The following sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho to a group of pastor colleagues in the midst of a three day gathering that focused the crossroad of different people coming together from their particular heritage and learning to live together.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
It is certainly not true that God does not want us to work together.
And it seems unlikely that the God who says, ‘Go forth and multiply,’ employs being scattered and different as a punishment.
But both of these ideas can easily flow out from this text. And yet…
The people do not say: let us become God. The people do not say they wish to lay siege to heaven. What the people do say is: let us build this thing… otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
The scattering was already happening. The differentiation in the sons of Noah enumerated in the previous chapter tell us it was already a reality. The languages that result from the text are, perhaps, less a thing that was done to cause a new reality… than a sign that emerged to put word to what had already come to be. The people were moving out from the Garden in ever more diverse and differentiated ways. And then we got scared.
I’m sure you have seen the comments that arise with alarming regularity that racism had ceased to be a problem until Barack Obama was elected president. He caused the revival of racism. Even now we see the same things playing out in Hillary’s nomination and candidacy and the we shudder at the prospect that a woman would become the most powerful man in the world.
For a moment in time through the lenses of these stories we see the possibility that the American dream could be real. Anyone can become anything. And suddenly, the equality we give lip service to became real. More real than is comfortable for those who have had the power and the control. And so we say no. We will not be scattered. No we will not let our control and power in the world slip out of our grasp.
We double down on building an unchanging monument to keep ourselves from becoming scattered… and just as we learned yesterday in the history of the Basque peoples, which is not their unique history but a way that we learn of ourselves and all our stories, that when a person or persons wishes to control and make an edifice to their own name for their own security they find enemies to name in order to convince the masses to join them in their quest.
Our sin is not that we come together to achieve great things: our sin is that we so often we come together to build monuments to our fear.
Brent A. Strawn, a professor of Old Testament at Candler School of theology posits that an iconic text the Tower of Babel perhaps exists as a way to set up the story of Abram. Abram who is invited by God to go. To go on a journey of discovery that will leave him forever changed – even to the fabric of his name. And in a world in which we are building monuments to sameness and control… there can be no Abram.
Our diversity is a gift that emerges from our calling… a calling to steward creation, a calling to explore the world, to be scattered in it, and to celebrate rather than fear that story. And in the celebration of life that results we are called – as one our colleagues quoted yesterday – to be guests not hosts. Or as the Basque people say: ‘we do not own our homes, but our homes own us.’
We are guests in the world, granted stewardship of that which does not belong to us, and yet it is gifted to us by the One to whom heaven and earth belongs. This means in every moment we are called to live in the tension of being BOTH guest and host. Those who are gathered and those who are scattered in the world. Whose gift of the steadfast love of the Lord is meant to empower us to overcome our fear and concerns of ultimate security that we might feed our curiosity and seek to discover the world around us… and within us.
Yesterday Amy turned to me at dinner after a comment I made and asked, “Are you a people pleaser?” I responded that I’m a middle child. I was born to try to make peace in the world and do so not wanting to be a burden to anyone… so my peace is dysfunctional. My first instinct is pleasing people, covering over that which is upsetting, and creating an absence of conflict. Making a peace that is really nothing more than absence of conflict propped up by really good blinders. You see, I want to build towers. I am good at building towers to keep us from becoming scattered.
But another thing that strikes me about the Tower of Babel story is that in a world where we do not have to explain ourselves, we forget ourselves.
The people had a type of unity of mind… but it wasn’t so much unity as a likeness of mind, and they prized this likeness of mind and so would do anything to protect it, at all costs. And security and safety at all costs is too high a cost. Our life becomes our idol. And we know the consequences of that way of being. It makes helicopter parents, and elders who are tortured by the medical community to squeeze out one more moment in time. It legitimizes terrorism against the other… and it ultimately makes it seem sane and ration to talk about a world in which we hold all creation hostage to our ability to kill ourselves many times over seems… and call that peace.
When life is easy to relate to everyone around ourselves because we are all alike we begin to forget ourselves. We no longer question our own assumptions. We make ourselves into God… not out of radical disobedience. But because no other alternative can present itself. And that comfortable place – this is my first instinct to create – becomes worth holding on to.. entrenching in… and even building a wall to protect.
This is not the unity to which we are called.
This is not creation making a grand tapestry that celebrates life, or setting a table that always has room for another guest. Its about pinning us down to a moment of time, ceasing to grow and learn and explore… it isn’t a celebration of life… its about becoming the undead.
So yes, I’m a people pleaser. And people pleasers build great towers. So I could, I imagine, fill football stadiums of worshipers who will join me in that tower building. And yet….
And yet I too feel called to a journey like Abram – another great people pleaser. Abram never met a person he didn’t try please. But I was called to a journey of self-discovery and of dislocation to discover the other. I continue to spend my life getting to know who I am so I can both honor and overcome it. And I am called – we are called – to spend (that is risk and give away) our lives getting to know each other that we can honor each other as well. We do the hard work, that we don’t have time for, of building bridges and relationships across a diversity of differentiated peoples. To be both guests and hosts to each other.
How then do we tred on this earth as those called to be both guests, and hosts?
I read a great article recently on marriage. The main premise was this: Marriage is the fight we agree to have the rest of our life. Between two people, the author says, there will always be different views and opinions. And marriages that work don’t seek to force the other to become obedient to your answers and world view. Two becoming one? Does mean like-mindedness either.
But rather, marriages that work are between two people who agree to fight about the same things over and over again because they cannot imagine someone else they’d rather spend the rest of their life fighting with. Its not our likeness of mind that creates our unity… it is commitment to the beauty and blessedness we see in the others’ self-differentiation that makes us fight for a shared life together.
The gift, not punishment, of our languages that give name to our identity and unique flavor of life, is the gift of constant translation. No word – beyond the divine logos – can capture God. No image captures the breadth and depth of life. But in the constant dynamic play of words and the dance of matching them to their meaning we are drawn together by the task of knowing one another. And here we find that we do not do great things from our shared ideas and like-minded approaches to the world… but in the sharing of our differentiation from each other we find a unity of purpose in knowing and being known by the world that owns us.
We are all guests. We are all hosts. We are called to curate a life of translation in the tension of those dual roles and to risk losing ourselves to each other, for each other. Nothing we build matters other than the human connections in which the love of God abides.
Thanks be to God.
While I was at the National NEXT Church conference I ran across several conversations about the language of membership in a church not making sense. The idea of membership – the argument goes – is antiquated and institutional.
The conversation is familiar, it is one I picked up about 8 years ago and it led into my Doctor of Ministry with a focus on discipleship and how member language may subvert the church’s calling to make, and send out, disciples. I want to try to distill some of those thoughts:
My initial frustration was that member language makes the church feel any social group – rotary, the YMCA, a soccer club, a country club. We pay a service, we get a card: we are a member. Furthermore I have “membership” cards to everything from my favorite yogurt place to Pet Smart. I constantly am reminded of this when I stop at gas station I use frequently that has a membership card (I don’t have one) and before you pump you have to hit a button either for “loyalty card” or “continue without loyalty.” I always feel judged when I hit the latter. Is church just a place seeking your loyalty and your dues in order to be included? Furthermore if you work towards what you measure and we measure members, not disciples, than isn’t the church working toward the wrong telos?
The church is not a social club. A word from a great sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber:
“To some this may a sign that the “church is dying” …society will still have the Fortune 500 for profits, and non profits for service and day care centers for children and the ELKS Club for socializing and Starbucks for overpriced coffee and many other things we may not ever be. But we should never judge ourselves as the church according to these things because you know what the culture around us will NEVER do? Preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and proclaim forgiveness of sins. You know why? That’s OUR job.
Add in to this critique of looking and acting like a social club that generations of people today are skeptical of institutions or wish to create new ones. In today’s culture anything that feels rigid and formal and promotes the church as a place where you have to fit yourself into us in order to be an “insider” just feels wrong. I can understand, in this light, the desire to do away with the member word. I was one of those people.
But I’ve tipped my hand when I said was.
Two things emerge from a cascade of thoughts:
Peter Block’s research on belonging (I highly recommend his book Community: The Structure of Belonging). His work on community is not about the church but I find it the most captivating argument about what a church needs to be in order to really BE church. In the foundation presentation of his thesis he presents a two-fold understanding of belonging. The need to foster a sense of belonging to the community that causes a sense of place (I belong here) and a sense of responsibility (I own the mission and seek the welfare of these people). We make a difference in our community, and make communities of difference, when we belong to them.
Member: send it away or claim it in a healthy way I do think we are all in for the work of creating this kind of belonging (both these kinds of belonging).
Secondly. Its Jesus. Pesky, makes my life difficult, Jesus. Jesus certainly reached out to the masses, healed insiders and outsiders, and frankly more outsiders. Jesus preached on the street to any who overheard his gospel. But Jesus also called disciples. From out of the crowds of undifferentiated masses Jesus calls individuals. Jesus called those disciples to committed relationships (just take a gander at the Luke 9). Jesus required “dropping nets” and leaving behind and committing to a community of transformation. I recall often the words of A.B. Bruce author of The Training of the Twelve. He says that the apostles in the Acts are capable of audacious faith because first they spent significant formative time committed to be in the presence of Jesus and community of discipleship around him.
I may not love the member word. But the word isn’t as misplaced as I once thought. I came to an articulation of membership like this: Discipleship is our lifelong journey of wrestling with God, and God’s people, in how I am called to live my faith. Membership is the particular community I choose for this time and place to help me do the ongoing work of discipleship.
Maybe what our bigger problem is when we think the membership word draws a line. Us | Them.
Jesus doesn’t practice this kind of community. Instead he seems adept at ever larger concentric circles of community.
(The Twelve Disciples)
(“many disciples” (John 6:66 indicates a ring beyond the 12))
(The crowds // onlookers, over-hearers… admirers)
You get the point.. ultimately this is an unbounded set. Emphasis on unbounded!
So maybe our member word isn’t the problem. The problem is that we make too little, and not enough of it, in the practice of the community of those who follow in the way of Jesus. The community that is, somehow, the Body of Christ.
So crazy things happen in politics. Crazier things seem to happen in Idaho politics, did you see the GOP Gubernatorial debate last May? It went viral around the country thanks mostly to the participation of Harley Barnes and Walt Bayes who are summed up by Washington Post:
With his bushy white beard and khaki shirt, Walt Bayes looked like a slender Santa Claus on spring break as he thundered Bible verses from the podium. And then there was Harley Brown. Clad in a black leather vest, hat and gloves, the engineer biker with a more manicured white beard and missing teeth looked like a bad Santa. And he sounded like one, too. “I’ve got a master’s degree in raising hell” was one of the many gasp-worthy things uttered during the hour-long debate.
So after two years of living here I no longer get surprised with the antics of our legislature and politicians. Not surprised, but still frustrated and saddened. It struck again this week. House Bill 1 was being heard by the House State Affairs Committee. This bill was attempting to have the Idaho giant salamander named as the state amphibian. 8th grader Ilah Hickman was even on hand to present why she thought this was important, and she had the backing of several voices on the committee who tried to move the legislation to be sent to the House floor… but, no. This is Idaho. The legislation lost – again. And then in words I will not soon forget I read the words Representative Ken Andrus said to her:
When I grew up, when I was a young boy, in our swimming hole, there were salamanders, and we called them water dogs… and I learned to despise them. To me, and to my fellow youth, they were ugly, they were slimy, and they were creepy. And I’ve not gotten over that. And, so, to elevate them to a state symbol and status of being the state amphibian, I’m not there yet.
Really? You grew up thinking they were ugly, and 60-70 years later you aren’t over how ugly those salamanders were so you can’t allow this species of salamander, mostly unique to Idaho, to become our state amphibian???
This makes me almost unbearably sad. I read this the next day and sat dumbfounded and dismayed. This is where I live? We are so governed by our fears and dislikes that can’t put aside a childhood impression of a salamander? How are we supposed to address more engrained problems like systemic racism, gender discrimination, the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors, and religious intolerance? When I was a child I had irrational fears – it’s part of being a child. I grew up in an old Midwestern farmhouse with a large unfinished basement. Like so many kids I was convinced that unspeakable things lived under the stairs to our basement. We also had playroom in the basement that required me to traverse those stairs daily. And you know what? I ran. Every day I went down those stairs as if the devil was on my heels… because I was CONVINCED that was exactly the kind of plight I was in.
But guess what? The place under the stairs in our basement? It was not a den of inequity. It was not a place of horrible monsters or great evil – I know it, and you know it. But little Andy didn’t. I grew up. I saw the world different. I learned to confront my fears to gain new understanding and appreciation for that which was outside my comfort zone. In fact that process took me to mission work in the Philippines and chaplaincy in large public (and very urban) hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Experiences that became formative, if not fun for this introverted shy boy who grew up in a sheltered suburban community, because they challenged me and helped me grow. They made me see the world differently and with much more perspective than an eight year old version of myself was ever capable of. In fact, they made me see the world with more perspective than 38 year old me is capable of, and with more perspective than 78 year old Andrew will be able to manage. That is why we need community and diversity to help us understand things we aren’t naturally going to know anything about. This is how we grow, change, and become wiser versions of ourselves. We confront the other, and become known and we come to know it or them, and our sense of neighbor grows bigger. Our world becomes bigger.
And we all have such stories. At least I hope so. But maybe not. Maybe we all have some things we can’t, or won’t, change our mind about. Maybe we all have our “salamander.” Maybe we all have something or someone that we refuse to get to know. We refuse to let go of our presupposed opinions and allow ourselves to be changed by them. Maybe Ken Andrus’ statement is the most apocalyptic and helpful words that have come to me in a long time. Because, you see, he was willing to be unveiled about a “thing” in a way he would never be about a person. He was able to be honest, because he didn’t have to care about a salamander. But most of our salamanders are people. People whose faith we have judged as ugly or destructive. People who we have decided don’t work hard or well and therefore deserve their lot. People whose priorities are different than ours and we decide they are dysfunctional or irrational or wrong or… an abomination. I have heard those words used recently, by a law-maker… of a person. Talk about your “salamander!”
If there is to be hope in this world, we have got to let go of our unchecked and unconfronted biases and fears. We have got to sit down with our “salamanders” and learn about them and let them learn about us and find a way forward together. Most of those biases are not our fault. They were handed on to us by instinct, by friends or family, by society as whole. They were kneaded into the dough we are made with and they are a part of us. They are so ingrained into our being that we react out of those fears and biases without knowledge: as one wired to feel and believe certain things without thought. We should not feel guilty because we have bias toward or against something or someone.
And yet. Setting that guilty and shame aside, we cannot stop there.
It is when we stop there that we incur responsibility. When we refuse to confront and learn and do the disciplined hard work of rewiring our biases? That is on us. I have never met a person, nor do I ever expect to, who didn’t have some fears, who didn’t have some jaded understanding of someone else, who didn’t have bias. But I also hope never to meet people who aren’t working to address them. Walk down the stairs, maybe get a friend and go under the stairs – have a picnic there! Meet people outside your normal network and learn how to care for them as a neighbor. Make your world bigger, more informed, and more understood by being willing to sit down with “others” and make them companions. Learn to appreciate salamanders!
Because fear of “salamanders” is leading us down dark roads toward a scary future. And I don’t want to live in that future! We all owe it to each other to work toward something better: more caring, more understanding, more whole.
What and who and where are your salamanders, and what are you prepared to do about it?
“Marker Moments: Celebrating our Stories”
A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, ID
Nov. 2, 2014
When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: 2“Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, 3and command them, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’” 4Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. 5Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, 6so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’7then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.”
When I sit down to put on my socks and look down at my foot there is a small discolored spot right on the inner part of my foot. You might not see it as scar but that is what I know it to be. And every time I see that scar I remember my year of living in the Philippines where I got the scar. I was there as yearlong young adult volunteer in mission after college and there are many stories of that time but I particularly remember one night. I would say I was on an island but the Philippines is a collection of thousands of islands so you are always on an island. I was on the island of Mindoro that night and we had been there for several days and we were living out of our backpacks going back into remote villages and learning about the culture, and after a long hard day we got to what looked like the very traditional image of a collection of huts in a rice field. This little village was all bamboo huts rising up out of standing water surrounded by rice. And we were spending the night here in this little community.
I had spent the whole day miserable. I had one of those ear infections where it felt like someone had taken a letter opener and punched it through my ear. I was exhausted and had grown numb but we were far from doctors or medical care and so you just continued on. We had been trying to delicately walk through these rice fields but I will tell you that big ugly American feet do not skillfully traverse rice fields. It was a hard day. So then we were to sleep in this small bamboo hut that was about 8’ x 8’ and there were 8 of us sleeping in it. The guy who was sleeping next to me – well I wasn’t sleeping, but the guy next to me was and he kept rolling over and putting his arm and leg around me. And if you don’t know this about me already, I’m an introvert. I do love you all – but I love to go home to my own space too! Introverts struggle in the Philippines because there is no individual space there, it’s not a culture for introverts and if you try to get off by yourself they think something is wrong with you and seek you out and crowd around to talk about it.
So here we are and I’m miserable and in pain and I’m down about being here at all. I rolled out from under the guy next to me and went for a walk in the rain – of course it’s raining because there are only four seasons in the Philippines: hot, hotter, wet, and wetter and we were somewhere between wet and wetter at the time. And there was a massive thunderstorm I can see out on the horizon probably out over the ocean and lighting was flashing and I could just barely hear the slight rumbling of it… and that was all demonstrative of my mood. And I remember walking and standing in the rain and talking to God, I remember being upset with God, upset at feeling abandoned.
“God I think I’m here because of you. I think you wanted me to be here to learn and to serve and I think if I’m here doing your work, but you could have my back and help me out a little more.”
And I felt… abandoned. Not complete but still – abandoned. Do you know what it’s like to feel radically alone when you’re are surrounded by people?
I remember feeling that aloneness and frustration and questioning.
I do not know what happened the rest of the night… I seem to have blocked that part out but I know that after spending some time there in the morning we walked out and to hiked most of the day to get the Oceanside where we were going to stay to have some reflection time of what we had seen and learned the last week. So we walked to the ocean and we set our bags down and I changed into a bathing suit and ran out to the ocean. Now the Pacific Ocean is a very poorly named ocean. There is nothing passive about it. Particularly the day after a storm and there were huge rolling waves crashing on the beach. And it was the most therapeutic thing I could do to dive into those waves. It was like being a kid again diving again and again head first into those waves and letting them crash against me. It was cathartic and I beat my frustration out on those waves and it was a baptismal water kind of moment, being washed clean, renewed, refreshed.
And it had become night and walked up that beach and the stars had come out. And I was feeling alive – the yuck that was in me had fallen away, I had this sense of calm and comfort. I had a sense of awareness that I wasn’t alone and I looked up and a shooting star went by but I swear to you it was God winking at me. No hindsight. Right in that moment it felt like God looking me in the eye and winking at me with a smile saying, “Andrew, my beloved, you are not alone, you have never been alone.”
So every time I look at that scar. Every time I see it I see far more than just a spot on my skin that didn’t heal. I see that memory from the time when I got that scar. I feel that memory. I am taken back to that moment in the water when I realize that I wasn’t alone. And that is exactly what is happening with Joshua and the Israelites in our story today. There journey – their journey out of Egypt to Promised Land – began at waters, at the Red Sea. The time in the wilderness began with God parting the waters for them to enter. And forty years later on the other bookend of their journey Joshua leads them through waters again. By God’s decree the ark – a abode of God – passes before them into the Jordan and the flow of the river is cut off so that they may walk across the land into the Promised Land beyond the river. God is right in the middle of the water, in the turbulence, in the chaos of their journey and says, “I am here with you, I will get you through this.”
And when they get to the other side they are told go back to the middle of the river where the priests were with the ark and get some stones – not some small rocks but stones you have to haul up on your shoulders – and take one for each tribe and carry them across to the other side of the river (your side of the river) and create a tower of the stones. Do this so that it will be a tangible reminder to you, you will see it and remember that in the middle of the chaos, of the challenging times, of the questioning times, of the times when you aren’t sure how you will carry through the day, build it so that in the middle of such times you can remember that you have been there before and you do did pass through, you did survive, and I was there with you all the way to the other side, from beginning to ending you were not alone.
And the even better part is that the memorial of stones isn’t just for them – though we need such memorials and reminders in our own lives. But this is also for their children and their children’s children. So in the time to come, Joshua says, when your children ask you what those stone mean to you. “What’s that?” “Why is that there?” You can tell them a story. THE story. “Ooooh, that. Yes. A wonderful question, dear one, let me tell you a story. Come on, gather around. Sit here on my lap… let me tell you about a journey your parents went on… your grandparents went on… your great-great-grandparents… let me tell you the story.”
It’s our story too. And that is the point of it all. We are a storied people. God writes us into God’s story. So we hear the stories of those who came before, and we pass on our stories to a generation that will create their own as well. And as you read through the Old Testament you will notice that God liters the wilderness and the landscape of the Israelites with such reminders, memorials, altars in the wilderness – scars on creation if you will – that remind us that in the hardest times of our lives we are not alone. God desires to be a God that is in the midst of the waters, God lives with us in the waters, God lives FOR us in the waters, and we will be carried through.
On this All Saints Sunday we think about all those who have come before us. Who has been a saint for you? Who is someone particularly dear to your heart who taught you something of love, of grace, of carrying through the hard times? Who has helped you to know that you are not alone?
We celebrate the saints in our lives, we celebrate those who told us a story of what the “stones” meant to them. Who wrote us into the story of creation, wove us into God’s tapestry of life.
But we are also story-tellers. For whom have you told stories? Where have you placed yourself so that children and adults alike might ask you to tell them your stories? How have you helped invite people into God’s story who have felt too alone to be a part of it? Who have you woven into the tapestry they were excluded from, who are you being a saint for?
God has called us into God’s story, to be a people who are storied and story-tellers. People who are ministered to by the saints even as we are saints to one another.
Who are you celebrating, and who is celebrating you?
Thanks be to God, Amen.
This is part of an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here
- In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
- To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: here
- To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: here and here
- To hear the voices of peoples long silenced: here
- To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: here
- In gratitude to God: here
- Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: see below
- Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives
As we break this section down I will skip the “empowered by the Spirit… live holy and joyful lives” parts. Not because they aren’t important, but because I hope that I covered them last time in the “in gratitude to God” reflection (we could always say more but I’m trying for a series of reflections and not a whole book!). So without further ado:
I’m a big Yoda fan. I even have an authenticated life-size Yoda statue (which is a lot easier than the same for Chewbacca). I am as quick as any to quip, “Do or do not, there is no try.” But… do I really think that is true? Certainly there places in scripture (and our faith communities) where we draw lines in the sand and make it clear you either do this and you are one of us, or you do not – and you are not. But to say do or do not is to presume that the task is do-able, and that we are absolutely clear what the task is. And so I ask: is the way of Jesus something we can do? Is it helpful to say we will either or not do what Jesus asks of us? Or do we, rather, try. We try to serve Christ in all we do… or maybe to say that in a slightly stronger way. We strive. We yearn. Our bodies lean in to the way of Christ. We crave to live as Christ would have us. And yet we know we will not perfectly do it. We will not achieve it. We will not be “the way of Jesus” we will be the best approximation of that way that we can muster. In this word, strive, we combine accountability and affirmation, confession and pardon, aspiration and settledness, prophetic calling and gracious inclusion, the way we do not and the way we do.
We strive. Not “I try” but “we strive.” It’s stronger than me alone or simply a tacit veneer of hope that something like Jesus will happen in me. We strive acknowledges the claim Christ’s way has on all that we are, while granting us grace to fall short. When we “do not” it does not mean that Christ is not still at work in us and through us. It means that while we set out to live a life that is beyond our ability Christ delights in our efforts no matter how short we come of whatever goal we aspired to live. As Thomas Mertonsaid, “the desire to please God is in fact pleasing to God.” (loose quote, full quote footnoted below).
I want to say one and only one thing. I am convinced that scripture is clear (or as clear as it ever is), if you wish to serve God (through the way of Christ) than to do that we must serve each other. We love God by loving our neighbors. We serve Christ by living in service to the whole community of God’s creation
What a powerful two words: daily tasks. We don’t serve God by going to church, by worshiping, by being in Sunday school or a mid-week Bible Study, by going on a mission trip, or…. whatever. We serve Christ in our daily tasks. All that stuff we just named that sounds like the programmatic life of the Church – that’s all just practice. It’s like a homework assignment of writing out spelling words. But we do not write out spelling words for the sake of busy work. We do it to make them a part of who we are so that when we go to use those words we can do so naturally, instinctively, and without thought. They become a part of us for their use in our daily tasks. We mistake Church as an end (a goal) in itself far too often. It is simply meant to be a community of formation for the REAL TASK. Living in service to Christ in our daily tasks. How are you serving Christ at school? At work? At play? At home? On the road to these places? At the waiting room for a Dr.’s appointment?
Let us rephrase that question in light of our whole reflection: how are you striving to love the people you encounter each day?
This is what we commit our lives to look like: God’s love being poured out in chance and intentional encounters every day of our life. All the other things we do in God’s name? They live in service to that goal and not the other way around. The goal is to live the love of God and the way of Christ towards our neighbors in our daily tasks, and whatever it takes to keep us directed toward that goal… is church (intentional community of faith). And anything else? Is probably either a distraction or directly counter to who we believe ourselves to be called to be.
Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives.
Thanks be to God.
This prayer is a great gift, these words sit – among others – above my desk as a constant reminder:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” -Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
Yesterday we closed a Presbytery worship service declaring a building vacated and dissolving that worshiping community as a congregation. It was a moment to recognize that death happens.
The week before that I preached at that same church on Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection and Peter’s rebuking him that he can’t die (Matthew 16).
We have a tendency to confuse form and function. In that moment I believe Peter was obsessed with the form of Christ. He didn’t have a failure of faith. He has a failure of imagination. He could not imagine Christ outside of the way he had experienced him to that point. He was obsessed with the form, rather than the function of God… of Jesus. So resurrection held no hope for him. He didn’t want resurrection – he wanted not to have to go through any changes.
We get that way about Church. (God too…) We get where we obsess about the forms we know and are comfortable with and cannot see past them. But God is on the move. And the form of the Church is too… the Church will form and re-form as need arises to fulfill its function. When a form has played its part… it will die. But that doesn’t mean the Church dies. The Church is not a form. And the Church will find a new way to be manifest even as we mourn the loss of the way we knew, the way we were comfortable with, the way we wish it could still be.
The challenge I find with regards to death is that we are called to give it neither too much, nor too little, credit. When we obsess on death we miss the point, and those who wish we would talk more and longer about “a dying church” are perhaps a bit too obsessed with form. The Church isn’t dying… the Church is finding a new form. Its purposes will still be lived out, its function is as much in demand as it always has been and always will be. It just isn’t necessarily being met the same way we are used to imagining. Like Peter… we need to give that up a bit and challenge our imaginations to see a new way. We need to be Church making real the same hope, love, and justice in very new ways through unfamiliar forms. We need to trust that resurrection is real, and – wait for it – good. We need to be willing to be re-formed.
We proclaimed yesterday at the end of the service that this site was no longer a worshiping congregation of our church. But as I walked out the words that resounded in my head were, “but of his kingdom there shall be no end.” The Church – even THAT church – will go on. Its a form that died, not its function, not its purpose, not even its being. That is simply waiting for resurrection and the new form it will take as God coaxes life from the formlessness and void, and calls it good.
This is part of an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here
- In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
- To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: here
- To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: here and here
- To hear the voices of peoples long silenced: here
- To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: here
- In gratitude to God: see below
- Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: forthcoming
- Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
In gratitude to God
You have heard it, somewhere and some when. If you are like me – you have said it. “I have to go to church meeting.” I’ve slipped and said it, but usually I try to catch myself and say instead, “I get to go to a church meeting.” I get to worship. I get to go to bible study. I get to witness resurrection in the midst of mourning the death of a loved one. I get to…
I’m amazed at how often we feel like faith or church or mission is a burden we carry. (Sometimes with good reason but often because we are approaching it from the wrong mindset.) And I don’t disagree. Having to wrestle with faithful ways of living in my life is more challenging that just… not caring. That’s not what I’m talking about here though, I’m talking about those times church has begun to feel like one more obligation in a week that is already over-flowing.
What does it mean to take seriously the notion that we “work with others… in gratitude to God?”
Our life together in faith is not meant to be an onerous burden. Strangely enough I have always found church fun. From choir and hand bells to Sunday school and confirmation – church feeds me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of a community. And yes there are days it doesn’t feel that way, but mostly it does. However the moment it ceases to be that for a protracted amount of time… that needs to be addressed. I remember talking to Cynthia Rigby, professor at Austin Seminary, and she mentioned a time when she recommended a church member stop reading the bible for a whole year. She did this because that person had turned reading the bible into an obligation that was killing their spirit. They weren’t feeding abundant life with their reading – they were crushing it under the weight of “I ought to do this.” So she told this person to knock it off, to stop reading it, and I say: great advice.
We are called to serve – to work – together in gratitude. With joy. If we have lost the sense of awe and gratitude to be trusted with this work than an essential ingredient of ministry and calling is missing, and we have to stop and take pause.
Listen to the Psalmist in Psalm 8:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.”
The Psalmist is awed, humbled, and empowered. I am nothing. And yet God has entrusted me with everything. I have been granted the privilege of responsibility. This is to work in gratitude to God.
So… how do we get that?
Maybe you are in touch with that now – maybe you are living this phrase. In that case, let your let shine!
Maybe you are close, maybe its there but you don’t quite realize it. Would it help to just recall the ways you have been blessed by companionship in community, and the way you have been a blessing to others.
Maybe you are holding yourself back because you fear it, but if you just let loose a little you will realize how much joy you are experiencing from ministry together.
Maybe you are there – and you don’t even know it. Name it; claim it.
There is another response – a deeply faithful response. Maybe you need to knock it all off for a bit. Taking Cindy Rigby’s story a step further I have recommended that before. That someone just take a year off of church… or from leadership or from programs or missions or… whatever it is they are doing that has lost that sense of awe, privilege, and gratitude – and has instead become an onerous obligation. And you know what? It’s biblically faithful. (or at least I think so.) Right before the Exodus commandment to keep one day in seven reserved for Sabbath it talks about letting your field lie fallow one year out of seven (Exodus 23:11). Sometimes we are dried up and we need to stop and just abide and rest. We need to let the dust settle, scatter the structure to the wind, forget about seed and harvest and just wait… and see what comes up again next year. Maybe you need to take a year off of church.
There are many ways to gain that sense of gratitude in service. None are right or wrong except in so far as they are right for you, for this time. But what I am getting at – what I think our Statement of Faith calls us to attend to – is that our work together is meant to be work that feels like privilege, a joy, and a reason for gratitude to God for the opportunity – I get to do this. And if we aren’t there – it’s time to take stock and figure out how to, because this is all about abundant life: for you – for your neighbor – for all God’s creation.
Thanks be to God.
Addendum (the next day):
A congregation member sent this clip to me in response to yesterday’s blog post (which get emailed to the congregation as devotionals of sorts). Spot on: “we GET to play baseball today.”
Even more spot on with the idea of taking time away: I occassionally lament that Michael Jordan left basketball for that whole misadventure with baseball. What would his stats be, how many more championships we would have won if he hadn’t done that? But when your spirit needs you to “take off” and go on a misadventure that is the the RIGHT adventure for you, than that is what you have to do. Who knows, maybe those last three championships don’t happen without him taking his break.
From today’s sermon on Genesis 29’s story of Jacob’s brides (you got that right, more than one and double it again if we are talking mothers of his children) but really its a sermon on the repetitive story of Genesis:
Robert Frost defines home as the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in.
The family systems sickness that is passed through the generations starting with Adam and Eve (I was told later I created a new notion of original sin) and working through the generations of Abraham’s children is the belief that we are in a competition to earn God’s love. We keep defining “home” smaller and smaller so we have to let fewer people in to the circle of God’s love out of fear that there isn’t enough or that we will be out earned by the other.
The Kingdom of God, Heaven, Chosen Land, Chosen people, New Jerusalem… etc, etc are all just different words for home. And God’s home is to the ends of the earth and there is room and love enough for all. We all have a home in God’s heart. The question isn’t how do we earn it, or be worthy of it. The questions we have to answer is how do accept that we really are loved by God without need to earn it, and how are we making that same love palpable for all we meet?
You are loved; we are loved; we all are loved. Open your heart to call the world home, and let everyone in.
Creator? Redeemer? Sustainer?
I do not know what name to lift up to you God. Not in this moment of prayer. Not to get your attention at this time. Will a pleasant name give my plea a greater hearing?
God who is – I AM. God who claims naught but existence… and hearing – for you heard the cries of your people. God who claims naught but existence and hearing and yet also responds through broken vessels like Moses and Paul, in prophets like Elijah and Jesus, in poets and priests and prostitutes and peons and… and whatever you can lay eye on. God who is, hear our prayers – our cries – our lamentations – our bafflement and our despair, and respond. Because we need you.
“In the beginning… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” (Genesis 1:1)
Our world knows much of formlessness, void, and darkness. Our world – your world I might remind you – is swirling out of control. (Are there controls on this thing?) Madness seems to have taken over. We are killing each other at obsessive rates. Killing over land, over long held hatred, out of neglect, self-interest… or for no reason at all. God… we are killing. We are killing ourselves.
“Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10)
So much hate. I do not know what to do in the face of hate. I feel overwhelmed by it all. I do not know how to look into the eyes of one who sees another human being as unworthy of life. I do not know how to stare deeply into those eyes… with love. I do not know how to love the hate-filled other. To love them in such a way that the only death is the hate and not the other.
“Forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 22:34)
We lack the strength Lord to be a gracious people. We are consumed by a need for personal safety. We are consumed by a need to protect our own. We are consumed by our self. We are literally consuming ourselves in the name of our own glory. And the victims of our hunger are legion.
“But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.” (Daniel 1:8)
Our hearts are empty. We care not. Certainly not enough to deprive ourselves. Besides, we cannot get beyond our own hurts, for they are real and true and hardship abounds. We cannot be moved to care for another when we cannot care for ourselves. Where do we go when everyone is a patient and no doctor will come to work? Is there balm for the wounded soul?
“I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” (Matthew 23:37)
But our children are scattered and dying. Hungry and homeless and… what future does this world hold when schools are warzones and warzones are shielded in their bodies?
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)
Our leaders are as scared as we are – perhaps even more because they can see farther than we can, for all their short-sightedness, from their elevated lofts of luxury. What does a disciple do when then master is aimless, absent, apathetic or amorally removed from the plight?
“I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.” (Ezekiel 34:10)
Them too – but maybe you are not hearing me, where are you, O God…. How long O Lord… if we die in this wilderness of hate and indifference who shall be left to you of your creations? My God… my GOD… why have you forgotten us… forsaken us…. Whither shall we go – shall we look to the hills? Shall we find you in the shadow of death? The demons have overturned the furniture and made a mess of the homes in our heads… the bleeding will not be stopped… the death-throws of the Beast – if death throws they are – are far too much for our little lives to stand. If you are Alpha and Omega.. we need you in the middle too – where are you, O Lord… my God?
“Be still… know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
I find myself almost out of breath… that is – out of God, out of you. Molded and breathed into and given life, it is death now that I see, that I breathe, that I live. Justice isn’t rolling down, Habakkuk is no more pleased today, does he still stand his watch tower? Do I stand in his place? Do I have it in me? I am out of breath, and our world feels out of time. Oh Ancient of Days – it’s time to appear on scene. At least a little late I might say. Where do we go from here – when just to stand seem more than I am able?
“At the beginning of your supplications a word went out, and I have come to declare it, for you are greatly beloved.” (Daniel 9:23)
I was looking for a little more Revelation.
I am stirred to anger and I am ready for an angry God. We are past the point of words… we need action. Oh God – DON’T YOU SEE IT?!?!
“Hear, O Israel-” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
YOU DON’T GET IT – I’M DONE LISTENING. I NEED YOU TO FIX THIS!
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” (Mark 10:21)
I’m not sure I know what to do with that. Is that an answer? Why won’t you answer me – don’t you know I have your life in my hands…..
“Jesus began to weep.” (John 11:35)
I didn’t mean it, God I didn’t mean it. I’m just frustrated. More than a little lost. More than a little heart-sick for all those whose lives have been thrown to the wind. More than little despairing that we just can’t get this love thing. I’m tired… God knows, you must be too.
“My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” (Hosea 11:8)
God may our hearts be broken… broken open to one another. Broken up by you and for you and with you. May our hearts be kindled and may our anger be healthy. Angry at killing, not killing angry. Angry at systems of homelessness, violence, power and dominance, ignoring the widow and orphan, at imagining there is no room in the inn… But not angry at the homeless, the violated, the least and the lost. May our hearts be kindled. May our compassion grow warm, yes, and tender. May seedlings of hope be scattered in the wilderness and the rocks and roads and the urban slums and the rooftops of palace and stable and may the sprout up. May we protect them for them are a hard won and precious gift. May we honor them for their roots go deep into the marrow of the earth connecting pole to pole – person to person, and their leaves are absorbing the starlight of different worlds and in their veins lies the life blood of heaven and hell.
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Just help me see the hope… for all the rest is all too easy to be consumed by.
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13)
Make it so. So be it. Amen
Okay so now and then I let slip that I do not like The Giving Tree. People love it. I get it. So here you go, why I don’t. You will have your reasons why I’m over analyzing, but it’s what I do and… I really don’t think this is a reach but it’s right there in the story:
The message that we read in the story of the boy is that happiness is procured from money, working all the time so you have no time for play, a family (he seems to not to end up with), having a house, and going to far away places to find what you don’t have. All this at the expense of the life and vitality of your friend who appears to be codependent and lives only for the happiness of the boy who apparently has no thought of the happiness of the tree.
By the end the dead used up remains of the tree are, we are told, happy to have served the whims of the boy who appears to have never found happiness because here in the end he is sitting alone without friend or family on the stump of an old dead tree.
Yes that is harsh. But I really do think this story is a damaging narrative cloaked as a sentimental and benign children’s tale. So some further thought before you go to it’s defense:
Yes the tree gives. But the boy takes. This is the groundwork for almost every imperialist culture ever. Imperialists take advantage of generous people until it’s too late to change the dynamics of the relationship.
There is a reason Jesus’ death is said to be “once and for all.” It’s that we do not require sacrificial death from our neighbors in order that we might live… and yet, sadly that still isn’t true.
The hidden sadness of this book is that you cannot buy happiness. Happiness is not external and no amount of chasing after it will “find” it.
This book more than any other reminds me why I love the triune love commandment from Jesus: “love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself.” These three work in concert and balance. You can’t do one or two to the exclusion of the third if you are following in Jesus way. To love God but not neighbor? Misses the point. Self-love to the exclusion of others – no way. But also: to love neighbor without any care for self stands outside of Christ’s calling. In our care and service to one another we have to be able to care for ourselves as well. We live interconnected lives building each other up – not one at the expense of the other no matter that we claim the other “desired to make those sacrifices.” This is the way we defend imperialism, slavery, patriarchy, racism, and the subjugation of the environment, etc, etc, etc.
So there you have it, why whenever someone reads or mentions The Giving Tree, all I hear is The Taking Boy.