Pentecost

prayer for Ordinary Time

It’s true, Ordinary Time is about the ordinals—
the 3rd, the 13th, the 23rd Sunday.
But we usually think of it as…
ordinary time.

It’s ordinary; it’s everyday.
It’s a placeholder in between times.
It’s in between Epiphany and Lent.
It’s between the light shining over the whole world
and the call to reflect, renew, and repent
(you know, do an about face).

It’s in between Pentecost and Advent.
It’s after the fire has fallen
and the Spirit has set the church on her course.
It’s before your Son arrives as the God-baby
and returns in glory and power.

But that’s not where most of life is lived.
We don’t spend much time in those grand, majestic moments.
No, we live in between.

In ordinary time.

That’s where life happens.

 

Ordinary


Spirit-filled language

For about the first five years after my conversion, my coming to faith, getting saved (although we still are being and will be saved—it’s not a one and done thing), I was in the Assemblies of God.  I never was the stereotypical Pentecostal.  I never got the hang of throwing my hands up in the air and shouting, “Hallelujah!”

But I’m grateful for my time among the Pentecostals.  As one who usually lives in his head, I gained a heartfelt faith among them.  And I developed an appreciation for when the Spirit really gets going in worship.  I learned that while singing certain songs, it’s okay to clap your hands.  (Amazing!)  I really love the hymns set to classical music, but sometimes you’ve got to go with the flow and start moving!

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I start by mentioning the Pentecostals, because when my faith journey led me to the Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants, I sometimes would hear the Holy Spirit described as the silent member of the Trinity.  Reflecting on my experiences with the Assemblies of God, I would have never described the Spirit as silent!

Having said that, we should remember that the Holy Spirit acts in many different ways—something the Pentecostals also acknowledge.  In John 3, Jesus says, “The wind [the Greek word[1] can also be “spirit”] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (v. 8).

In Acts 2, we have the image of the Spirit “like the rush of a violent wind” (v. 2).  You can’t put the Holy Spirit in a box.  Sometimes we think we can legislate or regulate the Spirit, but using a box leaves us with a bunch of stale air.

How appropriate this is for the feast of Pentecost.  It comes from the Jewish feast of Weeks or Harvest, which was celebrated fifty days after Passover.  (The word “Pentecost” means “fifty.”)  Just as with Passover, people came from near and far for the festival of Pentecost.  In our scripture text, when the Jewish believers speak in other tongues, travelers from many nations hear them praising God in their native language.

The Holy Spirit isn’t tongue-tied.  To borrow on Jesus’ image about the wind blowing where it chooses, when you hear the sound of the Spirit, there’s no telling what language is going to be spoken!  It will be whatever is needed.

(Quick question: what’s the largest number of people ever to fit into a car?  According to chapter 1, about 120.  They were all in one Accord.)

The bit about the car aside, there is something wonderfully unexpected about this event.

Danielle Shroyer, pastor of Journey Church in Dallas, says about this, “I have no idea what plans they had for the future of the faith up there in that room, if they had any at all, but there was no paper napkin with this mess drawn on it.  Because nobody in their right mind would consider anointing a whole house full of prophets in the span of one day.  Nobody except the Spirit of God.”[2]  It’s almost as crazy as trying to squeeze all those people into a car!

In the Bible, prophets are those who have a word from God—it’s not something they just invent.  As these people come streaming out of the house, they are delivering words from God.  Even though they don’t understand what they’re saying, other people do.  They hear them proclaiming “God’s deeds of power” (2:11).

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Something demonstrated by these Pentecostal prophets is that God speaks our multitude of languages.  We aren’t expected to speak one uniform language.  That goes beyond the actual words we use.  Here’s a good example: when we hear something we really agree with, we might say, “Now you’re speaking my language!”  So we’re also talking about cultures and sub-cultures.  We see that in our country; we can even see that in our local community.

But guess what?  The Spirit flows through and embraces all of that!  We can see it in the community which begins to form as a result of the Pentecost event.  We can see it in Peter’s sermon, which explains what’s going on—an explanation that is badly needed, since some in the crowd are convinced that the folks speaking all these different languages have been hitting the bottle!

As a result of Pentecost, the scripture says about three thousand become followers of Jesus.  Verse 42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

What can we say about this community, the early church in Jerusalem?  It looks almost like heaven on earth.  People are in awe of them; wonders are being done through the apostles.  They share all things in common.  (If that really is “all things,” I’m not sure how I feel about that one!)

“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (vv. 46-47).

Maybe it’s inevitable, but this particular version of community does not last for long.  Maybe the community gets too large for a specifically “communal” way of life to work.  Many believe that it is descriptive, but not prescriptive.  That is, it’s a picture of how it was, not how it necessarily had to be.

Matt Skinner comments, “The idea of community simultaneously attracts and repels most of us.  We long for the life-affirming benefits that community can bestow, but we resist the demands that community makes.”[3]  There has always been a powerful strand of individualism in our country; that’s both good and bad.  We often go too far in that direction.  I can think of ways in which I myself am probably more American than Christian.

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Being filled with the Holy Spirit gives the disciples a new vocabulary.  They begin to speak a Spirit-filled language.  The Spirit gives them a boldness they did not have before.  Previously, they were filled with fear of retribution.  After what happened to Jesus, some had given up hope.  “You know, it was a lovely dream, but it’s time to be realistic and get back to business as usual.”

But with the coming of the Spirit, everything changes.  People get fired up.  Those dreams begin to come true.

Still, before we get too carried away, we are reminded of something.  David Lose presents what he calls “two of the paradoxes of Pentecost.”[4]

The first one is that “the Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them.”  With the coming of the Spirit, they aren’t allowed to go back to business as usual.  They can no longer focus on looking inward, focusing on themselves.  They are compelled to look outward.

The Spirit still does that today.  Lose says, “Our congregations will not discover themselves until they give themselves away.  No amount of time spent on developing a mission statement or devising new member campaigns can substitute for looking around one’s neighborhood and asking, ‘Who needs us?’ and ‘What can we do with our resources to bear God’s love to…the world?’”

Along those lines, his second paradox of Pentecost is, “The Holy Spirit doesn’t prevent failure but invites it.  Or, to put it slightly differently, the Holy Spirit invites us to find fulfillment and victory in and through our setbacks and failures.”

I’m reminded of Banu’s and my ordination service.  At the end of the service, both of our pastors gave us charges.  My pastor instructed me to tell my story of being in a distant land.  (He was referring to my faith journey and also my experience with brain cancer.)  This is what Banu’s pastor told her: “I charge you to fail.”  If we’re afraid of failing, we’ll never risk anything.  We’ll be content with business as usual.

Our friend David has a problem with the saying, “Failure is not an option.”  He believes “that kind of mindset is paralyzing too many of our congregations.  Failure is not only an option, it is inevitable.  The problems this world—and our congregations—face are too great, too complex, and too significant to imagine that we will hit upon the best solution the first time out…or maybe ever.”

We’re reminded that “success will not always look like success, and victory may often come disguised as defeat.  The question isn’t whether we’re successful, but whether we’re faithful.”  Obedience to the Holy Spirit can lead us down paths that we otherwise would avoid.  That’s the trick of learning to speak Spirit-filled language.

Elsewhere, the apostle Paul says, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Th 5:19).  I like how the Revised English Bible puts it: “Do not stifle inspiration.”  This is addressed to the community at large.  This is addressed to the church.

Still, I’m forced to ask myself, “How often do I speak Spirit-filled language?  Do I quench the Spirit?  Do I stifle inspiration?”  Again, this includes more than the actual words that come out of the mouth.  Spirit-filled language comes from the heart of a Spirit-filled person.

Borrowing from today’s prayer of confession, I must admit that too often I hold back the force of the Spirit.  I fail to listen for God’s word of grace.  I need God’s mercy.  I need my timid life to be transformed by the power of the Spirit—and to be filled with a flaming desire to be a faithful person, doing God’s will for the sake of Jesus Christ my Lord.

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I imagine that I’m not the only one here who needs to ask those questions and to have the grace of that transformation.  I imagine that I’m not the only one who needs that fire to be stoked once again—if it even has been lit!

So be a feather set loose in the wind of God.  Let the wind of the Spirit blow on any dying embers and be fanned into a flame.

 

[1] πνευμα, pneuma

[2] thq.wearesparkhouse.org/new-testament/pentecostcnt

[3] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=52

[4] www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1575


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.

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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.

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“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?

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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…

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.


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


spirit to forgive

I want to begin with a story about something that happened almost thirty years ago.  This was when I was a student at Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida.  That’s an Assemblies of God school.  For two semesters, I was part of a street ministry team that traveled to Tampa on Friday nights.

Our “parish,” so to speak, was a quarter-mile strip along Kennedy Boulevard.  Our “parishioners” were the street people who lived, and passed through, the area.  In those days, I don’t think it was the best part of town.

On my very first night, the very first person I approached was a gentleman clad in shabby-looking clothing.  He appeared to be in his fifties.  Not knowing what else to say, I told him, “Jesus loves you.”  As soon as he heard that, he began crying and telling me how he had lost his family and his career.  I don’t remember if it was because of drinking or gambling or something else, but he recited a litany of his mistakes.

1 pentecostWhen he had finished listing his failures, he asked me if I would forgive him.  At the time, I was thinking, “It’s not my job to forgive him.  I need to direct him to Christ.”  So I told the man Jesus forgives anyone and anything.  But that didn’t work.  It seemed like he needed to hear the words, so again he asked me, “Do you forgive me?”  I relented and said, “I forgive you.”  And with that, he shuffled away into the Tampa night.

Why do I begin with this story of speaking and hearing words of forgiveness?  One might ask, “Is this a theme for Pentecost?”  It’s not even about the Day of Pentecost!  I begin with this story on forgiveness because Jesus makes it a theme in our gospel reading from St. John—which is the gospel text.

I should say some people refer to the event in our gospel text as a “pre-Pentecost” Pentecost.  Already, on the evening of the day of his resurrection, on the evening of Easter, Jesus is giving his disciples the Holy Spirit.

I don’t know about anyone else, but if you picture this, to me it seems kind of strange.  “Receive the Holy Spirit” (v. 22).  That’s what he says, but first, he breathes on them.  (Blow!)  Really?  Is that what it takes?

Actually, it doesn’t say he “blew” on them, but he “breathed on them.”  This is the posture of one who is not reactive, but responsive.  Being in a reactive posture or mode means coming from a place of defensiveness, a lack of listening and learning.  Being in a responsive mode means the opposite.  It is a place of openness, a place of listening and a curiosity which wants to learn.

There are many other things that could be said, but in a physical posture, it means remembering to breathe, paying attention to one’s breath.  (Breathe.)  When we remember to do that, it’s amazing how it helps us to be calm and patient and reflective.  (But it is something I find myself continually needing to practice.)

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The Hebrew word רוח (rua), which means “breath,” “spirit,” or “wind,” was a familiar idea.  John surely would have known about it.  Earlier in his gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (3:8).  So I suppose it does make sense for Jesus to use his breath in granting the Spirit to his disciples!

But we need to back up and see what’s going on, since this is the evening of Easter.  Our scripture text ends before we get to the part about St. Thomas and his questions of believing all this resurrection stuff.  Verse 19 says, “the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities” (Good News Bible).  Jesus suddenly appears out of nowhere and says, “Peace be with you.”  He shows them the now-glorified wounds in his hands and side.  He is not a ghost!

We’re told the disciples have been hiding from the authorities.  No doubt, they’re fearing for their lives.  Before Jesus appears to them, with his words of shalom, they’re thinking about what happened to him.  Still, Craig Barnes, who is president of Princeton Seminary, thinks there’s more to it.  If one understands the human psyche, it seems to be an unavoidable conclusion.

Barnes speaks about, not only fear, but shame.  “Like the disciples,” he says, “we try to hide when we’re ashamed.”[1]  It’s a defense mechanism; it’s almost instinct.  It may seem like a good strategy for a little while.  But, as Barnes says, “Nothing is more crippling to our souls than working at hiding shame.  We lock up more and more doors, sealing off more and more rooms of the heart to prevent our true selves from being discovered.  We think we are keeping the world out, but in fact we are keeping ourselves locked in.”

The disciples are ashamed because, when Jesus needed them the most, they turned around and took off.  They carry a horrible burden of guilt.

But thank God, that isn’t the end of it.  “At the center of the gospel is the proclamation that Jesus Christ has come looking for us.  According to John’s text, he walks right through the locked door to find us.  He shows us his wounds from the cross, which are the marks of our forgiveness.”

With verse 23, we come to what I said earlier may be an unexpected theme for Pentecost: speaking and hearing words of forgiveness, or more directly, forgiving and refusing to forgive.  Right after Jesus tells the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he adds, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

3 pentecostJesus entrusts the disciples with a great deal of authority.  It isn’t something they have, in and of themselves, but as the community gathered in his name.  As the community—as the church—they have the authority to offer forgiveness of sin.  We do something similar to that every week with our prayer of confession and assurance of pardon.

Jesus is speaking about something very powerful.  On the one hand, if we forgive someone, they are forgiven.  In Matthew 18, Peter has a little chat with Jesus about that (v. 21).  On the other hand, if we retain the sins of any, they are retained.  The Good News Bible says, “if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

The Greek has an even stronger force.  First of all, the word for “to forgive” (αφιημι, aphiēmi) also means “to send off,” “to let go.”  I think anytime we’re able, by the grace of God to forgive, we can feel what it means “to let go.”  It’s a burden we’re glad to be rid of.

On the flip side, there’s an equally strong force.  The words “retain” and “not forgive” don’t quite capture it.  The Revised English Bible says that “if you pronounce them unforgiven, unforgiven they remain.”  The Greek word for “retain” (κρατεω, krateō) also means “to hold,” “to seize.”  It comes from the word (κρατος, kratos) that means “strength” or “power.”  It takes a lot of strength to hold on to that stuff.  You wear yourself out.

According to the New Testament, we are a “holy” and “royal priesthood” (1 Pe 2:5, 9).  One of the key roles of a priest is to declare the forgiveness of sins.  We’re told “we disciples are not called to produce forgiveness.  We’re called to be the priest pronouncing that which has been produced on the cross.  We’re called to open the locks and throw open the door, and walk back into the world as a priest who is unafraid.  The only alternative is to live in shrinking prisons of hurt.”[2]

I imagine most of us have sometimes heard it said forgiving also means forgetting.  In order to forgive, we have to forget.  I would humbly have to disagree.  I don’t believe we are called to display amnesia.  I don’t believe we are called to have the attention span of gnats.  That doesn’t improve the character of either party.  That doesn’t help us deal with life.

At this point, I need to interject something.  When someone has been the victim of abuse or assault, forgiveness is a very tricky thing.  Telling someone, “It’s your Christian duty to forgive,” only adds another layer of abuse.  Forgiveness often takes a very long time to come, if it happens at all.  Sometimes the scars are too overwhelming.  I just mentioned the grace of God.  When grace can break through the hurt, it is a wondrous thing.

Moving on, there’s a concept known as “the shadow.”  It’s described as “the place we put all the suppressed and repressed parts of our lives.”[3]  The shadow isn’t evil.  Rather, it’s the stuff about us we want to keep hidden from the world, and even from ourselves.  It’s the stuff we find embarrassing and shameful.

As Richard Rohr says, “Suppressing what we don’t want to deal with is like trying to hold a basketball underwater while going on with life as usual…  What we suppress—the shadow aspect of life—ambushes us sooner or later.  We don’t know why we’re depressed or angry, why everyone and everything is out to get us.”[4]

One big sign of some major repression is the lack of a healthy sense of humor.  Can we laugh at ourselves?  (That might be an unfair question.  Not everyone has the treasure trove I possess which is needed to laugh at oneself!)

Rohr continues, “People who are overly stern and moralistic usually have a significant, repressed shadow.  They walk through life shaking a judgmental finger in disapproval—and they disapprove of just about everything!  They’re often incapable of easy enjoyment.”[5]

I fully believe humor is one of the greatest gifts of the Holy Spirit.  I say that because I can recall a time when I had no genuine, joyful sense of humor.  Was I a jerk who thought humor consisted of snide comments and sarcastic remarks at someone else’s expense?  Yes.  I was a living example of having “no patience, no forgiveness, no mercy, but only harsh judgments.  No gospel.”[6]  No good news.  (Sad to say, sometimes I still fall into that trap!)

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Looking at our text, one sign we’re open to the Holy Spirit is how willing and able we are to forgive.  Both are important.  There must be both the willingness and the ability.  Remember, just as the disciples find out in their encounter with Jesus, the ability to forgive is a gift.  But the willingness must also be present.  We need to have a spirit to forgive.

In 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul tells us “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (3:17).  That is the deep meaning of Pentecost.  The Spirit of God brings freedom; the Spirit of God liberates.  As people of the Spirit, we reclaim our identity when we send out—when we unleash—the forgiveness of Christ.

When we allow that Spirit to run free in the world, who knows what dangerous and wonderful things will happen?  Why don’t we find out?

 

[1] www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3138

[2] www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3138

[3] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 129.

[4] Rohr, 196.

[5] Rohr, 197.

[6] Rohr, 198.


from false life into true

Some people see the epilogue of Revelation, the final words of the Bible itself, as a grab bag of stuff that gets tossed in as an afterthought.  But there is a method to the author John’s madness.  He brings together images that he used earlier in the book, such as “Alpha and Omega” (v. 13, 1:8), the washing of robes (v. 14, 7:14), the morning star (v. 16, 2:28), among many others.

Something about our passage that I find interesting is what the lectionary compilers left out.  This often happens with the “problematic” verses.  When I see stuff that gets deleted, I just have to include it.  Verses 18 and 19, in which John cautions about messing around with the words in his book, are skipped over.

But before that, there’s verse 15, which is the flip side to the blessing which has just been pronounced on “those who wash their robes” (v. 14).  These are the ones granted access to the tree of life and entry to the city.  That is God’s new city, the new Jerusalem.

Here’s the sentence that gets the ax: “Outside [that is, outside the city gates] are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”  Saving the rest of the verse for later, it’s that last part—everyone who loves and practices falsehood—that jumps out at me.  The New Jerusalem Bible reads “everyone of false speech and false life.”  False speech and false life.

image from jayfnelson.files.wordpress.com

Let me tell a story I think might go along with that.

In November 1987, I was a student at Southeastern College in Lakeland, Florida.  (It’s an Assemblies of God school; it’s now Southeastern University.)  Anyway, on most Friday nights, a group of us would go to Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa—at the time, it wasn’t exactly the most upscale part of town.  What we students did was street evangelism.

The night after Thanksgiving was my very first time going with the group to Tampa.  I doubt that I’d been on the street for more than five minutes when I encountered a man, maybe in his fifties, dressed in shabby clothes.  I walked right up to him and said, “Jesus loves you.”  Just like that.

I’m not sure what I was expecting.  We were Pentecostal students; I suppose we expected to see some dramatic changes every time we went there.  But with my very first person on my very first night, I did see something.

Upon hearing the name “Jesus,” the man started crying.  And as he sobbed, he poured out his heart.  He said that he’d once been a rich man; he’d had a job as a manager in some corporation.  Due to various things, in particular a drinking problem, he just frittered it all away.  But worse than losing his career, worse than losing all his money, was the fact that he had lost his family.  He told me that he wasn’t even sure where they were.  And he wondered if he could ever be forgiven—if he could ever be pardoned for living a false life, so to speak.

With an almost knee-jerk reaction, I said, “Jesus does forgive you.”  There, that ought to do it!  That ought to take care of him!  But for some reason, it didn’t.  My magic words failed to produce the intended effect!  I expected him to say, “Thank you” or “Get lost” or something like that.  But he said something very different.

“Do you forgive me?”  He was directing the question to me!  Somewhat taken aback, I was determined to provide what I considered to be a theologically correct response.  “Jesus forgives you.”

“No, no, no,” he groaned through his tears.  “Do you forgive me?”  To my anonymous friend, in that deserted parking lot on the evening after millions of Americans had gobbled turkey in the comfort of their homes, my talk of Jesus was an abstraction.  He needed a flesh-and-blood word.  So I said, “I forgive you.”  And with that, he turned and shuffled away into the night.

When we hear the words a “false life,” the poor fellow I met in Tampa may come to mind.  Or we may imagine those who haven’t wound up on the street:  say, employers who abuse their employees and the environment.  Perhaps “false speech and false life” conjures up images of slick-talking salesmen, corrupt politicians, or that romantic interest of your youth who gave you hope—and then said, “I just want to be friends”!

Our friend John gives us examples of what he’s talking about.  In verse 15, he starts off with “dogs.”  Jews sometimes described Gentiles that way.  That may or may not be the way John is using it.  In any event, calling someone a dog is hardly a compliment.

The next word on the list, “sorcerers,” would seem to be a concern to those who don’t like Harry Potter!  The word in the Greek, φαρμακοι (pharmakoi), sheds a little more light.  Pharmakoi is the origin of our word “pharmacy” or “pharmaceutical.”  So John’s reference to “sorcerers” is also a reference to “drugs.”  There’s always been a link between drugs and sorcery.

Obviously, there are legitimate reasons for taking drugs, but I think I’m safe in saying that Americans are probably the most overmedicated people in the world.  Still, that kind of dependency contributes to the “falsity” that our scripture points to.

And then next on the list is “fornicators,” coming from the Greek word πορνοι (pornoi), which is the source of our word “pornography.”  We dehumanize each other in plenty of ways, and this is definitely one way it happens.

And then, with “murderers and idolaters,” we can think of the folks who physically do that.  Or, going a bit deeper, we can examine the presence of murder and idolatry within ourselves.  In John’s first letter, these are his final words:  “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21).  Hint:  he isn’t talking about images of stone!  Idolatry is very much a part of the human condition.

In reality, we’re in danger of holding on to some, or all, of the qualities in verse 15.  There’s the intolerance and bigotry shown by the use of the word “dogs.”  Like sorcerers, we often try to manipulate God and others, with or without drugs.  We can be controlled by lusts of the body, motivated by grudges, and love the creation more than the Creator.

We all have the qualities that I’ve mentioned within us.  We might try to hide them or pretend that they don’t exist.  We begin to live a false life; a life which may seem healthy on the outside, but is sick on the inside.  We all need forgiveness, and we need to forgive each other.

In what’s sometimes called a “preview” of Pentecost, or the “first” Pentecost, Jesus gives power to his disciples.  In John 20, he breathes on them, and then says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (vv. 22-23).”  Maybe that’s what I was doing that night in Tampa!

By forgiving each other, we welcome the power of Christ.  We act on the words of that familiar prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  (Or substitute words to fit other versions.)  Some might say, “I’m not in debt to anybody here.”  To which, I would say:  sorry, but yes you are!  In Romans 13, the apostle Paul says that we owe each other love (vv. 8-10).

We’ve taken a look at what a false life could mean for us as individual persons.  How could a false life apply to a congregation?

There are a number of ways to approach this, but here’s an example.  My wife Banu and I attended a week-long retreat on interim pastor training.  We watched a video of the late Edwin Friedman.  He was talking about overcoming barriers to effective leadership, both clergy and lay leadership.

One of his comments was on the fallacy of expertise, which is an overemphasis on information and technique.  We can become paralyzed by incessantly gathering information before we take any meaningful action.

Friedman spoke of another barrier to effective leadership:  what he calls the fallacy of empathy, the ability to feel what others do.  Clearly, empathy itself is a good quality.  The problem comes when there’s an overemphasis on how people feel.  The hard truth is that not everyone is going to be happy with you, even if you’re doing your very best.  (Often it turns out, especially if you’re doing your very best!)

One way this is seen is when the most dependent members, the ones who have the least amount of self-regulation—the least amount of self-control—are the ones who are setting the agenda.  He made an interesting comment: organisms that lack self-regulation don’t learn from experience.  They don’t learn from their mistakes, their patterns of behavior, if they are constantly being enabled.

image from angermentor.com

Friedman had an observation about American society.  A key thing that is lacking, he said, is maturity.  And sadly, maturity is a quality often lacking in the church.  When we violate proper boundaries, we display a lack of maturity.  When we intrude on someone’s personal space, we display a lack of maturity.

Developing maturity is what we allow God to do in us through spiritual formation.

Prayer is a vital component of spiritual formation.  But guess what?  We are being spiritually formed all of the time.  It doesn’t just happen through what are often thought of as “spiritual” practices: like prayer, scripture reading, peacefully meditating.

We are also spiritually formed in the very “real world” activities in how we treat each other and how we work through issues.  Board meetings, committee meetings, are perfect places for spiritual formation.  We are spiritually formed in how we deal with conflict, which inevitably arises.

Conflict, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad.  We can deal with it in good and healthy ways—or in bad and destructive ways.

Hear verse 17: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’  And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’  And let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

God gives us the gift of love that helps us deal with false speech and false life.  Of course, by its very nature, love cannot be compelled.  It must be both freely offered and freely received.

So here’s a question: what do we do with that love?  Do we let it remain abstract, the way I was with the man on the street in Tampa?  Do we find ways to make it flesh-and-blood, praying for strength and courage, even in those board meetings, and beyond that, even when it seems like everything is lost?

That is what motivates John and his sisters and brothers with their faithful, hopeful, and joyful cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Come, lead us from false life into true.


confusing cooperation

Recently, I returned from a conflict mediation training event hosted by the Synod of the Northeast of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I won’t pretend to give you a synopsis of the entire week—partly because my brain is still trying to decode the stuff that was fed into it.

But I do want to introduce a little of the stuff we did in today’s sermon.  I want to use the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11, with its confusion of languages, and the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, with its speaking in tongues, as an arena of conflict (and perhaps conflict resolution).

One thing we did I would like to mention was looking at how we manage differences.  That is, a little more strongly, how do we deal with disagreements?

Of course, there are plenty of ways to look at it.  One was a self-assessment that deals with several scenarios of different, and often competing, viewpoints.  It looks at the way we typically deal with those situations.

Very quickly, the inventory has four categories.  One is Accommodating / Harmonizing.  This approach values peace and harmony above all else.  Being sociable is very important.  Concern for the feelings of other people is high on the list.  A motto for this one might be, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Another one is Achieving / Directing.  These are the go-getters, the ones who take the initiative and dive in.  These are the risk takers.  This one’s motto could be “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Then we have Affiliating / Perfecting.  This one puts a great emphasis on relationship.  Being team oriented is very important.  A pursuit of excellence is highly valued.  This might be a fitting motto: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well!”

Finally, there is Analyzing / Preserving.  This approach values gathering information.  Very important is a chance to think things through and not be pressured to make a snap decision.  “Look before you leap!” might be appropriate here.

This is the category I scored the highest in.  I think it speaks to the comment I made earlier about my brain trying to decode what was put into it.  (Give me a break.  I haven’t had enough time!)  One problem with this approach is “analysis paralysis.”  (Hey, I first got to get this stuff worked out!)

In reality, we use all of these approaches when dealing with differences, when dealing with conflict.  It’s just that we’re built—we are hardwired—to favor one or two over the others.  We have to stretch ourselves to operate in ways we would rather not.  Some people are better at stretching themselves than others.  I really have to work at it.  I can stubbornly insist on my own way, even if God is calling me to be more.

As today’s prayer of confession says (it being Pentecost), “We confess that we hold back the force of your Spirit among us.”  That easily becomes my prayer!

image from www.eikongraphia.com

There’s a certain group of people who are holding back the force of God’s spirit among themselves.  These guys are the builders of the tower of Babel.

Some see this mythical story as explaining how the human race developed many different languages.  That’s part of the mix at the surface level, but there’s so much more to it.  As today’s declaration of forgiveness says, “God confused the language of all the earth to keep the people from idolatry.”

Genesis 11 begins, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.”  One language and the same words.  That goes beyond the sounds that come out of our mouths.  More importantly, that also can apply to various viewpoints, to different ways of looking at the world.  If everyone speaks the same words, the difficulties of disagreement are ignored, even repressed.  The danger of groupthink sets in.  People are “encouraged” to think the same way, to have their values dictated to them.  That becomes an idol.

What actually happens in the story?

The people migrate to the land of Shinar, which is in modern-day Iraq.  A decision is made to build bricks and use them to construct a city.  They begin work on a tower.  It’s probably what was known as a ziggurat, which looked like a pyramid.  Last week, in my sermon on Revelation, I mentioned “a palace that was a city”—the joyful grandeur of what a city can and should be, looking to the New Jerusalem that descends to earth.

Maybe that’s what these people are about: getting into the palace building business.

So things are going along; deadlines are being met.  The chamber of commerce is rolling out the red carpet for tourism and hosting conventions.  But hold on a minute!  With verse 5, things take a sudden turn.

“The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.  And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’  So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city” (vv. 5-8).

What is the deal?  Why is God being such a party pooper?  Why is the Lord throwing a monkey wrench into the works?  “This is just the start.  Nothing can stop them now!”  It sounds like God is scared!

A few moments ago, I mentioned the idea that having one language and the same words has turned into an idol.  But does that necessarily have to be the case?  What’s wrong with everyone understanding each other?  Doesn’t that help foster unity?

It looks like motivation makes a big difference.  What is driving them?  Look at verse 4.  “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”  Let us make a name for ourselves, otherwise…  That’s not the prelude to a confident affirmation of faith!  It’s not God who is scared; it’s the people.

They are motivated by fear and distrust.  They fear and distrust God, and even if they don’t want to admit it, they fear and distrust each other.  Fear and distrust is what shapes their society and culture.  Of course, fear and distrust begin within ourselves.  We are in conflict within ourselves.  Without reconciliation, we project that outward into the world around us.

Having said that, can we see the Lord’s act of confusing the people’s language and scattering them throughout the earth as something other than punishment?  Can we see this as an act of love and grace?

Old Testament professor Nancy deClaissé-Walford says, “God scatters humankind so that they might fill the earth, but fill the earth with different voices, different cultures, different life experiences.”[1]  God is no enemy of diversity, no enemy of difference!

On that point, let me tell you a little story.  Once upon a time, a student approached the rabbi and said, “Teacher, I have a question.”  “Go ahead,” said the rabbi.  The student said, “You have taught us that we all are created in the image of God.”  The rabbi replied, “That is correct.”  “Then why,” responded the student, “do we come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors and languages?”  The rabbi said, “Because we all are created in the image of God.”

Remember the story of creation.  God creates the universe by making a difference!  Light and darkness, day and night, earth and sea, and so on.

Our friend Nancy continues, “Look around us; consider our world.  We’ve done a pretty good job of fulfilling the creation command.  But we have also, over the millennia, done a very good job of creating our own towers—towers of isolation.  It is easier to be around ‘our own kind,’ those who speak our language, share our history, act and react as we do.  But our towers are no different from the tower of our ancestors in the faith.”

Like those builders in Genesis 11, we also often act as though our differences and disagreements are somehow a flaw in God’s design.  We act as though conflict is not normal.

image from wp.jsstatic.com

One of the first things we did at the mediation training was to look at this idea of conflict.  The presenter asked us what images come to mind when we hear the word “conflict.”  I think all of the answers pictured conflict as something undesirable, even sinful.  My response was “red faces.”

Conflict is normal.  Without conflict, life itself is impossible.  Without conflict, there wouldn’t be a food chain.  Without conflict, human innovation would be close to nonexistent.  So it’s not a question of conflict being good or bad, it’s what we do with it, how we deal with it.  That partly goes back to those categories I mentioned earlier—the ones with the different mottos.

Here’s a good one on conflict: what is God saying to us in the midst of it?  Admittedly, that’s a tough one to keep in mind when anxiety kicks in.  Let’s not forget: Jesus engaged in plenty of conflict!

Looking back at God’s scattering the people and confusing their language, this is being done to save them from themselves.  This “tower with its top in the heavens” is the perfect example of human technology gone adrift.  Here, it’s a rejection of the joyous, divinely created diversity that is there, if we have the eyes to see it.

Looking ahead to the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, we see another case of confusion of language.  But there’s something different here.  Instead of people making a name for themselves, we have people inspired by the Holy Spirit, praising the name above all names.

We have folks from all over the Roman Empire, and places to the east, who have no earthly idea what the others are saying.  It looks nuts.  Some of those watching all of this decide, “There’s no other way to explain it.  All of these people are drunk as a skunk.”  That’s the cue for St. Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ, to explain that this was the vision of Joel the prophet.

Some confusing cooperation is going on.

Just as with the tower of Babel, at the surface level, the Pentecost event is focused on the confusion of languages.  But the meaning is deeper.  Even if we don’t understand each other at the surface level, there can be unity of spirit.  And in this case, that’s Spirit, as in Holy Spirit.

What does this mean for our disagreements today?  What does this mean for our own arenas of conflict?  Can we not find that what we have in common with enemies, however we define that, is far greater than our differences?

Peter talks about the Spirit being poured out on all manner of people, all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors and languages.  Creation itself is in turmoil.  But those who call on the name of the Lord find salvation.  They find liberation and reconciliation during conflict.

The faithful people of God, sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ, are called to listen beyond the confusion of tongues.  We need not build towers to make a name for ourselves.

On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit doesn’t diminish the diversity among the nationalities, the ethnic groups.  Those groups include both friends and foes.  Instead, the Spirit works through and with them.  Remember the student and the rabbi!  God is the author of difference, diversity, and dare we say, of conflict.

One more note from deClaissé-Walford.  “Diversity, differences between me and you, between us and the members of our families, between us and others in our faith communities is something to be welcomed, honored and celebrated…  If we do not, cannot, will not acknowledge our differences and live and work together in our diversity, then we commit the same sin of fear as the original ‘tower builders.’”[2]

image from practicingparadoxy.files.wordpress.com

The Spirit who tumbled the tower builders’ plans is the same Spirit who on Pentecost orchestrated the clamor of confusion into a concert of cooperation.  That same Spirit is here to bring composure within the conflict in our own lives.

[1] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, “God Came Down…and God Scattered: Acts of Punishment or Acts of Grace?” Review and Expositor 103 (Spring 2006): 413.

[2] deClaissé-Walford, 414.


crafting a new way

Would you believe that one of the key ministries mentioned in the book of Acts is a prayer shawl ministry? Well, not precisely shawls, but something close to it. It’s mentioned in chapter 9, all because of the woman who excelled in making “tunics and other clothing” (v. 39). In any event, those who are involved in ministries like prayer shawls have a noble heritage!

Luke, the author of Acts, includes plenty of “local color” in his writing. That applies to Tabitha, whose work leaves everyone positively glowing!

She lives in Joppa (modern day Tel Aviv), and she is called “a disciple” (v. 36). It’s the only time in the New Testament that the Greek word for “female disciple” is used (mathētria).

We’re introduced to her while Peter is in nearby Lydda. It’s about ten miles away. While visiting there, he presides over the healing of Aeneas, a man who has been paralyzed for eight years. Sadly, while people there are celebrating and turning to the Lord, Tabitha falls ill and dies. The disciples in Joppa, knowing that Peter is close by, send for him.

Luke makes a point of giving us her name, which means “gazelle,” in both Aramaic (Tabitha), and in Greek (Dorcas). Maybe that’s because he’s the only New Testament writer who is a Gentile. He has a perspective on bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile that many others do not. And it’s also likely that Tabitha herself has lived a life that has bridged that gap.

image from www.lds.org

In her ministry, “devoted to good works and acts of charity,” she no doubt had the opportunity to work with people of various backgrounds. This doubly named woman, Eric Barreto suggests, is “herself a cultural hybrid of sorts.… That is, she is at home both in the comfortable cultural confines of her faith but also in the different cultures that surround her.”

In other words, she has taken the time to expand her identity. She can relate to more people. And she has done this in a loving way. And that’s why, as we see in verse 39, after Peter arrives, “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”

As we’re looking at this story, I also want us to keep in mind something that runs throughout the book of Acts. It is a list of the developmental tasks of the congregation during a time of transition. The early years of the church, which we see in Acts, were most definitely times of transition! Of course, this is only a rough comparison to what a congregation in interim times tries to achieve.

I’ll go through these very briefly.

* The first one is coming to terms with history, or celebrating the history. In a way, Peter does this on the day of Pentecost when he talks about where they’ve been and where they’re going. He uses the prophet Joel’s words about the Lord pouring out the Spirit to help him out.

* The next one is discovering a new identity. That goes along with the reality that change is happening anyway. We see this with the welcoming of the Gentiles and recognizing how, quite literally, people are speaking different languages. Today’s scripture, with Luke the Gentile, telling the story of Tabitha / Dorcas is a very good example of that.

* We also have the allowing and empowering of new leadership. In chapter 6, the church saw the wisdom of appointing deacons to assist the apostles in the work. And again, in today’s story, we have another hint of the rising profile of women in the early church. Making room for new leadership is especially important in terms of injecting new blood into the system, and also for giving a voice to those who previously were voiceless.

* The next one doesn’t fit quite so easily, since there weren’t exactly denominations then—though that doesn’t mean there weren’t groups of like-minded believers. We have a sort of reconnecting with the denomination, with the wider church, when Paul goes to Athens and appeals to the Greeks with the broader faith traditions. (But admittedly, that might be shoehorning that one in!)

* The final developmental task of the congregation can be seen in committing to new directions of ministry, looking to the future. I give the example of the early missionary enterprises. We might see a hint of new direction of ministry in today’s story. So let’s return and see what Peter’s up to.

We’re told in verse 40 that “Peter put all of [the widows] outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.” Some people notice a similarity between that and Jesus’ raising the daughter of Jairus: “‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’” (Mk 5:41). Tabitha…Talitha…perhaps?

In the lectionary, this text is read during the Easter season. On that note, John Holbert says that “wherever the power of death is overcome by the power of resurrected life, we see again the power of God alive in God’s world.” In raising Tabitha, Peter is showing—and he himself is being shown—how the Lord is crafting a new way.

I use that word “crafting” quite deliberately. It speaks to the sense of art and beauty we see in the book of Acts. Besides the creativity and sharing of Tabitha’s work that earned her so much love, we also meet Lydia in chapter 16. She is a dealer in purple cloth, something that is both colorful and lucrative. Lydia is a model of hospitality.

And what about the day of Pentecost, when the disciples are speaking in tongues? They’re not out there asking traffic directions; they’re singing the praises of God! And one language just isn’t enough!

The Acts of the Apostles, according to some people, should be called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” That wouldn’t be a bad name! The Spirit is evident in what the young church is doing, in both success and failure. The Spirit is certainly evident in the raising of Tabitha, but perhaps even more importantly for us, the Spirit is evident in the beauty that was her life.

When we welcome the Spirit in crafting a new way, the result is not only beautiful, but it’s also practical!

Aside from the drama and spectacle (raising the dead, speaking in tongues, etc.), the real power of the Spirit is seen in the halting, stumbling efforts that this community of people from different backgrounds demonstrates in their life together. Jürgen Moltmann calls them “the Pentecost community,” and he says they “always have ‘more than enough.’”

Why is that? “Because the power of the resurrection and the Spirit of fellowship have liberated them from the fear of death and from anxiety about life. If God is for us, if God is in our midst, between each and all of us, then there is no longer any want, in any sector of life. People share everything and share in everything, divide and confide all that they have. That is the message of the Pentecost community in Jerusalem, which made so many rich. And that is their message to us as well.” (131)

One of the amazing things about the Spirit is that there is always more than enough. Can we trust that? Can we trust the call and receive the courage it takes to be Pentecost people? Too often, we operate from a mentality of scarcity, and it affects everything we do. We miss out on largesse of Spirit, generosity of spirit.

image from 4.bp.blogspot.com

I think Luke makes a point about this at the end of our passage. I like the way he closes the chapter. After Tabitha is raised, just as in Lydda, celebrations begin. Hear verse 42: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”

Then, seemingly out of the blue, Luke tosses this in about Peter: “Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner” (v. 43). What’s going on with that? Why should we be interested in his lodging accommodations? Maybe we can see a bit of that new direction of ministry I mentioned earlier.

As a tanner, one who makes leather, Simon is engaged in an unclean line of work. That’s “unclean” in a literal sense—handling dead animals all day tends to make one dirty and stinky. But it’s also “unclean” in a ritual sense. According to Leviticus 11, contact with a dead animal requires ritual cleansing (vv. 39-40). But if that’s your job, you’re never going to be clean, at least as far as the priests are concerned.

So what might seem to be Luke’s casually throwing in a random comment turns out to be anything but random. Peter, quite knowingly, is staying in an unclean place. Luke is foreshadowing the story of Cornelius the centurion, who we see in chapters 10 and 11.

Peter should be disgusted by Simon the tanner, with his filthy, stinky job. But Peter sees Simon as more than a tanner; he recognizes him as a brother in Christ. It hasn’t been an easy transition. To move beyond what he’s been taught his entire life doesn’t come without effort and difficulty.

(And it’s while he’s staying at Simon’s house that he has the vision of unclean, non-kosher food, which leads him to Cornelius the Gentile, the Roman centurion. Entering his home is also a ritual no-no.)

Peter and his friends, including the risen Tabitha, are allowing the Holy Spirit to craft a new way for them. In addition, they are allowing the Holy Spirit to craft them into something beautiful.

Even though they are trying to follow where the Spirit leads, it is still quite unsettling to stay with the process and not rush through it. Sometimes, staying with the process can seem tedious, maybe even painful.

Still, if we think of the Spirit as the master artist, and ourselves as the ones being crafted, it’s probably not a good idea to rush the job. When we hinder, or even abort, the movement of the Spirit in our lives, we rob ourselves, as well as the world around us, of the full expression of what we can be.

During intentional interim times (with both of the words “intentional” and “interim” being important), our prayer is to work towards paying attention to the movement of the Spirit. We want an environment in which the wondrous promises of God will continue to be realized. As I indicated, at times the journey of transition is arduous; its tasks may seem tiresome, but the Spirit is indeed crafting a new way.

[originally posted on 21 April 2013]


golden memories, illustrated

image from img0.etsystatic.comMy wife and I recently returned to New York, after spending a year in Tennessee. Packed away in a box there appeared something that took me back more than forty years. It’s a book that my mom read to my sister and me when we were little kids, The Golden Bible for Children: The New Testament, published in 1953. It was wonderfully illustrated by the wife and husband team, Alice and Martin Provensen. I really loved the pictures! I was fascinated by their “flatness.” I was sure that the artwork came from the “olden days.”

 

image from farm1.static.flickr.com
Looking through the book today brought back those memories. I was able to find some images online. The one to the left is a good one for Lent, Jesus in the wilderness.

 

 

 

 

The one accompanying the parable of the Good Samaritan has a good look at some wicked dudes laying the lumber to the unfortunate traveler.

Good samaritan

The day of Pentecost has some fellows exchanging pleasantries (and giving thanks to God) who on any other day wouldn’t have the slightest idea what they were doing.

Pentecost

The last one requires some explanation. As a boy I always especially loved seeing poor Eutychus falling from the window. I couldn’t find that one on the internet, so we scanned the page from the book (being careful not to damage the spine). You can see the smudge at the bottom of the page, one of many in our copy which was withdrawn from the Contra Costa County Library.

Eutychus

If you’ll excuse me, I have some reading and art appreciation to do!