Thursday, August 30, 2012

What's It All About?

We live in a time when there are lot of questions about what church is going to look like in the future.  Terms like post-modern and emergent are now a regular part of church jargon. And while there is not much consensus on where things are headed, there is more general agreement that church models and forms and practices are in flux, that this is a time of great transition.

But I suspect that uncertainties and conflicts about methods and styles and forms also reflect uncertainties with regard to what it means to be Christian.  Some of the things I took for granted as a child in church are no longer givens.  My Southern Baptist and Methodist playmates might have looked and sounded a bit different from this Presbyterian, but deep down we all knew the Christianity was primarily about saving your soul, about getting your ticket punched for heaven.  There were also sides of morality and blessings from God on the menu, but the main course was heaven when you died.

This ticket to heaven revolved around Jesus, of course.  It seems that God would have had to punish us, but thanks to a magic formula with Jesus as central ingredient, we could get a pass, getting into heaven even though we didn't merit it.  Pity those poor folk who thought they could get in by being good.  Turns out that didn't work. You have to know the Jesus password.  Those folks who imagined they could make it without Jesus were only fooling themselves.  You can't be good enough for God. 

To the degree I ever thought of such things as a child, I assumed that those who rejected Jesus mistakenly thought they were good enough on their own and didn't realize what a terrible fix they were in because of this mistake. (I do recall once arguing with a Baptist friend that since it was only a mistake and not intentional evil on their part, surely God wouldn't send Jews to hell.)  I don't think it ever occurred to me that Jewish people knew all about God's grace long before Jesus showed up, as can be seen in today's reading, Psalm 143.

Hear my prayer, O LORD;
    give ear to my supplications in your faithfulness;
    answer me in your righteousness.
Do not enter into judgment with your servant,
    for no one living is righteous before you.

There it is right there. "I'm not right before you, God.  Please don't judge me because like everyone else, I fall short."  And the psalmist doesn't say anything about going to heaven.  Judgment and salvation for him have nothing to do with heaven. They are much more present and concrete.

It comes as a surprise to many Christians to learn that Jesus didn't speak very much about heaven either, and when he did he wasn't talking about us going there.  On the other hand, Jesus did talk a lot about the Kingdom, about a coming reign of God that his followers were to get ready for.  And this kingdom was not off-world.  It was breaking out here and there, within Jesus' followers, and it would eventually involve all of creation which itself "waits with eager longing" for that day, according to the Apostle Paul.

But if it doesn't require Jesus to know about God's grace, and if Jesus didn't come to get us to heaven (something Brian McLaren calls a "gospel of evacuation"), what's it all about?  I think answering this question is the vital task of the church in our day. 

Certainly the promise of eternal life is key component of Christianity, but popular notions of immortal souls are extra-biblical ideas imported from Greek philosophy, entirely foreign to Jesus and Paul and other early Christians.  And eternal life is not the end to which Christian faith aspires.  That end is the kingdom, the new heaven and new earth, the day when God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven, when earth becomes heaven-like.

In the notions of Christianity I picked up as a child, God doesn't really come off all that well.  God is forever sending folks to hell and some day will get so fed up that the whole world gets fried.  But it turns out that much of this view is not inherently biblical, and we Protestant Christians have long made a big deal about being biblical.  The biblical God comes off much better than the popular one I met as a child, a God you only wanted to be around if Jesus was there to keep God from getting you.  The biblical God has no plans to destroy the world, rapture anyone, or leave anyone behind.  The biblical God desperately wants to move the world toward a better future and is relentless in trying to draw us into that work, to enlist us as people who can show the world what they new day looks like.

It seems to me that a hopeful, loving, faith-driven vision of the future is something the world desperately needs right now.  It doesn't need a gospel of evacuation.  It needs a gospel of hope for a redeemed future.  It needs more people who have learned to live by the ways of heaven, not because they're getting ready to go there, but because they're getting the world ready for it to come here.  The world needs a Christianity that proclaims God's love for the world, a love that will not simply let the world do itself in, but will, in ways that confound and surprise us, bring life out of death and hope and possibility in the midst of cynicism and despair.

Whew! I'm getting wound up.  Think I'll stop now.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

When Things Are Bad

My own little difficulties drew me into today's reading from Job, but the situation along the Gulf Coast gave it a much sharper focus.  If posts on Facebook and Twitter are any guide, prayers for people along the Gulf are legion, yet Hurricane Isaac now seems to have parked over the New Orleans area, threatening to pummel the region with rain and floods for days.  Is that anyway to respond to our prayers, God?

Lots of people seem to know Job only from his reputation for patience, and so they might not recognize today's reading as words addressed to God from Job's lips.  "I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone, for my days are a breath. What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle? If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity? Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be." So much for patience.

Far too many people of faith seem unaware of these words or the fact that they are a faithful response to God.  The book of Job was written to address the Pat Robertsons of that day who argued that blessings came to good and faithful folks while curses came to those who did not walk in God's ways.  The book of Job is the strongest repudiation of neat and easy faith with all the answers.  There is no good reason for Job's horrible suffering, and even when God responds, there is no truly satisfactory answer.

I feel confident that those who claim to know why Hurricane Isaac is battering New Orleans on the very anniversary of Katrina know very little of genuine, biblical faith.  They are hucksters advertising an easy but ultimately false and worthless substitute.  Real faith must live with unanswerable questions and uncertainties.  Real faith will at times be confused, upset, or angry with God, yet still somehow rest in God.

I don't have much use for faith platitudes, but I do find that faith often deepens more in those moments of confusion, upset, doubt, and anger towards God.  "Be good and get rewarded;" that's not faith.  That's a formula or a contract.

I'm not real happy with God right now, and not just about New Orleans.  But Syria and homelessness are at least things we humans should be able to do something about.  And so I'll keep praying for those in the Gulf, and for Syria and the homeless.  I'll shake my head and maybe my fists in God's direction now and then. But I've experienced God's touch enough that I will still know that God is God, and even though I often cannot see it, God is indeed bending the flow of history toward the good. 

I do not think this is provable to anyone who has never felt God's touch, and I'll leave such proofs to the hucksters who peddle other trite items that pass for faith.  And despite things I cannot understand, despite very real suffering that is horrible and unjustified and tragic, despite ample evidence to the contrary, I will still somehow trust that creation is ultimately and finally in the good hands of a loving God.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sermon video - Armed and Ready

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sermon audio - Armed and Ready

Sermon and worship audios also available on church website.

Did I Offend You?

In today's reading from John, Jesus has been engaging in some provocative teachings about eating his flesh and drinking his blood that upset some of his followers, leading Jesus to ask, "Does this offend you?"  Some of the language in this episode is peculiar to John's gospel, and its exact meaning is subject to much interpretation, but Jesus could be equally offensive in the other three gospels. In fact, Jesus is forever saying things that must have caused potential followers turn away in droves.

Fast forward a couple thousand years to a time when many churches are dealing with declining membership and declining participation.  While some congregations are doing just fine, the overall percentage of people connected to church in some way has been in a slow, steady drop for decades. In such a climate, it is no surprise that discussions on how to retain and attract members have a certain sense of urgency. And surely the last thing we would want to do at such a moment is offend anyone.

In our stewardship campaign this Fall, we are trying to focus less on dollar amounts and more on the spiritual side of giving. One part of this is to talk about percentage giving and encouraging people to make a small step toward tithing. The idea is that this is a lot more manageable, a lot less offensive, than just saying, "You need to give 10% of your income to God."  That is so far from an average of near 2% given by the typical Presbyterian that likely no one would respond well to such a call.

But as someone on the Stewardship committee rightly pointed out, even a small step toward a tithe could be a good chunk of change for someone making the kind of salary common in the DC area.  Do we really want to ask people to step up like that?  Do we really want to ask people to do something they may feel unable to do?

I think such questions go well beyond issues of stewardship.  They are basic faith questions.  Jesus had no trouble issuing very difficult charges to his followers, right up to demanding that they be willing to lose their lives.  But Jesus lived in a very different time.  We don't dare use his language today. We might offend.  Worse, we might scare people away.

Think about the groups, organizations, and relationships that have had the most meaning and impact in your life.  In my own life, and in conversations with others, these are most often entities that place significant demands on us.  Sports teams, fraternities and sororities, military units, Peace Corps and Teach for America, marriage and families, etc. all demand a large piece of us.  Those who can't give the required commitment never experience the camaraderie of the team or squad. Those unable to fully invest themselves find enduring marriage difficult if not impossible.  Those unable ever to let their own needs become secondary to cause or family miss out on something that can never be fully explained to those who've never experienced it.

The same dynamics apply to faith, to relationship with God in Christ, which is why Jesus can say that those who lose their lives for his sake and the sake of the gospel will find them.  So why are we so afraid we might offend someone if we ask much of them?  Why are we so afraid to do as Jesus said?  "Go, and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them... and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you."

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Pray for Me

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
    for in you my soul takes refuge; 

in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
    until the destroying storms pass by.
I cry to God Most High,
    to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
He will send from heaven and save me.      from Ps. 57

 As a pastor, I frequently get "prayer requests."  People are going through some difficulty, or they know someone who is, and they ask me to pray for them.  I am more than happy to do so, and we also print people's names in our Sunday bulletin so that other church members can pray for them as well.  I do wonder, however, if our prayer patterns don't sometimes get a little off kilter.

We Presbyterians very intentionally do not have priests.  We believe in "the priesthood of all believers" and do not think pastors have any better access to God than other people. Because we pastors lead corporate worship, we often lead the congregation in prayer, often sharing prayer requests with the larger congregation in so doing, but that does not mean a prayer counts more when the pastor says it.

Another problem with our prayer patterns sometimes develops when it becomes primarily a divine request line.  Prayer should be a way that we draw close to God, the way we interact with God, engaging in kind of shared intimacy.  But sometimes it becomes little more than requests for favors, a formalized practice meant to get results. And this probably contributes to the idea that such requests are best left to the pros, the pastors.

But for me, the biggest issue with prayer is about trusting that it matters, that God is actually engaged in my life and the lives of others.  For me, prayer can become mostly inner soul searching.  All too often, I don't come to God with something concrete unless I'm at wits end and have no where else to turn.  Such prayers can have a "This probably won't help, but it can't hurt" sense about them, a little like buying a lottery ticket in the midst of a financial crisis.

I think I was so turned off by some Christians who seem to treat God as a genie in a bottle who always come through if you have enough faith, pray correctly, etc, that I avoid anything that sounds like them.  But when I cannot talk with God about what I feel that I need, what sort of relationship is that?  Perhaps God will have to help me realize that I don't need it after all, but such a conversation isn't likely to take place without my speaking up.

Perhaps this is where faith really comes in with regards to prayer.  It's not so much about God doing what we want if we have faith.  Rather it is about having enough faith truly to entrust our lives to God, to believe that God is intimately involved in them and impacts what happens in our lives.  Not that God is any sort of heavenly Santa Clause. Faith and prayer are about trusting that God acts to shape the trajectory of our lives and the events in them so that we begin to discover who we truly are and what our true purpose is.

And when I can trust that God acts in my life, then I can also trust that God acts in the lives of others, and so I will want to pray for them as well.  And so I'll pray for you, and I hope you'll pray for me.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Update on sermon videos

Thanks to technical help from Bruce Gilbert and Christ Growney, the technical problems with recording sermon videos seem to have been overcome.  Last Sunday's video is now up on YouTube, and hopefully this week's will be available soon.

Sermon - Armed and Ready

Ephesians 6:10-20
Armed and Ready
James Sledge                                                                                       August 26, 2012

When I was a kid, a favorite hymn of many of the adults around me in church was “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”  And I don’t think the churches where I grew up were unusual in that regard.  As part of its Olympic coverage, NBC had a documentary on Great Britain during World War II, and in it they told of Winston Churchill’s attempts to woo President Roosevelt and get American support for Britain in that period when England was the last holdout against Hitler in Europe but American had not yet been drawn into the war.  During one of their meetings, Churchill had a military chorus sing several hymns, including “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and it apparently had a profound and moving impact on FDR.
And so in 1989, when the committee charged with producing a new Presbyterian Hymnal finished its work, culminating in the Blue hymnal that sits in the pews of this sanctuary, it was not long before a cry went up about the old favorites that had gone missing, notable among them, “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”
I was a pretty marginal member of the church in the late 1980s, and I had little knowledge of church politics or the work of hymnal committees.  But from what I’ve heard, the hymn had a couple of strikes against it.  There were music folks who didn’t think the tune anything all that great, and then there was the militaristic sound and theme.  If you’re not familiar with the hymn, it felt as though it could have been a military march. 
Any new hymnal has to drop some old hymns if it is to add any new ones, and it’s hardly surprising this one lost out.  In the post-Vietnam era, the last thing the Presbyterian Church wanted to do was sound militaristic.  In my imagination I can just see some hymnal committee member saying, “Let the Southern Baptists sing ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ if they want to, but not us.”
Now I can’t say that there have been many occasions when I wished the hymn was available to go with one of my sermons.  If I had been on that hymnal committee, I likely would have been happy to see it get kicked out.  But something Kathleen Norris wrote in her book, The Cloister Walk, made me wonder about how easily I disliked the hymn for its military imagery.  Norris was lamenting modern America’s literalism and difficulty with metaphor, and she writes, “Poets believe in metaphor, and that alone sets them apart from many Christians, particularly people educated to be pastors and church workers.  As one pastor of Spencer Memorial – by no means a conservative on theological or social issues – once said in a sermon, many Christians can no longer recognize that the most significant part of the first line of ‘Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,’ is the word ‘as.’  (The hymn has been censored out of our new hymnal by the literal-minded, but we sing it anyway.) ”[1]  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Not Enough Like Me

"Love your neighbor as yourself."  If you're Christian, and even if you're not, you're likely familiar with this command.  Jesus says that loving God with our entire being and loving our neighbor as ourselves pretty much covers it all.  Do these, and everything else falls into place.  And so as a pastor, I encourage people to love their neighbors, to love one another. But at the very same time, I have to admit that I often struggle to love some folks.

It's all their fault of course.  They are mean, or troublesome, or hateful, or manipulative, or controlling, or strange, or stupid, or hold political views I find repugnant, or some other thing that bothers me.  I'd be happy to love them, but they make it very difficult.  I'm all ready to love them, but their behavior, demeanor, beliefs, or plain oddness prevents me.

In today's passage from Acts, the Ethiopian eunuch asks a simple question.  "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" But in the time these words were written, most everyone who read them would have known precisely what. And they were huge barriers.  The man was a Gentile to begin with, a big obstacle though not necessarily an insurmountable one.  But he was also a eunuch, and Scripture was clear that eunuchs weren't allowed.

I have to think that the very first time the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch was read in a church gathering, some members got upset, maybe even thought about leaving. It had been one thing to hear about Jesus telling them to love their neighbor and even to love their enemy.  But that was all a bit esoteric.  This was a concrete example of reaching out to embrace someone who didn't fit, who didn't belong.  But the normal thinking that should have prevented Philip from loving this fellow didn't work as it was supposed to. Philip loved him even though he shouldn't have.

The other day I was thinking about the people I follow on Twitter, and the huge majority of the them are either folks I find entertaining, or that I find it easy to like. I don't follow many folks who are significantly different from me, whose politics I don't like, or who say things that upset me.  Nothing strange about that, I suppose. But this little, virtual community is a lot like real ones, a lot like many church  congregations.  Churches are often filled with people who find it easy to like or love one another.  And so churches are often segregated along political, economic, social, and racial lines.  Our unity is not in Christ, but in other things that make is easy for us to get along.  Often we form faith communities with people whose looks, politics, tastes, etc. don't prevent us from loving them.

American individualism combined with consumerism helps produce a religious climate where people of faith "church shop," looking of a community that fits their tastes, needs, wants, and desires.  We're so used to this that we scarcely think about it. But it is a bit hard to reconcile with "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Money Trouble

For those churches that conduct annual stewardship campaigns (this congregation among them) the season is fast approaching.  Falls Church Presbyterian is putting the final touches on our campaign for this year.  After all, running a church takes a good bit of money.  There are salaries to pay, utilities, and perhaps a mortgage.  There are music programs, educational programs, mission to the community and world, and these all cost money.

But the relationship of faith and money is often a troublesome one.  To disciples who assumed that great wealth was a sign of God's blessing, Jesus said, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"  And today's reading from Acts raises another issue, thinking our money can buy us what we most want.

When a man named Simon saw the Holy Spirit enter people when Peter and John laid hands on them, he offered money that he might have the power to confer the Spirit as well.  But his request meets with harsh condemnation from Peter, who demands that Simon repent saying, "For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness."

Most of us would never be so brazen as to ask to purchase power from God. For that matter, many of us realize that we cannot earn anything from God, that God loves us because that's how God is.  And yet when stewardship season rolls around, we often start sounding like one of those regular PBS fundraisers.  "If you enjoy the great programing on your PBS station, you need to support that station." "If you enjoy the great music program at Falls Church Presbyterian, you need to support that program." 

It's a considerably more nuanced approach that the one Simon employs, but there are similarities.  "If you enjoy the worship and like how it helps you experience God, you need to pay for it."

I do not think that churches need to make any apologies for needing money to pay salaries and operate facilities, programs, and mission.  But the relationship of faith any money creates real spiritual problems for both individuals and the church itself. 

Many are familiar with the statement that says, "Budgets are moral documents."  The way governments divide up the money they have speaks volumes about a people's moral priorities.  In the same way, church budgets and personal budgets are spiritual documents, speaking volumes about our faith priorities.  But when churches use the PBS approach - "If you like it, you ought to pay for it." - we reduce a spiritual issue to a practical one, and we fail to call members to the discipleship Jesus asks of us.  Jesus says we are to love God with all that we have and are, and to love our neighbor as ourself, and he insists that money is one of the biggest obstacle to faithful life with God.  But all too often, we undercut Jesus' call, instead saying, "If you like what we're doing here, please give us a tiny bit of your leftovers after you've made sure you and yours have all that you want and need."

I don't for a moment think that Jesus meant generosity toward God and neighbor is the same thing as giving to the local church.  I have absolutely no issues with those who have felt God calling them to give extravagantly to some cause that furthers the peace, justice, mercy, and hope of God's coming reign.  But in my experience, and in every study I've ever seen, people of faith who are extravagantly generous with causes and organizations that work to better community and world are equally generous with their place of worship.

In a way, I suppose it all comes back to how I view myself and thus my possessions.  Am I my own, or do I belong to God?  And if "I belong -- body and soul, in life and in death -- not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ," then it stands to reason that in some way, all that I have belongs to him as well.  Now Jesus is a great guy, and he is more than happy for us to use some of it to live, to meet our basic needs, to enjoy life, and to have a good time now and then.  After all, Jesus liked a good party and a little wine.  But he also said we had to lose ourselves in order to discover true life.  And I'm pretty sure you can't lose much when you're busy keeping your wallet tightly closed.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Opposing the Spirit

"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?"  So says Stephen as his "trial" concludes in today's reading from Acts.  Hardly the way to talk to people who have power over you. No wonder Stephen gets executed.  But I suppose Stephen knows the whole thing is a foregone conclusion.  However, it was not Stephen's plight that caught my attention.  It was the content of his statement, and I found myself wondering if things have changed very much since Stephen spoke. 

I think we all tend to look back on colossal bad judgements of the past and assume we wouldn't have acted so foolishly. We like to think we would have always been on the right side of history, but the witness of history makes that seem unlikely.  Prophets are almost always a lot more popular after the fact.  Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated with regularity now, but that was not the case 50 years ago.  Even "progressive," white pastors asked King to tone it down and go slower, a request he rebuffed eloquently in his, Why We Can't Wait

Even those who were on the right side of history with regards to Civil Rights or other movements should likely not fee too smug. There's a good chance of finding yourself on the wrong side of another movement.  I've had a number of young, progressive reformers tell me that "old progressives" are sometimes their biggest obstacle because of how encrusted they have become.

All of this makes me wonder when and where I might be working counter to the Spirit.  As a pastor, it stands to reason that there are times when I am called to be prophetic. But if prophets are uniformly persecuted, as Stephen suggests, that's no fun.  Perhaps I could just be prophetic about things that are distant and far off, with no implications for my congregation or community.  Maybe that would insulate me.

I think one of my biggest fears as a pastor is finding out after the fact that I was working against the Spirit's moving to reform my own denomination.  As a group, we're on the progressive side, but we are also on the encrusted side.  I hear a lot of young pastors and other Presbyterians who are very frustrated with the church.  They have my sympathies, but as our denomination plods along toward the future, I wonder sometimes if I'm not a little like some members of the Jewish council who had misgivings about the proceedings against Stephen, but who didn't want to call too much attention to themselves by standing up.

I am fortunate to serve in a wonderful, vibrant congregation that that is considerably younger than the typical Presbyterian church.  But in a world where fewer and fewer people grow up in church, I wonder how well situated we are to translate faith to coming generations.  The worship here is well done, and the music program is unbelievably good.  Yet if you somehow time warped one of our services back to the sanctuary where I was seated in 1968 (a place that also had a stellar music program), I don't know that I would have noticed very much difference.

To any FCPC folks reading this, don't get nervous.  I'm not suggesting anything. I'm just wondering.  I wondering what it means to be a faithful church in the vastly different religious landscape of 2012. I wondering what the Spirit is up to, and whether I am spiritually astute enough to notice.  I'm wondering what words Stephen would have for me.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sermon audio - Letting Go and Falling into God

Sermon and worship audios also available at Falls Church Presbyterian website.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sermon - Letting Go and Falling into God

1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
Letting Go and Falling into God
James Sledge                                                                                       August 19, 2012

Several decades ago, Mac Davis had something of a hit song entitled “It’s Hard to Be Humble.”  The opening verse, which also serves at the chorus, goes, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.  I can’t wait to look in the mirror ‘cause I get better looking each day.  To know me is to love me. I must be a hell of a man.  Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, but I’m doing the best that I can.”
You can find countless T-shirts, coffee cups, and bumper stickers that play on this hard to be humble theme.  It’s hard to be humble when you’re Scottish, Irish, Scandinavian, or from Texas.  It’s hard to be humble when you go to (insert your school name here).  It’s hard to be humble when you own a Border collie, ride a Harley, or – I actually found this one – crochet. 
Whatever the reason, seems it’s hard to be humble.  We may not like it if you go too far and act like Donald Trump, but our culture associates humility with weakness and timidity.  We’re more likely to pad our résumés than to leave stuff out.  Employment experts will tell you that you need to “sell yourself” when you apply for a job, and sell of course means to make yourself look as good as possible.  The pressure in our society to be impressive is tremendous, and we regularly see people get caught because they felt they needed to lie on their résumé.
Humility is no easier to come by among church professionals.  Pastors compare how big their congregations are, and rare is the pastor who feels God’s call to a smaller congregation.  I suspect a lot of us would have a hard time encouraging our congregations to do something we were certain God wanted if it would cause attendance or giving to go down.
To make matters worse in the pastoral humility department, we pastors are sometimes prone to confuse our own agendas with God’s. When we have ideas that we think are great, we expect everyone else to think they are great, too.  Most of the things I’d like to take back or undo as a pastor happened when I was overly impressed with my own ideas and got adamant or defensive when Session, some committee, or some other group didn’t want to go along.
Of course, while it may be hard to be humble, Christian faith is quite big on humility, as are most of the world’s religions.  The Old Testament wisdom from Proverbs says, When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but wisdom is with the humble.  Jesus describes himself as humble and he says on more than one occasion, “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  And the letter of James quotes the Old Testament in reminding readers, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
King Solomon seems to have gotten the memo on humility.  When he encounters God in our reading today he says, “O Yahweh my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.”  Little child here does not refer to Solomon’s age but to his status before God.  The same is true with regards to saying he is God’s servant, or, more literally, God’s slave.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Finding Our Place in the Story

Stephen is on trial for his life, falsely accused of blaspheming God and the Jerusalem Temple. Once the charges against him are outlined, the chief priest asks him, "Are these things so?"  And Stephen answers by beginning to tell a story.  He goes all the way back to Abraham, and sketches out Israel's story from Abraham to Isaac to Joseph to Moses and Joshua to David and Solomon.  Finally, he locates Jesus in this story.

It's a rather odd way to answer the priest's question when you think about it.  But Jesus also tends to tell stories when asked questions.  Someone says, "Who is my neighbor?" and Jesus tells the story of the "Good Samaritan."  I suppose stories and parables helped people remember Jesus' teachings better than straight forward answers, but I also think that faith is more story based than we modern folks tend to be.

If you're in a business meeting or a committee meeting and someone says, "Let me tell you a story," there will likely be groans (unless the person is a very gifted story teller).  We don't have time to waste on stories.  We are about efficiency and getting things done.  But in our rush to be efficient and accomplish things, we often have little sense of context, of where we are in the story.

It's seems rather obvious that we are products of stories: family stories, community stories, school stories, national stories.  We are shaped and molded by the narrative in which we live, but for whatever reason, we tend to think of ourselves as free and independent agents who create our own stories.  Those born into privilege speak of creating their own success.  We talk easily of earning what we have, often oblivious to the fact that we might well have done nothing of the sort in another age or culture, without infrastructures and supports that others provided, without advantages provided by gender, race, academic or physical gifts, etc.

Our disconnection from our stories has a profound impact in the way we pursue and experience faith.  The notion of "going to church" rather than "being the church" is but one example.  In some congregations, there is no more sense of community on Sunday morning than there is in a movie theater.  People are there to get something they need, and they don't necessarily see that as connected to a larger story intertwined with those around them.

A big part of my Reformed/Presbyterian tradition is the idea of vocation or call.  A vocation is not what I happen to do for a living but what I am meant to do, an activity that benefits me and my community, as well as God's plans for Creation. Responding to God's call, discovering one's vocation, is about finding our place in a larger story, one that we do not write on our own.

It seems to me that at times America's worship of individualism rises to a level that is extremely hazardous to faith and relationship with God. If we presume that we are author, producer, and director of our own stories, then we have forgotten the lesson of that old catechism question.  "Q. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?  A. That I belong--body and soul, in life and in death--not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ..."

I am not my own.  In Christ, I belong to God. And I am who I am meant to be, I am truly and fully alive, only when I discover my calling and take my place in the story of which God is author, designer, producer, and director.  I uncover my truest and deepest identity, my true self, as I take my small part in God's great narrative.  "A wandering Aramean was my father..."

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Welcome Table

I peeked in a little while ago to see how the Welcome Table was going.  That's a once-a-month meal hosted by this congregation where we also give out toiletries and gift cards for a local grocery store.  The numbers seem to get larger each month, and it was a huge crowd tonight.

The crowd is a very mixed group.  There are  different ethnic groups.  There are young and old.  There are individuals and families.  There are those who appear to be long term homeless, and there are those who may have just recently fallen on some hard times. 

I only recently moved to the DC area.  Homes right around this church are hard to find for less than $500,000.  I routinely get requests for rent assistance from people paying hundreds a month for a room in someone else's apartment.  As I watched some of these folks eating in our Fellowship Hall this evening, it struck me that many of them are our version of Samaritans.

Many of us think of Samaritans only in the context of the "good" one who now refers to someone doing a good deed.  But in Jesus' day, Samaritans were looked down on.  They were "inferior" in every way possible: ethnically, religiously, racially.  That Jesus lifts up a Samaritan as an example of how to be a neighbor to others is nothing short of scandalous.

But that happens in Luke's gospel.  In John's gospel we meet a more "typical" Samaritan.  She is surprised that Jesus speaks to her, worthless Samaritan that she is.  We learn that she had had five husbands and is now living with a man outside marriage. And even Jesus affirms that Samaritans are a bit wanting in the religious department.  And yet, she comes much closer to understanding Jesus than the religious teacher Nicodemus does few chapters earlier.

We Presbyterians are quite proud of being an educated denomination.  We make much of the fact that we require our pastors to study Greek and Hebrew so they can handle Scripture in its original languages.  And in my personal experience, we liberal/progressive Presbyterians are often even more taken with the idea of being educated, smart, and figuring things out.

I don't really have any grand conclusions from all this.  These are just thoughts bouncing around in my head right now.  The undesirables and sometimes despised of our day are eating just down the hall in a place led by a "religious expert," namely me.  And religious experts were befuddled by Jesus while an undesirable and despised of his day come face to face with God's great I AM and find new hope.

Sometimes it's hard not to hear Jesus speaking to me, as he did to religious experts of his day, saying, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you."

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God. 
         (from Ps. 42)

During today's staff meeting, during a time of extended devotion and Bible study, we somehow got on the subject of why church people can be so unnerved by change, especially change in worship. (This seems to apply just as much, perhaps even more, to progressive/liberal Christians who one might expect to be most open to change.)

One wise staff member suggested something that had never occurred to me.  She said that some people may be spiritually hungry and thirsty, even starving, and worship is the single most important spiritual resource they have.  And so even a small change in worship can be perceived as a potential threat to their spiritual lifeline.

I don't know if this is the case, but I does make sense to me.  People who lead stressed out, hectic and harried lives may find it difficult to encounter much that feels spiritual on a day to day basis.  Under such circumstances, Sunday worship may be an oasis of sorts.

As I have become more familiar and more practiced in recent years with spiritual disciplines such as lectio divina, centering prayer, contemplative prayer, and spiritual direction, I have had to overcome my own prejudices of these disciplines being little more than esoteric, mysterious rituals with little to do with actual life.  They had often seemed to me little more that a nice diversion for folks who had too much time on their hands and thus could leave the everyday for extended periods.  And I also must confess that I was drawn to such practices because of a growing need to escape the burnout of the day to day.

But over time, I have come to recognize that spiritual practices are not about escape.  Nor are they about getting away to recharge one's spiritual batteries.  At their most radical and profound level, spiritual disciplines are about becoming more and more attentive to God's presence, grace, providence, and will at work in one's life and in the life of the world.  And this attentiveness is meant to go with you in the midst of day to day living. 

There is a lot of superficial spirituality being offered in the marketplace these days.  Much of it is well intended, but it often reinforces the stereotype of spirituality as something done away from daily life.  Such a spirituality may keep people from starving, but it fails at some fundamental level to form people for living every moment in the awareness of God's presence and will.

And that circles me back round to that observation about worship as an oasis, as a small morsel of food for the spiritually starving.  To the degree that worship is functioning this way for some, then it seems that we in the church may be failing at some fundamental level to form people for lives lived in the midst of God's vivid presence.  And if we are just barely giving people enough to keep them from starving, what do we need to do to help people become so filled with God's love and grace that it overflows to offer peace and life and hope to all whom they meet?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Poor Nicodemus, Poor Me

Poor Nicodemus.  Why does faith have to be so hard? Nick seems genuine.  He is drawn to Jesus. Yes, I know he comes at night, in the dark, but don't we all?  I know that very often I publicly come to Jesus only in those ways that are "acceptable."  But if I get any hints that Jesus is asking something outside the norm of me, I explore that in secret.  I'll keep that between me and Jesus until I'm a bit clearer on things. 

But when Nicodemus comes to Jesus, Jesus talks in a manner that seems designed to confuse and confound.  Perhaps this is just a literary devise John uses to draw us into a deeper conversation about faith, but we can get caught up in the confusion ourselves.  Just witness the divides in modern Christianity around "born again" language drawn from this passage.

I have to admit that some days I'd like to grab Jesus by the collar, shake him vigorously and demand, "Talk straight to me, dammit! Tell me what you mean and what you want me to do. None of this spiritual riddle stuff."  Of course I'm a little scared that if he complied, I wouldn't like what he said, and I wouldn't want to do it.

And then there is the fact that Jesus is very clear about some things; love your enemies, for instance. But I tend to hold onto my anger with those who make my work difficult as a pastor.  These "enemies" of my ministry plans sometimes get under my skin in a way that I cannot bear.

Jesus also says that money and possessions are a huge barrier to right relationship with God and neighbor, but I love things.  I like to think that I'm afflicted with a less virulent strain of consumerism than most of those around me, but I'm afflicted nonetheless.  And I am quite certain that I would be a lot happier if I somehow ended up with a winning lottery ticket, never mind what Jesus says.

As I reflect on all this, I'm thinking that I may want to say something else when I grab Jesus by the collar and shake him.  I think I need to borrow one of Anne Lamott's primal prayers.  "Help me, help me, help me." And come to think of it, I'm pretty sure Jesus never said this would be easy.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sermon - Imitating God

Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Imitating God
James Sledge                                                                                       August 12, 2012

When I was a child, Disney movies were a staple of my movie going.  The Parent Trap, 101 Dalmations, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, and many others came out during my childhood.   A movie that I particularly liked, in part because my family had a dachshund, was one starring Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette entitled The Ugly Dachshund.
As I recall, Suzanne Pleshette’s prized and pampered dachshund is about to give birth to puppies, an event of such importance that she and her husband, played by Dean Jones, rush the dog to the veterinary hospital, enlisting a police escort from an officer who mistakenly believes this emergency involves a human birth.  Following the delivery, the vet convinces Dean Jones to place a Great Dane puppy who has been rejected by his mother into the litter of dachshund pups.  And so Brutus goes home as a member of this dachshund family, unbeknownst to Suzanne Pleshette.
As the title of the movie suggests, Brutus, raised by a dachshund mother with dachshund siblings, thinks he is a dachshund.  But of course as Brutus grows into a huge Great Dane who thinks he’s a tiny dachshund, all sorts of movie disasters and hilarity ensue.
It gets so chaotic that Suzanne Pleshette wants Brutus gone, but Dean Jones pleads with her and sets out to prove that Brutus can actually live up to his Great Dane DNA, entering Brutus in the same dog show as his wife’s prized dachshunds.   The plan almost goes terribly awry when Brutus spots a dachshund from the show ring, immediately reverting to thinking he’s a dachshund, crawling on his belly to appear small.  But the situation is salvaged when Brutus spots a lovely Great Dane and begins to adopt the regal, imposing figure of the Great Dane he actually is, winning the blue ribbon.
 The Ugly Dachshund is far from a great movie, but it does touch on a significant topic, that of identity and where it comes from.  Brutus the Great Dane has acquired an identity that does not fit him, and trying to live out his mistaken identity has been the source of countless mishaps and disasters.  But when Brutus encounters a Great Dane who knows she’s a Great Dane and begins to imitate her, he discovers his own, true identity.
Who am I?  That’s a huge existential question, along with associated questions about how I become who I am.  Nature or nurture or some combination, and then in what proportions?  What is the interplay of genetics and environment?  None of us like to think we are programed or fated to turn out a particular way, but we also know that children who are abused often grow up to be abusers, that there are cycles of poverty and violence which seem intractable.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Coincidences and Providences

I love the LORD, because he has heard
    my voice and my supplications. 

Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.  
(from Ps. 116)

In his book, Humble Leadership, Graham Standish reports something a former archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, is supposed to have said.  "I find that when I pray coincidences happen. When I cease to pray, coincidences stop happening."  Temple is, of course, speaking of providences rather than coincidences.  When through prayer he is more attuned and aligned with God, he sees and experiences God at work in his life and in the world around him.

Now I don't mean that every good turn of events can or should be attributed to God. (I have a memory seared into my brain of a boxer thanking God for his victory, saying how he felt Jesus empowering his fists as he pummeled his opponent into submission.)  But without some meaningful connection to and experience of God and God's providence, faith is nothing more than a philosophy or ideology.

The psalmist loves YHWH because God has heard him, has responded to him in some way.  I think this is often a weak point in Mainline Christianity.  We're big on knowledge, but not so much on experience.  In fact, we're suspicious of it.  I was once at a retreat that featured Brian McLaren.  He made an offhand comment about being able to learn something from Pentecostals, and most of the pastors over 50 practically came out of their seats to challenge him.

We certainly need to "test the spirits" to see which are from God, and a solid, biblically based knowledge of God and God's ways can help us to do this.  But if we cannot encounter God at work in our lives and in the world, along with being able to identify that work as providence, then we might as well be Deists.  I'm not knocking Deists, but we Presbyterians insist we don't believe in a great, cosmic clock-maker who is now removed from Creation. We say God IS at work in history, so surely  with the help of the Spirit, we should be able to say, "See, there is God's providence."

Of course if we became perceptive enough to sense God at work on a regular basis, it stands to reason that we would also become more sensitive to God's call in our lives.  We would also hear God's command.  And maybe that's a pretty good reason to keep God at arm's length.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Something Old in Something New

When I read the daily lectionary passages, I admit to sometimes hurrying past the morning psalms.  Some of the same psalms occur with great frequency, and I think to myself, "Just saw that one the other day," as I begin to skim.

This morning I read, "O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth."  It is one of those frequent psalms, and I began to speed up.  But before I could accelerate to full skim mode, I caught enough of the next few lines that something grabbed me.  The psalmist had commanded something old and something new.  We are to remember and declare God's saving acts and marvelous works, but apparently it requires a "new song" to do so.

I don't know why this contrast never struck me before.  I've commented before on this command for a "new song" alongside congregational "worship wars" where people fight to hang on to the old songs.  But I'm not sure I've ever thought about this idea that declaring what God has done requires a "new song."

Being the Church requires a fair amount of remembering and retelling.  We are rooted in a salvation story, a long story of God's countless, gracious acts to pull humanity back and repair a broken relationship.  Along with songs, laws, and wise saying, the Bible is a book of stories, stories we need to know to know who we are.  But, at least according to this psalm, sharing this knowledge requires new songs, repackaging if you will.

An inherent problem for all faith communities, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. is a tendency to confuse our core purposes and our packaging.  We decide that our way of worshiping or singing, our style of liturgy or music, is somehow essential to the faith.  Worshiping God with music and song may well be essential to the exercise of biblical faith, but our particular music and song are not.  This is not an argument for or against any particular music style, but it is a reminder that getting confused about essential and packaging may make it difficult for us to tell of God's saving acts and marvelous works.

When we remember and tell, we do so in  order to be joined to a story that is moving toward a yet-to-come future.  Jesus calls us to proclaim the kingdom, the reign of God that is now only partially seen.  And our methods of telling can never be so rooted in the past that the past seems to be our desired destination.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Praise the LORD!
  Praise the LORD, O my soul! 

I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
  I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

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, 
who made heaven and earth,
  the sea, and all that is in them; 

who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed;
  who gives food to the hungry.             (from Ps. 146)

Most of us take some note of what other people think of us.  It bothers us if they think poorly of us and heartens us if they think us impressive in some way.  If I stumble and nearly fall, I quickly look around to see if anyone was watching.  Strange that I give others so much power over me, worrying constantly about how they see me.

Most of us tend to be very ego driven.  We are very focused on self, on staking out and defending an identity.  We do this almost completely in comparison to others.  We are forever building our
résumé, trying to portray ourselves in the best light compared to others.  And most of us want to be better, more powerful, richer, prettier, better dressed, and so on than those around us. The last thing we want to be is unimportant and insignificant.  We know that we can't always be first, but we can't stand the idea that we might be last.

I think this is why we so value being independent. Becoming dependent on others is a huge blow to our egos, to those résumés we work so hard to build.  To move from independent to dependent is a move toward insignificance in many people's minds, and some of us will go to absurd lengths to guard our independence and supposed significance. 

In ancient times, royalty was about as significant as they come, but this morning's psalm insists on their insignificance.  And the psalm calls for a radical dependence, a call echoed over and over in the Bible.  "Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, who hope is in Yahweh their God."  

Richard Rohr's meditations this week have been on "Healing Our Violence."  (They were not a response to the shooting at the Sikh temple but are certainly fitting.)  In today's piece he speaks of how our résumé-building egos are inherently insecure, "grasping for significance."  And this striving for significance, importance, and power is at the root of much of the conflict in our world.  But when our selves find their true identity in God, in radical dependence on God, we discover that we have "very little to defend, fight about, compete with, overcome, hate, or fear."

My own Protestant roots are about dependence on God's gratuitous love and tender care.  Not by works but by grace, we say.  But in practice we have worked very hard at explaining just how this grace works and insisting that our explanation is better than yours and that those with wrong explanations are in trouble.  And we end up being very impressed with how well and systematically we figured all this out, and we don't look the least bit dependent or insignificant. 

How dependent on God are you?  I sometimes think this issue is the single biggest obstacle to my work as a pastor. I so want to be a good pastor, a successful pastor, that my insecurities make it nearly impossible to simply trust God.  Change my heart, O God.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sermon audio - Mystical Presence

Audios of sermons and worship also on FCPC website.

Not Again

"Not again."  A Twitter post that begin with those words first alerted me to yesterday's shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.  I'm sure others' thoughts echoed this tweet.  It does feel like this sort of thing happens too often.  I know that many more people die in car accidents and  "run of the mill" murders, but still...

Close on the heels of the Colorado shooting, I'm sure there will be more talk about gun control.  I certainly support reasonable limits on owning certain types of guns and ammunition, background checks, and so on.  And while gun control might well help, I do not think it would solve the problem. In fact, I am suspicious that a more fundamental issue underlies both our culture's resistance to reasonable gun control and its apparent tendency toward violence.

As I read today's lectionary passages, I saw this verse from Acts which describes the first Christian converts and the beginning of the Church at Pentecost. "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." This begins a section of Acts that describes an ideal (some would say idealized) community that looks nothing like US society. It is very communal. No one wants for anything because everyone shares all they have.  Even non-believers are impressed.

I suspect that if you showed people on the street some verses from Acts without telling them the origins, many would label them socialist.  And they certainly don't fit well with individualistic American notions that are so quick to protect my rights, protect my property, etc.  The stereotypical hero in American culture looks nothing like Jesus. It's hard to imagine Hollywood ever casting John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone, of Bruce Willis as Jesus, but they are the epitome of the quick-with-a-punch, quick-with-a-gun, American hero.  (If you want an authentically Christian sort of movie heroism, try Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.)

"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."  I wonder which of these teachings we have devoted ourselves to in America. Many like to speak of us as a Christian nation, but it is a strange brand of Christianity, one that somehow mixes faith with a love of violence, guns, and the expectation that people should fight for their rights.  Never mind that Jesus said, "Turn the other cheek... Love your enemy... Become a servant to all... Deny yourself."

And the dark side of American individualism in not a problem for just one side of the political spectrum.  Our bitterly partisan, win at all costs, political landscape also seems contrary to basic, Christian notions.  Both political parties often seem more intent on winning than on doing what is best.  No doubt this is sometimes motivated by genuine belief in a viewpoint, but when Jesus says, "Love your enemy," he doesn't add, "if they agree with you."

Don't get me wrong.  America is a wonderful place, but it is far from a perfect place.  The verse from 1 John is as applicable to nations and cultures (maybe even more so) as it is to individuals.  "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." But if we are to do the soul searching and confession that John goes on to suggest, I think we need to dig a little deeper than we tend to do.  We need to think about just what fundamental notions, values, beliefs, etc. under-gird who we are, and shape us for good and for ill.  And for those who are Christian, I think we would also to well to emulate those first Christians who "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sermon - Mystical Presence

John 6:24-35
Mystical Presence
James Sledge                                                                                                   August 5, 2012

As a group, we Presbyterians have never been terribly good at evangelism, a trait we share with Episcopalians, Lutherans, and a few others.  There are a lot of reasons for this. We tend to be big on knowledge and understanding, and so people are often worried about not knowing enough to share faith with anyone.  Many of us have also been turned off by the overly aggressive, sometimes manipulative evangelism methods of other Christian groups, and so we defer, not wanting to look like them.
In recent decades however, interest in evangelism has seen an uptick in our denomination.  We have regular evangelism initiatives at the national level, and many Presbyterian churches have offered classes on evangelism. I’ve taught them  myself, although I think Presbyterian interest in evangelism is more often about institutional survival than anything else.
That probably helps explain the content of the typical Presbyterian evangelism pitch. It goes something like this.  “We have a great pre-school and children’s program.  I bet your kids would love it here.”  Or if it’s a different target audience it might go, “We have this amazing young adult group.  We do all kinds of fun things together, and it’s a great place to meet new people.”  Not that we completely avoid religion.  People may pitch the quality of the worship.  They may talk about social causes or community ministry the church does. They may even mention some fashionable, spiritual options like a contemplative prayer group, meditation, or spiritual retreats.  But what rarely gets mentioned is faith, or connecting to Jesus.
Perhaps that’s presumed, but I wonder if our evangelism pitches don’t in some way parallel the sort of things the crowds in our gospel reading were saying.  “You gotta come check this guy out. He gave us all we could eat.  We were out in the middle of nowhere, with no supplies, and we ate like I’ve never eaten before.  Let’s go see what he might give out today.”  The crowds were fascinated by the tricks Jesus did, and they flock to him, but Jesus is unimpressed.  “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves,” because I’ve got something you want, a little moral training for your kids, a little something to go with your hectic, consumer lifestyle.
When you think about it, it’s a little surprising that so many people still come to churches looking for Jesus. We live in an age when most of life is disconnected from God.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Reasonable Doubt

If you read a Bible commentary on today's gospel reading, you will likely find some mention of an accusation that early Christians had to answer.  People were saying that Jesus had not risen from the dead. Rather his disciples had swiped his body and then perpetuated a hoax about his resurrection.  Many scholars will note that Matthew's gospel, written many decades after the actual events, seems tailor made to address such charges.  Similarly, some scholars argue that claims of a "virgin birth" for Jesus (found only in Matthew and Luke) are an attempt to refute charges that Jesus' birth was actually "illegitimate."

(Presbyterians have an interesting history with the whole virgin birth thing. At one point it was an article of faith required for ordination.  It was later dropped as an absolute requirement, but I was asked in 1995 by a pastor nominating committee what my beliefs on the virgin birth were.)

But whatever Matthew's reasons for supplying that little detail about stealing Jesus' body, I found my thoughts drifting to questions of faith and doubt.  Am I more likely to believe because Matthew refutes claims that disciples pilfered Jesus' body?  Is faith the product of getting the story straight?  And if I'm suspicious that Matthew is creating details to deal with charges against the faith, might that not actually make me more inclined to doubt the biblical storyline? Throw in the fact that the different gospels give slightly different versions of the story, and such issues are amplified.

It seems to me that there are plenty of places where reasonable doubt can emerge. (I once had a Muslim acquaintance tell me that he thought we Christians had a huge problem because our Bible had so many authors with so many different takes, unlike Islam, based solely on the the writings of the Prophet.)  If Christian faith must exist on the basis of the empirical evidence alone, we run into problems right away. It is no wonder that many people assume science to be the enemy of faith (a view I do not share). Science is all about empirical data, but the empirical data build a pretty shaky case for faith.

Like love, one must experience faith.  Like love, it can wax and wane, and even disappear entirely.  For people of faith, the prospect of its waning or, worse, disappearing can be terrifying.  But fear rarely leads to the best human responses, and fear related to faith is no exception.  I've know my share of Christians who practiced denial with regards to faith, who insisted they had never felt a the slightest twinge of doubt. I suppose that's possible, but I think it much more likely they're terrified at what happens if they admit such doubts.  And so they work very hard to fool themselves and God.

I think that fanatical fundamentalism is an extreme form of such denial.  It refuses to allow doubt or any variation from truth on anyone's part, and woe to those who don't stay in step.

By contrast, my tradition is rather open to doubt.  I'm quite happy about that as I don't think I would fit in otherwise, but our friendliness with doubt sometimes raises other problems.  It makes us very suspicious of religious certitude, and we become so unsure of anything that cannot be confirmed by empirical evidence or logic that we struggle actually to act on our faith.  We may do good things because we are convinced they are reasonable and the right thing to do, but that does not really require much in the way of faith or discerning what God calls us to do.

It seems to me that faith is quite often about doing things that seem unreasonable even in the face of doubt.  Being non-violent in the face of violence often seems a foolish tactic. Seeking the good of your enemy even more so.  Being abused, chastised, or attacked for doing such things only seems to confirm the foolishness of those tactics.  I suppose that is why so few of us ever experience the truly transforming power of faith.  That is why there are so few Gandhis or Martin Luther Kings who can act on faith and transform the world.

O Lord, I'm no fanatic, and I know well how to doubt.  Help me to have faith, faith that actually hears and does what Jesus calls me to do.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Time to Wait

I've been doing a lot of spiritual wrestling of late. A few months into a new position, I feel like I should be "doing" more, helping the church take bold, new steps, that sort of thing.  But I don't have much clarity about what steps to take or in what direction.

The one thing I've felt convinced of from the beginning has to do with helping us become a more spiritual place.  I don't say this because of some serious spiritual deficiency I witnessed on my arrival.  Rather, this was a strong component of my original sensing a call to ordained ministry.  Twenty years ago, I felt that the work and ministry of the church needed to be more deeply grounded in God, needed to flow from God.

In my own struggles to keep my ministry grounded in and flowing from God, I have discovered a number of spiritual practices that were not part of my upbringing and do not come naturally to me.  I have gained a deep appreciation for centering and contemplative prayer, lectio divina, spiritual direction, and other practices. And I have tried to let my experience with these seep into my "work" as a pastor.

However, I sometimes worry that I have done so badly. In trying to encourage committees and governing boards and congregations to think more about what God wants us to do, I fear that I have inadvertently stereotyped spirituality as a style.  I may have given the impression that spirituality is about candles and meditation, about a "smells and bells" approach rather than an integral part of our Christian life.

And so it seemed providential to me to find the opening of Acts as a lectionary reading this morning.  The disciples in the passage must have been struggling with some of my questions about what they were going to do and how they were going to do it.  The risen Jesus had told them that they were going to be his witnesses throughout the world. He had promised they would be empowered by the Spirit, but none of them knew quite what that meant.  And so they waited, and they prayed.

I don't know if they used incense or centering prayer, chant or lectio divina. I do not know if they sat cross-legged, stood, had eyes open, or had them closed.  Perhaps some did one thing and another something completely different. We don't know because the Bible seems unconcerned with the spiritual style they employed. It is clear, however, that they waited and prayed. They prayed together, and surely the prayed alone. And they continued to wait until God showed them the way.

I am not terribly good at waiting.  I tend to be impatient by nature, and I am the product of a culture that values getting things done.  But before I convince the leadership here to embrace some bold new thing that I want to do, how do we wait and listen to be sure (at least as sure as we can be) that it is what God wants?  And before I or anyone else tosses aside some new or strange sounding idea that seems to make no sense, how do we stop and wait to determine if it is from God?

It seems to me that to hear God's call, we need to know how to wait.  We cannot be too quick to say "Yes" nor too quick to say "No," because our quick "Yes" and "No" are probably more apt to come from our own biases, preferences, habits, and expectations than they are from God. So perhaps right now is not a time for Yes or No, but a time to wait.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.