Advent

the desert

A few years ago, Spike Lee directed the movie, 25th Hour.  It stars Edward Norton as a guy convicted of selling drugs.  He has one day left before he goes to prison.  He has one day to say goodbye to his friends and to imagine what could have been—if he hadn’t gone down the path he chose.

At the end of the movie, his father, played by Brian Cox, is driving him to prison.  They’re going up the interstate, and they’re approaching an exit that would take them out west.  He doesn’t want his son to go to prison.  His father says to give him the word, and they’ll just take off.

1 desertIn a beautiful monologue, as they’re traveling across America with its vast array of scenery, his father lays out the alternative.  He tells his son he can still have another life.  Find some little town out west and just blend in.  And he talks about the landscape.

He says, “Every man, woman, and child alive should see the desert one time before they die.  Nothin’ at all for miles around.  Nothin’ but sand and rocks and cactus and blue sky.  Not a soul in sight.  No sirens.  No car alarms.  Nobody honkin’ atcha…  You find the silence out there; you find the peace.  You can find God.”

In the early church, in the 3rd through 5th centuries, people known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers went out into the wilderness.  They lived in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Arabia.  They also were seeking God.  They were fleeing the corruption of the cities, as well as a church that more and more identified with the state, the Roman Empire.  Christ and Caesar were becoming indistinguishable.  (We often have that problem today!)

Brian Cox’s character in 25th Hour would likely agree with the Desert Mothers and Fathers.  The desert is a place to flee the corruption and madness of civilization.  It is certainly a good place to find solitude.  Still, if the motivation is to simply escape the stench of society and of other people, then that is not a path of love.  It is a path of self-deception, and ultimately, a hatred of those we would flee.  And the terrible irony is if we don’t make an effort at peace, then we carry those people with us—and not in a good way.  It’s a burden.

Solitude need not only be found in the desert.  It can and should be found here in daily life, in times of withdrawal from the busy voices filling our lives to hearing God.  (But maybe escaping the stench of others still applies!  I’m including myself in the category of stinky!)

The desert is a place of contradiction.  God can be found there.  It can be a place of new life, of renewal.  But it is equally a place of death.  It is a place of thirst.  When moisture is at a premium, we shouldn’t expect to find lush gardens.  But it can also be a place of great beauty.

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The desert can be inhospitable, especially for those who do not respect it.  The desert is not a place for arrogance.

In his book, Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton speaks of those desert monastics, the desert wilderness, and the way we often treat the desert—to our peril.

Regarding the Desert Fathers and Mothers, he says that they “believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men [and women]…  The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone…  God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.”[1]

There is something supremely counter-cultural when looking at the desert this way.  It is a rejection of what we usually believe is important.

3 desertFor those who would indeed reject the comforts and gadgets that we become enamored with, it can in fact be a place to be alone with God.

Still, as Merton points out, there are other aspects.  “First, the desert is the country of madness.  Second, it is the refuge of the devil…  [Remember, the Holy Spirit sent Jesus into the desert, and he was tempted by the devil.]  Thirst drives [us] mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence—lost because he has [imprisoned] himself in it and closed out everything else.”[2]

I suppose there is a bit of madness, a bit of craziness involved in choosing to live in the wilderness—maybe a good kind of crazy, but still, a craziness that has to be held in check.

In Mark 1, we see someone who’s a bit of a madman, John the Baptist.  He’s been out in the wilderness, and his diet and appearance might be considered slightly crazy.  (Perhaps I’m speaking out of turn.  Do we have any connoisseurs of locusts and wild honey?)  Despite all of that, people are going out to him so that they can be baptized.

4 desertNotice what he says about the coming One, the One whose advent is near.  “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  John uses water, but the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and as Matthew and Luke add, with “fire” (Mt 3:11, Lk 3:16).  The Holy Spirit is often associated with fire, as on the day of Pentecost.

How appropriate it is, while in the desert, to speak of one who baptizes with the fire of the Spirit.

If we can summon and practice patience, we can hear the voice of the Spirit in those lonely places.

In Isaiah 40, the prophet speaks words of comfort.  In verse 3 we hear, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  The desert is indeed a place for listening.  But we have to be silent.

Verses 4 and 5 add, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”  According to the prophet, the desert is not only a place for listening, but for listening to good news.

Mark borrows words from Isaiah, agreeing that the desert is a place for listening—and listening to good news.  However, he adds a new dimension, a different perspective.  Here, it is word that Messiah is coming; the advent is near.

We need that word in the desert, because as I mentioned earlier, there is also the reality of human arrogance in the way we treat the desert.

In his book, Merton also talks about this.  With our technology, “the wilderness at last comes into its own.  [We] no longer need God, and [we] can live in the desert on [our] own resources.  [We] can build there [our] fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal and experimentation and vice.”[3]

In our desert southwest, with moisture at a premium, metro areas have been built.  And when we think of experimentation and vice, what better example of a metro area is there than Las Vegas!  And thinking of fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal, what better slogan is there than “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”?

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He goes on, “When [we] and [our] money and machines move out into the desert, and dwell there, not fighting the devil as Christ did, but believing in his promises of power and wealth, and adoring his angelic wisdom, then the desert itself moves everywhere.  Everywhere is desert.”[4]

I imagine you’ve figured out “desert” as a place of building those protected cities of withdrawal, of human arrogance, is not simply a literal desert.  It is the desert in our own lives.  At the same time, desert is the place where we listen for good news.  The desert is where we can find God.  As I said before, the desert is a place of contradiction.

What are the deserts in our lives?  Where are those places of contradiction?  Where do we need the crazy ones to bring us water—to plunge us into water—and bring good news?

The prophet comments on our fragility, saying, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass” (vv. 6-7).  And in one of the most powerful lines in the Old Testament (in my humble opinion), he declares, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (v. 8).

6 desertAs the rock band Kansas once sang, “All we do / Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see / Dust in the wind / All we are is dust in the wind.”  Even our plans are dust in the wind, or perhaps, sand being blown by the desert wind.

Desert experiences, be they uncertainty, abandonment, bereavement, whatever, can be barren and trying.  Even so, there is that voice in the wilderness, crying out to prepare the way of the Lord.  Even in the desert—or maybe, especially in the desert—the Spirit blows where it wills.  That Spirit of fire calls us to good news.  Even in the bleakest of places, the coming One welcomes us.

When we acknowledge and embrace and take joy in that, then the desert will bloom.

 

[1] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1958. eBook edition, 2011), Kindle edition, Chapter 1, section 2, paragraph 1.

[2] Merton, 1.2.3

[3] Merton, 1.2.5

[4] Merton, 1.2.6


revelation of gratitude

When I was at seminary, I took a worship class taught by one of the two Presbyterian professors at our American Baptist school.  Well, there was one other Presbyterian who came in from time to time and taught polity.  This was Banu’s pastor at the congregation where she did field education.

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Banu and I lived on the top floor in the front corner apartment.

In our class, when we got to the subject of Advent, besides discussing the Lord’s first advent as the baby of Bethlehem, we dealt with possibly the more meaningful aspect of Advent: the Lord’s second advent, the second coming of Christ, in power and glory.  “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King!”

It was pointed out that during the season of Advent, this is especially the time of year when we focus on our Lord’s return.  I made a comment about that.  I said when I was in the Assemblies of God, the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was almost a weekly theme!  It was mentioned almost every Sunday.

We Presbyterians, along with so many others who observe the liturgical year, can (and do) fail to give the proper attention to the Lord’s return, however we envision the return.  We can fail to join with St. Paul as he joyfully proclaims at the end of 1 Corinthians, “Maranatha” (16:22).  “The Lord is coming,” or it can also mean, “Lord, come!”

This talk of Jesus Christ coming again makes some people nervous.  And considering the gospel reading for today (Mark 13:24-37), that’s understandable.  Hearing stuff like, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” might be enough to give anyone pause, to put it lightly (v. 33).  “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (v. 37).  The eyes of your heart will get drowsy, so throw some spiritual cold water on yourself!

2 1co1But that need not be seen as a dire warning.  It is a reminder that something wonderful is about to happen.  Stay awake, or we’ll miss out.  It will be—and is—right before our eyes.  Can we see it?

That upbeat message seems to be on Paul’s mind as we begin today’s epistle reading.  “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3).  Wishing someone grace and peace is not a typical greeting if you’re about to deliver bad news!  That would be a sneaky way to set them up before lowering the boom.  Later on, he does address the numerous problems among them, but not yet.

Then he follows with another joyful declaration (v. 4).  “I give thanks to my God always for you.”  Why is he so thankful?  “[B]ecause of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.”  He’s about to burst with gratitude.  They’ve been given blessings galore: “in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind” (v. 5).  Speech and knowledge of every kind.  He’s definitely not soft pedaling it.

Do they see it?  Do they recognize it?  Sometimes it can be hard to understand what someone else sees in you.

As for myself, I used to be afraid of public speaking.  I would become visibly nervous, even terrified.  My chest would tighten up; I would forget to breathe!  But my Assemblies of God pastor apparently saw something in me.  He invited me to preach several times, and I struggled through it.  To be honest, sometimes I still get a bit nervous.

“Speech and knowledge of every kind.”

The apostle gives thanks for them.  The word for “give thanks” is ευχαριστεω (eucharisteō), and with a slight variation, “thanksgiving.”  It’s where we get our word, “Eucharist.”  It comes directly from the New Testament, where it’s used over 50 times.  We will act it out momentarily at the table, with a sacrament called “thanks.”  Thank you!

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Paul says, “the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you” (v. 6).  They are increasingly bearing witness to Christ; Christ is increasingly bearing witness through them.  They are receiving gifts from the Holy Spirit, some of which we might call supernatural and others we might call abilities.  Whatever the case, they are intended for service to others, not for display.

This is happening as they “wait of the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7).  The word for “revealing” is αποκαλυψις (apocalypsis), “uncovering,” “revelation.”  And yes, that’s the same word for the book of Revelation.  That word also appears numerous times in the New Testament.

Beginning in the 90s, a movement called the emerging, or emergent, church started taking shape.  Some see a difference in those terms; others do not.  I won’t go into great detail.  Suffice it to say it’s one expression of the church as we have moved into the 21st century and attempting to address its changing realities and philosophies.  It wants to recapture the ancient and embrace the future.  Examples would be using Jesus as a model for living and not simply an object for worship, inviting questions and not simply providing answers, and promoting peacemaking rather than relying on power.  Again, that’s a very quick thumbnail sketch.

It’s one expression of a new reformation, 500 years after the first one.  It represents a revolution, not only of church and denominational structures, but of consciousness itself.

When we were in Jamestown, a leader in the emerging church from London was in the United States.  He was invited to come and speak to us.  During the discussion, I made the observation that the emerging church movement was part of the Holy Spirit’s being poured out on all flesh, on all of humanity.  In Acts 2, St. Peter speaks of that on the day of Pentecost; he’s quoting the prophet Joel.  The outpouring of the Spirit is very definitely a key theme of the Assemblies of God, who I mentioned earlier.

But the speaker dismissed my comment, which I found extremely puzzling.  I wondered how he could fail to see the outpouring of the Spirit at work in all these changes in the church, changes he himself was espousing.  Still, I felt like he was accomplishing some great things.  And it’s entirely possible he didn’t catch what I was trying to say.

That particular fellow aside, we can see “the revealing, the ‘return’ of the Lord as the consummation of the Spirit being poured out on all “flesh,” on all of humanity.  It’s the final act, the crème de la crème, the end of the world as we know it—but in a good and wonderful way.  But we’re not there yet.  The Spirit is continuously being poured out on we frail and beloved humans.

And that has remarkable meaning.

I want to draw again on my time in the Assemblies of God.  After graduating from MTSU with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, I decided to go to one of their colleges: Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida.  In a class on the history of the Assemblies of God, I learned some fascinating things.

In 1906, the revival at Azusa Street in Los Angeles began.  The leader was a minister named William Joseph Seymour.  Out of this revival, the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal movements had their birth.  Those early Pentecostals firmly embraced pacifism.  (They were like the Quakers.)  When the US entered World War 1, their commitment was put to the test.  It’s never easy to be a pacifist, especially in America.  As the years went by, the commitment waned.  People become accommodated to the culture at large, and besides, no one likes being thought of as a traitor!

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William Joseph Seymour

And of course, they understood: women and men are equal.  How could the Spirit of God work otherwise?  Here’s a quote from Rev. Seymour: “We have no right to lay a straw in [a woman’s] way, but to be men of holiness, purity and virtue, to hold up the standard and encourage the woman in her work, and God will honor and bless us as never before.  It is the same Holy Spirit in the woman as in the man.”[1]  As the 20th century rolled along, even that vision started getting foggy.

Certainly, the Assemblies of God aren’t the only ones to waver.  We also have a handle on that!  But the apostle Paul assures his beloved friends in Corinth, and us, “[God] will…strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).

The day of our Lord has its origins in the Old Testament.  There, it is usually portrayed as a day of reckoning, with an ominous tone.  The prophet Joel says, “Alas for the day!  For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes” (1:15).  The prophet Amos throws in his two cents’ worth.  “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!  Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light” (5:18).

That does sound pretty stern.  But it’s not unlike what we saw earlier on the Advent of Jesus in the gospel of Mark.  Beware, keep alert.  Keep awake.

I like the song written by Curtis Mayfield in the 1960s, which was inspired by King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the gospel tradition: “People Get Ready.”  It’s been recorded by many artists since then (including Rod Stewart on vocals and Jeff Beck on guitar, and also, Ziggy Marley)!

“People, get ready / There’s a train a-coming / You don’t need no baggage / You just get on board / All you need is faith / To hear the diesels humming / Don’t need no ticket / You just thank the Lord.”

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The advent of Jesus Christ, the apocalypsis of Christ, is a revelation of gratitude.  Advent is meant to be a time of taking stock of our lives, not getting lost in the dizzying distractions pulling at us with promises of great deals on Christmas presents.  When we open our hearts in loving gratitude, we find “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9).

Maranatha.  The Lord is coming.  We wait for you, Lord, with thanksgiving.

 

[1] fullerstudio.fuller.edu/women-in-the-pentecostal-movement


fasting just in time for Advent

In recent years, we have been reminded there are more obese people on planet Earth than those who are malnourished.  There are a number of reasons: love of fast food and of huge portions in general, lack of exercise, and oh, let’s go again with huge portions—at Thanksgiving dinner!

1 Is 58I’ve never thought of myself as particularly gluttonous, though I can’t claim I never over-indulge.  Still, if I had to name a single spiritual discipline I’ve been most reluctant to follow, it would probably be fasting.  At first glance, considering the note I mentioned at the beginning, it seems that I’m far from alone.  Still, as we continue, we’ll see how fasting is about more than abstaining from food.

Banu mentioned last week about the tradition of Advent, of how it’s about self-denial, waiting in expectation for the coming of the Lord.  With the madcap rush of the economically-driven invented holiday called Black Friday, we are encouraged—no, ordered—to jettison our sense of self-control.  It regrettably (or perhaps, fortunately) demonstrates our need for spiritual discipline.  It shows our need for spiritual disciplines, plural.

Here’s something about spiritual disciplines themselves.  They are practices, things we do.  They aren’t feelings or emotional states, although spiritual disciplines could possibly foster them.  No, spiritual disciplines, at least Christian spiritual disciplines, are to shape us into being more like Jesus, having the faith of Jesus.

And they are indeed practices, things we weave into our everyday lives.  Examples would be fasting (as mentioned), reading the Bible, prayer, worship, service, being accountable to someone loving and wise.  And there are plenty others.

I will confess I often have a problem with meditation.  I too often focus on the “monkey mind,” just jumping around.  I’m thinking about everything in the world.  “Wait, I need to write that down…  I need to fidget with that object on the table…  Hey, who’s that walking outside?”

One thing the disciplines are not is showtime!  They are not about self-promotion.  This isn’t something you post on Facebook.  If you encounter someone who says, “What has two thumbs and is becoming more Christlike every day?  This guy!” then clearly that poor soul is sadly mistaken.

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There’s a little bit about spiritual disciplines in general.  Now let’s get back to our feature story!

I think many of us have almost a fear of fasting.

I imagine we’ve all had our blood drawn to check medicine levels or whatever.  Sometimes that means fasting for 12 hours or maybe just skipping breakfast.  I remember one time going to the clinic to provide a sample, which required fasting after midnight.  The next morning, some of the people there were saying how they wanted to arrive at 8:30, as soon as the place opened, so they could hurry up and get something to eat.  Apparently, they were starving to death!

I don’t want to spend too long on the mechanics of fasting.  Suffice it to say that it doesn’t always mean consuming nothing whatsoever.  There are many different ways to fast.

In her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun says the purpose of fasting is “to let go of an appetite in order to seek God on matters of deep concern for others, myself, and the world.”[1]  Clearly, “an appetite” can refer to many different things.  As St. Paul says in Romans 13, we’re to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ [like a garment], and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (v. 14).

Here, the “flesh” is not simply our physical bodies.  It speaks of the tendency to use the gifts of God for purely selfish intent, to not care what happens to others or to the rest of creation.  The “flesh” is self-indulgence taken to extremes.

When we take self-indulgence and the temptation to self-promotion we just looked at, we find our scripture reading in Isaiah 58 deals with something like this.  This last part of the book of Isaiah is often dated a few years after the return from exile in Babylon.  The initial joy of the exiles has faded as they deal with opposition.  They’re confronted by those who were never sent into exile—and by those who have settled in the land since then.

Their faith is faltering.  And as we look through the scripture text, we can see evidence of the ways in which many of them have stumbled.  We can also see evidence of their attempts to make things right.

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Right off the bat, we know something’s up.  The prophet is told, “Shout out, do not hold back!…  Announce to my people their rebellion” (v. 1).  Apparently, they’re not living in a way that befits God’s people, even though “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness” (v. 2).

The people in our scripture reading say some things to God that might sound familiar.  “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (v. 3).  Where are you, God?  Why aren’t you paying attention?  Why don’t you help us?

The people are behaving as though fasting and other pious actions can compensate for injustice.  They think some acts of worship can cover up their crimes.

What have they been doing that’s so bad?  According to the scripture, “you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.  Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (vv. 3-4).  Eugene Peterson says, “The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground.”  The people are just going through the motions.  They’re not letting themselves be changed.

And here’s something else spiritual disciplines are not.  They are not magic.  There are no incantations to utter that will compel God into doing anything.  God is a God of love.  God is an ethical God, which means God cares about ethics.  It matters what we do; it matters how we live our lives.

This is the fast God chooses: “to loose the bonds of injustice…to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (v. 6).  Verse 9 has something I find especially interesting.  What’s disapproved of here is “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.”

The pointing of the finger.  We see this all the time.  We like to blame others; we try to avoid taking responsibility.  It becomes really obvious during political campaigns.  Advertisements flood the airwaves: ads which insult our intelligence and present the opposing candidate in the worst possible light.

I mean that literally.  You might hear a voiceover saying something like this: “Millions lack health care, but fat cat Joe Blow just doesn’t care!”  Meanwhile, the opponent is presented in a black and white still photograph, or worse, moving in slow motion.  That’s a neat trick.  You can make anyone look bad by showing them in slow motion, especially if they’re about to sneeze.  (I don’t know if anyone’s actually done that, but it would make the person look stupid.)

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Gesundheit!

And then when we switch to the candidate the ad is promoting, muted colors burst with the power of the rainbow, people are smiling, children are laughing, joyful music is heard—the kingdom has come!

Unfortunately, “the pointing of the finger” isn’t restricted to the political realm.  It is alive and well in the church.

“Fasting is an opportunity to lay down an appetite,” Calhoun says, “an appetite for food, for media, for shopping…  Fasting exposes how we try to keep empty hunger at bay and gain a sense of well-being by devouring creature comforts.”  Speaking of creature comforts, when the power goes out, I want it restored as soon as possible!

“Through self-denial we begin to recognize what controls us.  Our small denials of the self show us just how little taste we actually have for sacrifice or time with God.”[2]

I said earlier that I think many of us have a fear of fasting.  When we include these other appetites, it’s probably safe to say that we have a terror of fasting.  Americans in particular are afflicted with this terror.  Our entire civilization seems designed to keep us distracted.

Calhoun continues, “Skip the radio or TV for a day and become aware of how fidgety you are when you aren’t being amused or diverted.”[3]  I would say it’s become more of a challenge to avoid the internet or to stop fiddling with cell phones.

She asks a couple of questions.  “When you feel empty or restless, what do you do to try to fill the emptiness?  What does this tell you about your heart?”[4]

That’s some powerful stuff.  We all feel empty and restless, some more so than others.  What do we do about it?

When we fast from our appetites (and everyone has their own), we say to them, “I don’t need you!  I don’t have to be your slave!”  We begin to set ourselves free from our own chains, and we’re better able to show others how to be free from their chains.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, though this sermon really hasn’t been about that.  (Unless we consider Christ to be the ruler of our appetites!)

Do we really need to hear about fasting, just in time for Advent?  As I said earlier, the season of Advent has been a time of penitent reflection, of waiting for the Lord.  But you know the old saying, “No good things come to those who wait.”  (Hold on, do I have that right?)

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What are some things we need to fast from?  Can we fast from doing and allow ourselves to be?  Can we fast from busyness and allow ourselves to be silent, allow ourselves to listen?  How would that affect our relationships with each other and with God?

What does the prophet say?  “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” (v. 10).  Let’s have a proper fast, and let’s let the light shine.

 

[1] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook:  Practices That Transform Us (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2005), 218.

[2] Calhoun, 220.

[3] Calhoun, 220.

[4] Calhoun, 221.


make way for the weak

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Most of you have no doubt heard that prayer before.  It has been attributed to St. Francis.  There’s a lot of good stuff in it.  There is so much that is praiseworthy about it.  And none of it is easily reflected in our lives.  But there’s one thing in particular that I find challenging—and irritating.  It’s the part of the prayer which says “grant that I may not seek so much…to be understood as to understand.”

Misunderstood

I don’t know about you, but I hate being misunderstood.  It’s too easy to take things the wrong way, to take someone the wrong way.  Maybe that’s why emoticons (or emojis) have become popular online.  It might be difficult to distinguish between a comment being snarky or good-natured.  (Though, I think the overuse of emojis suggests a poor grasp of language!)

As for St. Francis, it seems clear he doesn’t believe that he has arrived.  He knows that he still prefers to be understood.  And that isn’t good for his spiritual growth.  To be honest, it isn’t good for simply living together in society.

This idea of understanding, instead of striving to be understood, is part of the background of our epistle reading.  St. Paul wants to emphasize the humility involved in that.  Learning to be humble means it becomes more difficult to throw our weight around.  As we’ll see, he uses our Lord Jesus Christ as the icon of humility and welcoming.

But first, here are some brief comments about Paul’s letter to the Roman church.  It is the longest, most theologically packed, and influential of his works.  Some people can’t praise it enough.  Its main theme is justification by faith.  In the letter, Paul covers a wide variety of topics.  Among other things, he talks about Abraham as a model of being justified by faith and not by law.  He addresses life in the Spirit and the role of Israel.

When we get to chapter 12, there is a big turn in direction.  This is where he starts applying what he’s already said to specific ways of living.  The apostle is talking about acting on what we believe, or at least, what we say we believe.

Again, among many other things, Paul says to not take revenge.  (Even though it’s a dish best served cold!)  He tells the Christians to be good citizens of the empire, and that includes paying your taxes!  He warns them against squabbling with each other over matters that divide them into factions—matters which at the end of the day, aren’t exactly of earth shattering importance.

Today’s scripture is part of that last section, which begins with chapter 14.  He kicks things off by talking about the “strong” and the “weak.”  That goes back to what I said about throwing our weight around.  “Welcome those who are weak in faith,” the apostle says, “but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions” (14:1).  Why not?  Doesn’t he know how much fun it is making other people look bad?

Strong and weak

And there were all kinds of ways they were doing this.  For example, there were arguments about food.  Actually, those arguments never seem to end.  I like what he says.  “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables” (v. 2).  My guess is that Paul heard other people calling those vegetarians “weak.”  I don’t imagine he had a beef with them.

(I should add:  those folks’ abstaining from meat wasn’t necessarily for reasons of health or helping the environment, as they tend to be today, but for reasons of ritual purity.)

The point is, they were arguing over what they thought is vital to the faith.  At least, that’s the presenting issue.  There’s much more going on below the surface.

The so-called “strong” have knowledge, and they might dismiss the concerns of the “weak” as irrelevant.  The so-called “weak” want to defend the faith, and they might condemn the self-appointed “strong” as too cavalier, too casual.

As Paul continues through chapter 14 and then into today’s reading in 15, he yearns for them to get some perspective.  Don’t cause each other to stumble.

Our text begins, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”  (By the way, isn’t it convenient that Paul counts himself among the strong?)  Another version puts it this way: “Those of us who are strong must accept as our own burden the tender scruples of the weak, and not just please ourselves” (Revised English Bible).  The strong must accept as their own burden the tender scruples of the weak.[1]  Just because it’s your right to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it.

When I was a kid, my mom told me to not set things out where they could be a temptation to others.  Something really blatant would be, “Don’t show up at an AA meeting, and plop a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the table.”  In a similar way, if the cops do something like that to get you arrested, it’s called entrapment.

We are such fragile creatures.  In the Lord’s Prayer, don’t we ask that we won’t be led into temptation?  St. James says in his letter, “all of us make many mistakes” (3:2).

I like a prayer by St. Philip Neri, who lived in 16th century Italy.  He was known for being both humble and for having an offbeat sense of humor.  This prayer seems to sum up his approach to life: “Lord, beware of this Philip or he will betray you!  Lay your hand upon my head, for without you there is not a sin I may not commit this day.”

Sometimes I insert my name into it.  Lord, beware of this James or he will betray you!

Taking all of that into account, Paul presents Jesus as the model of humility and welcoming I mentioned earlier.  He tells them to emulate Christ, who didn’t put himself first.  He is the example of understanding, rather than insisting on being understood.  He “did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (v. 3).  He accepts insults; he accepts weakness.  In a way, he gives us permission to be weak.  He becomes weakness.

During Advent, we prepare the way; we make way for the weak.  The voluntarily weak one is the one of understanding and welcome.

But we aren’t to be left floundering in weakness.  This passage is shot through with hope.  Verse 4 says by the steadfastness and encouragement of the scriptures we discover hope.  They aren’t dusty, stale documents of times gone by.  They are brimming with life.

In the book of Isaiah, the scriptures promise that “the root of Jesse shall come,” that is, David (and the son of David).  One day, the Gentiles will find in him hope (v. 12).

And of course, our passage ends with the awesome blessing, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (v. 13).  These aren’t empty words.  They provide the sure basis of the hope that doesn’t disappoint.  Though at times, to be honest, that hope might feel like it’s a million miles away.

Our scripture passage hinges on verse 7, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  Welcome one another.  Practice hospitality.  That can be just as tough as the petitions in the prayer of St. Francis.  Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.  And do it, not for your glory, not for our glory, but for the glory of God.

Sometimes I see on church signs, “All are welcome.”  Really?  Do they sincerely mean that?  All are welcome, without any preconditions?  If so, that’s great.

Some people say that Paul’s appeal to welcome one another applies to welcoming both the strong and the weak.  Others say it’s about both Jews and Gentiles.  Maybe it’s about both meat-eaters and vegetarians!  Whatever the case, it seems to be a pretty expansive, wide open statement.

image from 2.bp.blogspot.com

This business of welcoming one another also has certain ramifications, certain implications, for congregations in transition.

Banu and I have mentioned these on several occasions, so let me review the developmental tasks for interim time.  Five are usually cited.  They are (1) Listening to History and Celebrating Heritage, (2) Discovering a New Identity, (3) Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders, (4) Rethinking Denominational Linkages, and (5) Commitment to New Leadership and to a New Future.

Right now, I want to look at number 3, Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders.  This is where Paul’s appeal to welcome one another is especially relevant.

I serve on our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  It’s a strange committee, I have to say.  It’s like an ugly duckling.  It is mandated by our Book of Order (G-3.0103).  And there are a good number of presbyteries which list it, but in name only.  They don’t function; there are few, if any, people who staff them.  And it’s not hard to understand why.  A Committee on Representation can feel like a quota system.  We have to check off boxes in various categories.  What can get lost is the call to welcome one another, to be sensitive to the Spirit’s call to welcome all voices.

In congregations, leadership changes and empowering new leaders might be easier said than done.  We might feel like we’ve tried that, to no avail, or we might feel like we’re filling spots with warm bodies, so to speak.  In the nominating process, creative approaches are often called for.  Too often, we neglect a valuable resource, or at least, we don’t take it seriously enough.  We neglect bringing the matter before the spirit of creation, the Holy Spirit.  Where we don’t see a way, the Spirit of God does.

Sometimes those creative approaches might mean letting a position remain vacant.  Sometimes certain ministries or activities fade away, due to lack of interest.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Ultimately, it’s not about us.  It really isn’t “our” ministry.  It is the Lord’s ministry through us.

It can be difficult to commit to empowering new leaders.  It is important to be open to the fresh wind of the Spirit.  The wind blows where it chooses.  We use our gifts and abilities, but the true empowerment doesn’t come from us.  “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  Our task is to create the space where the glory is not ours, but God’s.

So as we move deeper into the season of Advent, let us be mindful of our call to welcome one another, in both our strengths and weaknesses.  Let us dare to seek to understand, rather than to insist on being understood.

[1] “accept as their own burden”: βασταζω (bastazō), “bear,” “carry”

[The bottom image is from the movie Antwone Fisher, starring Derek Luke and Denzel Washington. It’s from the powerful scene near the end, when Antwone finds his extended family. They are gathered for a banquet when the matriarch calls him over. She places her aged hands on his face and says, “Welcome.”]


crisis

In the mid-90s, a movie came out that has a scene that sometimes comes to me when thinking about Romans 13.  It’s The Basketball Diaries, with Leonardo DiCaprio.  The movie is based on the life of punk rock / new wave artist Jim Carroll, when he was a student at a Catholic high school in Manhattan.

DiCaprio plays Carroll, who becomes addicted to heroin.  The scene I’m thinking of is one in which he falls asleep in class and has a drug-induced dream.  In the dream, he’s shooting his classmates, when all of a sudden, “Whack!”  Their teacher, a priest named Father McNulty, slams his cane against his desk and shouts, “Wake up, Mr. Carroll, it’s later than you think!”

He could have been quoting verse 11, where St. Paul says that “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

Asleep

At this point, I feel compelled to interject some comments.  I like to sleep.  I count it among my hobbies!  Sure it’s true that if I don’t get enough sleep, I’m more likely to have one of my seizures.  But aside from that, sleeping is a good thing.  It can even be fun!

Having said that, I don’t think Paul’s saying to wake up is meant to suggest insomnia.  He wants to underline the urgency of the moment.  That’s not the urgency that says, “Oh no!  We’re about to die!”  Instead, it’s an urgency that says “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near” (vv. 11-12).

I like the way the Revised English Bible puts verse 11.  It has a tiny note of urgency!  “Always remember that this is the hour of crisis: it is high time for you to wake out of sleep.”  This is the hour of crisis.

In the early church, it was commonly expected that Jesus would return in their lifetimes.  I think it’s safe to say that we can sense that tension, as Paul writes to the Romans.

Stepping back somewhat, it seems that over and over in human history, people have felt it necessary to say, “Always remember that this is the hour of crisis.”  The time with the most importance… the time with the most danger… the time with the most promise…  It always seems to be the present generation, the ones who are currently drawing breath.  I guess that’s understandable, since the present moment is the only one we can control.

Our English word “crisis” comes directly from the Greek κρισις (krisis), literally, “decision” or “judgment.”  That word is not in our scripture reading.  I guess those translators used the word “crisis” to underline Paul’s point: the time is at hand.  Wake up!

So what’s the story?  Are we dealing with too much drama?

Paul speaks of two ways of living.  On the one hand, there is living “honorably as in the day.”  On the other hand, there is “reveling and drunkenness,” “debauchery and licentiousness,” “quarreling and jealousy” (v. 13).  Those things don’t have to be expressed outwardly.  They begin in the heart.  It’s the difference between being wide awake spiritually—and sleepwalking through life.

Returning to the example I mentioned at the beginning, we can drug ourselves without using mind-altering chemicals.  There is a multitude of ways in which we lull ourselves to sleep.

Black friday

One way we do this is through our almost manic determination to buy stuff, just for the sake of buying stuff.  This is especially appropriate, since we just “celebrated” Black Friday.  We can look like we’re in a trance, the message of commercials burned into our neurons.  “I am a consumer…I am a consumer.”  People even resort to acts of violence, just so they can be the first to get the latest cell phone.

(By the way, before we leave the thought of this long holiday weekend, let me say that Thanksgiving here was very special.  Plenty of good food and good conversation.  And also, deep apologies to those cheering against the Cowboys in the late afternoon game.)

Another way we sleepwalk involves being overly engrossed in television, in what my dear departed dad occasionally would call “the idiot box.”  (He would now need to modify his comment to include some internet sites.)  What TV shows would warrant such a label?  How about Dancing with the Stars?  (Okay, I know that it’s easy to criticize something I don’t like!  It’s also possible to drug ourselves with shows like The Big Bang Theory!)

Here’s another way in which we need to rouse ourselves from slumber.  It’s by living in a bubble.  Maybe you know what I’m talking about—only listening to people with whom we already agree.  I’ve had friends who seriously disagree with me on politics, religion, food!

We can rely solely on Fox News Channel or MSNBC.  We can assume that the “others” (whoever that may be) have some nefarious agenda, and they’re trying to deceive us.  We can assume the worst about them, or that they’re simply deluded.  They have nothing worth saying that we need to hear.  We don’t listen.

And guess what?  We miss out on so much.

That’s the very opposite of what Paul says about clothing ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.  Christ wakes us up to experience real life!

Getting back to Paul’s sense of urgency, he doesn’t just drop this out of the blue.  He begins verse 11, “Besides this.”  Besides what?  To know what he’s talking about, we need to look at what he’s already said.

He starts chapter 13 by telling the church in Rome that they should be good citizens—and that includes paying taxes.  Yes, I know.  Paul, you should probably keep that to yourself!  It’s when we get to verse 8 that he speaks the language of love.

He tells the church that they are to “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”  After all, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Here’s a question.  How does love fit within the context of crisis?  As we just saw, Paul is linking love with his sense of urgency.  He wants people to wake up.  So what’s the connection?

A good way to approach this is to recall that this is a scripture for Advent.  It’s all about preparation.  What are we preparing?  Are we preparing our homes?  Are we festooning them with festive frills?  Are we preparing special meals?  Are we basting birds with broth?  Perhaps.

But that’s not what Advent is about.  It’s about preparing ourselves.  This is a preparation that involves waiting, waiting for the One who comes.  This isn’t the type of waiting we do in the doctor’s office, or at the airport, or in line at the DMV.

Waiting for the Lord isn’t helpless lingering, in which we’re trying to figure out ways to kill time.  Waiting for the Lord requires awareness, and awareness is impossible if we’re sleepwalking through life.  We have to be awake in order to show love and faithfulness.

Wake up

Henri Nouwen elaborates on this.[1]  “If we do not wait patiently in expectation for God’s coming in glory, we start wandering around, going from one little sensation to another.  Our lives get stuffed with newspaper items, television stories, and gossip.  Then our minds lose the discipline of discerning between what leads us closer to God and what doesn’t, and our hearts gradually lose their spiritual sensitivity.

“Without waiting for the [Lord], we will stagnate quickly and become tempted to indulge in whatever gives us a moment of pleasure.”  That’s what Paul’s talking about in the prohibitions he mentions.  You know, reveling and drunkenness, quarreling and jealousy, and so on.  This isn’t just about morality; it’s about keeping us awake.  Nouwen continues, “When we have the Lord to look forward to, we can already experience him in the waiting.”

That is the urgency Paul expresses.  That is the crisis—the decision, the judgment call—he presses upon us.

Banu and I sense the hope and expectation, and yes, the need to stay awake, as this new church year begins.

So, as we enter this season of Advent, what are you, what are we, awaiting?  Even if it is later than we think, our gracious Lord knows the time and is willing to come to us.

[1] henrinouwen.org/meditation/waiting-for-christ-to-come


presbyear

My wife and I arrived in New York at the end of January, after spending the previous year in Tennessee. When I attended the first presbytery meeting since coming back, I mentioned to some people that it really didn’t seem like a year had gone by.

There’s the saying that “time heals all wounds.” I’m not sure how true that is—we need God’s grace to open our hearts—but some healing did occur. Still, the need for healing was a rather insignificant part of a warm reception.

 

image from drsheltie.blogspot.com

As I said recently, I picked up some things during the past year while worshipping with Episcopalians. One is making the sign of the cross. I never thought that it would become part of who I am! I still feel a bit self-conscious about it, but I also feel like something is missing within me if I fail to do it at certain times. That was true during worship at the presbytery meeting. Making the sign of the cross is something I’ve done while sitting in the pew and coming up for the Eucharist. What happens when I’m again leading worship? Would it appear to be an affectation? (I suppose this hand-wringing goes with being an introvert. I’m not sure.)

By the way, I also worshipped with the Lutherans this past year. I like them, too! (The first time I ever attended church with a congregation that actually observed the First Sunday of Advent, it was a Lutheran church in Florida. There was also an infant baptism—the first time I had ever seen that done!)

So, we begin again. The year closes, the year opens.

I’ll end with a collect for Sundays in the Book of Common Prayer:

“Lord God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ triumphed over the powers of death and prepared for us our place in the new Jerusalem: Grant that we, who have this day given thanks for his resurrection, may praise you in that City of which he is the light, and where he lives and reigns for ever and ever.”


Advent people

“We are living in Advent and are preparing the way for the Coming One.” (105)  Jürgen Moltmann, in his book A Broad Place, isn’t simply referring to the liturgical season of Advent.  He’s referring to life itself, especially the life of faith (and Christian life in particular).  He’s image from 2.bp.blogspot.com
exploring a theme from his classic work Theology of Hope from four decades earlier.  He says, “The foundation of hope is not utopia and the exploration of unknown future possibilities; it is the new beginning and the beginning of the new, here and now, today.”

Advent is possibly my favorite season in the church calendar, and still, somehow it eludes me.  It is always “not yet,” at least “not yet” for me.  I still have trouble wrapping my head and spirit around it.  I get the theology, the meaning, of it.  (Or at least I tell myself I do!)  But does it change the way I live?  Do I have the determined commitment to prepare the way?
 
The epistle reading for Year A of the 1st Sunday of Advent is from Romans 13.  St. Paul says that “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep… …the night is far gone, the day is near” (vv. 11-12).  As Advent people, we are called to wake from our slumber.
image from 2.bp.blogspot.com
Maybe that’s why Advent seems so vague to me.  Am I too reluctant to “lay aside the works of darkness”?  We do need darkness to sleep—and sleeping is so comfortable.  (But sleeping through life!)  And our culture, with its shiny gadgets, and people filling us with fear, and reminding us of our duty to consume…

Advent says that now is the time to prepare the way.  Tomorrow never comes.