Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Life for All

"Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all."  

Paul is referring to the first human (adam is a Hebrew word for a "man" or "human" and not a name), and then to the man Jesus.  He says that if the first human's actions caused problems, Jesus' actions have set things right.  And it is striking how universal Paul's words are.  All humanity is caught in the problem of sin, but now Jesus' actions bring "life for all."  

Now I would not want to say that Paul's entire theology is expressed in this one statement.  In other places he does speak of the new life we experience "in Christ," of being joined to Christ in our baptisms.  But here, and in other places, Paul does seem to speak of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as having fundamentally altered the relationship of God with humanity.  It is also worth noting that those places where Paul speaks of "faith in Jesus" might just as easily be translated "the faithfulness of Jesus."  

Regardless, Paul does call all who will listen to faith.  He says that by faith we experience the gift, the grace of God.  But I don't hear Paul encouraging us to do what Christians often do: writing off those who don't have faith, or who don't have the right faith.

Some years ago, I and other neighborhood pastors were meeting to plan a community Easter sunrise service.  A Baptist colleague arrived from a funeral, and he shared how he struggled when he had to do funeral for someone he knew was not saved and was not going to heaven.  I was a bit taken aback by his comments and mumbled something about how I didn't worry too much about that.  I simply proclaimed the good news of Jesus and left the sorting out of saved or not saved to God.

I wonder why we sometimes feel the need to declare "those folks" to be lost or condemned.  Again, I'm not necessarily arguing for universalism, but I do wonder if Christians wouldn't be a whole lot better off if we quite worrying about where the in-or-out boundaries were, and focused more on living faithfully in ways that demonstrating the new quality of life Paul says we have when we are "in Christ."  

If Jesus' life, death, and resurrection do indeed lead to "life for all;" if Jesus does say from the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing," then shouldn't the Church avoid trying to figure out who gets left out of "all," who doesn't get forgiven, and simply live out the sort of love and forgiveness that Jesus showed.  

Sometimes I think that all the energy expended worrying about who's in or out is mostly about assuring ourselves that we're in.  We're trying to validate the hope that we've checked off the right boxes and signed on the correct dotted line.  And this seems to me more about our anxieties than about a desire to help those we deem to be on the outside.  But as for our anxieties, Paul says elsewhere, "If God is for us, who is against us?"  

If I am sure of nothing else, because of Jesus I know that God is for us.  And what could be more wonderful than that?

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - God's Broken Heart

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
     I mourn, 

  and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
     Is there no physician there? 

Why then has the health of my poor people
     not been restored? 

O that my head were a spring of water,
     and my eyes a fountain of tears,
  so that I might weep day and night
     for the slain of my poor people! 

O that I had in the desert
     a traveler’s lodging place,
  that I might leave my people
     and go away from them! 

For they are all adulterers,
     a band of traitors. 

I've always thought these some of the more pathos filled lines in the Old Testament, if not the Bible.  And while there are Christians who seem to think God a severe judge who punishes without compunction, even relishes punishing, the God described here is a God whose love for humanity is costly.  God's own interior life is in turmoil because of God's commitment to humanity.

The idea that it costs God to be for us runs counter to classic Western notions of divinity.  By definition, the Divine is static perfection, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  But the God of the Hebrew Scriptures does not fit neatly into such an understanding.  And neither does God's suffering on the cross in Jesus. 

Many of us have had the experience of growing up, maturing, and recognizing the pain we caused our parents when we were younger.  But for most of us, the trauma we caused our parents did not irreparably damage our relationship with them.  The same is often true in other loving relationships.  Most relationships contain hurts and pains inflicted on the other.  Most relationships carry with them scars and regrets.  But where love prevails, those relationships can grow stronger.

One of the real problems I have with faith as believing the right things, even with "accepting Jesus as personal Lord and Savior," is that such formulaic notions of faith often leave little room for the dynamic, pathos filled, scarred, surprising, grace-filled life of a relationship rooted in God's unwavering love for us.  We break God's heart, and we bring God great joy.  We recoil at the hurts we have inflicted, and we experience the love of God that is never beyond reconciliation.  Such dynamics can never be fully expressed in formula or doctrine.  They can never be completely prescribed in rules and law.  They can only be lived into.

The hunger for spirituality in our day, coupled with a corresponding distaste for the institutional church, may well speak to a desire for less formula and more relationship.  As such, this may be providential call to the Church to remember the relational, pathos-filled, overflowing-with-grace nature of our life with God.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - I'm Thirsty! Now What Would Help?

Imagine for a moment, if you can, that you are terribly parched and thirsty, but for some reason you don't know exactly what that means.  You know something is wrong.  You know your body is craving something, but you simply don't know what it is.  I'm not sure how this situation could actually happen.  Perhaps someone with dementia might forget that drinking fluids cured this craving.  Perhaps someone with some sort of amnesia or who has suffered a stroke might experience a terrifying need that they did not know how to meet. 

"Let anyone who is thirsty come to me," Jesus says, and he speaks of "living water," which in Jesus' days literally meant fresh, running water, as from a stream.  But the narrator of John's gospel goes on to say that Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit.

It is not unusual for people to speak of "spiritual dryness."  But even those who have such a vocabulary often seem to struggle finding what they need to take away their thirst.  And I suspect that even more people know there is something wrong, but have no idea how to fix it.  And so they experiment and try all sorts of options.  Some options are better than others, even if they don't fully quench the thirst.  Other options can be terribly destructive.  Alcohol and drug dependence, abusive relationships, pursuing money and power at all costs; all these strike me as attempts to fill a need that, in the end, only make matters worse.

When I feel something is missing in my life, I often have inclinations about what would help.  In retrospect, a lot of these inclinations turn out to be less than helpful.  What I've heard, learned, picked up from the culture, and so on, doesn't always end up being the best guide.  And if the Pharisees in today's gospel reading are any guide, religious experts and leaders are not always good guides either.  
I hear a lot of people who say they are "spiritual but not religious."  Technically speaking I'm not sure this is truly possible, but I think I understand what they mean.  They somehow figured out that the craving they feel is a spiritual one, but when they've tried church, it didn't seem to help.  And perhaps this is because we churchy types sometimes get so preoccupied with doing church that we forget where our living water comes from, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Prophetic Restlessness

There seems to be a restlessness, a stirring in the Church these days.  This restlessness does not come via official channels or from those charged with revitalizing denominations.  Rather this restlessness comes from people frustrated and disenchanted with the Church.  And I am inclined to view this as a prophetic voice to the Church.

The issue of integrity is a large part of this restlessness.  Many are frustrated with a Church that expends a great deal of energy trying to get its theology just right, but doesn't seem to be very good at equipping people in the pews to live new and transformed lives, lives that model God's reign, the kingdom that draws near in Jesus.  You can see this frustration both in the growth of the emergent church movement, and in the decline affecting many mainline congregations.  People are seeking something more than what seems to them religious veneer.

The problem of religious veneer, of civil religion, is nothing new.  Jeremiah rails against it in today's Old Testament reading.  The prophet condemns those who neglect widows and orphans and aliens, who pervert justice, and place their ultimate trust in things other than God, all while carefully maintaining their religious/worship rituals.   Through the prophet, God wonders how on earth Israel can act as they do, "and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, 'We are safe!' -- only to go on doing all these abominations?"

Now I certainly don't mean to say that the Presbyterian Church or any congregation has failed to be God's people in the same manner as those addressed by Jeremiah.  Still, the prophetic restlessness stirring the Church seems to call us (much as Jeremiah once did) to remember what it means to be the Church.  It invites us to examine ourselves, considering how well our church activities serve Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims, and where they may have devolved into something that has the look and feel of religious veneer.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

In today's gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well, the issue of in-or-out boundaries is hard to miss.  The woman is a Samaritan, an ethnic group generally despised by Jews.  Adding to this problem Jews thought Samaritans' religious views "heretical".  And if that weren't enough, she is, of course, a woman.  Rabbis didn't teach women, only men.  In fact, women weren't considered quite fully human.

Both the woman and Jesus' disciples find it surprising that Jesus speaks with her.  And yet Jesus makes more theological progress with this female outsider than he did with the Pharisee Nicodemus.  She seems to "get it" in a way that rarely happens in John's gospel.

Despite the fact that Jesus was an expert boundary ignorer and crosser, we Christians are rather good at constructing boundaries.  In a world filled with us and them distinctions, we often use our religious beliefs to create more.  We create us and them boundaries between Christians and non-Christians.  And we create us and them boundaries within the faith, using our doctrines and practices to label and divide.

Now I'm not sure this problem can be solved by constructing a generic faith.  It is increasingly popular to say, "I don't worry about doctrines and denominational dictates.  I just try to follow Jesus."  But of course the moment people try to follow Jesus, they must make decisions about what that looks like, what things are required and what are optional, what the core practices are, etc.  And presto, you now have a particular way of being Christian that is different from someone else's way, which can potentially provide the material for yet another boundary.

I actually think we should celebrate our particular ways of being Christian (even as we look critically at those ways so that we insure we are actually following Jesus).  But we should not understand our particularities as dividing lines.  Perhaps an analogy can be drawn with regards to race and ethnicity.  The way to solve racial problems is probably not to obliterate all racial distinctions.  (The nation of Brazil once had an official policy that encouraged dark skinned citizen to become lighter.  Followed to its natural conclusion, racial problem would become a thing of the past when everyone merged into a single skin tone.)  I certainly hope we don't ever reach a point where all people and food and music are of one sort, where we solve the "problem" of diversity by trying to eliminate it.

The problem is not our differences, even our differences of faith and doctrine.  The problem is we judge our group or tradition to be superior, dividing the world up into us and them, in and out.  And then we can say lovely things such as "We don't want people like them joining our church, or moving into our neighborhood, or..."

I find especially appealing the notion that in Christ we become one regardless of whether we are male or female, Jew or Greek, black or white, etc.  It isn't that those distinctions no longer exist.  It is that they are all included together in God's love.  We are all held in God's embrace, and God longs to join us together into something new and wonderful.  Of course it is natural for people to be afraid of those who are different, not like us.  But then again, as it says in 1 John, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear."

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Lusty Stallions???

When I read today's verses from Jeremiah, I came across a line that I had not noticed before.  Speaking to the wayward people of Jerusalem the prophet condemns how Israel turned from God despite the abundance given them.  "They were well-fed lusty stallions, each neighing for his neighbor's wife."  Ole Jeremiah doesn't mince words does he?

Well-fed lusty stallions; that is quite the image.  The abundance received from God has not left Israel grateful and beholding to God, but lusting for more.  That's something we know about in our society.  How is it that people who are quite wealthy, folks such as Martha Stewart or Bernie Madoff, still break the law, hurt others, and risk imprisonment so as to get more?  Why do people with a nice home and cars spend themselves into crushing debt in order to have a bigger and fancier home and finer cars?

I feel a bit lusty myself from time to time.  Not for my neighbor's wife, but I walk into a store and see a TV with a bigger screen than the one I have, and I want it.  I see a snazzier smart phone or a new iPad, and I want one.

For reasons that I've always struggled to understand, many religious people tend to be overly fixated on lust of the sexual sort.  But of course Jeremiah is speaking of Israel's unfaithfulness with God, not talking about  sexual deviance.  And the fact that Jesus speaks so often about our relationship to money, possessions, and wealth, and hardly at all about sex, seems to confirm where our real lust problems are.

I'm no expert on this, but lust, of all sorts, seems to bespeak something missing in a person's life.  There is a real or imagined hole that the a person is desperate to fill.  Unfortunately our lusts often lead us to fill the emptiness in our lives with that which does not satisfy.  And we quickly need another fix.

The only way out of the need for such fixes is something that does satisfy deeply.  And Jesus says that the answer is loving God with all our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Lusts aren't about relationships.  They are about things or people we've objectified into things.  But love is something else altogether. 

Too often, Christian faith is understood to be about believing the correct things.  But Jesus says it is about relationship.  Jesus says it is about love.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Giving God a Bad Name

For much of modern Christianity, there has been a tendency to view the world along us-them lines.  We are Christians; they are heathen pagans.  We are right; they are wrong.  We are in; they are out.  We get it; they don't.  You get my drift.  And their only hope is to become like us.

For much of the modern Christian era, it was also difficult to separate Christianity from Western civilization.  Many of the assumptions about the West were shared with the Church (though to be honest, I'm not always sure who was sharing with whom).  Thus the colonial expansion of the West coincided with the missionary movement.  Just as many assumed an eventual Western dominance and hegemony over the entire world, so the Church also assumed the same for the faith.  And missionaries often engaged in a great deal of westernizing to go along with Christianizing.  One oft noted example was the requirement for African churches to adopt Western music and musical instruments. Pastors also needed to wear Western styled robes.  Somehow anything from their culture was problematic.

But while few people any longer hold onto dreams of Western world dominance (if anything we're worried it could go the other way), the old us-them lines of the missionary days often persist.  In matters of faith, we still tend to think of right and wrong, in and out, us and them.  And they need to become like us.

That makes Paul's words to the Roman congregation of interest to me.  Paul speaks of those Gentiles who instinctively abide by the law as being "a law unto themselves."  He speaks of the law being "written on their hearts," and Paul is not talking about Gentile Christians, but simply Gentiles.  Conversely, Paul warns his Jewish brothers and sisters about counting on their relationship with God to shield them when they live contrary to God's ways.  And he paraphrases the prophets saying, "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you."

It seems to me that the us-them of Christian-heathen has essentially supplanted the old, biblical us-them of Jew-Gentile.  We're the special ones with the relationship with God.  And if you become one of us, you can be special, too.  Yet while happily claiming our special relationship with God via Jesus, we continue to create and support a society that is at odds with Jesus' teachings about peace, non-violence, wealth, sacrifice, loving our enemies, and so on.  And when we claim relationship with God through Jesus but don't live as Jesus taught us, don't we find ourselves under those harsh words of Paul?  "The name of God is blasphemed among the (non-Christians)/Gentiles because of you."

Fortunately, I see signs everywhere that this is changing.  While the good news Jesus calls us to share is still very often blemished by arrogant, us-them attitudes, increasingly a new breed of Christian is emerging. These folks are more interested in being faithful to Jesus' teachings than in labels and doctrines.  There is nothing wrong with doctrines per se, but they exist to help us in following Jesus.  They were never intended to be possessions that let us feel special or superior to "them." 

When we find ourselves falling into an us-them sort of thinking, it is helpful to recall that the people Jesus upset were not the pagans, heathens, or "them," but religious purists and leaders of the religious institution.  And then we should ask ourselves, do our actions in the name of Jesus cause non-Christians to curse God and Church, or to give thanks and praise?

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Do You Want It?

I've always thought Jesus' first words to the ill man in today's gospel a bit odd.  We are told that the man has been ill for decades, and also that Jesus knew the man had been lying near a pool thought to have healing powers for a very long time.  And yet Jesus asks him, "Do you want to be made well?"

I've long wondered why Jesus would ask such a question.  A man sick for 38 years who has come to a place of healing; surely it's obvious.  Besides, why does Jesus need to know if he wants to be healed?  Why not just say, "I know you have been sick and hoping to be healed for a long time.  Stand up, take your mat, and walk?"

Perhaps I'm making a big deal out of nothing, but for some reason this man's desire for healing seems to matter.  Does that mean that God doesn't give us what we need, what God wants to give us, until we want it.  Is this like AA, where you have to want to get sober before you can get with the program?

There are certainly biblical examples to the contrary (take the Apostle Paul), but it does seem that in general, God's approach is gentle and quiet, not overwhelming.  God seems to want us to desire the healing and wholeness that God is literally dying to offer us.

A lot of popular images of God don't seem to fit well with a God who won't barge in without an invitation.  But this gospel paints a remarkably gentle and patient picture of God.  "Do you want to be made well and whole?  Do you want to become the person you are meant to be?  Do you want to discover life of a quality you could never achieve on your own?" 

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Never Content

We humans seem to have a contentment problem.  No matter what we have, no matter what we achieve, it is not quite enough.  As with some other human traits, this difficulty finding contentment is part blessing and part curse.  It can drive people to better themselves, to cure illnesses, or fight hunger and poverty.  But it also can drive people to cut corners in order to make a bit more profit, to accumulate more and more possessions, to cast off a spouse for someone "better."

In today's reading from Jeremiah, God is portrayed as perplexed at such behavior on the part of Israel. "What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?..  I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.  But when you entered you defiled my land,and made my heritage an abomination... for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water."

I find that I engage in this sort of foolishness all too often.  Despite those times when my relationship with God has filled me to overflowing, leading me at various stages of my life to become more involved in my congregation, to serve in mission projects, and to uproot my family and go to seminary, it is still easy to become disenchanted with God, to go after other sources of fulfillment and meaning.  

I follow a Twitter account that goes by the name "Unvirtuous Abbey" and posts silly prayers.  I remember one from last Fall when the news came out that NBA star Tony Parker had cheated on his wife, Desperate Housewives actress Eva Longoria.  It read, "Lord, you who cured the blind, we pray for anyone who would cheat on Eva Longoria. Amen."  I chuckled, but Tony Parker's problem has nothing to do with his eyesight.  

But despite our foolishness, God is faithful.  Our inability to be content has its consequences, but one of them is not God abandoning us.  In fact, God's response to our foolishness is Jesus, what the Apostle Paul calls God's foolishness for us.  And I think that a big part of growing in faith, of a deepening spirituality, is allowing God's foolishness to transform ours.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sunday Sermon video - Christian Identity: What Really Matters

Sermons with better video quality available on YouTube.

Spiritual Hiccups - Success and Faithfulness

Our culture greatly values success and results.  In most any category - business, education, sports - we admire those who have worked hard and made something of themselves.  The desire to succeed can be a powerful force for good.  It motivates people to work hard, to become better at what they do.  It can encourage innovation, new and better ways of doing things.

But using success as a measure has its downside as well.  For starters, some things are hard to measure, and so we can be tempted to measure what is easy to gauge.  Some education reforms seem to require so much testing (an easy form of measuring) that teachers complain they have no time to teach anything other than test taking skills. 

From a spiritual standpoint, the focus on success sometimes forgets that faithfulness does not always lead to what the culture calls success.  By our culture's standards, Jesus' life is not a success.  He causes a stir, attracts a handful of followers who abandon him when things get tough.  And then he is executed.  Jesus' faithfulness to his call does not produce easily measurable evidence of success.

Congregations, pastors, and church members can easily gauge themselves "failures" based on not living up to some measure of success.  And indeed there are plenty of times when congregational decline is the result of failing to follow God's call.  But it is also possible to be faithful and that not lead to more people and increased pledges. 

Today's reading from Psalm 119 begins, "Your hands have made and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn your commandments."  We are God's; we belong to God.  In this lies our intrinsic worth, and we honor this when we become what God has made and fashioned us to do and be.  Such faithfulness may or may not produce signs our culture deems success.  Neither Jeremiah nor Paul - who provide our Old Testament and Epistle reading for today - would have measured up according to many popular gauges of success.  Yet God judges them good and faithful servants because they have faithfully carried out their calls.

O God, you have made and fashioned me.  Help me to understand my call.  Show me the work you have given me to do, that I may be your faithful servant.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday Sermon audio - Christian Identity: What Really Matters

Sunday Sermon text - Christian Identity: What Really Matters

Mark 12:28-34
Christian Identity: What Really Matters
James Sledge                                                     March 20, 2011

Most seminaries require their students to have some sort of internship in a church congregation.  Many of you will remember that Jennifer Eastman Hinkle and Renee Coffman-Chavez did such internships with us.  When I did my seminary internship, I served full-time for three months in a congregation in a small, eastern North Carolina town.  Because it was just for the summer, Shawn and our girls stayed at our home in Richmond,  and the congregation provided me with housing. 
I’m not quite sure how this came about, but I lived in an attached mother-in-law suite, with its own kitchen and such, at the home of Reba, a widowed Jewish grandmother.  Her family owned a small department store in town, and they may well have been the only Jewish family in that  community.  She was very kind and welcoming, and I had the run of her side of the house as well as my suite.  She was thrilled when Shawn and the girls would visit, and we even exchanged Christmas cards for a number of years afterwards. 
Sometimes in the evening we would sit and chat, and I remember one occasion where she offered that the differences between faiths didn’t much matter.  All that really mattered was that we believed in God and tried to be good.

Now I suspect that in part this was just her being hospitable.  It didn’t necessarily mean she saw no distinction between Judaism, Christianity, and other faiths.  But then again lots of people do feel this way.  It is a popular answer to the question of what really matters.  Believe in God, and try to be good.
Questions about what really matters are not new.  The scribe in our gospel this morning asks such a question.  He is Jewish, and Jesus is a Jewish rabbi, so he asks a question from a Jewish point of view.  “Which commandment is the first of all?”  In other words, “What really matters?”  If I’m going to be a good Jew, what do I absolutely have to do?  The book we are studying this Lent asks a similar question from a Christian viewpoint.  What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?
For much of American history the answer to that question has been simple: Go to church and be a good citizen.  I suppose that’s only a slightly more focused version of  my Jewish host’s “Believe in God, and try to be good.”  
Imagine that someone walked up to you and asked, “What does it mean to be a Christian? What’s non-negotiable?  What really matters?”  What would your answer be?
When Jesus is asked about what is non-negotiable, he answers by quoting verses from the Old Testament.  He starts with something from Deuteronomy known as the Shema.  “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and will all your soul (or life), and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  Jesus was asked for the commandment that is “first of all,” but he does not stop with one.  He adds, this time from Leviticus, “You shall love our neighbor as yourself.”
Now I don’t know about you, but to my ear, loving God with all your being and loving your neighbor as yourself has a very different ring to it than “Believe in God and try to be good.”  I believe the world is round, but there’s no love involved, no relationship.  I generally obey the law and think of myself as, in some ways, good, but again that’s not necessarily about love or relationship.
Belief is a private thing that I can keep to myself.  And being good is something anyone can do regardless of their religion.  And that means that when a person who doesn’t know a lot about Christianity walks into a church where faith has turned into “Believe in God and be good,” they may not see very much evidence of what Jesus says really matters.  The may not see much love.
Now certainly worship can be an act of love in the same way that a lover authors a poem, sings a song, and brings flowers to his beloved; the way that a young child creates a work of art for her parent.  But worship can also be little more than habit, a birthday card for a spouse grabbed at Target on the way home to a marriage that is mostly routines with not much love.
In fact, the example of a marriage may be instructive.  It is all too common for marriages to become lifeless over time and not because either spouse has done anything terrible or bad.  It’s simply a matter of other things getting in the way.  Pursuing a career, raising children, keeping up with friends, working for important causes, dealing with life’s crises, and so on can push the marital relationship to the side, leaving little time for love.
Sometimes I think that the increasing disenchantment with the church among younger people parallels those same young people’s increasing distrust of marriage.  They’ve seen too many marriages and too much religion that appear to them all habit, duty, belief, and routine, without much love, without much real relationship.
A time management guru was speaking to a class at a top tier business school.  In the middle of his presentation he pulled out a one-gallon Mason-jar and carefully filled it with fist sized rocks.  Then he asked the class, “Is this jar full?” and everyone said, “Yes.”
But then he took out a bucket of gravel and began pouring it into the jar, shaking it so that the gravel worked its way in between the rocks.  Again he asked, “Is the jar full?” 
“Probably not,” a single student answered.
Next he brought out a bucket of sand and proceeded to pour sand in the jar, filling those spaces between the rocks and the gravel.  Once again he asked, “Is the jar full?” and the class shouted, “No!”
Then he took out a pitcher of water and poured it into the jar, filling it to the top.  Then he asked the class if they understood the point of this illustration.  One student offered, “No matter how full your schedule, if you try really hard, you can always fit more into it.”
“No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point.  The point is—if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”[1]
All too often, our lives and our faith are filled with gravel and sand and water.  Rarely are these really bad things, but they leave no room for the big rocks, for the really important things.  And if our lives and faith have gotten filled with sand and gravel and water, the only way to get any big rocks in, the only way to give the things that really matter their proper place, is to dump out some of that other stuff.
 If we want to restore a relationship so that it is founded on love, we have to make room for the big rocks.  We have to create the space and the time to be together, to talk to one another, to enjoy each other’s presence, to listen to each other.  We have to be willing to set aside some of the small stuff that crowds out the big rocks to do what matters to the other.  This is true for marriages and other human relationships, and it is just true for relationship with God. 
You know, congregations and denominations often seem to worry an awful lot about the sand and gravel and water.  Christians argue over the style of music in worship, whether gays can be elders and deacons and pastors, and all manner of small stuff.  I’ve heard it said that some of the nastiest church fights are over what color the carpet should be in the sanctuary.  Sand and gravel.   And to outsiders, it must look even worse.
But this is not the new life Jesus offers us, the good news that he embodies.  He calls us to new life that is about love.  It is about transformed life rooted in relationships, relationships of love with both God and neighbor.  Jesus simply will not separate the two.
When Jesus answered that question about what was most important, what really mattered, the scribe was impressed and said, “You are right, Teacher… ‘To love (God) with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself’ – this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  In our day he might add, than believing and going to church, than all sorts of sand and gravel.
And Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

[1] From the Leader’s Guide to What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian, which can be found online at

Friday, March 18, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - What's Really Important

I occasionally stay up too late watching old movies on TCM.  Last night I watched one I'd never heard of, the 1966 film Seconds starring Rock HudsonIt's a rather dark and disturbing movie about a well-to-do, middle-aged businessman whose life had lost its purpose.  Through a friend he finds out about the "Company," a secretive organization that give those who can afford it a new life.  Extensive surgery is used to change people's appearance and make them more youthful.  A similar looking cadaver is used to fake clients' deaths so they can start over.

Hudson plays the former Aurthur Hamilton (played by John Randolph), now reborn as artist Tony Wilson, living in a Malibu beach house.  At first Tony seems to be adjusting to his new life, developing a relationship with the beautiful Nora Marcus.  But he soon becomes disenchanted and discovers that all his new friends are actually other "reborns" like himself.  In violation of "Company" edicts he visits his old wife, pretending to be an old friend of her "deceased" husband.  He discovers that his marriage failed because of his focus on success and material possessions, the very things others told him were important.  And he begins to realize that the "Company" is simply trying to sell he a new version of this.  He's chasing after what they tell him is important, and once again his life seems to lack any real meaning or purpose.

In case you'd like to watch the movie, I won't spoil the ending for you.  But it is a dark film that explores where our wants and desires take us, and whether those wants and desires are reliable guides.  And as I watched it, I could not help being drawn into the profound, religious/philosophical issues being explored.  Where do our pursuits lead us?  Where have we gotten our notions of what is important, of what should motivate and guide our lives?  Would a fresh start let us discover better and more meaningful lives, or would we still be captive to what the culture has taught us is important?

When Moses addresses the Israelites just prior to their entering the Land of Promise, he warns them about not wasting their fresh start.  The previous generation has done just that.  After being rescued from slavery in Egypt, they have been quick to fall back into old patterns and abandon the ways of Yahweh.  And of course the Israelites who cross the Jordan into the Land will regularly copy the ways of the local Canaanites, falling away from the peculiar way of God, the way of life.

Christians often follow this same pattern.  We "believe," but we live by the ways of the world, and trust the world's wisdom on what is important, what will make for meaningful life.  I think this is why Jesus' call, "Follow me," is so important to the life of faith. Jesus shows the way, walks the path of true life, and he invites us to join him and discover our own true life along the way.  Now if only we can trust that he knows what he is doing.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Love, Judgment, and Scripture

Who has not seen, during a sporting event broadcast on TV, a crowd shot that shows someone holding up a sign with "John 3:16" written on it? Even if people don't know that it means, it has become a part of the American cultural landscape. Of course the verse referred to is a seminal one for many Christians. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

It is a beautiful verse in the middle of a critical section of John's gospel. But I confess that I have always struggled a bit with this passage. "For God so loved the world" is wonderful sounding, but it is followed by words of condemnation and judgment. Those who don't embrace God's love are "condemned already," and God's love coming into the world produces judgment because "people loved darkness rather than light." But what sort of love is it that shows up and condemns any who aren't immediately drawn to that love? What sort of loving parent would offer love with a sales pitch that says, "Call now! Offer expires soon?"

I suppose it helps a little to know that John writes to a Jewish-Christian community in crisis, encouraging them to hold onto their faith despite being ostracized at the local synagogue that has long been their religious home. Perhaps they need to hear that their rejection by friends and neighbors is the reverse of how things are with God. But if God truly loves the world (in John "world" is not so much a place as it is the arena that does not know God and resists God's ways), a world that God surely knows is inclined to flee the light, wouldn't God do something to get around the world's resistance to that love?

If nothing else, my questions are a warning about developing a theology from a few verses of Scripture. We simply cannot fit a meaningful faith on a bumper sticker or in a Tweet. And neither can a bumper sticker or 140 characters quote enough of the Bible event to begin speaking of God and God's work in the world. Indeed, one can't fully speak of God's work in Jesus drawing only on a single gospel. The picture of Jesus John gives us is incomplete without the other gospels and vice versa.

But still there is this issue of the light of God's love coming to the world, but people preferring darkness. Certainly love implies relationship, and relationship requires love to be both accepted and returned. To step away from love's advance has its consequences. But Jesus says something else in John's gospel just prior to his arrest and death. "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." That sounds to me like Jesus is sure that God's love will eventually triumph.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - How Can This Be?

A new book came out this week by Rob Bell, mega-church pastor who has produced the very popular and quite good NOOMA video series.  Love Wins has generated a lot of interest, earned a great deal of praise, and also produced some angry attacks on Bell's "heretical" views.  What seems to be causing all the fuss is Bell's questioning whether or not there actually is a hell, along with questioning the traditional Church view that the opportunity to respond to God's love expires at the moment of death.

I have not had the chance to read the book yet (I have ordered it), but I have heard Bell speak about the book, and I know that I agree with one of his challenges to traditional Christian beliefs.  A lot of Christian thinking proclaims a "gospel of evacuation."  In essence this states, "If you believe in Jesus, you will get rescued from this earth when you die and go somewhere a lot better.  Don't fret if your life stinks now, because it will be grand then."  As accepted as such ideas are, Bell and many others point out that Jesus never talks about us going to heaven.  Instead he speaks of the Kingdom, of God's reign coming to earth.  Jesus even teaches us to pray for this day saying, "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  In other words, heaven isn't a place we're suppose to escape to, earth is supposed to become like heaven.  But many in the Church find such an idea startling.

One of the big hazards for religious institutions is that we very easily presume that our religious assumptions are gospel truth.  Because we've always heard that Jesus came and died so that we could go to heaven when we die, then it has to be so, and anyone who says otherwise is obviously a troublemaker, a heretic, or worse.  And we don't even need to check the Bible on this.  We feel comfortable going with our gut.  Hey, we've always "known" this, so it must be true.

That seems to be Nicodemus' problem when he slips out in the dark of night to visit Jesus.  He's clearly enthralled by Jesus, can see that there is something special about him that cannot be explained without God at work in him in some way.  But Nicodemus cannot fit Jesus into his religious boxes and containers.   Even when Jesus tries to explain, Nicodemus can only say, "How can these things be?"  (There is a word play going here that cannot be rendered in English.  Jesus speaks a word that can mean either "again" or "from above."  Nicodemus hears Jesus say "born again" while Jesus means "born from above," i.e. by the Spirit, but we have no comparable word and so our translations remove the source of Nicodemus' confusion.)

But give Nicodemus credit. At least he goes to Jesus and tries to figure things out. Most of us prefer to hold onto our assumptions. And we have the advantage of having Jesus locked up in our largely unopened Bibles. We're free to construct an image of Jesus and of God that fits perfectly with our religious assumptions, and if someone like Rob Bell challenges them, we can always dismiss him as a heretic, a religious nut, etc.

Yesterday's daily devotion from Richard Rohr ended with this line. "Most Christians seem to have experienced just enough Christianity to forever inoculate themselves from the real power of the real thing."  I don't know if Rohr is talking about the same thing that I am, but I do think we often settle for just a little Christianity, just a little faith, enough that it solves some problem, makes us feel better, gives us hope, but not so much that it calls us to become something radically new in Jesus.

But God seems remarkably patient with us.  God keeps coming to us in Jesus.  After all, as Rob Bell says, in the end Love Wins.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Business as Usual

The story of Jesus "cleansing" the Temple, where he chased out the money changers and those selling animals, is well known to many Christians (though only in John's gospel does it happen at the beginning of Jesus' ministry).  But because the Temple operations were so different from anything modern people know, it can be difficult for us fully to understand what was going on.

The money changers were a necessity because people were not allowed to give offerings to God in Roman coins which bore the likeness of Caesar.  Pilgrims who journeyed to Jerusalem from far off needed a way to convert their coins into something acceptable.  Similarly, pilgrims who had journeyed long distances couldn't bring acceptable animals for sacrifice with them, and they needed to purchase these if they were to make the offerings prescribed by Scripture.  These "business people" in the Temple courtyard were matters of convenience/necessity, perhaps not all that different from allowing people to pay their pledges by credit card or bank draft.

But Jesus seems unimpressed by such issues.  His "zeal" for God's house demands that the focus be totally on God, that nothing distract or detract from offering worship, praise, and prayer to God.

How often do I enter into the sanctuary with almost no awareness of God's presence?  Though I am leading the people in worship and offering up prayers and a sermon, it is surprising how easy it is to do so as a matter of performance and routine, reciting my lines like an actor on the stage.

The same sort of problem can afflict worshipers.  People come into the sanctuary to see the show.  I certainly don't know what is on the hearts of individual worshipers, but I've been doing this long enough that I feel confident saying that significant number don't think much about God being there.

It is easy for religion to slip into business as usual (even if there are no money changers or animal sellers to be found).  We may even mention the need to up the pledges if we are going to keep all our current programing funded.  But where is God?

It is probably a good thing if Jesus occasionally turns over some of our tables and rattles our routines a bit.  Sometimes we need to be jostled out of business as usual if we are to turn fully to God.  It is so easy to become preoccupied with our little religious operation.  But as well intended as such operations usually are, they are not God.  Sometimes they even get in the way of God.

But God is there, just waiting for us to push aside some of the clutter.  In Jesus, God awaits us with open arms, longing for us to fall into the divine embrace.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Sunday Sermon video - Christian Identity: What We Are Not

Spiritual Hiccups - No Answers

Like many people, I've been watching images on TV and the Internet of the devastation in northern Japan, with death tolls expected to exceed 10,000 and an ongoing emergency involving several nuclear reactors.  When I awoke this morning, I checked for the latest news from Japan, and then I read today's lectionary passages, hoping that something would speak to me from those verses, that providentially some particularly appropriate text would offer hope or solace.

But the lectionary readings seemed blissfully unaware of this tragedy.  No reading seemed to have anything helpful to say.  Of course these readings are simply from a list made long ago. Still, I was hoping.

Pastors are often with people who have just experienced some terrible loss, a child killed in an accident, a loved one struck down by some terrible illness.  Sometimes they ask the awful question, "Why?"  It's a legitimate question, but I'm not sure that they really expect much of an answer.  I certainly don't have one. My usual answer is, "I don't know."

In seminary they teach you that what people need most at such times is your presence and not your answers.  That's good advice because answers tend to fail on several fronts.  To begin with, theological explanations of suffering don't really relieve pain.  Being held tightly by someone who loves you is far more comforting than any theological rationale. 

Far more problematic, explanations and answers often invalidate peoples questions and anger.  More often than not, religious answers seek to protect God's reputation, to somehow insulate God from people's anger and pain.  But if Jesus can scream an unanswered question from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1) who am I to deflect angry questions hurled at God by those caught up in inexplicable suffering.

I think that our desire to explain can sometimes be a form of idolatry.  We imagine ourselves capable of understanding all things, but as many have said, "Any god I can fully understand is no god at all."

I follow a number of pastors and religious folks on Twitter and such, and I'm happy to say that most of them have refrained from explaining the events in Japan.  Instead they have simply kept the people of Japan in their prayers, sent donations to aid groups, and asked others to do the same. 

There will be plenty of time later to reflect theologically on the events in Japan.  But for now, the best "answer" is not unlike the best answer we can extend to a friend who has lost a loved one unexpectedly: an "I don't know" that does not try to quell people's anger, a loving embrace, and whatever practical help we can offer.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday Sermon audio - Christian Identity: What We Are Not

Sunday Sermon text - Christian Identity: What We Are Not

Matthew 4:1-11
Christian Identity: What We Are Not
James Sledge                                                          March 13, 2011

When Jesus began his ministry in First Century Palestine, he arrived into a world that was anxiously awaiting a Messiah.  For a variety of reasons, messianic expectations were high.  Some folks were even making preparations.  One group, the Essenes, had withdrawn from society and set up an alternative community in the wilderness so they would be ready.  From their writings, popularly called The Dead Sea Scrolls, we know that they expected a Messiah, or perhaps a pair of Messiahs, who looked little like Jesus.
In fact, ever since the Jews had returned from exile in Babylon some 500 years earlier, and the hoped for glorious revival of the throne of David had failed to materialize, people had been looking for the One who would change all that, who would finally fulfill the promises of all the world streaming to Jerusalem and Mount Zion.
People carefully examined the Scriptures, finding those passages that seemed to offer clues about where this Messiah would come from, how he would act, and what he would do.  But there was no single image that everyone agreed on.  Hardly surprising.  Even today, Christian have many different images of Jesus.  Christians agree that Jesus was Messiah, and yet we still have a warrior Jesus, a hippy Jesus, a blonde-haired blue-eyed Jesus, a meek and mild Jesus, a wise sage Jesus, and so on and so on.
So if we can’t agree on the exact nature of Jesus, imagine how difficult it must have been for people when all they had were some verses from the Old Testament.  And how did they know for certain which verses were about the hoped for Messiah?  How were they supposed to reconcile those verses that seemed to suggest very different sorts of Messiahs? 
But, considering that Messiah simply means “anointed one,” and that this title, along with the title “Son of God,” had long be used to speak of Israel’s kings, it is hardly surprising that many Jews expected that the Messiah would revive the days of King David and then some.  He would throw out the hated Romans and their puppet Herod.  And depending on how literally you read your Scripture, he would either bring all the land promised to Moses and Joshua under his rule, or perhaps even all the world.
When Jesus was about to embark on his ministry, surely he knew well the varied images and expectations of a Messiah.  And if Jesus is genuinely human, and Christians have long insisted that he is, he must surely have wrestled with just what it meant for him to be Messiah.  He must have prayed and meditated and struggled to discern just what sort of Anointed One God meant him to be.
I take it that this is exactly what is happening when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness.  He is tempted to become a Messiah not in keeping with God’s intentions.  I’ve mentioned before that the devil’s “If you are the Son of God” temptations do not question Jesus’ identity as Son of God.  Rather, they tempt Jesus more in the manner of, “Since you’re God’s Son, surely you will do this.”
Surely no Messiah worth his salt would ever go without or be hungry.  What is the point of being King if you can’t have everything you desire?  And what better way to frighten the Romans and get everyone’s attention than by angels carrying you down from the top of the Temple?  And why not seize political power, toss ole Herod out on his ear, and take your rightful place on the throne of David? 
Jesus’ temptations come right after his baptism, where he has heard God call him “my son, the Beloved, in whom I delight.”  This seems to be the event that has precipitated the identity crisis being worked out in these temptations.  And I think we have to undergo something similar.  In our baptisms God claims us and says that we are beloved daughters and sons.   And like Jesus, we must wrestle with just what that means.  Like Jesus, there are popular identities for sons and daughters of God that we must reject if we are to find our true identity, if we are to live as the brothers and sisters of Jesus we are called to be.
During Lent, we are going to be looking at the our Christian identity.  As part of our Lenten Wednesday night program, we will be doing a study based on the book, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most.  We’re also going to pick up themes from this study during Sunday worship.  The book begins with ten short chapters on things Christians don’t need to believe.  And some of these may help us in discerning those popular identities for daughters and sons of God that we must reject.
Some of the Christian identities rejected by the book include Christians being at odds with science, Christians not doubting, Christians caring about people’s souls but not the planet, and Christians having to take the Bible literally.  All of these are images that are popular in our culture.  Some of them have come to define the faith for non-Christians in a manner that I think has greatly damaged the Church’s witness to the world. 
In the preface to the book, the author tells of meeting Danny, who said to him, “Preacher, you need to know that I’m an atheist.  I don’t believe the Bible.  I don’t like organized religion.  And I can’t stand self-righteous, judgmental Christians.”  But over time, Danny comes to realize that what he couldn’t stand was a false picture of Christianity, the Bible, and faith.  His picture of Christianity came to him from people who embodied popular stereotypes of Christian faith but had clearly not done that difficult wrestling and discerning required to hone a true Christian identity, an identity rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus.
In the waters of baptism, God has claimed you, has spoken and said, “You are my beloved daughter; you are my beloved son.”  This is wonderful news.  God loves us and claims us as God’s own.  But being loved and embraced by God is also a call to learn what it means to be a member of God’s household, to live into being God’s child.  And being a child of God looks like… well it looks like Jesus.  When Jesus says to us, “Follow me,” he is calling us to join him and learn a new identity, our true human identity in a life modeled on his.
Seeking a true, genuine identity motivates a great deal of human activity.  People wrestle with what they should do with their lives.  They pursue educations and careers.  Not infrequently, step away from careers that no longer seem to have meaning or purpose. 
People form relationships, seek that right person, and perhaps start a family.  And they sometimes question those relationships and wonder if their identity as spouse, parent, child, provider, is really who they are.
Deep within each of us is a desire to discover who we truly are, to claim an identity that really fits.  But we also have a strong need for security.  We are frightened of risk and can be paralyzed by fear, holding on to the familiar over a new that is unknown.  But faith calls us from where we are to something new.  Jesus calls us to follow him, and in so doing, to discover a new identity that is who we really are, sons and daughters of God.  And this is less about believing the right things and more about learning to live in the ways that fit our identity as God’s children.  And I hope you will join with us this Lent as we do a little identity work, trusting the promise of the Holy Spirit to help us discern what we are not, and lead us into becoming who we truly are, the children of God Jesus is calling us to become.