Monthly Archives: February 2013

Do you feel small when you stand beside the ocean?

The other day I ran out to do an errand and caught a bit of a song in passing with the lyrics, “I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.”  (Facebook friends already know where I’m going with this, but I’ll go further here than I did there.)  I reflected that this was a neat idea but didn’t quite work for me.  (Of course on Facebook no-one could get past commentary on the actual song and why I was listening to country music… )

I love standing next to the ocean.  I love the sense of power and bigness that it projects.  I like the idea of the humility of feeling small when you stand beside the ocean… and yet I feel more than that.  Because I also feel a part of something big.  The ocean doesn’t just make me feel small.  It makes me feel like a small part of something BIG.

This is an important reminder to us as we think about journeying as one who follows in the way of Christ.  Lent can get very personal – it should be – but this doesn’t mean we are alone in our journey.  A friend said to me recently, “It should be personal but not private.”  We focus on our journey, but we should also recognize that our journey is interwoven with all journeys.

So a parting thought then from the Elijah story on this subject as we have looked to the portrait of faith his story give us for our own journeys:  Elijah, looming large in the overall Biblical story, actually appears in only a handful of chapters of the Bible.  And yet within this limited set of stories on two separate occasions (both I Kings 19 and 2 Kings 2) the story makes a point to setting up Elisha as his successor, and of the tasks he is given by the silent voice of God in 1 Kings 19 most of them are actually done by Elisha not Elijah. 

Why make such a deal about passing the “mantle” (literally) from Elijah to Elisha? Perhaps it is because the story reminds us that we are but a small part of a big story.  An important part to be sure – and we actually have to LIVE that part – but our part is but a piece in the puzzle.  This makes us small and yet a part of something big.  This is a blessing because we are not alone, and a responsibility because others are not alone only if we actually play our part. 

 So when you stand beside the ocean… by all means feel small.  But also remember that the ocean stands beside you!

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Elijah/Jesus/Kierkegaard/You: Troubler of Israel

So a couple years ago I remember someone saying to me, “life would be easy if it wasn’t for Jesus.”

This had caused some stir among a group of people who felt somewhat offended because they felt that this was a lack of respect for Jesus.  In fact, the person who had said this really had a great deal of respect for Jesus – but had also come to know Jesus as a “troubler of Israel” just as Ahab names Elijah.

Elijah, of course, pointed out that Ahab was the cause of the trouble – and the only reason Elijah was a problem was that he was pointing out the trouble.  Jesus does the same to those he encounters, and this friend of mine was doing the same thing in his own way.  Prophets pull off the veneer of nicetude that we tend to coat things with and reveal what really is.  They also have this pesky habit of inviting us to actually practice what we preach.

This led me back to one of my favorite “prophets” of the post-biblical time, Søren Kierkegaard.  Kierkegaard felt called to convince Christians that they weren’t really Christian, in order that they might actually become so.  Kierkegaard wanted to hold up a mirror and, usually with a flair for the comedic, point out that the actual image looked nothing like the life of Christ we claim.  Kierkegaard knew that Jesus was trouble… and wanted us to know it too.

“The matter is quite simple.  The Bible is very easy to understand.  But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers.  We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly.  Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly.  My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined.  How would I ever get on in this world?  Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship.  Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close.  Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you?  Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God.  Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

Now I normally end there but let me go one paragraph further because it ties nicely to some of the thought from last Sunday’s sermon:

“I open the New Testament and read: ‘If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.’ Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it).”

–Søren Kierkegaard, from Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers (also published in Provocations as part of the writing entitled, Kill the Commentators)

The Gospel is Good News.  But it is good news with a rough edge.  It’s a plow that will dig up what has been in order to bring forth new life.  That is great news for those who have no hope in the current arrangement of things, this is good news to those who wish to live in/with community, and seek the good of all at the expense of all… but not so good news to those who profit from structures of the world that pit people against each other and give privileges to some at the expense of others.

There is a contest for what is actually good news going on and the question we ask ourselves is – what kind of good news do we live in service to, and what kind of good news do we proclaim with our lives?  Will we allow ourselves to be troubled by Jesus?

Indeed, what kind of Thinker believes in God… and how?

I received an article today that began asking:

“A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

 Your answer to this question will help me guess whether you believe in God.”

The article (read the whole article here: http://huff.to/13iz7KP) goes on to share that according to studies belief in a god is a natural instinct, just as the natural instinct is to answer the above question by saying 10 cents.

The answer to the above question however is not 10 cents, its five cents.

The article’s claim is that it takes a critical and reflective (analytical) moment to override instinct and give the right answer.  According to studies people who do not do this (critical analysis) tend to believe in God (they are following pre-programmed instincts… blindly), and people who do think critically (and accurately) tend… well I guess not to believe in God.

I think the article is right.

I also knew that the answer was 5 cents.  I’m a pretty logical (and analytical thinker) who is a former math major and philosophy major.  I shouldn’t get any credit to getting that right, I’ve been wired (re-wired?) that way and it has more to do with people around me than any talent of my own.

I also believe in God.  Am I defying the test results?  No.  I think I am confirming them, and a whole lot of other people do as well.

Because I do not believe in God the way I did as a child, the way instinct first led me to belief.  I have radically altered my understanding of God, faith, and belief.  (Or I should say that has been radically altered in me – I didn’t do it all myself.)

I think the test says as much about different approaches to belief (frankly I think it says more about that) than it does about belief versus non-belief.  One of my favorite thinkers is Peter Rollins (an advocate of pyro-theology who has a lot to say about not believing in God and his book Insurrection is must read as well as How (Not) to Speak of God and his newest book The Idolatry of God though in the interest of time just Insurrection will do) and he is fond of reminding us that Christ doubted God on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Doubt is a natural part of faith.  Doubt is as much a part of our spiritual inclination to God as belief in a god is instinctual to human life.  The question is: what do we do with that doubt?  A certain type of believer sees it as weakness and shoves it away.  Another type of faith embraces it, lives with it, loves it, wants to see where it will take us because doubt is part of us and to deny it is to deny not only who we are, but who God is. Doubt calls us to faithfulness because it causes us to question our conceptions (pre-conceptions and post-conceptions) of God, theology, belief, morality, ways and means…. It calls us to question these and find our own instinctual answers lacking, and then to question our analytical responses, and to question the questions… doubt calls us to question and find a sort of peace in a world with more questions than answers, more doubt than certainty, and not find that a threat to God – but to find that is where God is.  Thanks be to Doubt.  Amen.

Elijah: Called to speak the truth in love

Yesterday we looked at the Portrait of Faith presented in the stories of Elijah.  Elijah was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel and was called to confront Israel’s worship of Ba’al (a Phoenician fertility god) in place of the Lord (Yahweh, the God of Israel).

In Elijah’s stories we are reminded that it isn’t enough that in worship we say the right things about what we believe.  Our true worship is about what clear priorities we make in the living of our lives seven days a week.  We may worship God on Sunday, but through the week does our life look as if our every action is worshiping a way of love, grace, forgiveness, and care.

Elijah holds up a mirror so we can see ourselves.

Clearly we do not worship Ba’al.  But we do worship other gods.  They range in scope from entertainment and popularity to political parties and capitalism to violence and competition.

These are all forms of power that we worship and become the ways and means we use to secure a future.  And one and all, they are a poor replacement for the way of Jesus Christ.  That doesn’t mean they are compete bad – but they are bad when they become gods to us that are unquestionable and claim more allegiance to our time and energy than following in the way of Christ does.

God called a widow to share her last meal with Elijah, God sees worth not in how useful someone is but simply by virtue of their existence, and God calls us to self-giving love that seeks not our own good but the common good with particular eye to those unable to care for themselves.

Is this the image you see when you look in the mirror?  This Lenten season as we reflect on our lives and seek to make them align closer to the life of Christ let us help each other by holding up the mirror to one another, and loving each other for what we see there even as we seek to change it for the better.

(These are summary thoughts from sermon on Sunday, Feb. 24th.  You can find a link to that sermon here: http://www.first-presbyterian.org/sermons/20130224/20130224.cfm)

 

Silence isn’t Golden

Okay so no-one wants talking in their movie theaters (or texting for that matter) so silence has its moments.  I also think that silence is a needed part of our day, a spiritual practice many of us could use to spend more time with in our lives.  And sometimes silence really speaks in way that truly is golden.

Silence has its place… but it can also be its own kind of injustice.

All week I’ve really been continuing to play with Moses as a portrait of faith, but now I’m turning to Elijah and the prophetic role we all share of speaking truth to power.

And the first thing this reminds me of is that silence is always interpreted.  Silence rarely means no opinion is given; it just gives the listener the ability to interpret your silence.  I cannot count the number of times I have heard people say that they don’t want to speak to controversial topics until they have to, or at all so there is room for multiple voices on the subject.  They don’t want to “go on record” or “offend.”

My problem is this, when we do not speak out against injustice than we condone it.

Silence in the presence of oppression and harm makes the silent one a tacit perpetrator of the harm and oppression.  This is true of individuals – when my child, still learning good judgment and character, strikes another person as a way of voicing displeasure I have the choice to either condone the action or correct the action. 

Silence is not a middle response, it condones the action. 

That I know it, and did not speak out against it, means I agree with the choice. 

This is true as well for institutions, communities, and social/political/economic systems.  If we see ways they harm another and choose silence, we are choosing to say we are okay with it – that is the choice we would make.  And I’m not okay with that kind of silence.  Do I opt for it at times – yes.  I’m far from a good prophetic role model.  Do I feel shamed by my silence, yes – but apparently not enough to change it all the time. 

The call to prophetic voice is a universal calling.  Is it easy to speak up?  Are there consequences we would not choose?  Will we offend, and be put on record for our offense?

Yes.

This is why we choose silence, no matter what other excuses we might offer ourselves. 

God invites us, human desire for a common good invites us, we NEED to invite each other to find our voice.  We need to speak – in love – truth to one another, even when we aren’t sure that truth is right (so we also speak it with humility, open to counter-voices as well).

Being wrong is okay.  Being corrected is necessary.  Offending established thought in the name of righting injustice is blessedness.  Silently condoning the harm of our neighbors IS NOT to be tolerated or practiced.  Help me speak.

Does God Act in the World?

Sometimes people and circumstances write your devotional for you.  So last night we were doing our follow up Bible Study to Moses.  In it I pointed out that when Moses wants a name for God, God’s response is, “I Am.” 

 “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ (Exodus 3:14)

God doesn’t answer the question that Moses asks (or God does in that not what I expected kind of way God has) instead God answers the question that is really in the minds of Israel.  Whether it is Israel in the exile writing down these stories after the destruction of the temple by Babylon, or whether it’s Israel in slavery in Egypt the question on their minds is, “Does God really exist?”  In the contest of many gods that is a constant battle in the ancient near east, Israel has to wrestle with the question –  does our God really exist and have real power?

 This is the question God answers when asked by Moses for a name: I AM.  I EXIST.  It doesn’t matter what my name is, it matters that I am here to be named, and to name you by my name. 

So then in our study someone said, “If today’s question is, ‘Does God act in the world?’ what would God’s response be in the way of God’s response to Moses?”

(Side note: answering for God is dangerous business, and I’m not presumptuous enough to say I know, but I’m not also one to dodge the act of provisionally incarnating the word… of interpreting what I hear God saying.  So I responded with my imagined response, with great qualifications as noted here.)

 I imagine what God might say to that question is: You do.

 Do you act in the world God?  You do.

 Because what I get from the story of Moses is something of a three-fold assurance.

  • You can do this – you are capable and good-enough for the responsibility that God has called you to in the world and for the world.
  • You can’t do it alone – you need a community around you, you need help and support; you need accountability and affirmation.
  • I am with you – God is present to Israel in a many ways.  Moses glowing face, the tabernacle, a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night.  Still yet Moses wants assurance and gets to see God’s backside  (Exodus 33).  God is constantly offering Israel the reminder that they are not alone, the God that is- I AM – is with them.

 You can do this, but not alone, and I am with you.

 Is God active in the world?  Look around you – God is all around, with all of those around you, and there is much good to be seen even in the midst of the hardship, sorrow, and tragedy.

 

I will leave with one final thought on this You-do line of thinking.  Last year an internet meme was going around Facebook.  It cleverly said, “Sometimes I wish I could ask God why God allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world… but I’m afraid God might just ask me the same question.”

 How are you living as part of the answer the injustices of the world?

When you look up, who do you see?

Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” (Mark 2:3-5)

Healing often happens in the gospels as a matter of faith.   That is to say that the way to wholeness lies in trust.  In trusting our well-being to God we become well.  Thus the continual gospel theme, ‘your faith has made you well.’  Trust is an important part of healing, peace, and well-being.  We have to have some trust with a doctor and nurse, we have to have some trust in our pastor or counselor, we have to have trust in those with whom we journey – that they have our well-being in mind, and reciprocally that we have their well-being in our mind.

What is a wonderful blessing to this text is the reminder that it is not our faith (our trust) alone that matters to us.  Here the faith of the paralytic is not measured at all.  “When Jesus saw THEIR faith…”  Jesus is enamored by the faith of the friends; it is their trust that getting this man before Jesus was worth any time and expense, even the destruction of a roof that enables well-being.  Our faith is never a matter for us alone.  Our faith really is a public action.  And I do mean action.  Faith is active, or it means little.  And it does not belong to us – it is an aspect of us that we share with all around us, and with our community.

So the question I have for today is: who are those people whose faith is a part of your faith.  If you were being lowered into a room to see Jesus, who is it that you would see peering down from the roof and lowering you into the room having spared no expense to get you well?

One more step…  Have you thanked them for the way their faith is part of you and your well-being?

Idolatry and/versus Discipleship

There are similarities in idolatry and discipleship.  The Bible often uses the language of “following after” other gods.  Similarly the New Testament call from Christ is to “follow me.” That is to say that the call to discipleship is a call to no longer “follow after” idols and gods of our making, but to follow after Jesus.  Jesus supplants the idol, in fact you could almost say (and I tried to argue once in a paper to theology professor – yes I’m not always very wise) that Jesus functions as a God-given idol to replace the idols we already have in our lives.

 Drop back over a thousand years earlier.  It’s fascinating that the golden calf of Exodus fame (Exodus 32) is not created because the people are missing God.  What they are missing is Moses.

“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

 The golden calf – the god they are creating – is because Moses has quite literally been acting as “God to them.”  (As God tells Moses he will do for Aaron in Exodus 4.) With Moses gone too long they need to replace, not God, but Moses as God (or at least Moses as intermediary of God to the people).  Seeing this we acknowledge that people need a tangible reminder of our way in the world.  We always have needed this, and we always will.  If we do not have one, we will make one.

 What is your tangible reminder?  What leads you in the following after the way of Christ instead of other ways (because they are very many other ways to go)?  We need something or someone(s) to keep us on the way.  This reminds me of The Shema, the first prayer taught to Jewish children:

 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

 The Shema keeps the Jew in the way of God.  It is a daily reminder of their/our way in the world.  It is God-given idol (icon maybe if the idol word is too problematic for you) to keep other idols, other ways, at bay.

 Jesus functions as that for his disciples, and the community of faith (the Body of Christ, which might be – for you – a church, but also be other forms of faith community) serves that for us.  But in so far as that community is not part of our daily life it is not enough.  This is why devotional practice is so much a part of the journey to follow Christ.  It is a practice that we incorporate into our daily living as a reminder even when we are apart from the community that is our living reminder.  So this lent, what keeps you on the way?

Moses: Called to Confront the Past

Today we looked at the story of Moses – not as liberator of Israel, mouth piece of God, or guide to the promised land – but the person Moses.  The boy who was born of two worlds and belonged to neither.  Hebrew by birth but Egyptian by privilege, Moses grew up with an identity crisis that likely ate at him daily (“now what are the whispering about me behind my back?”) and unable to answer the question, “Who am I?” Moses identity crisis takes hold of him as he witnesses his internal battle in the form of guard whipping slave and he strikes out and kills.  Learning the next day that violence begets violence Moses chooses flight instead.

 The calling of Moses from that wilderness hideout is as much about the saving and healing of Moses heart as it is about the saving and liberating of Israel (after all God could have worked through anyone).  God calls Moses to confront his past, to stop hiding and reconcile himself with who he is.  We are called (like Moses) to the hard work of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation because until we can make peace in our own hearts we can make no peace in the world, we cannot be “as God” to one another.

 What is your wilderness?  What are you hiding from or keeping buried in your heart?  Moses internal struggles made him a “less than person” a person who “wasn’t good enough” for what he was called to do. His past held back his future.  God desires us to stop hiding from ourselves and to know that we are capable of far more than we imagine, nothing less than being “as God” to another as long as we are willing to do the hard internal work of letting our own hearts be healed and made whole.  We can too walk the journey of Moses and confront turmoil of our past and learn to let it go.

This Lent how is God calling you to confront your past that you might help to forge a better future?

Discernment of the Way

A disciple necessarily follows someone… or perhaps something.

There are all kinds of disciples, to all kinds of people, ideas, and yes… things.

One is a disciple by virtue of desiring to follow, and seek to become, the object of discipleship.  As children we are disciples, not so much by choice, of our parents.  As youth we often become disciples of an admired friend or an “in” group (regardless of how you measure “in” they are “in” to you and you seek to become “in” as well, this is the nature of your discipleship).  We can do this in work, in play, at home. 

There is a difference between being a disciples and being a servant.  Because the master/servant relationship doesn’t imagine that the servant will ever become a master.  The disciple imagines such things, hopes for such things, is meant to realize such things.  So while the Bible does use master and servant language for our relationship to God.  I believe there may be no more important moment than when Jesus calls his disciples friends in John’s Gospel (John 15:15).

Because we are all called by God to discipleship, we are called to follow after Jesus’ way in the world, to be formed by this way, to become this way in our lives, and for other’s lives that they may see in us the way they too are invited to live.

We leave behind the way of our parents (Jesus names this multiple times in scripture) and the other ways we disciple to as we turn towards Jesus.  I do not believe this is meant as a lack of respect, and I do not believe it means that we leave behind ALL that it meant to follow in their way.

I do believe it is a calling to critical reflection of our way(s) and how that way(s) lines up to the calling to follow in Christ’s way, the way of grace, forgiveness, and love.  The way of healing, feeding, and making whole.

Thus discipleship is an act of discernment – of self-judgment, of separating out that which leads us to life, and that which does not, that which leads others to life and that which does not, and that which does all this living and loving and leading not only with the right purpose but in the right way.  This is to say that the ends do not justify the means, we must consistently live the very end we seek: the God who is love.

How are you being called to live into the very image of God this year, and what are you being called to discern, to separate out from your way?