in the church I knew.  I didn’t feel a spiritual presence there.  The church did good things and it explained what faith meant, but I have never really sensed God’s odd, holy presence there the way I did as I wrestled with my call.
Eventually I became sure that my call was in some way related to this problem, and that I was supposed to address it in my ministry.  But somewhere along the way, I forgot.   At seminary, I was busy learning theology, biblical languages, and how to take apart a section of scripture and examine what it meant.  And when I began serving a congregation, there was plenty to keep me busy.  Sunday seemed to show up every three or four days, and there was other church busyness to keep me occupied, lots of tasks, and not much time to wonder about where God’s strange holiness was.
Only recently has this started to change.  It is very much a work in progress, but I have begun to realize the connection between spirituality and mission, between drawing near holiness and the call to be church.  And I think that is what today’s scripture is about.
The holiness and completeness we are called to comes from an internal change that is manifested in a changed life.  As our faith life goes deeper and deeper into God, into divine mystery and holiness, the things that motivate us and animate us begin to change.  Success, praise from others, having everything the world says we should, matter less and less.  Pleasing God, loving others, and living by the ethics of God’s Kingdom become central – not things we do to get a reward or God’s approval, but what we actually desire.
There was a time when I tended to view spirituality and mysticism as esoteric, private pursuits for overly sensitive types who needed such warm fuzzies.  But I have begun to see my prejudice against spirituality as a defense mechanism we Mainline Christians often use to avoid being odd, to stay in control, to keep from being drawn into God’s holiness and so transformed for the holiness and completeness we are called to as disciples. 
Now I don’t for a moment presume that my own spiritual journey, or my spiritual practices, my way of praying, meditating, or practicing silence, are a good guide for you.  And so I will simply ask, What do you do that draws you into God, into holiness?  How do you “Touch Holiness” so that its touch changes you, begins to conform you more and more to the image of God, to the example of Jesus?   And as a community of faith, how are we helping, supporting, nurturing, and mentoring each other as we journey into the holiness and purpose God has in mind for each of us all?
All praise and glory to our strange, holy God, who in Jesus, calls us to be God’s strange, holy people.  Thanks be to God!

[1] Edwin Searcy in “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century Vol. 128, No. 3 (February 8, 2011) p. 21.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Not Far from the Kingdom

We pastors are largely an odd sort.  I sometimes think that there has to be something just a bit off for someone to become a pastor.  Some of these "offs" are harmless; others less so.  Many of us are prone to Messiah complexes, and so we are afraid to reveal our true humanity.  We need to be right about everything, which can lead to an inflated sense of our own opinions, as well as to great difficulty letting others see our doubts, failings and uncertainties.

I read a very good blog post this morning by Rachel Held Evans entitled "Dear Pastors - Tell Us the Truth."  You can read for yourself this very helpful "letter."  I read it just prior to my daily Richard Rohr devotional followed by the Daily Lectionary.  And somehow they all coalesced to speak to me about discovering our true humanity, which I have come to understand as the central meaning of being "in Christ." 

As a pastor, it is easy for life to become a performance, a role that is played.  Love, relationship, and humanity can get lost in such a life.  They can get buried under being the one who must provide, hope, ideas, confidence, and unwavering faith.  They can get lost in never ending anxieties over how to "fix" the church, and they can get lost in never ending fights over who correctly understands what the Bible says.  (I think the intensity of these fights is fueled partly by pastors' need to be sure and to be right.) 

As the controversies swirling around Jesus come to head during his last days in Jerusalem, as religious leaders attempt to catch him in some theological misstep, Jesus answers a scribe's question about the core of faith. Jesus pares things down to loving God with our entire being and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  And he adds, "There is no other commandment greater than these."

At what surely is the most stressful moment in Jesus' ministry, in the face of scrutiny and demands that he explain his theology just so, Jesus instead falls back to the language of love and relationship.  He insists that relationship with God is intimately linked to relationship with neighbor, which includes love of self.  And when the scribe embraces Jesus' wisdom, Jesus remarks, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

Pastors certainly have special, distinct roles in the congregations they serve.  But pastors and congregations can get off track when we forget that our faith is bound up in a shared humanity that cares for each other and works together to love God and others.  But when we allow life with God, being in Christ, to draw us into the true humanity God intends for us, we too are not far from the Kingdom.

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