Wednesday, February 11, 2009

This Present Crisis

Wow... it has been several days since I last blogged... too much work and too little time... Since my last post, the current economic crisis has hit very close to home, as one of my own loved ones has become one of the 20,000 jobs lost every day in the US. These are tough times, things are going from bad to worse, and while everyone is looking to the government and the Obama administration for bailout, stimulus, and recovery miracles, it gives us Christians, who belong to an alternative kingdom and are citizens of a different city, cause to reflect...

What would our world look like if we ordered our life and society by God's politics? When Israel asked for a king (I Samuel 8) God's heart was broken. Through Samuel, God warned the people - you don't know what you are asking for. A king (human government) will only take and take - take your children and conscript them into military service, take your money and spend it on their own luxuries and protection, take your freedom and turn you into slaves of the very government you crave and believe will protect you and provide for you. (Does this sound familiar?) What God is really saying is, "Why can't I be your king? Why won't you trust me to provide for you and protect you?"

What would our world look like if we followed God's economic recovery plan? If Jubilee and the year of release (from debts) was not just an ideal, but an economic reality... If the wealth with which we were blessed was really available for others, if there really were "no needy person among us" but those who had plenty shared from their abundance with those in need... What if, during this time of economic crisis, we actually found it better to live more simply, more connected with family (perhaps even families living together under the same roof so that the generations could re-connect), becoming a society of inter-dependence and mutual support?

What would our world look like if we paid attention to  God's environmental concerns? If we entered into a season of de-accumulation, because most of us have way too much stuff that adds nothing to our lives, but actually takes us captive (we don't own our possessions, they have come to own us)... if we would dare to live more simply and more as a partner and caregiver of God's creation rather than her master, if we embraced our vocation to enjoy the abundance woven into the fabric of this universe rather than exploit it?

This present crisis calls for every believer and every church to bear witness to the world that there really is a way to live by faith rather than fear, to live into hope rather than out of despair, and to practice generosity, compassion, and hospitality in a time when most are closing their hearts (and their purse-strings) in a spirit of self-preservation. Where does our help come from? Our help comes from Yahweh, the One who made heavens and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2) Perhaps as we go through this season of testing, as God's people, we will learn to reorder our lives according to God's politics, God's economy, and yes, God's environmental policies - living more simply, more freely, more connected, more trusting (and less fearful) and more like Jesus. 

What a wonderful world that would be! 

Soli Deo gloria

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Word For Today - Daily Office

This was a tough one - so many favorite readings in the Daily Office this morning... for instance:
Isaiah 55:6-11 where we are admonished to seek God... how God's ways are higher than ours, God's thoughts are deeper than ours... and how God's word always bears fruit... a great text.

Then there was Galatians 5:1-15, where Paul shows the excellence of the way of love, it is the sum of all God's commands... that what really counts (as I remember Dr. Greathouse saying so often, is faith expressing itself in love... another great text.

But then, I also came to the gospel reading from Mark 8 (the hinge of Mark's gospel and one of my all time favorite texts as I recall the number of sermons preached from Mark 8:27-9:1) - if we would follow Christ, we must "turn from our selfish ways, take up our cross, and follow Jesus."

But it was the prayer book of Israel that spoke most powerfully today (not so much to me, as it spoke for me, as the Psalms regularly do - expressing our deepest cries of pain, praises, and hopes)... 

Psalm 71:18-22 Now that I am old and gray, do not abandon me, O God. Let me proclaim your power to this new generation, your mighty miracles to all who come after me. Your righteousness, O God, reaches to the highest heavens. You have done such wonderful things. Who can compare with you, O God? You have allowed me to suffer much hardship, but you will restore me to life again and lift me up from the depths of the earth. You will restore me to even greater honor and comfort me once again. Then I will praise you with music on the harp, because you are faithful to your promises, O my God. I will sing praises to you with a lyre, O Holy One of Israel.

Today, Psalm 71 became my word for the day... It confesses my deep hope, that even in life after traditional pastoral leadership, that God will use me to encourage and help a new generation of preachers to proclaim the gospel with passion and power... my hope that God will take the hardships, pains, and sufferings of my life (including those inflicted by God's own people) to give life, counsel, and hope to other pastors who are going through the fire in their churches... my hope that, though I may not use harp or lyre to do it, the praise of God will ever be on my lips - because God, who is ever worthy of praise is faithful!

Soli Deo gloria

Monday, February 2, 2009

Why Teach?

It's a great question... and Walter Brueggemann answers that question for me in his article entitled "That the World May Be Redescribed" (Interpretation, October 2002, pp. 359-367). In his words, this is the reason I teach preaching and interpretation to preachers... and why I teach the Bible to my Journey (home Bible study) group: "to enable the church to discern the world anew according to the script of the Bible with particular attentiveness to the character of the Bible, and thereby to accept the world as a place of joyous missional obedience."

WB concludes that article with this observation: The text itself is cause enough for wonder. A second wonder is that teachers (preachers) can help people find access to the text - and, given access, we find ourselves addressed and reimagined by this "strange new world" of the Bible.

Given the current crisis of our day, the unfathomable richness of the text, and the inscrutable, yet merciful Character who is revealed to us through this text, who could ask for any greater joy or vocation?

Friday, January 30, 2009

Isaiah Unplugged!

Isaiah 45:18-25 For the LORD is God, and he created the heavens and earth and put everything in place. He made the world to be lived in, not to be a place of empty chaos. "I am the LORD," he says, "and there is no other. I publicly proclaim bold promises. I do not whisper obscurities in some dark corner. I would not have told the people of Israel to seek me if I could not be found...For there is no other God but me, a righteous God and Savior. There is none but me. Let all the world look to me for salvation! For I am God; there is no other. I have sworn by my own name; I have spoken the truth, and I will never go back on my word: Every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess allegiance to me. " The people will declare, "The LORD is the source of all my righteousness and strength." 

COMMENT: I can't improve on this. What a bold and audacious act - to declare such words in a time of transition, when God's people have known nothing but absence, loss, and displacement in exile. In times like these, God's people remember and confess: "The LORD is the source of all my righteousness and strength." Today, in a failing economy... at the end of a season of personal transition, loss, and displacement... when the cries of despair would drown out the whisper of hope... these words, however audacious, still sustain - for they are the words of the living God - offering a future that is filled with hope.

Soli Deo gloria

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Time for Change

2 Corinthians 3:17-18  Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. 

COMMENT: Change - it has become a popular political mantra these days. We want change... all of us need change... we dare to hope for change - even in a system as resistant to change as Washington politics (or church politics, for that matter)...

But the change we need does not come from the outside. It does not come in the form of a newly elected political leader. It does not come from new policies, new programs, or new promises. Change (as Paul wrote to the Corinthians) comes from within - through the transforming work of God's Spirit (and note the passive form of the verb - we are being changed or transformed - God's action working upon and within us).

It is Spirit-change that turns consumers and hoarders (that is the American way) into givers.     It is Spirit-change that transforms people who want to be served into people who are servants.   It is Spirit-change that makes a person love someone whose skin color is different, someone who strikes out at you in malice, even someone who threatens your very sense of security.

The change the Spirit produces in us makes us more and more like Jesus - meek and lowly in spirit instead of proud and arrogant... more like Jesus, who was full of compassion that moved him to action rather than the words and talk that comes so cheap... more like Jesus, who led by hope instead of fear, calling forth the best in us rather than the worst in us.

The church should ever be the carrier of this true message of change. Yet strangely, too often we have chosen the broad road that leads to destruction. The time for arrogance is over (you would think the religious right would realize that after the failed 20 years of their reign, but already you see and hear their arrogance resurging as they lambast the current administration)... The time for cheap talk is over (again, the church, as change agent, must be on the front lines of confronting the challenges of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and care for the displaced in our society), the time for fear-mongering and pessimism is over (yes, we can and must make realistic assessments of the present crisis, but God's people also know from our history that in these times of crisis, we are not alone and God's purposes will prevail).

I want to be a change agent - but that is only possible as I open my life up to The Change Agent, and allow the transforming Spirit of God to humble me, move me out beyond my words and into action, and fill me with hope (which energizes) rather than fear (which destroys).

Change my heart, O God, make it ever true. Change my heart, O God, may I be like you.           You are the Potter, I am the clay... Mold me and make me, this is what I pray.

Soli Deo gloria

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

They Will Know We Are Christians By Our...

Ephesians 5:1-2 Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. 2 Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.

He was a good minister with 9 years experience behind him, but new to this congregation. His wife and their three pre-school children had won the hearts of the congregation during the first 3 months of pastor/people honeymoon. The church embraced his children, shared their love with the pastoral family in very tangible ways, and listened with joy and receptivity to his creative "new style" of preaching. Life was good. It was heaven on earth!

But then, all hell broke loose. One of the children's workers made an unwise decision and, for a brief moment, lost track of one of the children in her charge. No one was hurt, and the children's worker, a new Christian, was deeply remorseful. The child's parents were gracious, understanding, and forgiving. Only a few people even knew what had happened. In an effort to protect the young Christian children's worker, the pastor, after putting several safeguards in place, chose to keep the children's worker in the ministry she loved.  But Sue would not let it go. She wasn't even there when it happened, but she was sure she was right and this pastor was endangering the children... so she started her campaign. Board members were called and fed misinformation. District leadership was notified and an investigative committee was created. Lines were drawn and another permanent tear occured in the body of Christ.

Several months later, the church is much smaller, but, says Sue, they are stronger in spirit. The young Christian who worked with children is no longer part of that fellowship - or any fellowship for that matter. Rather, she is looking for love in all the wrong places these days, trying to drown the memories of a broken faith. The pastor is finding new life in a new church in a new denomination.

And they'll know we are Christians by our...

Soli Deo gloria

Monday, January 26, 2009

Word for Today - Last Week's Daily Office

Mark 3:13-15 Afterward Jesus went up on a mountain and called out the ones he wanted to go with him. And they came to him. Then he appointed twelve of them and called them his apostles. They were to accompany him, and he would send them out to preach, giving them authority to cast out demons. 

Somehow, I copied my readings down wrong and did this week's readings last week, so this week, I am reading last week's reading... and you thought you were confused! 

Mark writes in lightning like fashion - and yet, artistic and inspired gospel-er that he is, he is able to say a mouthful in a single phrase. These two verses that narrate the appointment of the 12 apostles, though brief, gives a rather comprehensive description of Christian discipleship and vocation. I know this sounds preacher-like, but Mark gives us three characteristics of those who would follow Jesus and share his ministry. How do we measure up in these 3 areas?

1) Disciples are those who spend time with Jesus (they were to accompany him). Strange as it seems, this is one of the weakest areas of the church's life today. When I served as pastor, I was amazed at the shallowness of the faith, prayer life, and Bible knowledge of the typical American lay person. Spending time with Jesus, learning his way, and getting to know his word seems to be low on our list of priorities in a life filled with work (of course) and entertainment. What kind of church /people / disciples would we be if we spent as much time in solitude with our Lord as we do in front of the television set?

2) Disciples are those who are sent out into the world to proclaim the gospel (he would send them out to preach). Not all of us are preachers with great oratory skills... but perhaps the words of St. Francis do apply to us all: Preach the gospel at all times...if necessary, use words. Does the life we live proclaim the gospel we profess? That may be the only gospel many people will ever encounter. What kind of church / people / disciples would we be if the focus of our ministry was outside the walls of the church, being Jesus and living faithfully for God in front of the world, rather than hiding together in the holy huddle and keeping our faith to ourselves?

3) Disciples are those who stand against the evils of this present age (giving them authority to cast out demons). Mark's gospel focuses on the clash between God's kingdom and Satan's domain (Binding the Strong Man, as Ched Myers points out). Every day we encounter the evil that has seduced and captivated us - from Madison Avenue advertising to political idolatry to economic oppression to racial divide, the powers continue to make claims upon us and do their work of destruction and division. What kind of church / people / disciples would we be if we boldly stood up to the powers, battled injustice, and spoke out against the evil that rears its ugly head in insidious ways? 

This is the Spirit's work - to create within us the hunger to spend time with Jesus and learn his ways... to have the mind of Christ. This is the Spirit's work - to anoint us in word and deed to proclaim the good news of Christ by what we say and by how we live. This is the Spirit's work - to empower us and enable us to say "no" to the world and its evil ways, to refuse to participate in the violence, oppression, and hatred that evil spawns, and to work for peace, justice, equality, and righteousness in this world that God loves and intends to redeem.

Lord, I give myself to you today. Create this hunger in me...anoint me to proclaim your ways in word and deed, and give me the courage to stand for righteousness in an unrighteous world. In the name of your Son, who taught us to pray, "Our Father..."

Soli Deo gloria