Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Found some random notes from about ten months ago, and figured I'd share them. Bon appetit!
If salvation is other people, then other people come into your life who can save you.
Do not eschew comfort and security for fear that they will end. All will one day end. Enjoy, instead, the moments of peace and joy that you have, for they will sustain you through the coming storm. A good life is not one that is lived free from strife and pain, but one that is lived to the fullest in moments of happiness and pleasure. The key to finding these moments is love - caring for others creates joy, for all who are a part of the encounter. So embrace those people who make you happy, for you do not know what trials tomorrow may bring. Cherish those moments of true bliss, wherever you can find them - but do not cling to them too tightly. For life is, fundamentally, finite. Do not live in fear or denial of this fact, but accept it; and in doing so, you will be free to love more fully. When you no longer fear pain or discomfort, it has less power over you. Make room for the saviors in your life, and go out and save those whose savior you are.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
But brothers and sisters, I had no idea.
I don't want to smear or insult or foam at the mouth incoherently, although the urge is there. I want to resist the urge to reject what I'm hearing outright, and I want to not be judgmental. I know that many conservatives have claimed that liberals reject what they say out of hand, and I want to give these guys a fair shake.
But when I hear someone say that what Jesus wants is for you to be financially and materially successful, that people who are rich and powerful winners got that way because God wants them to be, my skin crawls and my heart beats faster and rage rises. I won't deny it.
And when I hear someone say that all I need to do to get the knowledge that will lead me to success and help me avoid pain and loss, all I need to do to figure out how to get God to work for me so I can be successful in this world, all I need to do is to give them money?? That's when I start crying.
No wonder so many people look at Christianity and think the gospel message is a joke. No wonder people are no longer shocked when they hear about financial scandals within the church. No wonder legitimate ministries have a hard time raising money to feed the hungry and care for the outcasts.
God's wisdom is not the wisdom of the world. The cross was a symbol of failure, not success. It was a humiliating criminal's death that Jesus died, a loss, not at all what people were expecting from the Messiah. What Christians are called to do - feed the hungry, care for the sick, love everyone the way that God loves us, without judgment, with compassion, make God the center of our lives instead of ourselves - this is foolishness to the world! Making lots of money, having lots of things, winning competitions? This is what the world sees and applauds, but it is not the fruit of the gospel.
Do I believe that we are called to give of ourselves financially in God's service? You're damn right I do. And I know that ministries need money in order to operate within this world. But God doesn't want you to be rich. God doesn't you to not be rich either. Honestly, God doesn't give a shit either way. God wants you to know that you're loved, and God wants your love in return, and God wants you to love everyone else you meet the same way. That's the gospel.
I know I could avoid this by just changing the channel. But lots of people are watching this. And lots of people believe this, believe that this is what the Bible really says, this is what Jesus really said. And if we just change the channel, then we give them the rights to the temple, we let them leave their tables standing and we let them pocket their profits and we let them help perpetuate the unjust systems that the Word came to overthrow 2000 years ago. We can't just change the channel and forget it's there. We have to respond. If we do not offer an alternative in response, we cannot be surprised when our churches close and people scoff at the gospel.
We are the light of the world, the salt of the earth, we're the ones who were entrusted with the good news. So let's live it, folks. Not just by engaging in vigorous debates, or by blogging somewhat coherent rants, but by showing the world what the gospel really is. Not success in terms of this world, but love. Loving each other, loving God, moving on towards that perfect love exemplified in the person of Jesus.
Okay, I feel a little better now. Time to change the channel. For now.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
What does the de-capitalization of the word most commonly used to refer to the Christian God mean? I can't even write the word lower case, that's how ingrained it is in me. And yet, in one of the (sadly) most widely read publications in the country, it's now standard operating procedure to de-capitalize the word. I think it may point to the increased secularization of our culture, and I'd point to it as an example of how we truly are living beyond Christendom.
Friday, June 18, 2010
I was coming back from a long car ride, and just as I pulled into my driveway, the “low fuel” light came on. Ding! Now, I had just spent an hour in the car, and was in no mood to turn around and go to the gas station. “I’ll just go next time I go out,” I said to myself. Well, the next day I had to go to the grocery store, and sure enough, about halfway there the warning dinged again. But there was no gas station close to the grocery store, and I was in a hurry, so I said to myself, “I’ll do it next time.” Long story short, four days go by, and I realize I’m still running with the little needle on E, and I now have no idea how far I’ve gone since that light first came on. So as I realize how close I am to being out of gas, I start trying to do things to save gas. Like coast down hills instead of touching the gas, or turning off the air conditioner - does that even work? Either way, the feeling of not knowing how much farther I was going to make it was quite disconcerting. I made it to the gas station that time luckily.
Have you ever felt like that in life? Like you’re getting really close to the end of your fuel, and you’re not sure if you’re going to be able to make it? In life, we encounter situations where we’d better have our tanks filled. Unexpected hills where if we’re running on empty we won’t make it all the way up; unexpected valleys where we need all the fuel we can get to make it back out again. Of course, we are, obviously, far more complicated than cars.
For example, we need physical fuel to make it through the day - food, water, sleep, exercise. If we put junk into our bodies, then they won’t perform as well when we encounter the need to pull an all nighter (to finish a paper or maybe a sermon); if we forget to eat, well, we eventually stop moving; if we don’t get good sleep, we get sick and run down. We need to make sure we keep our physical tanks full, and we’re usually pretty good at that. We notice when we’re hungry or tired, that warning light comes on and we know just what to do to fill them back up again.
But we’re more than just physical bodies. We need to keep our intellectual tanks full as well. We need our brains, our intellect, our intelligence to make it through life too. We can fill up on reality television and gossip magazines, or we can read a book or paint a picture or listen to music that moves us. We get stuck when our intellectual tanks are running on empty; we feel stagnant, bored. We need to keep filling our intellectual tanks as well.
We’re more than our intellect too, though, and that’s what I want to talk about today. When we talk about hills and valleys in life, the tank we most often forget to fill is our spiritual tank. Often we’re not as in touch with our spiritual selves, and we may not notice when we start to run low on fuel. But the spiritual tank is the one that’s going to get us through those hard times, those unexpected events where no matter how well fed or intellectually stimulated we are, we need to dig for something deeper to get us through. As Christians, where do we stop for gas when our spiritual tanks start to run dry?
When Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at the well, he gives us an idea about how we can keep our spiritual tanks full. Let’s listen to the story from John 4.
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
The fuel that keeps our spiritual tanks full is the good news of Jesus. Jesus is using the metaphor of living water to talk about this good news, the gospel message that he preached and taught, the message that he exemplified in his life, death and resurrection. The gospel, the living water that he’s talking about here, the good news is that God loves us, all of us, and that God wants a relationship with us. The good news is that we can share that same love with all those that we meet, a love that does not judge, a love that is with us through all of life’s journeys, a love that will sustain us when we reach those high mountains and low valleys.
The story itself exemplifies the radical nature of the gospel. Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman; the Biblical writer says it rather politely, that Jews don’t share things in common with Samaritans. But this is a much deeper rivalry. Jews and Samaritans did not get along, we’re talking beyond Red Sox/Yankees here. And not only is she a Samaritan, but she’s a woman who’s living with a man who’s not her husband (we find that out later in the chapter), and who’s had five husbands before. This woman was a social outcast, someone on the periphery, someone with no power. By sharing the message of the gospel, Jesus is not only telling the gospel, he’s living the gospel.
The Samaritan woman had a lot of ups and downs in her life as well. She was surprised when this stranger, a Jew, started talking to her. And the message that he offers her is that there is a source of life that will never run dry, a source of hope, a source of peace and joy and wholeness. The gospel message that Jesus shared with the Samaritan woman is the same message that Jesus shares with us. The good news of Jesus Christ is that all of us, every one, is a loved creation of a loving creator, and we all have access to the living water of God’s love.
So how do we refill our spiritual gas tanks? How do keep our spirits full with the knowledge of the gospel message of love and hope that sustains us through life’s journeys? Just living day to day uses up spiritual fuel, maintaining relationships, holding onto hope in a chaotic, troublesome world. But we need that living water, we need those tanks to be full, because when we run into hills and valleys, we hope that the low fuel light doesn’t come on. We need to constantly replenish our spiritual tanks with the good news.
One way that Christians fill their tanks is by participating in worship. Getting together once a week (or more or less) with other people who share the same story, the same language, remembering the great things that God has done and recognizing the great things that God continues to do, is a way that we refill our spiritual tanks. Different kinds of worship work better for different people, but attending worship regularly is one of the most fundamental ways that we can refill our spiritual tanks.
But our relationship to God is not just through other people. Spending time alone with God, spending time working on our relationship with God is another way we can fill our tanks. Time spent in prayer, whether it be spontaneous or scheduled, keeps us connected to the source of living water, helps us to remember and to be aware of the ways God has acted and continues to act in our lives.
Reading the Bible, learning about the ways in which God has revealed Godself, is a way we can stay connected to God, a way we can refill our tanks; learning about how others have experienced God throughout the centuries, in the Biblical witness and in the writings of our faith. Reading the medieval mystics, or the church fathers, or taking a Sunday school class, all these are ways in which we learn more about the God who loves us and how God loves us.
And then there is the way that we experience God in our own lives, the moments when we feel a breath of wind and know that God is with us. One of the things I love about New Hampshire is how close I am at all times to trees and water and mountains, how quickly I can be somewhere where I encounter God in nature. This time of year especially, seeing a pair of cardinals flying through the trees together, or experiencing the beauty of flowers in full bloom, all remind me of how God’s majesty is present in all of creation.
We all need different things to keep our various tanks full, because we’re all unique. Worship may be of crucial importance for some; for others, daily prayer and meditation are a necessity. Some experience more God in the presence of others, some experience it more in solitude. We may stop at different gas stations, but we’re all in need of the same fuel. The good news, that God loves us unconditionally, that we are God’s children, that we are each loved fully and intimately by a loving God - that is what will sustain us when we reach mountains and valleys. The living water will refill our tanks, but we have to take the time to fill her up. We need to pay attention when our low fuel indicators go off, and not put off filling up, because that living water is what is gonna get us over the next hill. But better yet, let us never let our tanks get so empty that we have to wonder if we’re going to make it to the next gas station.
In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson describes three kinds of languages that humans use to communicate. The first language is the language that each child learns. These are the words of relationship, of intimacy, of love. This is the simplest, deepest language that we have. The babbling of an infant can’t be translated, but it communicates deep meaning just the same. The nonsense syllables of a parent talking to a preverbal child have no definition, and yet their meaning cannot be mistaken. The first language we learn is the language of the heart - love language.
Quickly, though, this intimate language is pushed aside by the languages of information and motivation. The first, the language of information, is what we use to name things in the world - tree, box, cat, mother, brother. We define the world in words heavy with information, loaded with description - we speak about the world we see, hear, touch, feel and experience. The language of motivation is the language by which we are moved and the language which we use to move others. A child quickly learns that making a demand for “baba” will result in a quick treat; in most sermons, the pastor is using language of motivation to illuminate a point in scripture, or get the congregation to think about something or do something differently. The languages of information and motivation quickly replace the language of intimacy, of love, of relationship.
Poetry is a form that uses the language of intimacy. A poem can evoke emotions, feelings and sensations that a newspaper article simply cannot. It does this not by using the language of information or motivation, but by using the language of intimacy, of relationship, by placing words together in such a way that deep meaning is produced that goes far beyond words placed on a page or spoken in the air. The language of poetry, then, the language of love, the language of intimacy, is the language that Jesus uses when he cries out on the cross.
In the gospels, we read the story of Holy Week. We listened to the story last night, during the Tenebrae service. We heard about Jesus’ last week, beginning with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, moving through his time spent teaching in the temple, the last meal with his friends, the despairing solitude in the garden, the betrayal, the trial, the crucifixion, the death. We hear the story in the language of information, and perhaps of motivation - certainly the writers of the gospel emphasized and de-emphasized depending on their particular perspective. But the language we hear most often as we rehearse once more the stories of Jesus in the final week of his life is the language of information - the language of the head, of description, the language that describes and defines. But the story is far more than simply the facts - it is far more than a torturous recitation of a story that began and ended, more than a simple remembering of what happened, more than a series of vignettes that follow one another in sequential order. When the gospel writers introduce Psalm 22 into the story, they are introducing the language of intimacy, the language of love, to deepen and broaden the story that must never become a simple recitation of events. The poem that we read earlier tonight enhances our experience of the story, and uses language that expresses far more than simple description ever could.
Psalm 22 has a typical structure for a Psalm. It alternates between complaining to God and expressing trust in God. It begins with the words that Luke puts in Jesus’ mouth while he hangs from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The word “forsaken” could also be translated as “abandoned” or “left behind.” The poet uses the word אֵלִי, a form which means “my God.” It is a form of the word that is especially intimate, something that is used between people who have close personal attachments. God has a prior relationship with the one who is crying out, and yet the poet feels abandoned, left behind. The psalmist is in the depths of despair; suffering and trials are recited, interspersed with remembering the goodness of God in the past. Even while remembering God’s mighty acts, though, there is a deep feeling of despair. The psalmist - and Jesus - are in a place so dark, they cannot sense the light of God’s love. “Trouble is near, and there is no one to help.”
In verses 12-21, the psalmist’s plight continues, but there is some hope. Danger still surrounds: “Many bulls encircle me;” “dogs are all around me.” The poet is close to death, on the boundary between life and death: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint...you lay me in the dust of death.” The psalmist cries out, still in suffering but also in awe: “O my help,” the psalmist calls God. “Deliver me!” The sentence at the end of the second section sums it up: “From the horns of the wild oxen you have answered me.” Most translations translate “answered” as “rescued;” but I think “answered” works here. Even though the psalmist is still in the midst of sufferings, God has answered the poet from within the midst of the suffering. God is present in the suffering of the psalmist, and by using Psalm 22, the gospel writers are reminding us in a language deeper than words that God is also present in the suffering of Jesus on the cross - and God is present in our suffering as well.
In the final section of the Psalm, the poet is so moved by encountering God in the midst of suffering that she or he cannot contain their joy; a call is sounded to the people of the congregation, to the people of the community, to come join their voices in praise of the loving God who is present in our pain. This is the story that we tell in descriptive words this holy week - this is the story that we tell with the very living of our lives: the story of a God who loves us so much that God is with us in our suffering, even when we cannot sense God’s presence.
This Psalm is filled with expansive and explosive imagery. The images are graphic: the poet feels like a worm, dehumanized, degraded; the psalmist is surrounded by strong bulls that open their mouths wide as they roar; the poet’s heart is like wax, melted within her or his breast. Although it is composed of typical elements, it also pushes the boundaries of the form. Its movement from the depths of despair, through the hope found in suffering, to the exuberant call to the congregation to join in celebration runs the gamut of emotions that one encounters in one’s life story - the emotions we encounter in the stories of Holy Week. Psalm 22 is not unique because it’s used in the New Testament; Psalm 22 is used in the New Testament because it is unique.
I’ve had more people ask me this year, I suppose because they assume I’m in seminary and a pastor and so I must know, just what is so good about Good Friday. Because when we look at just the “facts”, there’s not much good on Good Friday. Jesus is on the cross; Jesus is suffering in a way that many of us have never witnessed unless we’re fans of horror films. Jesus is in the same depths that the psalmist is in, and Jesus cries out as the psalmist does, as we do when we find ourselves in the pit: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why have you abandoned me? Why have you left me behind, when you promised to be with me through everything? Jesus uses intimate language to address God - not the dry language of description, or the cajoling language of motivation, but the deep, heart-felt, spirit-driven language of love and loss, bliss and pain, joy and sorrow.
But remember, the Psalm does not end with a lament, the psalmist does not end in despair. This Psalm ends in rejoicing; and this story ends, we know, in the joy of Easter, the defeat of death, the way of love that defines the story, that defines our story. The psalmist rejoices because God is found in the suffering; even in the midst of pain, even in the depths of despair, God is present, God is with us, God loves us. That is what is so good about Good Friday: Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, cries out in pain and sorrow from the cross, and God is there. Our Savior, the Christ, the Anointed One, dies on a cross tonight, but on Sunday morning he will be absent from the tomb. God is with us in the person of Jesus, and God is with us even in the deepest, darkest moments when darkness overwhelms the light.
Tonight, we remember the death of a person who did not deserve to die. His death was ugly, it was harsh, it was violent and brutal and would most certainly be rated R if it were to be shown on screen today. We like to forget that part; we clean it up, maybe have some artfully drawn blood dripping from his hands in the more realistic paintings, but generally we prefer to remember our Jesus as we will remember him on Sunday - with jubilation, and singing, and rejoicing. But before the joy of Easter, we remember his death: the embodiment of cruelty and injustice, physical pain almost unimaginable, emotional pain equally indescribable, a death from which our Savior cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
As Jesus cried out from the cross, so too we cry out from our places of darkness, from our own pain and suffering. We encounter our own deaths, our own trials, and we cry out “My God, why have you forsaken me? Why am I so alone?” The good news, sisters and brothers, spoken to us in the words of intimacy, of poetry, of love, is that God is with us in the depths. God who loves so much that God died on a cross; that is the God who is with us in our suffering. Even when we cannot see or hear or feel that presence, it is there. We are never alone. We are not forsaken.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Monday, March 1, 2010
In one striking passage, Mr. Stearns quotes the prophet Ezekiel as saying that the great sin of the people of Sodom wasn’t so much that they were promiscuous or gay as that they were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49.)
If I'm not mistaken, many Biblical scholars been saying for years that Sodom is not about homosexuality but about hospitality. This was something we learned in Intro to Hebrew Bible, in our first semester of seminary. It's something I've heard preached on. It makes me sad that Mr. Kristof finds this so striking. If those of us in the church want to let people know that not all of us interpret what the Bible has to say about homosexuality literally, we need to speak up about it. This is a basic text used by many who blindly quote the Bible's prohibitions against homosexuality without doing the contextual work necessary for thorough exegesis.
And it serves as yet another reminder that no matter how loudly we shout from the doors of the church that not all of us use the Bible as a weapon, there is little we can do to change people's opinions of the church and of our faith unless we go out into the world and show them what being a follower of Christ is all about.