goodbye and hello

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9).

If there is a scripture text that sums up what I might call my conversion experience, this piece of Isaiah 55 would be it.  When I was in college, I developed a true interest in matters of faith.  That included, in some small way, learning about Buddhism, Zen, the Sufis (those in the mystical stream of Islam), and others.  But more than anything else, the Bible started making sense to me!  It began to speak to me.

1 is

In the late evening of August 3, 1985, I had an experience while reading that text from Isaiah.  I felt the presence of God in an overwhelming way.  It seemed like I was plunged into an ocean of love.

Was it like St. Augustine overhearing a child singing a rhyme, “Take up and read, take up and read,” and then reading the words in Paul’s letter to the Romans saying to abandon works of the flesh and clothe himself with Christ?

Was it like John Wesley hearing a reading (also from Romans) and feeling his heart “strangely warmed”?  I don’t know.  Maybe some of you can speak of similar moments in your own lives.

But we need not have one of those experiences to know the truth of the gospel, and indeed, to love it.  We need not have one of those experiences to embrace the reality that in fact, God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours.  We need not have one of those experiences to understand that’s a good thing.  We need a heavenly perspective to get through this thing called life.

In John 16, we see the disciples of Jesus seeking some perspective of their own during the final night of his life.  He says he’s been using figures of speech; he’s been using veiled language—all of this stuff about “going to the Father,” whatever that means (v. 17).  The disciples claim they now know what he’s talking about.  “Now we know that you know all things” (v. 30).

But that’s the thing about knowing something just in your head.  If it doesn’t get past thoughts, it can’t change your ways.  (We’re back to thoughts and ways!)  Our knowledge has to include both head and heart.  How often have we had head knowledge but not heart knowledge?  How often have we lacked heart?  How often have we lacked courage?  That word comes from the Latin word cor, meaning heart.

Jesus knows the disciples’ hearts will fail them.  When they see what’s coming for him, their head knowledge won’t be enough.  They will lose heart; they will lose courage.  Within my own resources, relying on my own “stuff,” I predict a 99% chance I also would lose heart.

But Jesus offers the remedy.  He tells them, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace.  In the world you face persecution.  But take courage [take heart]; I have conquered the world!” (v. 33).  What an awesome line: I have conquered the world!  I have overcome the world.  It has no place in me.  I am free from the things that would invade me and lead me astray.

2 is

Jesus is victorious.  In Christ, we have victory.  In Christ, we are conquerors.

In 1 John 5, we learn our faith is what conquers the world.  Faith is the victory.  Both of those words—“conquer” and “victory”—come from the same Greek word.  I just said there’s a 99% chance I would lose heart just like the disciples did. 

Now I have another prediction.  I predict 100% of you know this Greek word.  “Conquer” and “victory” come from the word νικη (nikē).  We know it by the shoe company’s name Nike.  Faith is the Nike!

So where are we?  Understanding that God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours, Jesus encourages us to not lose heart.  (And notice that word, “encourage.”)  He heartens us.  Therefore, we are guaranteed to be victorious.  Here’s verse 5: “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Again, just as head knowledge is not enough, so believing just in our thoughts is not enough.  True belief is in the heart; it is in the spirit.  That is how we go forth and conquer.  Of course, this isn’t conquest as we typically think of it.  This is a battlefield within ourselves.  The victory is won within.  But if it is indeed won within, it by necessity is expressed in our actions.  It is not a private preserve.

3 is

The very last verse of 1 John feels almost like it was tacked on as an afterthought.  Still, it flows right along with achieving within ourselves victory over the world.  “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (v. 21).  Take my advice; I’ve had experience in these matters.  Heed my warning.

Idols can appear in any form.  Don’t give your heart to them.  Don’t welcome them into your heart.  They will cause you to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory!  In Christ, we are a new creation.  We are empowered to say “goodbye” to the old and “hello” to the new.

And so it is with us here.[1]  As I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, as interim pastors, we’re already saying “goodbye” when we arrive.  We have a specific amount of time to go through a process.

4 is

Even though this is our final worship service with you, we are also saying “hello.”  We are saying hello to your next chapter.  We are saying hello to the future that is already unfolding in Christ.  We are saying hello to the one whose thoughts and ways are higher than ours, who gives us courage, who strengthens our hearts, and who does so in leading us to the victory, the nikē, which is empowered by our faith in the meek and mighty Lord Jesus Christ.

Goodbye and hello!

 

[1] This is directed to a particular beloved congregation, but it can apply to other situations (in my humble opinion)!


don't kill the messenger

In case you didn’t know it, the book of Malachi is the final one in the Old Testament.  (Maybe it’s a case of the last will be first—something like that.)  Aside from that, in delivering his message, it’s his style that sets him apart.

Instead of the usual, “thus says the Lord,” Malachi uses a question-and-answer format.  Some say the book is meant to portray a court case, with the Jewish nation bringing charges against God, charges which in turn are rebutted.  The setting is the mid-400s BC, almost 100 years after the first exiles returned from Babylon.  This is well into the era of Persian rule.

1 mal

By this time, the temple has been rebuilt, but the people have grown weary of their new masters.  Still, just as the handwriting on the wall spelled doom for the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire will begin to weaken until, in the next century, a guy named Alexander the Great will lead the Greeks throughout the Middle East.

Besides his question-and-answer style, there’s something else that sets Malachi apart.  It is possible the prophet we call Malachi is anonymous.  The Hebrew word “Malachi,” מַלְאָכׅי (male’aki), literally means, “my messenger.”  It’s often assumed that the name comes from 3:1: “I am sending my messenger [I am sending Malachi] to prepare the way before me.”

If we know what the name Malachi means, maybe my sermon title makes sense.  As with other prophets, Malachi’s message is likely to get a chilly response from his audience.  He repeatedly mentions the covenant of love that God has established with them, as well as the ways they’ve violated it.

Here’s where understanding the history helps.  As I said, at this point, the Persians have been in charge for a long time.  Malachi addresses a defeated people.  We hear the cry, “Where is the God of justice?”  In the face of Persian rule, many doubt the Lord even cares about what’s going on.

Malachi speaks of the coming day of judgment, the day of the Lord.  The church sees the two figures, “my messenger to prepare the way for me” and “the Lord you are looking for,” as John the Baptist and Jesus Christ (3:1).

He gets on their cases about several things, but verse 8 has an interesting question.  He asks, “Will anyone rob God?”  Is it okay to pull a fast one on the Lord?  Malachi gets into the always lively subject of money and possessions.

2 mal

Actually, he’s already brought it up.  In chapter 1, he chastises the people for bringing lame and diseased animals for sacrifice at the temple.  Malachi makes this inquiry, dripping with sarcasm, “Do you think the government would let you get away with that?  So why are you trying it with God?”

I sometimes notice this with gifts to charities and church groups.  You’re not supposed to bring dirty and broken stuff.  More than once while bringing items to the Salvation Army or Goodwill, I’ve seen people dumping off their junk.  I remember watching someone dumping armloads of clothes onto the bare concrete, right next to the very edge of the loading dock.  I can’t say that the clothes were soiled, but the person didn’t appear to be treating them as an offering to the church.

The prophet continues his line of thought in chapter 3.  By being stingy with their tithes and offerings, he says the people are robbing God.  Malachi has mentioned other ways in which their worship has become slipshod.  The withholding of offerings is yet one more example of how their service is insincere.

But of course, this is much bigger than what happens on Sunday morning.  This extends to all of life.  We hear the promise of the Lord, when “put…to the test,” to “see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (v. 10).

I don’t know about you, but this is a scripture text I’ve heard abused in some pretty crass ways.  We’ve all heard preachers talk about giving to God like it’s a business transaction.  The promises of God’s blessings are compared with wise investments.

It must work!  The ministers encouraging those investments seem to have fabulous houses, fast cars, and fine suits.

Verse 11 continues the pledge: “I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil”.  The Hebrew word for “locust” אכֵל (’okel) literally means “devourer.”  Today, locusts are still a problem, but we all can think of things that eat up our resources.

3 mal

Malachi wants the people to reaffirm the covenant with Yahweh they’ve ignored.  They need to get their priorities in order.  When that happens, the word from the Lord is that “all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight” (v. 12).  The Lord will bless them, or maybe, they’ll understand that they’ve already received a blessing.

The tithe, ten percent, was part of the Old Testament law.  It was part of the teaching Jesus received.  Many of his parables deal with the use of money and valuables.  In fact, much of Jesus’ teaching deals with money.

The crazy and “true story [is told] of a man in Dade County, Florida, who sued his church for the return of the money which he had contributed to it.  ‘I delivered $800 of my savings to the…Church,’ said the man in his [lawsuit], ‘in response to the pastor’s promise that blessings, benefits, and rewards would come to the person who did tithe 10 per cent of his wealth.  I did not and have not received these benefits.’”[1]

This guy, his pastor, or both of them are looking at this thing completely backward.  They’re asking, “What’s in it for me?”  And by the way, there’s some of that crassness I spoke of earlier.  (And I must confess, I don’t know how that case turned out!)

Our litigious church member, as well as his pastor, might do well to meditate on 2 Corinthians 9.  They need to be reminded that “God loves a cheerful giver,” one whose vision is expanded to see the big picture (v. 7).  When such a person gives, the result is an overflow “with many thanksgivings to God” (v. 12).

What we’re talking about here is stewardship.  And stewardship is about more than just money.  Again, this extends to all of life.  It even includes home sweet home.

4 mal

Marilyn Gardner wrote an article for the Christian Science Monitor entitled, “What’s Happening to the American Home?”[2]  One of the article’s main points was that the size of new houses in the US has been growing by 500 square feet every 20 years since 1950, while family size has decreased from 3.4 to 2.6.  The reason for the increased size is partly, if not primarily, due to our consumer culture’s thirst for more and more possessions.

It’s long seemed to me that referring to people as “consumers” is actually an insult; it’s a derogatory name.  Especially in America, whether in the church or out of it (sadly, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference!), we are given an order to consume.  We are to behave like locusts!

Take the earth’s resources, turn them into all kinds of useless crap, buy them, waste them, put them in off-site storage units, use cheaply-made products which soon break, throw them away, pollute the environment, and then consume more in a never-ending cycle.  (Please excuse my ranting!)

Cindy Glovinsky, author of Making Peace With the Things in Your Life, says, “If there’s one addiction that’s holding the human race hostage, it’s an addiction to things…  I’ve seen people who haven’t had a guest in their home for years because they’re having so much trouble keeping up with stuff, and they’re so ashamed of the way things look…  Yet these people refuse to let go of things so they can have people in their lives.”  Architect Sarah Susanka is even more blunt: “We’re not living our lives…  Our stuff is living us.”

The crazy thing—the insane thing—is that this addiction to consume is one we willfully plunge into.  But God, always faithful, constantly calls us to turn from this false god that consumes us, this ’okel, this locust, that devours!  It leads us to devote our resources and energy in a skewed way.  We forget that everything we own is a gift from God—and should be treated as such.

Here’s one more story.  It’s an old tale about the rabbi of Sassov (in present-day Ukraine).  Apparently, he “once gave away the last money he had in his pocket to a man of ill repute [who quickly squandered it all].  When his disciples objected, he asked, ‘Shall I be more finicky than God, who gave it to me?’”[3]

5 malIf you’re like me, when I first heard that, there was a red flag that went up.  Should we simply waste our resources?  That would seem to contradict what I said earlier.  Still, I wonder if, when opportunities for ministry and sharing present themselves, do we ever look first for reasons not to do something?  (“They don’t deserve it.  They’re just going to waste it.”)

We want to be free—free of the many things that would enslave us.  I can’t pretend to have the answer each of us needs for liberation from that stuff.  I’ve made some tiny hints at what such a life would look like.  Instead, I invite us to receive the message from God through the Holy Spirit, however that happens.

Please keep one thing in mind: don’t kill the messenger!

 

[1] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1986), 189.

[2] www.csmonitor.com/2002/0724/p15s02-lihc.html

[3] spirituallydirected.blogspot.com/2008/11/undeserving-poor.html


Qoheleth, the patriot

I’ve never heard anyone suggest to new converts that they begin their reading of the Bible with Ecclesiastes.  The last I heard, it’s not very popular in Sunday school.  I guess I can understand why.  It is a strange little book.  Some rabbis of old fought hard to keep it from being called scripture.

If you’ve read the book, you can probably figure out why.  Starting right off in chapter 1 we get some pretty good clues.  Ecclesiastes says things the rest of the Bible does not say!  Already, in the second verse of the book, we hear this: “Vanity of vanities…  All is vanity.”  That sets the theme for all that follows.  All is vanity![1]  Everything is meaningless!  It’s no use!  What in the world is that doing in the Bible?  Is that something one of God’s people would say?

Hold on to that thought.  We’ll see more examples as we go on as to why folks throughout the centuries have been puzzled about the book.

In the original Hebrew, our narrator is anonymous.  He’s simply referred to as קֹהֶלֶת (qoheleth).  “Ecclesiastes” comes from the Greek translation of that word.  “Qoheleth” comes from the word קׇהַל (qahal), which means “assembly” or “congregation.”  So, “Qoheleth” would be the “convener of the assembly.”  One might say he’s the person who “ca-halls” the people together!

Even though the author calls himself “the son of David, king in Jerusalem,” it’s clear from the vocabulary used he lives hundreds of years after Solomon.  But like others who wrote what’s known as wisdom literature, he pays his respects to the king noted for his great wisdom.  Claiming to be Solomon is high praise.

All is vanity!  To those who believe faith is like the nice little graphics you click on Facebook, this might come like a bucket of ice water thrown in the face—and then followed with the empty bucket!  This is some stern, bitter language.  The translations “vanity,” “futility,” “meaningless”: none of them quite capture the sense of deep disappointment Qoheleth expresses.  Those words don’t have enough bite.  What might be necessary is something like: “Everything is b. s.”

2 ec 1

In fact, Methodist professor Elsa Tamez has said of Ecclesiastes it is for “times of profound disillusionment.”[2]  It seems she goes along with the saying, “Misery loves company,” because she adds, “a disappointed soul can find solace in reading this work of a frustrated narrator.”  I really like the footnote she puts at the bottom of the page.  “This has happened to me various times after giving a sermon, teaching a Bible study, or conducting a course on Ecclesiastes”!

Just look at our scripture reading.  Look at the list of frustration that Qoheleth goes through.  Generations come and go, the sun rises and sets, the winds blow, the streams flow—but nothing really changes.  “All things are wearisome,” he proclaims, “more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing” (v. 8).

Don’t forget; this is just the opening chapter!  There’s a lot more where that came from!  Maybe we can be excused for dismissing this as the ranting of Qoheleth the curmudgeon.  But then, my sermon title isn’t “Qoheleth, the Curmudgeon.”  It’s “Qoheleth, the Patriot.”

To understand how Qoheleth could be a patriot, we need to look at the world in his day.  It was after the Babylonian exile, possibly after when the Persians came to power in the mid-500s B. C., and before the Greeks took over in the late 300s.  But no one really knows.

In any case, the Jews are but a small part of a big empire, be it Persian or Greek.  And in either case, Qoheleth has witnessed the arrogance of a superpower.  Each in their own way, the Persians, then the Greeks, have dominated the Jews.  They’ve imposed their own cultural values on them.

So when Qoheleth observes, as he does in verse 9, that “there is nothing new under the sun,” in part, it flies in the face of political propaganda—the party line of the government.  The nations who have invaded the Jews have promised them all kinds of innovations, what they see as modernization, so to speak.  To the leaders who say that “everything has changed” and that “we live in a brand new world,” Qoheleth says, “I don’t think so; we’ve seen all this before!  We’ve heard these grand promises before.”

Elsa
Elsa Tamez

Our author wants to rouse his fellow Jews from their slumber.  In verse 11, he warns, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.”  In The Message, Eugene Peterson turns that last line into, “Don’t count on being remembered.”

Dr. Tamez reflects on how “generations come and go without remembering their own history.  Such collective amnesia means the death of a people.”[3]  If we have the attention span of a gnat, we become very easy to manipulate.  We are easy to manipulate if our life’s focus is on bread and circuses.

Being a good citizen, especially the citizen of a democracy, requires effort.  It takes discipline.  On the other hand, to live under an authoritarian requires very little effort.  We need only ignore our responsibility to others—especially to the poorest and weakest—and to the planet.  Without discipline, especially spiritual discipline, freedom slips through our fingers like sand.

The great Jewish writer Abraham Heschel published an article in February 1944.[4]  During World War 2, he speaks of that lack of spiritual discipline that permits dictatorship and war to thrive.  Heschel’s words remain relevant for us today, as they have been presented again in recent years.

“Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.  [I think we could substitute “terrorism” for “fascism.”  But I think we could also envision fascism once again raising its ugly head.]  We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil.  We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.”

3 ec 1
Abraham Joshua Heschel

He goes on, “A tale is told of a band of inexperienced mountain climbers.  Without guides, they struck recklessly into the wilderness.  Suddenly a rocky ledge gave way beneath their feet and they tumbled headlong into a dismal pit.  In the darkness of the pit they recovered from their shock, only to find themselves set upon by a swarm of angry snakes.  Every crevice became alive with fanged, hissing things.  For each snake the desperate men slew, ten more seemed to lash out in its place.  Strangely enough, one man seemed to stand aside from the fight.  When the indignant voices of his struggling companions reproached him for not fighting, he called back: If we remain here, we shall be dead before the snakes.  I am searching for a way of escape from the pit for all of us.”

We can become so focused on the agenda that’s been handed us—or that we’ve chosen for ourselves—that we forget to stop, lift up our heads, look around, and explore other possibilities.  We can emphasize what we reject more than what we accept.  We can emphasize what divides us more than what unites us.  We can attract negative energy rather than positive energy.

“Let future generations not loathe us,” Heschel says, “for having failed to preserve what prophets and saints, martyrs and scholars have created in thousands of years.  The Fascists have shown that they are great in evil.  Let us reveal that we can be as great in goodness.”

In a strange way, Ecclesiastes is valuable for those who often have an uncomfortable and questioning faith.  I don’t know; maybe that’s why I like it!

As we approach our nation’s 242nd birthday, sometimes we have an uncomfortable and questioning patriotism.  I believe that’s in the best spirit of America.  We’re still allowed to ask uncomfortable questions, at least, for now.

Our final hymn today is “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.”  I love that song.  Most of us know the first verse by heart.  As we continue, Katharine Lee Bates deals with the innate complexity that is America.  Each verse begins, “O beautiful,” and celebrates the promise and the dream of America.  It is a promise not yet fulfilled.  Bates thinks this is reason for celebration: “O beautiful for patriot dream / That sees beyond the years. / Thine alabaster cities gleam, / Undimmed by human tears!”  Friends, we’re not quite there!

4 ec 1

Qoheleth asks the uncomfortable questions, and he really doesn’t have the answers.  Vanity of vanity—all is vanity!  It’s all useless!  Fortunately for us, we do have one who asked, and continues to ask, those uncomfortable questions, and he asks them to Caesar.

Jesus the Christ, the son of David, the king, makes the promise to us, even if the dream is not yet fulfilled.  We are freed to ask those uncomfortable questions, and we know at the end of the day, that all is not vanity.  To the contrary, all is bursting with light, something new under the sun.

 

[1] הֶבֶל (hebel)

[2] Elsa Tamez, “Ecclesiastes: A Reading from the Periphery,” Interpretation 55:3 (July 2001): 250.

[3] Tamez, 252.

[4] mlk50.org/writings/king-heschel/the-meaning-of-this-war-by-abraham-joshual-heschel


blest be the tie (with surgery, perhaps)

“Blest be the tie that binds / Our hearts in Christian love: / The fellowship of kindred minds / Is like to that above.”  That, of course, is the first line of a hymn beloved by many.  It’s been noted that the author, Rev. John Fawcett, penned the words after refusing to move from his small town parish in England to pastor a church in London.  The tears of love and grief from his parishioners compelled him to stay.[1]  That is fellowship in action.[2]

1 blestIn the New Testament, “the fellowship of kindred minds” is marked by the Greek word κοινωνια (koinōnia).  Often translated as “fellowship” or “communion,” koinōnia literally means “partnership.”  It has to do with “sharing.”  Paul uses the word in Romans 15, where he praises the churches who’ve “been pleased to share (κοινωνιαν, koinōnian) their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (v. 26).

Discussion of the letter to Philemon has frequently focused, not on fellowship, but on two other themes.  The first is the question of slavery.  From reading the epistle, we see that a slave named Onesimus has run away from (and possibly robbed) his master, Philemon.

It appears that Onesimus has somehow encountered Paul while the apostle is in prison.  It’s through that contact with Paul that the runaway slave has come to Christ.  Some people feel that Paul, by not demanding that Onesimus be freed, is going along with slavery.  Others say that Paul’s emphasis on him as “more than a slave, a beloved brother” shows that the apostle wants to undermine the practice of slavery.

That’s one theme.  Another has focused on why Paul would want Onesimus to be set free.  Paul admits, in verse 13, “I wanted to keep him with me” so that he could be of assistance.  And in verse 20, using a play on words, understanding that the name Onesimus (Ονησιμος) means “useful” or “beneficial,” he asks Philemon, “let me have this benefit (ονηαιμν, onaimēn) from you.”

Actually, Paul’s use of the word “love” in the letter is almost a play on words.  Philemon means “one who kisses” or “one who loves.”  The difference is that Paul is saying αγαπη (agape).  His friend’s name is based on φιλεω (phileō), another word for love.

So, back to the question of freeing his slave!  Paul doesn’t make any demands on Philemon.  Well, not exactly.  It seems that Paul has led both master and slave to Christ, as he reminds him in verse 19:  “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.”  This is a great line!  Paul just happens to slip that in there.

In his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, Eugene Peterson is less delicate.  “I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?”

In any event, it looks like he does as Paul asks.  For one thing, the early church probably wouldn’t have retained the letter and considered it to be scripture if Philemon had simply ignored it.  Also, history records in the early second century a bishop of Ephesus named Onesimus.[3]   It’s possible, if not probable, that this is the same former slave who went on to become a leader of the church in his own right.

2 blest

Having said all that, we need to look at Paul’s prayer before he makes his request.  In verse 6, Paul prays “that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.”  The sharing of your faith.  This is the word koinōnia.

Paul is praying that the sharing of Philemon’s faith may become “effective.”  The NIV uses the word “active.”  The Greek term is ενεργης (energēs):  the source for our English word “energy.”  So Paul is praying that the sharing of his friend’s faith will be energized when he realizes all the good that is possible in Christ.  No one can accuse Paul of having modest expectations!

Notice, before he even gets into the whole business of Onesimus the slave and what he wants done with him, Paul presents Philemon with this grand vision of what could be, of what could happen.  Before he gets caught up in the details, Paul prays that his partner will see the many possibilities that await them in Christ.

The use of the word “partner” is deliberate.  In verse 17, he says, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”  Again, that’s the word koinōnia.

Eldon Koch comments on this.  “The slave also becomes a partner by virtue of the fellowship.  Both master and slave experience the mighty transforming power of the fellowship which is characterized by faith in Christ.  The slave lost his slavishness, and the master lost his despotism.  In Christ they are partners.”[4]  They enjoy koinōnia.

Still, it’s one thing to hear this and agree with it, but it’s quite another thing to actually put it into practice.  We might understand the need for trust and confidence in our relationships, the need for actual community to develop, but find it very difficult to see it accomplished.

Why would it be so complicated to enter into the koinōnia that we might see as so important?  Often, it’s a question of what we’ve experienced in life.

In November 1995, when my wife Banu and I were at seminary, I had surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor.  In March 1996, I had another seizure, which required another surgery.  The problem was a staph infection.  Upon returning home, I had an IV course of antibiotics that lasted for four weeks.

With two brain surgeries, CAT and MRI scans, radiation therapy, chemotherapy (which I had only recently begun), and the other medications, Banu and I were running up huge medical bills.  It didn’t take very long until our student health insurance was used up.  We signed up with the state medical assistance, which provided some help, but not nearly enough.

Here’s where the comment about what we’ve experienced in life enters in.  Banu and I received donations from people there at school, from our churches, and there were unexpected things.  Bags of groceries would be left at our door.  On a number of occasions, people and churches who we didn’t even know—and we had never heard of—sent us money.

3 blest

They were gifts from God.  In no way at all do I dismiss the help from the insurance company, the state welfare program, and our friends and family.  I definitely recognize them as God’s gift.  But there’s also no question that the support from strangers and anonymous sources provided, and still provides, a special sort of sharing.  It’s a unique kind of koinōnia.

Can we see that in Paul’s letter to Philemon?  It’s deeper than a request about a runaway slave.  As he says to him, “I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother” (v. 7).  He speaks of a love that shines beneath the surface of life, despite whatever chaos and crap that comes our way.  That is the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.

Christian community is making ourselves vulnerable for this love to shine among us.  Koinōnia is not simply being nice or cute.  It’s a partnership that speaks the truth and invites and empowers others to do the same.  As Koch says, it goes beyond a generic, fuzzy love of everyone to “a powerful exercise of fellowship to demonstrate that love in particular cases,” such as Paul, who challenges his friend—and his friend, who defies custom to welcome his slave as a brother.[5]

Koinōnia is the tie that inspires us to say, “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.”

 

[1] Handbook to the Hymnal, ed. William Chalmers Covert (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1935), 363.

[2] I’m including portions of my sermon “Koinōnia”

[3] M. E. Lyman, “Onesimus,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3 (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1962), 602.

[4] Eldon Koch, “A Cameo of Koinonia,” Interpretation 17:2 (April 1963):  185.

[5] Koch, 184.


not getting to know you (sorry, Julie Andrews)

Psalm 133 pictures what can happen if we are faithful to dialogue.  In a moment, we’ll look at what constitutes dialogue, which is a critical feature of hospitality.

I’ve long thought of this psalm as a rather odd—but beautiful—piece of poetry.  The first verse is simple enough, as the Good News Bible puts it: “How wonderful it is, how pleasant, for God’s people (literally, “brothers”) to live together in harmony!”

 

It’s those last two verses that might leave us scratching our heads.  When verse 2 compares this harmony to oil poured on Aaron’s head, so much that it runs down his beard onto his robe, our reaction may be one more of distaste (or even disgust) than anything else.  Picture this.  When Banu and I anoint someone with oil, we usually put a small amount on our finger, and then do something like making the sign of the cross on the forehead.

Here, according custom, an entire flask of oil is poured out on the head of Aaron the priest.  The anointing oil has a delightful smell, but my guess is not many of us would want to wind up like a greased pig!

2 ps 133The images in the psalm have several interpretations.[1]  Some literally see it as a celebration of “brothers” living together.  Others imagine “the fellowship of the Covenant community in Jerusalem.”  Some say the image of flowing down, whether it’s the oil running down Aaron’s beard—or the water flowing from Mount Hermon in the north to Zion in the south—pictures Israel and Judah coming back together.  And there are other ideas.  So there’s been a bit of debate as to what all of this means.

And on the matter of debate, it’s important to know the difference between that and dialogue.  With debate, we’re already convinced we’re right, and we’re trying to persuade others to see things our way.  It’s like a courtroom scenario, with opposing lawyers making their case.  Or it’s like the news channels doing more commentary than actual journalism!

Dialogue is quite different.  A couple of decades ago, Leonard Swidler developed “The Dialogue Decalogue” (“The Ten Commandments of Dialogue”).  They’ve been updated and renamed “Dialogue Principles.”  You can see them at the Dialogue Institute website.[2]

Here’s the first one: “The essential purpose of dialogue is to learn.”  Just as with the spiritual discipline of listening, dialogue meets its enemy in closed and narrow minds.  Those unwilling to learn need not apply!

In his book, Cultivating Christian Community, Thomas Hawkins says dialogue “involves a willingness to challenge our own thinking.  We remain open to examining our own assumptions, no matter how uncomfortable doing so may feel.”  Dialogue seeks “to open up and out toward a meaning larger than any single…viewpoint.”[3]

I’ve sometimes heard this criticism of dialogue: it requires you to waver on your beliefs.  The idea is you can’t take a firm stand for anything; you have to be wishy-washy.  However, faithful dialogue, far from asking people to surrender their beliefs, instead needs those who know what they believe.  There’s a huge difference between thinking for ourselves and refusing to entertain ideas that might call us to become bigger and more insightful persons.

An aspect of dialogue similar to this is spelled out in the ninth principle, the ninth commandment, if you will: “Participants in dialogue should have a healthy level of criticism toward their own traditions.”  It’s difficult to have meaningful interaction with people who think they have all the answers.

To put it differently, don’t be so self-assured that you’re unwilling to admit any uncertainty!  There have been times I’ve noticed this in myself.  Believe me, it’s not an endearing quality; I find it rather tedious.  Here’s one very good remedy: learn to laugh at yourself!  (And as I think I’ve mentioned before, it helps if you see within yourself plenty of material at which to laugh!)

A tricky part of dialogue is addressed by the fourth principle.  “One must compare only her/his ideals with their partner’s ideals and her/his practice with the partner’s practice, not one’s ideals with one’s partner’s practice.”  In other words, none of us is always a faithful model of what we profess.  We all fall short.  We don’t always practice what we preach.  If we point to someone else’s behavior when they don’t live up to their ideals—and then judge it on that basis—we should expect the same treatment.

I’ll mention one more of these principles of dialogue.  The fifth one says, “Each participant needs to describe her/himself.”  This aspect of dialogue is often ignored.  We can too easily make assumptions about each other.  We can see someone performing an action, maybe in support or in protest, and ascribe to them motives they simply do not have.

This past week, some of us had a quite charming dinner conversation on the PERC patio.[4]  We discussed a number of topics, such as the president, various policies, the way the news gets reported (including an overemphasis on bad news, as opposed to good news), various types of exercise, Gordon Ramsay, and so on.  By the way, if you’re wondering, things did not descend into a food fight!

4 ps 133

We could refer to each other as conservative, liberal, someone from another planet, and think we have them all summed up.  Maybe not so fast.

Related to this is the whole business of labeling.  Hawkins notes, “Labeling people denies the legitimacy of their opinions.  It makes further discussion unnecessary.  Name calling means our minds are made up.  We no longer see our opponents as worthy of respect.”  With an interesting conclusion, he says, “When we engage in name calling, we break one of the Ten Commandments.  We bear false witness against another person.”[5]  That’s a clear case of “not getting to know you”!

In Matthew 7, Jesus also weighs in on this.  Labeling others is a way of passing judgment on them.  We put ourselves in the position of God.  Jesus warns against this, saying “with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (v. 2).

Dialogue is about much more than the proper way to have conversations.  At the end of the day, dialogue is about our relationship with God.  It necessarily involves other people, because it’s a discipline essential to fostering Christian community.  But as Hawkins reminds us, “The practice of dialogue reminds us that we and our opinions are not at the center of community. Christ is.”[6]

Just as Christ is at the center of community, so Christ is at the center of dialogue.  What Jesus calls us to do can feel really uncomfortable; it can even feel dangerous.  It can almost feel like we’re betraying someone or something.  That’s why we might come up with all kinds of excuses to avoid dialogue.  We can tell ourselves about that certain person, “I’ve done all I can to understand them”—but in our heart of hearts, we know we really haven’t.

Are there any people—or any group of people—with whom we refuse to dialogue?  Can we imagine the possibilities for our lives, for our communities of faith, for our society, if we simply let go of the excuses?  Something that plagues our country, and the church, is our practice of only giving a hearing to those with whom we already agree.  We only listen to what reinforces our opinions.

In many ways Jesus fought against that impulse.  There’s something I’ve mentioned on occasion, and I did so again at our lovely dinner.  Notice the people he called to his inner circle.  Among people of various backgrounds, he included Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot.

Here’s the story about the tax collectors.  They are hated, not just because they collect taxes, but because of who they are working for.  They are employees of the empire, and what’s more, they gouge the people in doing their job.

If the tax collectors are collaborators with the Romans, the Zealots are at the other end of the spectrum.  They are revolutionaries who want to overthrow the government, to send the Romans packing.  The differences between Matthew and Simon make the differences between Republicans and Democrats seem nonexistent.  I think it’s safe to say Matthew and Simon do not have similar opinions.  Left to their own devices, they probably wouldn’t be interested in dialogue.  They would make poor models for the picture our psalmist is painting!

5 ps 133

Jesus isn’t interested in labels.  No matter what we call each other, Jesus is having none of that.  He died and rose from the grave for everyone.  He calls us to knock down the foolish walls we build.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.  That’s where the Lord ordains blessing, running down everywhere.

 

[1] A. A. Anderson, The New Century Bible Commentary, Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 885.

[2] dialogueinstitute.org/dialogue-principles

[3] Thomas Hawkins, Cultivating Christian Community (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2001), 48.

[4] www.percatthemansion.com

[5] Hawkins, 49.

[6] Hawkins, 52.


to know me is to love me

How many of you have ever played “truth or dare”?  (That might serve as a question for “truth”!)

Let’s first start with “dare.”  Depending on who you’re playing with, it might require setting some guidelines, such as not daring someone to do something illegal—well, at least not too illegal.  In addition, if members of the opposite sex are present, that also might require some guidelines!

Now, for “truth.”  When we played, anything was fair game.  Anything.  Someone might begin with “truth,” but after being forced to answer the question, from then on, the selection would be “dare.”  That might seem a little less risky.  You know, we don’t want to give out too much information.  Sometimes there’s a fear of exposure.  We don’t want a light shined on just anything!

There are other examples of not wanting to be known too well.

Sometimes it might involve a child, who upon discovering the door to the garage locked, decides to take a piece of wood and jam it into the lock, hoping the substitute key would do the trick.  It might involve the sister of the child being blamed for the misdeed and suffering the sanction of being spanked.  It might involve the guilty child finally coming clean well after the fact and suffering no retribution, since by that time it’s but a distant memory.  By then, it’s okay to be known too well.

1 ps 139
Beth LaNeel Turner

Of course, that doesn’t sum it all up, but there is the basic thought of being known to an uncomfortable level.

In Beth Tanner’s The Psalms for Today, she states, “A psalm is a whole thought, even if it is lengthy.”[1]  So if we go along with that, Psalm 139 would be no different.

In fact, we can see that whole thought in a nutshell right in verse 1.  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.”  Period.  Another version says, “Lord, you have examined me and you know me” (Revised English Bible).  The Hebrew word (חׇקַר, chaqar) for “search” can also mean “investigate” or “explore.”  The psalmist is saying, “Lord, you’ve done a pretty thorough job in taking inventory of me.  I think it’s safe to say: you know me, warts and all!”  The rest of the psalm is taken up with unpacking, or laying out, that verse.

There isn’t any one way to divide up the poem, but I’ll lay it out in unequal sections.

The first eighteen verses look at being known by the Lord in different ways.  The next four verses take a decidedly different turn.  We are treated to a startling searching and knowing of a vile nature (to say the very least).  The final two verses serve to encapsulate all that has gone before.  The psalmist finally makes a request of God, a plea of protection.

I won’t go through these in exhaustive detail; I’ll deal with them in a selective fashion.  And of course, I don’t have the final word on this!

Verses 2 to 4 deal with thoughts and words.  The poet says to God, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.”  Even before speaking, “before a word is on my tongue,” Lord, you already know what I’m going to say! (vv. 2, 4).  There’s no point in playing the game, “Guess what number I’m thinking of.”

Verses 5 to 10 show the utter futility in trying to hide from the Lord: even if the psalmist “[takes] the wings of the morning and [settles] at the farthest limits of the sea” (v. 9).  If you remember the story of Jonah, the disobedient prophet, he was told to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent.  However, since Nineveh was an enemy of Israel, he wanted God to destroy them.  So he booked passage on a ship bound for Tarshish, at the other end of the Mediterranean, basically, the end of the world.  But God found him anyway.

2 ps 139

Please understand, we don’t have to see the poet being upset that the Lord’s knowledge is everywhere!

Then we come to verses 11 and 12.  Not even the darkness provides cover.  I imagine we can see this in different ways.  The psalmist could either be grateful or grieved that “the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to [the Lord]” (v. 12).  We’re not sure about our writer’s intent; we need some light shed on the matter.  When we deny knowledge to someone, we indeed keep them in the dark.

Something these verses speak to is the matter of secrecy.  Secrets are tricky little boogers.  On the one hand, it’s definitely necessary to keep plenty of things secret.  Giving out too much information (like we saw earlier) can do tons of damage.  In addition, it can just be an annoyance.

On the other hand, secrets can be harmful, even deadly.  Secrets have a way of infiltrating themselves into systems: systems of family, of congregations, of the workplace, whatever.  There can be a dark secret, never exposed to the light, which can take up residence and thrive.  It can even pass from one generation to the next and continue down the line.

Still, darkness is not always bad.  Madeleine L’Engle wrote about this in her book The Irrational Season.  “When we deny our wholeness, when we repress part of ourselves, when we are afraid of our own darkness, then the dark turns against us, turns on us, becomes evil.  Just as the intellect when it is not informed by the heart becomes vicious, so the intuition, the subconscious, when it is forcibly held below the surface, becomes wild, and until we look at it and call it by name, our own name, it can devour us.”[2]

3 ps 139I’m reminded of Jesus in Mark 5 when he encountered a man possessed by unclean spirits.  Jesus asked for a name, and the reply was, “My name is Legion; for we are many” (v. 9).  Jesus rendered them powerless and the man was delivered from them.  They were no longer able to devour him.

Whatever dwells in the dark needs to be named.  It needs to be brought to light.  It needs to be “searched”; it needs to be “known.”  But it also needs to be searched and known by God.  If we’re doing this by ourselves, we can do a lot of damage!

Moving on, I said I wouldn’t go into great detail, so I’ll say about verses 13 to 16 that the psalmist is fascinated and celebrates being “wonderfully made” (v. 14).  Being known by the Lord to the very core of one’s being is an occasion for praise.  Verses 17 and 18 speak of the impossibility of fully grasping the mind of God.

And so, we come to verses 19 to 22, and all I can say is, “Here we go!”  The psalmist does an imitation of my dog when he shows his teeth.  At such times, he is not in a charitable mood.  It’s time for growling, much like the language we hear our friend using.

“O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me” (v. 19).  What on earth has happened to this psalm?  We’ve gone from acknowledging and celebrating the all-knowing and ever-present God to a call for vengeance to be exacted.

Eric Peels, Old Testament professor in the Netherlands, talks about it.  “Among the offensive passages from the Old Testament with prayers for the downfall of the adversaries [these verses are] unique.  Nowhere else is the hatred against enemies expressed so directly and wholeheartedly…  If Psalm 139 had ended with…verse 18 it would have been one of the most beautiful songs in the Book of Psalms.”[3]

(And just in case you were wondering, the lectionary reading does indeed end at verse 18!)

4 ps 139

So what do we make of it?  What do we make of the abrupt transition to “I hate them with perfect hatred”? (v. 22).  In Hebrew, it’s literally “with complete hatred I hate them.”  Our friend Eric continues, “By hating God’s enemies the poet relates to God’s own hatred of the wicked and his curse on them.  By completely taking a stand for God the poet chooses a world of blessing and goodness, of truth and justice.”[4]

God’s enemies are my enemies.  True enough, but this isn’t about any actual feelings of fury, either on God’s or the psalmist’s part.  It’s about choosing a life of integrity or iniquity.

Having said that, there’s the danger of reversing the order into “my enemies are God’s enemies.”  (But that never happens, does it?)

So now we come to the end of the psalm.  Verses 23 and 24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”  We’re back to “search me” and “know me,” but now it’s a request; it’s a plea.  As said before, our writer is taking all we’ve heard and putting it before the Lord.

Spare me from wickedness and all the madness that comes with it.  Something like, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  The psalmist is truly at peace with being known well by God.  It is life itself.  No matter what secrets the psalmist has, no matter what enemies, confidence in the love of God is boldly affirmed and cherished.

That’s true for us.  No matter what secrets we have, no matter what enemies we have, we have confidence in the love of God.  That love has especially been revealed through our Lord Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The all-knowing and ever-present God is love.  Without a doubt, we can say “to know God is to love God.”  That love is imparted to us, and so each of us can say “to know me is to love me.”

Wouldn’t that work well with either truth or dare?

 

[1] Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Psalms for Today (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 13.

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season (New York: HarperOne, 1977), 213.

[3] Eric Peels, “‘I Hate Them with Perfect Hatred’ (Psalm 139:21-22),” Tyndale Bulletin 59:1 (2008): 35-36.

[4] Peels, 47.


the strength of weakness

All of us, to one extent or another, are encouraged to downplay our weaknesses.  In a more positive light, they can be called “growing edges.”  (Banu has said by calling them “growing edges” we’re being more honest.  I don’t really mind calling them weaknesses, since I have plenty to choose from!)

In any event, sometimes there’s the temptation to focus on, and even to exaggerate our strengths and abilities in order to impress others and to make a name for ourselves.  We might even want to fool ourselves.

As you may or may not have guessed from our epistle reading in 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul doesn’t like to operate that way, and for what it’s worth, he doesn’t shy away from speaking of his own “weaknesses.”

1 2 co 12

He starts the chapter by saying, “It is necessary to boast.”  But he quickly adds “nothing is to be gained by it” (v. 1).  Why does Paul say he has to boast?  He’s dealing with the Corinthian church, a group of people that are being wowed by preachers Paul sarcastically calls “super-apostles.”  They are superheroes in eloquence!  Unfortunately, some of the stuff they articulate so well is more focused on themselves than on the gospel.

Several times I’ve mentioned church consultant Peter Steinke.  In the epilogue of his book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, he talks about “people of the charm.”  It deals with narcissistic, self-centered qualities.  It’s about people who are charmers and those who want to be charmed.  He describes a charmer as one who “can thrive for years without realizing that the core of his or her life is empty and that beneath the narcissistic glitter is a false and an impaired self.”[1]

The charmer projects charisma, which in reality can be “a cheap substitute for charis, the [New Testament] word for grace.”  The charmer uses charisma “to control and manipulate other people…  In the circle of charm, there is no freedom.”[2]  But that’s okay, because as I said, they admire the charmer—they enjoy being put under the spell!

Steinke quotes someone who made a nice little pun.  He said such relationships are “gilt by association.”[3]

So getting back to Paul, when he says he’s forced to brag, for a moment he decides to play their game.  He has some credentials himself that aren’t too shabby.  He can be a show off with the best of them.  Seriously, how many of these characters can honestly claim they’ve had visions of being taken to heaven and hearing “things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat”? (v. 4).  Let them try to match that!

Still, despite his visions, he says there’s nothing to brag about.  There’s no reason to play the role of charmer.  If there is anything to brag about, it’s his weaknesses.  If that’s his focus, I don’t think the apostle’s LinkedIn account would be very impressive!  I’m not sure how well he would do interviewing for a job!

2 2 co 12And just in case he’s tempted to draw attention to himself and “the exceptional character of the revelations,” he adds “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated,” from getting too big for his britches (v. 7)!

No one really knows what he means by this “thorn in the flesh.”  Some have speculated it’s an illness.  In Galatians 4, he says, “You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me” (vv. 13-14).  Another version says “you resisted any temptation to show scorn or disgust at my physical condition” (REB).  It seems like, for a while at least, Paul wasn’t very attractive.

The thorn could be something else Paul admits: he’s not a very good public speaker.  In chapter 11, he says, “I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles.  I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge” (vv. 5-6).  Eugene Peterson puts it like this: “if you put up with these big-shot ‘apostles,’ why can’t you put up with simple me?  I’m as good as they are.  It’s true that I don’t have their voice, haven’t mastered that smooth eloquence that impresses you so much.  But when I do open my mouth, I at least know what I’m talking about.”

Whatever the thorn in the flesh might be, Paul begs God three times to take it away.  But the response is, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9).  Paul eventually accepts it.  And his conclusion?  “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

The apostle discovers, and teaches, the strength of weakness.

On the face of it, “the strength of weakness” seems to be completely ridiculous.  It’s like saying, “as clear as mud.”  But Paul has learned from the vision he saw on the road to Damascus.  He has learned from the one who, as he says, “was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Co 13:4).

There is indeed power in weakness.  When we’re able to admit our mistakes, to acknowledge our weaknesses, there is a sense of liberation.  When we’re freed from the compulsion to project a false front, to put on a show, to trust in our own achievements, we begin the journey of discovering who we truly are.

As Thomas Merton says in No Man is an Island, “If I do not know who I am, it is because I think I am the sort of person everyone around me wants to be.  Perhaps I have never asked myself whether I really wanted to become what everybody else seems to want to become.  Perhaps if I only realized that I do not admire what everyone seems to admire, I would really begin to live after all…”[4]

“Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something that we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted?  Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we were made for?”[5]

3 2 co 12The strength of weakness is daring to be who God created us to be.

And it also applies to congregations.  It’s okay to admit your struggles; it’s okay to admit your weaknesses—or at least, your perceived weaknesses.  It’s okay to be who God created, and is still creating, you to be.

We can speak of many things, but one of those qualities is being able to say goodbye to the past.  This is a challenge in many congregations.  One way this presents itself is in programs and activities.  These are things that, for a long time, have been a source of health and vitality.  But at some point, they outlive their usefulness.  Participation wanes, and they become something that is too inwardly-focused.  They no longer serve the gospel imperative to go forth into the world.

Being able to say goodbye also applies to pastoral boundaries.  In many congregations, there might be “beloved former pastors” and not-so-beloved former pastors.

It’s up to ministers to respect proper pastoral boundaries.  And even though it can be tough for the congregations, they also have a role in doing it.

And being able to say goodbye applies in other areas, as well.  But identifying it as a growing edge, and working on it, is yet again a case of the strength of weakness.

As intentional interim pastors, saying goodbye is part of the job.  Saying goodbye really goes with saying hello, right at the beginning of the ministry.  Some people might not understand and think of it as a weakness.  But even if someone looks at it that way, it’s a weakness that, if honored and embraced, shows it’s a sign of strength.

Many of you have seen each other’s weaknesses.  It’s just a fact of life.  We can fall into the trap of defining people solely on that basis.  It’s like taking a photo of someone at their worst—or in their most embarrassing situation—and saying, “This is who they are, forever and ever!”  Still, if we are in Christ, we live as those who believe and expect renewal and resurrection.  In many ways, we keep on being raised from the dead.  And thinking of weaknesses, there’s nothing weaker than death!

To make it real, we have to love one another.  We must learn to love God in each other.  It’s not always easy, but if we do that, we draw out each other’s strength from weakness.

It’s been said about weaknesses that they “play a most important part in all our lives.  It is because of them that we need others and others need us.  We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in [him- or herself] for the lack in another.”[6]

4 2 co 12

That is why the apostle Paul says, “on my behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses” (v. 5).  That includes identifying and laying down improper or unfair claims, identifying and laying down our pretensions, identifying and laying down our striving which kills us and others.

It’s not enough to embrace our weaknesses; we can do it and actually hold on to them.  We embrace our weaknesses—we own them, so to speak—but then turn them over to Christ.  We yield all of that stuff to the Lord.  And when we do, we are enabled to enter a new world, the upside-down world of Jesus in which when we are weak, we are strong.

That is the strength of weakness.

 

[1] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006), 169.

[2] Steinke, 171.

[3] Steinke, 175.

[4] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (New York:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 8, paragraph 2.

[5] Merton, 7.8.3.

[6] Merton, Prologue, paragraph 25.


glory everywhere

When I was at seminary in Philadelphia, one of my favorite activities was going for long walks, especially in the evening.  But if we had a decent amount of snowfall the previous night, I might decide to change up my routine and go out in the morning.  It was on one such morning that I ventured out into a landscape glistening with ice and snow.  The whole world had been frosted with layers of confectioner’s sugar!

As I enjoyed the brisk chilly air, I encountered one of the elderly ladies from the Presbyterian Church across the street from our school.  I often sat in one of the pews in “her” part of the sanctuary.  I greeted her, and she acknowledged me, but not in the way one ordinarily does.

As she took in all that her senses were telling her about this magnificent morning, she seemed to be almost mesmerized, almost in a state of rapture.  On that snowy sidewalk in Philly, all she said was, “There is so much beauty.”  There is so much beauty.

1 is 6
It was as though some celestial being had parted a veil and revealed some secret splendor.  The look on her face—that moment—that’s what I remember about her.

I begin with my recollections of beauty and splendor because there’s someone else who has a little bit to say about it.  Our Old Testament reading in Isaiah describes what’s usually thought of as the call of Isaiah the prophet.  He mentions some celestial beings himself.

While in the temple, he has a vision of “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe [or “the train of his robe”] filled the temple” (v. 1).  The Bible says that he sees “seraphim” (שְֹרׇפׅים).  These are indeed celestial beings; the word literally means “burning ones.”  The prophet says that they “were in attendance above [the Lord]; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew” (v. 2).

This is, to say the least, an awesome sight.  I mean that in the truest sense of the word; it is an awe-inspiring sight, a fearsome sight.  Here’s some of that beauty and splendor I just mentioned.  These creatures call to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (v. 3).

And if that’s not enough, in his vision, his trance—whatever it is—the whole place begins to violently shake and fill with smoke.  In their purest state, beauty and splendor are actually quite terrifying to us mere mortals!

In the temple, images of the cherubim were placed above the ark of the covenant.  No one really knows the difference between a cherub and a seraph—or if they’re even angels.[1]  It’s possible they’re beings even more powerful than angels, even closer to God!

Whatever the case, the prophet is in the temple, gazing at these engravings.  And he sees them moving!  He hears them singing!  One of them even speaks to him, and he feels it touch his lips with a red hot coal!

You know, there are a number of hallucinogenic substances, as well as certain mental disorders, that could explain these events.  (I won’t say if I’m speaking from personal experience!)  Still, throughout the ages, there have been mystics and prophets with similar experiences.  Look at what happens to the prophet Ezekiel almost two centuries later.  (In chapter 1, some people say he saw a space ship!)

And a word on mystics: this isn’t some spooky reference to someone with magical powers.  Rather, a mystic is one with what’s been called “a long loving look at the real.”[2]

I think it’s safe to say that Isaiah lives a life in which he is more attuned to sensing and noticing things others miss.  He lives a life in which he looks and listens for God.  And in our scripture text, he is worshiping.  It’s been noted that he is “hyperaware.”[3]  He is fully present to what is going on.

2 is 6
“The Prophet Isaiah,” Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Recalling that Pentecost was last Sunday, we also have the ability to be present to what the Holy Spirit is saying.  After all, that is the point of worship—to pay attention to God in a loving, expectant way.  Having said that, if the figures in the stained-glass windows do not speak and make gestures, I think that would be okay!

There’s something we need to keep in mind regarding the prophet and his vision and his call, and that is: this isn’t just about him.  Isaiah hasn’t been given this blast of enlightenment and wisdom so that he can reassure himself that he’s such a spiritual guy.  This isn’t something he’s supposed to keep to himself, as he is painfully aware.  (I’ll say more about that in a moment.)

In fact, with the first few words of verse 1, we’re already confronted with the larger community.  When does Isaiah have this experience?  When does he receive his call?  “In the year that King Uzziah died.”  Sometimes we’re told stuff like that just as a way to mark the date.  This thing happened at that time.

But Uzziah (also known as Azariah) isn’t just any king.  At the time of his death, Uzziah has been king of Judah for over fifty years.  For most of the people, he’s the only king they’ve ever known.  And now, he is gone.  When a long-reigning leader leaves the scene, there can be a sense of uncertainty, even fear.

Uzziah is remembered as devoted to the Lord, but with limits.  He builds up the army, and he defeats the surrounding enemies.  Unfortunately, as often happens with militarily-powerful nations, their priorities become skewed toward the wealthy.  And so we have Isaiah.  “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.”

It’s often said of prophets that their job is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.  This is where we get to what I said earlier, about Isaiah’s knowing that he can’t keep his experience to himself—as he is painfully aware!  He cries out during his vision, “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (v. 5).

In response to this business about unclean lips, the seraph has him kiss a burning ember.  That’s some pretty fierce hygiene.

Isaiah is keenly aware of his unworthiness for what the Lord calls him to do.  But this act of divine intervention comes with the reassurance, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out” (v. 7).  The Lord huddles up with the seraphim and wonders aloud, “Do you have any ideas about who we should send?”

In a little while, we’ll sing the hymn, “Here I Am, Lord.”  Isaiah volunteers for the mission—but what a mission it is.  At this point, I need to interject something.  This last part of the chapter isn’t in today’s lectionary reading.  As I’ve mentioned / complained before, the embarrassing / troublesome verses are frequently omitted.

When we read it, it looks like Isaiah is being sent on a fool’s errand.  Or maybe it’s a suicide mission!  One thing’s for sure: this will not look good on his resumé!

What is this crazy assignment?  The Lord tells the prophet, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’”  Okay, not too bad so far.  But then we hear, “Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (vv. 9-10).  Now this really is a troublesome one!

It looks like the prophet’s job is to make sure that the people keep going in the wrong direction!  “Make sure that their minds are dull, their ears are deaf, and their eyes are blind.  Otherwise,” God is apparently saying, “if they do wake up and repent, you will have failed your mission.”

Here’s how the Revised English Bible puts it: “This people’s wits are dulled; they have stopped their ears and shut their eyes.”  Read this way, God isn’t commanding the prophet to confuse the people.  It’s simply a statement of fact; it’s what they’ve done to themselves.

Still, there is a sense in which sharing the light with those in love with the dark will bring confusion.  It’s even necessary.  It’s not an act of punishment, rather it’s one of tough love, so to speak.  Even those on the right path—those who love and seek God—sometimes experience what the mystics call “the dark night of the soul.”  This is when there is no understanding, no light, no way forward.

In any event, it seems clear that Isaiah is aware of things the people around him are not.  They have narrowed their minds; they’ve chosen to be narrow-minded.  Where the people around him see (and participate in) the grim cynicism of the day, Isaiah is able to see glory everywhere.  “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  Hearing that is a gift of grace.

On that snowy morning in Philadelphia, I don’t know to what extent my older sister was a mystic or prophet, but I do consider that moment in time to be a gift of grace.  Her wondrous proclamation that “there is so much beauty” was, to me, a message from heaven.

Maybe it was even a kairos moment, a moment of timelessness, a moment from God.

What about us?  Can we see ourselves as mystics and prophets?  Or maybe I should put it this way: can we see ourselves living out our calling, our vocation, to be mystics and prophets?  And what does that even mean?  Does it seem too far-fetched, too unreal?

4 is 6
Sister Judette Gallares

Judette Gallares talks about this in her article “Opening the Heart to Listen: Becoming Mystics and Prophets Today.”  She says that the mystical, “prophetic task requires friendship with God, an authentic intimacy with God.  It is in this intimacy when a deep friendship is developed in quiet moments and where one learns to share heart to heart with God and begins to see and hear from God’s point of view.”  And like I said earlier, that doesn’t mean we have to see inanimate objects in motion!

If we sing the hymn, “Here I Am, Lord,” and live into it, then that requires action on our part—although it’s not the mindless, blind, and deaf action Isaiah criticizes.  It requires taking a risk.  Sometimes it is easier to say, “Here I am Lord…but please send somebody else!”

As mystics and prophets we must ask the difficult questions.  Can we venture into the unknown, trusting God and seeking new opportunities presented as we live the life of Christ in community?  The temptation is to wait—to play it safe.  When we don’t answer the call to take a risk, we miss out on the glory everywhere.

Here’s the last verse of “Here I Am, Lord”: “I, the Lord of wind and flame, / I will tend the poor and lame. / I will set a feast for them, / My hand will save. / Finest bread I will provide / Till their hearts be satisfied. / I will give my life to them. / Whom shall I send?”

Isaiah enters deeply into prayer.  He has a new vision.  We have a new vision.  When everything seems and is dark, we find glory everywhere.

 

[1] כְּרום  cherub

[2] www.ignatianspirituality.com/6277/a-long-loving-look-at-the-real

[3] www.drbilllong.com/Lectionary/Is6II.html


a green spirit

“With so many things being said about who God is…  God of love, God of faith, God of the poor, God of the second chance, etc., I wonder…

1 ro 8
A document from 1991, thus, the Congressman and Senators from Tennessee at the time

“Is God green?  (That is, does he manifest ecological concern?)”

Those are part of my notes for a sermon I preached in September 1991, right before I went to Philadelphia to attend seminary.  I decorated the page with my signature drawing: a long-haired duck wearing a headband and a necklace with a Celtic cross.  (I was inspired by the comic book character Howard the Duck, who was trapped on Earth from another dimension.)

At the time, I was a member of an Assemblies of God congregation.  I didn’t hear questions like, “Is God green?” asked very often back then.  Actually, I wonder how many times that was asked in Presbyterian churches!  (Understand, I’m not thinking about the literal question, “Is God green”?!)

When you think about it, it’s a ridiculous question.  Does God care about the environment?  From start to finish, the scriptures testify to it.  In Genesis 1, from a creation in which every part is called “good,” to Revelation 22, the final revelation of a holy city in which nothing accursed will be found, a city in perfect harmony with all that is.

Last week was Ascension Sunday.  We remember the Lord Jesus Christ, “who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Ep 4:10).  The ascension means that Christ is everywhere, filling all of creation.  (Ascension is one of my favorite days in the year!)

We sing God’s glory throughout the Psalms.  We praise God in creation in hymns, like “Let All Things Now Living.”  Here’s something from verse 2:

“By law God enforces.  The stars in their courses, / The sun in its orbit obediently shine; / The hills and the mountains, The rivers and fountains, / The depths of the ocean proclaim God divine.”

And of course, there is the incarnation, the coming into flesh which is the meaning of Christmas.  God enters into humanity enfleshed in the body of Jesus.  We can also see a kind of incarnation at work roughly 13.8 billion years ago, when the universe came into existence, when God’s “good” creation got its start.

There are endless ways to imagine God’s care and love of creation.

2 ro 8
The most distant galaxies ever observed revealed by the Hubble Ultra Deep Field

Unfortunately, we often fail in our call to be stewards of creation.  In my notes on that sermon, I lamented, “Human sin has affected the creation.”  That’s putting it mildly!  We seem to go out of our way to trash creation.  We pollute and pound and pummel the earth.  We poison land and sea and air and everything within them.  We do unimaginable violence to God’s creatures with whom we share this world.

Dystopian nightmares, resulting from our destruction—are they really so far away?  We must be insane.

We see in our text in Romans 8 how creation groans.  There clearly are other meanings besides our contribution to that.  The primary meaning speaks of liberation from death and decay, the promise of resurrection spreading to all things.  Still, we have more than our share in being the architects of that suffering.

I still remember, to my great shame, the poor little slug that had the misfortune of moving into my sight on a hot summer day.  Magnifying glass in hand, I tortured my little friend with the heat of the sun focused on its slimy body, knowing it couldn’t escape that tiny yellow dot bringing it incredible agony.  I could claim as mitigating circumstances that I was just a kid, but I still knew it was wrong.  Unfortunately, that’s not the only time I’ve played a role in making creation groan.  There’s my confession of sin.

(My confession of sin notwithstanding, I did promote a green message with my lunchbox which had on it the logo of the ecology flag!)

3 ro 8

However, as I just said, our misdeeds are not front and center of our scripture passage.  The apostle Paul speaks of the present suffering as giving way to something wonderful.  The groaning of creation is not simply suffering, but a groaning of labor pains.  Something is about to be born.  Something is slowly at work, beginning to take shape.

Why should this be a text for Pentecost?  What does it say about the Holy Spirit?

The gospel text in John presents the Spirit as coming to us to serve as our Advocate, our Helper.  The Spirit “will guide [us] into all the truth” (16:13).  The Spirit will speak words from the Father.

And of course, on the day of Pentecost itself, the Spirit descends like a mighty wind, filled with fury and flame.  The disciples are “filled with the Holy Spirit and [begin] to speak in other languages,” other tongues (Ac 2:4).  The Spirit prompts bold words of praise about the glories of God.

I remember hearing someone say the Holy Spirit is the silent member of the Trinity.  Those who have worshipped with Pentecostals or Charismatics would find that difficult to believe!

Having said that, the apostle Paul does indeed portray the Spirit as a silent power within creation, as a silent power within us.  He says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (v. 26).  Words no longer do the job.  They lack intensity; they lack passion.

My sermon title speaks of “a green Spirit.”  Why green?  One answer is pretty obvious, since I’ve been talking about creation, the environment, our interaction with it.  The Spirit inhabits creation, going all the way back to when the Spirit was moving over the face of those primeval waters.

4 ro 8Green also speaks of growth.  This is intertwined with the movement from the slumber of winter to the rejuvenation of spring.  In our part of the world, things have been getting greener and greener.  (Along with the increasing pollen, which plays its role!)

An idea shot through our passage is that of hope, which the Holy Spirit produces.  Creation has been “subjected to futility,” it’s been held back, unable to achieve its true glory.  That might be true, but it’s been done in the hope, as said earlier, of being “set free from its bondage to decay” (vv. 20-21).

The late Lutheran pastor and professor Sheldon Tostengard commented on hope (or perhaps the lack thereof?).[1]  “Society’s hope for the future is by no means guaranteed these days…  [T]his age can truly be called an age of hopelessness…”  There’s a cheerful assessment!

Still, he draws solace from St. Paul.  “While our hope is patient, as patient as that of the seafarer who knows that in the morning the lights of home will appear on the horizon, our hope is by no means resigned.  Hope is infectious, a strange and deep optimism which takes all groaning and travail absolutely seriously, and yet rejoices.  Let it be said of us Christians in these times that we are known by our hope.”

What does Paul mean when he says, “we do not know how to pray as we ought”?

Again, looking at this as a scripture for Pentecost, one writer says, “Our calling is to join the Spirit in caring for the creation and praying for faithfulness in a world that both serves and threatens creation with technology.”[2]  We need help in using our technology in creative, and not destructive, ways.

5 ro 8

We need help in not drowning in plastic!  It can take up to 50 years for a styrofoam cup to decompose in a landfill.  Plastic bottles can take up to 450 or 1000 years to biodegrade.  And plastic bags!  Besides the problems on land, when they get to water, they are a hazard to creatures who think they’re food.

I love the Fiji Water commercial which has a little girl doing a voiceover proclaiming, “Fiji Water is a gift from nature to us, to repay our gift of leaving it completely alone.”  Meanwhile, we’re hearing Pacific Islanders singing a song of praise and joy.[3]

As I say, we need the Spirit’s help, the one who leads us into all the truth.  We’re told, “The ranks of those who respond to the Spirit’s sighs are never overcrowded, but because it is God the Holy Spirit who silently, ceaselessly works, there is hope.”[4]

We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Holy Spirit does.  And “the Spirit intercedes for [us] according to the will of God” (v. 27).

May we be filled with a green Spirit.  May we be filled with a spirit that calls us to love and care for creation.  May we be filled with a spirit that grows within us and urges us to grow.  May we be filled with a spirit that inspires us with hope and enables us to spread that hope into the world, into our planet, into time and space itself.  May we be filled with a spirit that knows our infirmities and leads us to pray and to be.

May we be filled with a spirit plunging us into the love of God and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Sheldon Tostengard, “Light in August: Romans 8:18-39,” Word and World 7:3 (1987): 318.

[2] F. Dean Lueking, The Christian Century, 114:15 (7 May 1997): 447

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeF134YMoS0

[4] F. Dean Lueking, 447.


decisions, decisions

Life is all about making decisions.  You’ve already made a few of them so far this morning.  Decision number one was whether or not to get out of bed.  (That’s assuming, of course, you didn’t stay up all night!)  Following that were other decisions, involving stuff like getting dressed, eating breakfast, going to church, maybe even praying!

1 ac 1
Rush, the Holy Trinity of rock (okay I added that last part!)

A lot of our decisions we make without really thinking about them.  Others require great effort and attention.  Some we eagerly embrace; others we avoid like the plague.  Still, as the rock group Rush once said in their song, “Freewill,” “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice!”

Our scripture reading in Acts describes a decision made by the eleven remaining apostles—remaining, that is, after Judas’ death following his betrayal of Jesus.  Peter is the one who raises the issue, feeling that the original number of twelve needs to be restored.  So they decide to select a replacement.

(By the way, our scripture reading in the lectionary omits verses 18 to 20: all that juicy stuff about how Judas dies!  Once again, the folks who compiled the lectionary wanted to protect us and our delicate sensibilities from all those grim and garish details.)

I have a question to ask: how do you feel about this whole undertaking of replacing Judas?

This decision has received mixed reviews over the years.  On the one hand, it’s been seen as an act of faithfulness.  The young church sees itself as the new Israel, with twelve apostles corresponding to the twelve tribes.

On the other hand, it’s not that Peter and the other apostles are doing a bad thing.  They clearly have good motives.  They establish what appear to be sound criteria.  They make sure that the new apostle is someone who’s “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (v. 21).  It must be one who’s been there through thick and thin—from the time of Jesus’ baptism until the present day—someone who can provide witness to the Lord’s resurrection.

Two candidates are proposed.  The first is “Joseph called Barsabbas,” alias “Justus,” and the second is Matthias.  They pray that the one God has chosen will be revealed, and they cast lots—in effect, they roll the dice—to get the result.  And the winner is: Matthias!

I said this business has gotten mixed reviews.  Some feel Peter’s use of Psalms 69 and 109, claiming they predict Judas’ deception and their response to it, is a bit loose.  Still, it’s also true that upon reflection, the church saw how the Holy Spirit spoke through certain scriptures looking ahead to the Messiah.  (Having said that, I had teachers who lamented how some people see in the Old Testament every piece of wood and random comment pointing to Jesus!)

But that’s not the main reason the apostles’ decision has been critiqued.  To put it simply, it looks like they go ahead without hearing from God on the matter.  Our gospel reading in Luke 24 shows Jesus, just before his ascension, telling them to wait until the Spirit is poured out upon them.

Lacking any definitive guidance, they plunge ahead and use a method that’s been around for ages—casting lots.  It does seem to be relevant that, after Pentecost, lots aren’t mentioned anymore.  The Holy Spirit directs the young church.

2 ac 1Still, it’s hard to be too critical of them.  I can see why they might feel like they needed to take some kind of action.  Some of them may have been getting a little antsy.  Peter himself was known to be rather headstrong at times.

So I ask again: how do you feel about all of this?  Faced with a decision like this, I wonder how we would fare.

In a way, it’s not fair to ask what you think of the apostles’ decision.  There’s the saying about not knowing what’s happening with someone until you’ve walked in their shoes.  We’ve all been criticized for decisions we’ve made by people who really don’t know what they’re talking about!

Let me tell you a little story about someone who faced a major decision in his life.  As a result of his struggle, the world is better off for it.

I’ve mentioned him before, the 16th century Spanish officer, Ignatius of Loyola.  If you recall, he was a wild young man; he loved chasing the ladies.  While fighting the French, a cannon ball, passing between his legs, tore open the left calf and broke the right shin.  (I also said something about that projectile.  If it were one foot higher, well, he wouldn’t have been worried about the ladies!)

While bedridden doing physical rehab, he requested some of his favorite reading, stories of knights and chivalry.  None of those were on hand, so what were brought to him were stories of Christ and the saints.  He experienced his conversion while reading those books.  In time, he became the founder of an order known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

What’s relevant right now is that in his book, The Spiritual Exercises, he includes a section entitled, “Discerning the Spirits.”  His use of the word “spirits” reflects a medieval concept; today, we might call these interior movements of the soul a combination of inclinations, attractions, imaginings, thoughts and feelings.

One guide to understanding Ignatius is Stefan Kiechle, a German Jesuit who wrote a book called The Art of Discernment: Making Good Decisions in Your World of Choices.[1]  It’s a very readable book, and it helps you to see what a wise person Ignatius was.

Ignatius stresses the need, when approaching a decision, to become “indifferent.”  That’s not “indifferent” as we tend to think of it.  It’s not an attitude that says, “I couldn’t care less what happens!”

For Ignatius, indifference is “a state where people no longer desire health more than sickness, wealth more than poverty, a long life more than a short life, honor more than dishonor, but instead they desire what brings them closer to the ‘end for which [they] are created.’  Therefore, one ought to be prepared to accept personal setbacks if they benefit a higher goal.”[2]

He sounds a lot like St. Paul, who in Philippians 4 says, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (vv. 11-13).

Ignatian indifference is inner freedom.  Only those who have faced up to their own disordered desires—Paul might say “works of the flesh”—can be truly free.  The greater freedom we have, the better our decision making will be.  Still, we rarely achieve perfect clarity in our decisions.

“Apparently sound decisions are impossible unless one can reflect with a minimum of interruption…  The moment we enter silence, our inner self comes to life…  People who are constantly talking and keeping busy never pause to listen.”[3]  (That too often sounds like me.  When I mean to have a time of silence, I focus on the random thoughts that float through my head.  The trick is noticing them, and then just letting them go!)

3 ac 1

So far, the advice from Ignatius might sound pretty stern.  In that respect, he’s keeping true to his roots as a soldier!  But he’s quick to emphasize the need for love.  When approaching a decision, even one (or maybe I should say, especially one) causing fear or anxiety, I should “ask myself if I’m making my choice lovingly.”[4]  I need to make my choice lovingly.  A loving spirit helps dissipate the cloud of negative forces that confuse and confound us.

We all have weaknesses; we should acknowledge them.  For example, do I tend to jump right in, or do I put it off as long as I can?  Do I have an exaggerated sense of self-worth; do I strut around?  Do I think I’m totally worthless; do I shrink and try to hide?  Do I tend to ignore reality in favor of some dream world, whipping out the rose-colored glasses?  Do I insist on looking at the dark side of everything, always finding something to gripe about?  We all have our favorite traps.

“Yet the fact remains that only those who make mistakes will learn something; only those who dare will mature as a result of the experiment—an important word in Ignatius.”[5]  It’s easy to sit back and criticize.  God wants us to lovingly stand up and get involved.

We are created in the image of God.  That means plenty of things, but one of my favorite examples of God’s image in us is a sense of humor.

(Humor seems to belong to humans alone.  Still there are some animals, like chimpanzees, who seem to find some stuff funny.  But not my dog.  He never laughs at my jokes.  Although, there might be several reasons for that!)

Ignatius also stresses the need for humor.  When we develop our sense of humor, it enables us to entertain other ideas.  We’re not so rigidly dead set on one course of action.  If we can’t laugh at ourselves, we become rigid and intolerant.  Still, when it comes to laughing at oneself, some of us have more material than others!

4 ac 1

So there, we need a good sense of humor.  Oddly enough though, a full and healthy sense of humor carries with it the ability to mourn.  And somehow, the ability to mourn is also a part of wise decision making.  Our Jesuit friend Kiechle tells us: “People who have to choose between two good alternatives are frequently attracted to both of them.  Once an alternative has been selected, the other alternative that has been rejected will have to be mourned.  People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long to the [rejected] alternative…  One who keeps reproaching oneself for having made the wrong decision after all, feels dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[6]  We must be able to say goodbye.

What kind of decisions are we facing?  Let me suggest one possibility.

Certainly, we’re not in the same situation as those early disciples, but they have suffered a loss.  I don’t know that anyone here has betrayed the Lord—at least, not in the outward death-dealing way Judas did.  (We all have our own ways of betraying the Lord!)  Still, I don’t think it’s a controversial point to say we wonder about expanding our own number.

If I can push the comparison a little further, drawing on the idea of casting lots, are we prone to relying on our own methods, and being a little less charitable, relying on gimmicks?!  (I didn’t come up with that on my own.  In one of the previous churches we served, a session member, thinking of increasing the membership, said that very thing: “We need a gimmick.”  And that was suggested more than once!)

So there’s that.  I know this happens next Sunday, but after the day of Pentecost, the disciples learn what it means to be led by the Spirit.  And we live after the day of Pentecost.  Understand, that doesn’t mean we drift around, waiting for the Spirit to move us.  If you recall what I said about Ignatius, he provides one example of what it means to test the Spirit, to test the spirits.

As we saw earlier, the Spirit is the promise of Jesus after his ascension.  The Spirit guides us in our decisions.  Part of that means failing, but then still trusting.

When we make decisions and say, in an unnecessarily hurried way, “Let’s just get it done, already,” it limits the power of community.  When one of us takes it upon ourselves to speak for the entire community, it chokes the Spirit.  That is why it is so important as a community to test the spirits, both individually and within community.  And that begins right here in worship.  God speaks in ways we have not even begun to fathom.

Trusting in that is a pretty good decision.

 

[1] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005).

[2] Kiechle, 32-33.

[3] Kiechle, 69.

[4] Kiechle, 79.

[5] Kiechle, 91-92.

[6] Kiechle, 76-77.