Monday, October 28, 2013

Busyness, Suffering, and Idolatry

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
     from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
     my fortress; I shall never be shaken.    
Psalm 62:1-2

For God alone... Hardly. All sorts of things compete with God for my attention. And I don't do much waiting in silence. As I write there is a stump grinder growling outside my office window. But I'm contributing to the lack of silence as well. I've got Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground playing on Spotify. (He died yesterday, if you haven't heard.)  I do turn the music off when I pray, but there's not much I can do about the stump grinder. Sometimes I feel the same about all the thoughts and anxieties that bounce around in my head.

Sometimes I'm amazed at how hard it is for me to get centered on God. And I work in a church. At least I have regular moments in my day that would seem tailor made to draw me toward God. I regularly reflect on scripture passages in order to create sermons. I look at hymns in planning worship. I teach a Bible study and I lead and participate in devotionals during staff and committee meetings. How different from many who worship and serve here. How much more difficult it must be for them to be attentive to God in the course of their day.

It seems to me that two very different pitfalls can emerge here, one for religious professionals and one for those living and/or working in more secular places. Spirituality and religiousness can become a job for me. They become part of a professional persona that gets divorced from the rest of my life, making it easy for me to stop being spiritual on my days off. But for others, spirituality can become a recreational activity, something only done after work or on days off. I wonder if either is all that satisfying.

My own Reformed/Presbyterian tradition has long been concerned with a rather antiquated sounding problem: idolatry. But even John Calvin all those centuries ago wasn't worried about little statues or anything of that sort. He was worried about how hard it is really to do the "for God alone" thing. Too many other things seem more inviting, convenient, and easier to manage. However, in my experience all these things end up disappointing us. In the long run, they end up failing to provide what we expected of them, contentment, happiness, meaning, or whatever it was we were hoping for.

The psalmist doesn't say so specifically, but I get the impression he or she is in the midst of some terrible difficulty. Perhaps all the things she had hoped have failed her, and she is now forced to wait for "God alone."

Many spiritual greats insist that suffering is the greatest teacher. For some weeks now, Father Richard Rohr's daily devotionals have all been on the following theme. "The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines." We don't like the sound of that. We do all we can to avoid it and to rescue our children from it. But in the end, our teacher finds us.

Have you ever noticed that when people are going through a terrible time of grief, such as the loss of a dear, loved one, they tend to keep themselves busy. In the face of death, dealing with all the arrangements that have to be made can provide a welcome diversion, providing a bit of needed cushioning from the shock. But if busyness is helpful at first, eventually we must let go of such shields. People who can't ever bring themselves to slow down and face their grief will rightfully provoke concerns on the part of friends and family.

Or course our culture can make it very difficult to slow down. Time that isn't "productive" is wasted. Even our vacations must be filled with activities. When we do sit down we pull out our smartphones and engage in a different sort of busyness. Many of us think of Sabbath as an archaic relic of history.

I don't wish suffering on anyone. The notion that all suffering is somehow therapeutic is simply wrong. But there are plenty of times when only suffering or great difficulty seems to turn me to God in any deep and meaningful way. Now if I were only a better student...

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Sermon video: Information or Good News?

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sermon: Information or Good News?

Luke 18:9-14
Information or Good News?
James Sledge                                                                                       October 27, 2013

When I first looked at the gospel reading appointed for today, the day when we make our financial commitments to God, I wondered if divine providence might be at work. Tithing figures prominently in many church stewardship campaigns, and I think it a central spiritual discipline. Yet in today’s parable, the tither doesn’t come off so well, even though he’s an ideal church  member, a regular worshipper who engages in significant spiritual disciplines and is serious about living an ethical, moral life. Where can we get some more folks like him? But Jesus holds him up as a bad example, saying that a sleazy tax collector is right in the eyes of God rather than this fellow most churches would love as a member.
If you’ve read very much in the gospels, you’ve surely noticed that the Pharisees have a hard time embracing Jesus. There’s been a tendency over the years to think of these Pharisees as evil, bad guys, but in reality, they were the dedicated church folk of their day. They were a reform movement with much in common with our Protestant reformers of 500 years ago. They opposed what they saw as corrupt, priestly Judaism and its focus on ritual and sacrifice. They urged believers to get back to the scriptures and follow them. Some of their teachings were very similar to those of Jesus. So why did they end up in conflict with him? Why didn’t his good news sound good to them?
Some decades ago, I encountered an essay by the great southern writer, Walker Percy. “The Message in the Bottle” is part of a book by the same name containing essays about  language and the human condition. This particular essay describes a fellow who is shipwrecked on an island with no memories of his life before he washed up there. This island has a quite advanced society, and the castaway is welcomed and cared for. He goes to school, gets married, has a family, and becomes a contributing member of society. Being a curious and educated fellow, he is intrigued by the large number of bottles he discovers washing up on the shore, each with a single, one sentence message corked inside.
These messages say all sorts of things. “Lead melts at 330 degrees. 2 + 2 = 4… The British are coming… The market for eggs in Bora Bora [a neighboring island] is very good… The pressure of a gas is a function of heat and volume… A war party is approaching from Bora Bora… Truth is beauty,”[1] and so on.
This scenario forms the basis of a long discussion about language and how we understand and make sense of all the information we receive. Percy discusses various ways we might classify and organize these messages, and how we might judge what’s true, important, or significant. But he says that many such schemes may not work for our castaway because they fail to acknowledge the difference between “a piece of knowledge and a piece of news.”

Oct. 20 Sermon video: Committed to God's New Day

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Where Is God? Better Sight Lines

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.

For the enemy has pursued me,
    crushing my life to the ground,
    making me sit in darkness like those long dead. 

Therefore my spirit faints within me;
    my heart within me is appalled.        
Psalm 143:1-4

You likely know this, but pastors go to lots of church meetings. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Many of the groups I meet with have great people in them, and we often have very enjoyable meetings. Yet even in enjoyable church meetings, it is often difficult to get much sense of God being a part of them.

Graham Standish, in his book Becoming a Blessed Church, describes how church meetings often begin by asking God to bless what is about to happen but then take place as though God has left to get a cup of coffee while the business is actually transacted. Later, God will be invited back in to bless whatever was decided during that time. There's nothing sinister going on here. We simply get focused on the tasks at hand. That and we aren't quite sure how to let God's presence impact the proceedings.

This only gets worse in times of conflict. I've been to my share of presbytery meetings over the years (That is the representative, regional governing body in our denomination.) where we were considering difficult issues that divide us theologically. In the last couple of decades this was most often around issues of ordination, sexual orientation, and biblical interpretation. And in our heated debates over whether or not to ordain people in same sex relationships, a casual observer might have been hard pressed to think God was present at all. To be certain, talk about God along with verses from the Bible were heard frequently. But Bible verses were wielded as weapons, and God was referred to but never inquired of. People on both sides already "knew" what God wanted.

If you asked pastors and elders at a presbytery meeting, or leaders in most Presbyterian churches, they would surely insist that God is present at their meetings and, indeed, everywhere. Our tradition insists that God is not only omnipresent but also directly available to all people without need of mediation via priests or other sorts of intermediaries. So why does God so often seem to be on break when we are in a meeting?

I wonder if the psalmist quoted above isn't also struggling to find God's presence in a difficult time. Perhaps the words simply plead for God to be understanding and merciful, but I hear a bit of desperation, someone calling on a God who seems absent at the moment. It's easy to see why the psalmist might feel this way. Caught up in some sort of great, perhaps mortal difficulty, all the psalmist can see is danger all around. Those troubles obscure any glimpse or sense of God.

If God is indeed wherever we are, what is it that gets in our sight lines and obscures God's presence from us? In moments of crisis or great danger, our focus on these may hide God from us. But what is the problem in a more run-of-the-mill meeting? Might not it be much the same thing, our focus on the business at hand?

Many of us have learned how to be attentive to God in certain circumstances. In the midst of worship, in a time of quiet retreat, or in a moment of private devotion, we may clearly sense something of the divine. But if God's presence evaporates the moment we are doing anything else, how are we to carry Christ into the world in some way?

Surely some of the disdain the Church encounters in our world, the charges of hypocrisy and such, are related to this. If we can't actually invite God into our discussions, debates, and meetings, then we will have a hard time showing God to others except in our worship and private devotion.

Think about that the next time you are in a church meeting, or any sort of meeting for that matter. How might things go differently if everyone there was aware of God present in that meeting? Would we make different decisions, listen to one another differently, even question our own certainties, if we could see and hear Jesus sitting at the table with us? And if we cannot see or sense him, what does that say?

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Baby Birds and Power

What does it mean to be powerful? Thinking of it a different way, who would you put on a list of powerful people in the world today, and what is it that qualifies them for that list?

One of today's morning psalms, Psalm 147, describes God as "abundant in power." There is mention of God controlling weather, and that's certainly sounds powerful to me. But most of the attributes in today's verses don't fit so neatly into the qualities I associate with power. God gathers outcasts, binds up wounds, lifts up the downtrodden, feeds animals, and hears baby birds when they cry. Sounds a little like St. Francis, and that's not a name that comes immediately to mind when I consider the topic of power.

I'm reasonably well versed in the Bible, and so I know that the Apostle Paul writes how the Lord said to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." But that doesn't quite fit into the understanding of power I learn from living in our world. Which I suppose is largely the point.

For some reason, I've never heard this morning's psalm in quite the manner I did today. Clearly God's strange notions about power are not some New Testament innovation that shows up with a cross. God's apparently had some rather odd notions about power for a long time.

Seems a strange way for a god to act. Of course that sentence might make a rather catchy title for the story of Jesus.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

God's Love and Performance Anxieties

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.         
(Psalm 57:1)

I was somewhat startled to read this quote in a column from the Washington Post's faith section, something said a few years ago by Dr. Richard Leahy, an anxiety specialist. “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.” The column went on to lament how the church too often creates the same sort of performance anxiety that is so pervasive in today's culture.

As a pastor, I've sometimes felt this way about all the "help" that is available to those in my field. I recently attended a very good conference from The Alban Institute, designed to help pastors become better at supervising and directing those on church staffs. I learned a great deal and hope to implement some of it. I do want to be a better leader in the church. Yet at the same time, I worry that all the books and conferences and resources devoted to helping me improve start to create an ethos that says, "Everything would be fine in our churches if we were just a little (perhaps a lot) better at what we do." Talk about performance anxiety, especially in a day when many church congregations are struggling.

As I reflect on this, I have little doubt that my own attempts to "help" folks with preaching, teaching, and so on produce a similar impact. As that Washington Post piece notes, I can make Christianity more about what we do, about our performance, than about what God does in Jesus. And if people think the church's primary message is, "Perform better," no wonder a generation already weighed down by performance anxieties is less than enthralled with our message.

I also wonder if this isn't especially problematic in progressive, Mainline congregations. Pastors and members in such churches are often highly educated, valuing creative scholarship, complexity, and nuance. That may make it easy to minimize the part of our faith's message that seems embarrassingly simple and un-complex. God love us. God is for us. God embraces us without regard to our level of performance. Period.

I hope to continue learning how to be a better pastor, and I also appreciate learning things that help me follow Jesus more faithfully. But in the midst of that, I dare not forget that how God views me and others has virtually nothing to do with the quality of our performance. It's pretty much all about the quality of God's love.

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sermon: Committed to God's New Day

Luke 18:1-8
Committed to God’s New Day
James Sledge                                                                                       October 20, 2013

Last Saturday I was watching the football game between Ole Miss and Texas A&M. It was a pretty exciting contest, and Ole Miss was looking like they might pull off a big upset. But Texas A&M had come back to tie the game. Then with time running out, they moved the ball down the field to set up a potential game winning field goal on the last play.
Time out was called, and the field goal unit prepared to come out on the field. As the TV cameras panned around, trying to capture the intensity of the moment, one camera spotted the Texas A&M quarterback gathered with a small group of teammates. They were in a sort of semi-circle with their helmets off. Each was down on one knee, holding the hand of the player next to him. Then the quarterback said something and bowed his head. He seemed to be leading the group in some sort of prayer.
I couldn’t hear them, of course, so I don’t actually know what they were praying about. There had been an Ole Miss player carried off the field on a stretcher earlier. I suppose they could have been praying for him, but I doubt it. I feel pretty confident they were praying for their teammate to kick the ball squarely through the uprights. And when he did just that a few minutes later, they ran onto the field rejoicing, their prayers answered.
One of my least favorite moments in sports is the post-game interview where a winning player thanks God for the victory. I recall one boxer some years ago who went so far as saying he could feel Jesus in his fists helping him knock the other guy out. With such eloquent spokespersons, no wonder Christian faith is struggling.
Actually, I don’t think Christianity has much of a problem because of  people who thank God for the home run they hit to win the game. It would be easy enough to dismiss such utterances, that is if they didn’t fit into a larger pattern of seeing God as a cosmic sugar daddy, or seeing religion and faith as consumer items intended to make our lives a little bit better.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Glossolalia and Partisan Politics

I had just finished writing yesterday's post when I heard that the Republicans had "blinked." A default was avoided, and the government shutdown would be ending. All that pain, all that rancor, all the damage to people's lives and to the economy, and nothing really had changed.

I had just finished writing about the Apostle Paul's insistence that the good of the whole had to be considered above personal edification. Speaking in tongues was all well and good with Paul, but not if that little moment of personal, spiritual ecstasy did nothing to help others. And he continues such thinking in today's passage, "Let all things be done for building up."

Yesterday I was thinking about how church fights over worship style too often neglect Paul's advice, with "What I like" becoming the final arbiter of what should be done. But as soon as I heard about the default being averted, it struck me how this was even more so for many in Congress.

Perhaps this is simply the ugly side of American individualism, but we seem to have more and more difficulty as a culture putting the good of the whole first. "Let all things be done for building up" is not a mantra that will win many elections.

But what I find even more troubling about all this is how some, who seem the least willing to consider the good of the whole, trumpet their faith. Some incredibly immature, hateful, and destructive things were said and done in the name of righteousness. Surely Jesus weeps.

I offer no easy solution. But perhaps it wouldn't hurt if all our political leaders read Paul's letter to the Corinthians, listening as though it had been written specifically to them.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Glossolalia and Worship Squabbles

People who've worked in church congregations over the last few decades are likely familiar with the term "worship wars." It describes the squabbles and fights over style, over whether to add a contemporary service, bring guitars or a praise band into the sanctuary, or add new and different types of songs to the congregation's repertoire. And as with all disagreements over things related to worship, these fights can get quite nasty. As the old adage goes, "Some of the worst fights in congregations are over the color of the carpet in the sanctuary."

Paul faces a worship war of sorts with his congregation at Corinth. This was apparently a quite active and exuberant bunch, prone to get carried away from time to time. In today's portion of Paul's letter to the church, the topic is glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. It seems that this was a particularly valued "spiritual gift" among the Corinthians, a surefire sign that they were had a deep faith. But Paul is not so sure.

Paul does not object to the practice per se, even claiming to have had the experience more than any of them. But he questions the value of it, at least in public gatherings of the faithful. Speaking of the fact that others may have  no way of understanding this speech, Paul writes, "For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up." In other words, Paul says that as much as the Corinthians may enjoy speaking in tongues, if it doesn't help build up others, it is more a problem than a good.

When I have witnessed squabbles over worship, they very often seem to take on some of the same dimensions Paul saw in Corinth. Church members often judge questions about musical style purely from a personal preference standpoint, without much thought as to whether of not it builds up others. In extreme cases, congregations are more concerned with "what we like" than they are with their calling to share God's love and build up the body of Christ.

I don't mean to make an endorsement or indictment of any particular style or form of worship. I simply raise the question of what criteria we use in making decisions about style. Which is more important: what I like, or building up the body?

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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Sermon: A Strange Pep Talk

Luke 17:5-10
A Strange Pep Talk
James Sledge                                                                                       October 6, 2013

Think for a moment about a time in your life when you were asked to do something that you weren’t sure you could accomplish. Or think of a time when you were considering a big change in your life, but you just didn’t know if you had what was needed to pull it off.
There are all sort of such events in my life, some big and some small. I remember how I would thumb through my new math book each year at the start of school, horrified at the problems I could not understand, wondering how I would make it through the year. I vividly recall the first time I took the controls of a jet aircraft and found it much more difficult than the planes I was familiar with. And I wondered if I would be able to progress any further. And I remember many times when I felt totally inadequate as a parent.
There are probably many of you who know that last one well. A lot of people put off having children because they’re not sure if they’re “ready.” Of course, no matter how many books you read or classes you take or financially secure you become, you’re never quite ready.
To a much greater degree than in Jesus’ day, we live in a culture of experts. Name any field or activity, and there are experts who will teach you how to do it better, more efficiently, and with improved results. And in this culture of experts, a fear of failure often prevails. We’re never sure if we have enough training, enough advice, enough carefully laid plans that take into account every possible contingency. I have a hard time imagining many of us responding the way those first disciples did when Jesus said, “Follow me.” Not until we did a lot of checking, a lot of planning, a lot of calculations, and maybe some career counseling.
But Peter and James and John and the others had simply gone with Jesus. But if they were not nearly so risk averse as us, they still had their limits, and today, the magnitude of what they’d gotten themselves into seems to hit home. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is Jesus telling them that they must not cause any of those in their care to stumble, and they must forgive over and over and over. It’s all too much, and they cry out. “We can’t do all that. We don’t have enough faith. You’ve got to help us, Jesus!” At least that’s how I hear their cry, “Increase our faith!”

Sermon video: Healing the Blind

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.