Thursday
Jul032014

Things I Heard at Synod Assembly

 

 

  1. If you are a church and your only way of funding your work is the offering plate, you are a car running on one cylinder. Churches need to work on getting more cylinders running and funding their work from more sources.
  2. Stewardship and fundraising are so clouded up in people's minds that it might not even be worth trying to make the distinction. Maybe we should just talk about fundraising and ministry or fundraising and everything else.
  3. We don't have any young people and we are afraid of dying.
  4. We have a number of young people with small children and they have no money or time to help the church with much of anything.
  5. I hear the same story everywhere I go. We all have the same problems.
  6. Did you read The Latest Great Ministry Book? 1: Yes, it was great! 2: Yes, it was drivel.
  7. We just got our conversation started; I wish we had more time to talk with one another.
  8. I don't know what the answer is, but I know that God is faithful, and maybe all of these things and none of them will help us figure out what we are supposed to do about all this.
  9. This is boring!
  10. This is exciting!
  11. I need a break.
  12. We aren't missing a keynote speaker. Experts are overrated.
  13. We are not afraid anymore; we don't have any plan, we don't know where this is taking us, but we are just over being scared. We are just doing our best to serve.
  14. I really like the music!
  15. I have now found music I hate worse that Marty Haugen.
Thursday
Jul032014

What Does Easter Mean?

The resurrection of Jesus is the linchpin that holds our faith together.  Without it we are but one more wisdom tradition (one whose wisdom might be seriously questioned), we are one more story about a failed revolution, one more story about a group of people who didn’t know how the world worked.

But because of the resurrection Christianity took hold of people in the first century and the rest is, as they say, history.   But why?  What was it about the resurrection that changed things?  What did they believe had happened and what does it mean for us today?  There’s a pretty good book by Marcus Borg and NT Wright that approaches this topic from different directions, and I’d like to share with you some of the things they bring up.


First the resurrection was about the defeat of the “powers,” that is, all those things that hold us in bondage, all the pressures, drives, desires, that ultimately lead us to death.  Jesus on easter morning “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them.”  Second Jesus death and resurrection was a revelation of what life is about, the way of life, a way to live life.  Death and resurrection become a kind of metaphor for our own dying and living, in the same way baptism, as a reflection of both the death of the old and the rebirth of new life, is the core of living as a Christian.  

 

The death and resurrection of Jesus is also the story of God’s love.  A love which is self-giving, humble, willing to love even unto death, but that is not all.  It is also a love that is stronger than death, a love that overcomes death so that love might be given again and again.  It is a love that never ends, which has no bounds or boundaries, that crosses every obstacle, every obstruction, which crosses even death itself.

 

The resurrection is also about bodies; it is about flesh, and because of that it is about this world and God’s love for it.  The resurrection is not about some far hereafter or some distant land, it is about God breathing life into this world, about God breathing the future into the present.  God has not abandoned us, but is with us, and not just us, but the universe, every plant, animal, person and molecule.

 

The resurrection is also a kind of yes to Jesus, what he said, what he did, how he reacted to life.  It is a yes to Jesus self offering of his life, his work for peace, justice, and his challenge to “how things just are.”  A kind of vindication of Jesus rather radical claims about the real world and his call to selflessness and compassion.

 

So what about me in my daily life?  What might all this mean for me?  Well, perhaps you should ponder that for a moment.  What does Easter mean to me?  

 

Consider this: Because of Easter, you don’t need to fear.  You don’t need to fear hunger or privation, humiliation or rejection, not even death.  You don’t need to fear being a failure or losing, even your life. You don’t need to fear being wrong.  Because of the resurrection nothing is ever lost, even if we can’t find it, it dwells with God, and freed from that fear of loss we are truly set free to be changed, to love, to show compassion, to be truly selfless.  It’s really quite hard to believe, isn’t it?  Don’t even worry about that - just trust; trust in God and you will have life, eternal life, even today.  Even now.

Tuesday
May272014

The Death of Death

Though you may be reading this in Lent, Easter is not far off, and, as I have the past couple of years, I want to leave you with a poem. Poetry is a lost art in the modern world, mostly descending into saccharine sentimentality or incomprehensible babble, and occasionally adolescent posturing or simply oddly ordered prose.

 

But poetry is not entirely lost to us and it must not be, because of all the art forms that still exist it is the closest to how the ancients thought and wrote. To truly understand the Scriptures you have to understand metaphor, rhythm, shape, and expressing abstract ideas in concrete terms. All of these are captured in poetry whose abstractness and tendency to go round-about somehow communicates more in a few words than entire books.

 

This year rather than quoting an ancient or modern poem and I want to give you a poem by John Donne, one of the more interesting 17th century English gentlemen. His early life was spent on traveling, fighting and women, but he settled down, worked at parliament and eventually became a pastor. His religious poetry is some of the finest in the English language. Death be not Proud, was written after he had recovered from major illness that nearly killed him. Donne was often ill in his later years, and much of his later poetry meditates on the subject of death and suffering. It is, however, ultimately a triumphant poem and an appropriate one for Easter. For at Easter we celebrate and proclaim that Death is strong, but God is stronger, and that the power that raised Jesus from the dead will raise us as well.

 

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppie, or charme can make us sleep as well,
And better then thy stroke; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleep past, wee wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more, death thou shalt die!

Tuesday
May272014

The Onion

It is Lent again.  Time for reflection.  Time for self-examination.  Time for putting away old habits and taking up new habits.  Time to begin our own journey to Jerusalem to walk with Jesus the way of the cross and the empty tomb, of crucifiction and resurrection, of death and life.

But what is this path and why do we walk it?  How do we prepare for Jerusalem?  It is not just feeling sorry for our moral imperfections, not just giving up something we enjoy in order to punish ourselves as a way of making up for things we’ve done wrong.  It is about shaping our hearts toward love, to turn us outward to one another in compassion and care, rather than being turned inward.  It is letting go of selfishness and embracing selflessness.  There is a colorful parable about selfishness I read some time ago in the Brothers Karamazov:


Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I'll pull you out.’ And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just about pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I'm to be pulled out, not you. It's my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day.


It is not her evil deeds that condemn the woman, but her selfishness that she alone be rescued that breaks the onion.  Jesus gives us the mirror image of this story when he says:


Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Mt. 16:24ff)


As you consider Lent and how you might participate in the season, consider these words of Jesus.  How might we be turned inward upon our own selves and our own concerns?  How might we be transformed by grace to be turned outward in love and compassion for others?  How might we lose our life and receive God’s divine life, and in receiving, share it with those around us. As we cling to our onion, how might we pull others out of hell and into paradise along with us?

 

Tuesday
May272014

Grace

What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? 1 Cor. 4:7

 

At some point in their lives people have an experience of transcendence. It may be in church or in a forest or in their home or driving to work. Many people experience it when they first hold their child. It can happen anywhere, anytime, though it usually happens when we are not being distracted by distracting things.

 

It is a moment when we perceive the otherness of things and our connectedness to them. We become aware of our mortality. We become aware of the beauty of the world but also it's fragility, the very easy way it could have been something else entirely. That our very existence is not something guaranteed, not something necessary, not something without which everything would fall apart. That star could never have formed, those proteins never connected in the right way, this tree could never have been.

 

Now sometimes the tendency is therefore to say, “God did it,” but that isn't what I mean at all. Biologist are telling us that life is fairly unremarkable on earth and seems to crop up everywhere we have liquid water. Stars of course form because of the basic laws of physics. Nothing miraculous needed there.

 

What I mean is that the particulars are so fortuitous, that I am, I exist, and not another. That this tree, that rock, exist and not something else. Indeed, to jump ahead in the flow of this thought, it is striking that there is something, rather than nothing. After all, nothing in the universe can seem to account for itself other than it is, but it doesn't need to be.

 

I hope that isn't too confusing. I say all this to raise a point: we too often consider grace to be something that happens when God “saves us.” That we were dead in our sin, unworthy of God's love, fit only for wrath, but that God does this grace thing, this unmerited favor, this get out of jail free thing that keeps us up in the clouds rather than down in the fire after we die. That grace is an event that happens to us as individuals, something that would not have existed or been needed if it weren't for sin.

 

I'm not trying to really change anyone's mind about that at this point, but I think grace is much bigger and much deeper. Those moments I mentioned above, when we realize the sheer fortuity of the world, ourselves, everything we've ever done, everything that will ever happen to us, and everyone we have ever known, that it could have been otherwise, we realize that what does exist and happen is not because it must exist or happen, but because by God's grace all these things have been given to us. All that we have we have received: who were are, that we are, the world around us, all of our hard work and good deeds, all of it is grace through and through. Far from simply a singular gift of favor to forgive our sin, grace is the foundation of what it is to exist at all.

 

Perhaps that is what it means to give thanks for all things, a recognition not just of the presence of truth and beauty, but the unexpected, unnecessary, and unpredictable fact that we are. To give praise to the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Romans 4:17)