Pentecostals

scary monsters

Over a timespan of about fifteen years, I had a recurring dream.  I might even call it a nightmare.  It involved McDonald’s, where I worked when I wasn’t away at college.  In the dream, I would be at various locations.  I might be at home, or maybe I’d be driving my car.  And in the back of my mind was this nagging fear that I should be at work; I should be at McDonald’s.

In the dream, it was always the case that it had been days, even weeks, since I’d showed up for work.  I would have the feeling that I needed to go to the store and check the schedule.  Was I in fact supposed to be there?  But I don’t remember ever making that trip.  Instead, I would wake up and realize, with a great sense of relief, that I was now at seminary, or later on, that I was now pastor of a church.

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I haven’t had that nightmare for a long time now.  Banu once told me that I was subconsciously expressing my fear of working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.  I believe there’s something to that!  At a deeper level, though, I think McDonald’s represented my sense of not moving forward.  It was a symbol of my feeling being trapped.

I say that because, after graduating from college, I worked there for over two years before going to seminary.  No doubt reflecting my Pentecostal influences, I was dead set on waiting for God to speak to me, to tell me what to do.  Lord, please give me a sign!  Give me a dream; give me a vision of what I need to do!

Please note, I’m not blaming the Pentecostals for my wrong-headed understanding.  That’s on me!

And of course, all the while, the Lord had implanted within me the calling that I needed to follow.  But I was resistant!

Maybe I would have been satisfied with what we see in the reading in Daniel.  We’re told that Daniel has a dream.

Starting with chapter 7, the last part of the book of Daniel is what’s known as apocalyptic literature.  (The word “apocalyptic” literally means a “revelation” or an “uncovering.”)  The book of Revelation is in that category.  (Surprise!)  Apocalyptic books are like movies with all kinds of weird special effects: dream worlds, cosmic calamities, and yes, scary monsters.

It’s been said, “One could say, calmly and rationally, that the world is a bleak and dangerous place, or one could make the point more fully and dramatically through apocalyptic fantasy.  The latter…will more quickly trouble and terrify us (as they did for Daniel), which is the point.”[1]

Think about it.  Even though the parables of Jesus and apocalyptic images aren’t exactly the same thing, they do serve similar purposes.

For example, Jesus could talk about grace and give us a definition.  He could call it “a free gift” or “an undeserved reward.”  He could do that, or he could tell a story about it—say, a story about a son who asks for his inheritance, shames the family, goes abroad and squanders the money, and after all that foolishness, after all those mistakes, is welcomed home with a lavish banquet.

I ask you, which of those makes a bigger impression?  Which one helps you to better understand grace?

And going back to those delightfully scary images, what would become of horror movies?  A documentary-style warning about the hazards of traveling alone on dark roads in the forest just doesn’t get the juices flowing.

So, even though apocalyptic language can be troubling and terrifying, that’s not the end of the story.  These images of mighty angels and stormy seas really do tell the story of God’s people being delivered from the foul beasts that would keep them down.  And those “foul beasts” are typically of the two-legged variety, the ones who walk around upright.

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The reading in Daniel has been chopped up.  Verses 4 to 14 have been deleted.  The Old Testament is often dissected to suit the purposes of the church.  It being a text for All Saints’ Day, the lectionary zeroes in on verse 18.  “[T]he holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”  Those holy ones are the saints!

Still, we need to pay attention to the dream—or should we say nightmare?  Daniel seems to think so.  Look at the way the chapter ends in verse 28: “I was so frightened that I turned pale, and I kept everything to myself” (Good News Bible).  He was so scared that he looked like he’d seen a ghost (and he probably soiled himself).  And he wasn’t going to tell anyone about it.

He sees four great beasts rising from the sea.  In ancient Hebrew thinking, the sea was a symbol of chaos.  Who knows what’s down there?  This is a symbol that is primordial.  It goes back to the chaos at creation.  This is “darkness [covering] the face of the deep” (Gn 1:2).  So, toss in the tempest, and you really do have some chaos!

There’s some question as to which kingdoms the four beasts symbolize.  People pick among the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans.  The point is, all these empires in one way or another persecuted the Jews, the people of God.  Or in apocalyptic terms, they’re scary monsters that tried to gobble up the holy ones.

John Collins says that “the vision functioned to give hope to the persecuted Jews.  This rather trite statement, however, does scant justice to the power of the vision, which attempts to shape a whole new view of history.”[2]  Daniel’s vision shapes a whole new view of history.

It can be difficult for us to realize how powerful this is.  Imagine the audacity of this powerless group of people.  They’re just one nation among many that have been swept up by the empire.  How dare they show this holy defiance?  How dare they tell their own stories?  They’re supposed to agree with the official version of history, one that lets them know they’re less worthy, one that puts them in their place.

As the church, we have inherited that legacy.  Still, we have to watch ourselves.  We have to be careful about how closely we identify with the qualities of, not Greek or Roman, but American empire.  Believe it or not, we aren’t immune to acting like the rest of the human race.  We too can imitate a beast ready to devour.

We have here the story of that great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1).  It’s the story of the faithful from every walk of life.

It’s the story told in the hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.”  Referring to the saints, the second stanza ends like this: “And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, / And one was slain by a fierce wild beast: / And there’s not any reason, no, not the least, / Why I shouldn’t be one too.”

Yes, that’s right folks.  There’s not any reason why I shouldn’t be slain by a fierce wild beast!

3 dnThis is the story of saints past and present—and we can say, of saints yet to come.  It’s the story of the faithful from every background.  It’s the story of those who have faced all manner of scary monsters.  (Even one symbolized by a fast food restaurant!)

Here are some questions for us.  What are our scary monsters?  Are there any great beasts that fill our dreams with terror?

In a sermon Banu preached one time, she dealt with Goliath the giant.  A quote from her sermon was, “When you focus on your giants, you stumble.  When you focus on God, your giants tumble.”  How does that translate into scary monsters?  How do scary monsters come at us?

Here’s another way of framing it.  Are we trapped by the past?  Do we carry around undeserved guilt?

Chris Gehrz speaks of All Saints’ Day as a call and opportunity “to be a steward of the past.”[3]  We’re called to be stewards of the creation, not only in space, but also in time.  All Saints’ Day “underscores the importance of preserving [the] past against the erosion that comes with the passage of time.”  We are called to remember—and to remember well.

This may come as a shock, but there are those who like to zap us by unfairly reminding us of our past.  They would have us remember, but not remember well.  Still, I fear that at some level, that tendency resides within all of us.  But to the extent we give way to that tendency, we only speak from our own fear, our own insecurity.  We are not speaking—and being—from a place of love and hope.

In Christ, those voices of accusation are silenced.  In the face of the glory of Christ, they have nothing to say.

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[pixabay.com]

In Christ, the great beasts, the scary monsters, are rendered toothless.  We’re given a whole new view of history.  We are ushered into the communion of saints, the holy ones of the Most High, who we join in receiving the kingdom and possessing the kingdom forever and ever.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=714

[2] John J. Collins, Daniel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 324.

[3] www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2016/11/all-saints-day-and-the-stewardship-of-the-past


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


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.


no fear

Were any of you bullied when you were in school?  It doesn’t necessarily mean that someone tried to pick fights with you (or maybe did pick fights!).  Among girls, bullying rarely ends in fisticuffs.  But I won’t speak for my sisters; you can recall your own experiences!  We can think of many different ways someone can be bullied.

1 1 jn 4There was a particular fellow in high school, who for some reason I never figured out, decided I would be a good person to harass.  He never overtly tried to pick a fight, but when he was baiting me, I knew if I responded in an aggressive way, it would be something that he welcomed.  Kind of like a “make my day” sort of thing!

I’ll admit—I was intimidated by him.  I was afraid of him.  Still, aside from that, I just wasn’t interested in fighting, period.  I wasn’t interested in fighting anybody.  Maybe it had to do with being raised in a loving family.  Our home was not a fearful, violent place.  It was a safe place.  I don’t know about my friend from high school.  I don’t know what his home life was like.

Fear can be a controlling factor in our lives.  Sometimes it hides behind other emotions, for example, anger or despair.  Bullies are people filled with fear, and they project that fear out into the world.  A bully who’s been given authority—especially great authority—is a dangerous thing.

In her book, The Scent of Jasmine, Patricia McCarthy, changing the focus to faith, says, “There is no place for fear in the Christian life, not because we manipulate our emotions, but because we trust our risen Lord.  We choose to trust rather than to fear.  We choose to let God protect us, rather than defend ourselves.”[1]

The idea that we choose to fear, given what I just said, probably sounds strange.  We might object, “I just can’t help it!”

It might be useful to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy fear.  Fear of fire…fear of wolves encircling you, growling and showing their teeth…fear of your wife—that’s healthy fear!  Fear of going outside…fear of taking risks…fear that keeps you pinned down—that’s unhealthy fear!

Clearly, every person has her or his own story, and there isn’t one easy remedy, but it seems that, in some way, we do choose that latter kind of fear.  Several times in the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not fear.”  And in today’s epistle reading, we see that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (v. 18).

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Much of our fear deals with being left out, with being rejected, or with being denied the material necessities of life.

When he was a pastor in Clinton, Mississippi, Stan Wilson wrote about that kind of fear.  He said their church had “an unwritten rule: we will never ignore a member’s basic need.”[2]  Whether it’s someone out of work, someone with a medical need, whatever, they would come together and find ways to help.  It might have been through a benevolence fund, churchwide garage sale, or some other creative means.

During a Bible study one time, Wilson asked the people there, “Why not make it official?  Why not state out loud that no matter how bad it gets, we will be there for one another?”

He says, “I didn’t get an answer at the Bible study.  In fact, the very mention of the subject seemed embarrassing, as if I had violated a taboo and uttered that which must not be spoken.  I suspect that not only do we fear the future, we also fear each other.  We are afraid that somebody will try to take advantage of us, afraid that we will have to expose ourselves at our most intimate, private level: our bank balance.”

(Actually, I can think of other more intimate, private levels, but for the moment, I’ll go along with Wilson!)

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The author of 1 John deals with this very thing.  In chapter 3, we’re asked the question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (vv. 17-18).  And in today’s reading, we’re reminded, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (v. 8).

Wilson said he didn’t doubt that the members of his church loved each other.  He just wanted them to publicly proclaim it.  Unfortunately, in our society, we tend to have a fear of commitment.  In fact, our culture runs on fear and disordered desire.  And that stuff infects the church.

But the church, when it embraces its identity, is counter-cultural.  He wonders, “What happens if a little congregation breaks the rules and removes the fear by promising to care for one another?”  I wonder about that myself.  What would happen if this little congregation broke the rules and removed the fear by promising to care for one another?  This congregation does that better than some others, but what would it look like to take it even further?

“We might reveal the risen Son of God, the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep.

“With a living God loose in the world, we might no longer live in fear, and no longer believe that the world runs only when people look out solely for themselves.  We might start to look out for one another, and violate one of the cardinal rules of our economic order.”

4 1 jn 4How can we do that?  For example, how can we break the grip of what Jesus calls “Mammon”: money and possessions, that become an idol, a false god?  Again, there isn’t one easy remedy.

Matthew and Mark tell us of a rich young man who comes to Jesus, asking about eternal life.  Drawing on the targeted advice Jesus gives him, there is one good way to deal with Mammon.  Just give it away!  That helps prevent wealth from setting up shop in our hearts.  (If you ask me if I practice what I’m preaching, I might need to respond, “Are you asking me how often I do that?”)

Recall the reaction of the young man.  Mark 10:22 says, “When he heard [what Jesus said], he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  He was used to the advantages his wealth provided him.  It had become part of his identity.

Something that’s part of my identity is white privilege.  It enables me to avoid the day-to-day crap that my black brothers and sisters deal with.  Sam McKenzie, Jr. talks about “racial wealth.”[3]  The rich young man has financial wealth.  Too often, I’m oblivious to the wealth I have.

A couple of weeks ago, on the way back home from our trip to Tennessee, I was pulled over by the police not very far from home.  The officer said my taillights weren’t on.  (Which was true.)  I gave him the registration for our rental car, and he went back to his car to check things out.  He came back and said he would let me go.  After driving away, I asked Banu, “I wonder what would have happened if I were black?”  I honestly don’t know.

Recognizing our privilege can be fearful, because it calls us to action.  It calls us out of our comfort zone.  It calls us to hear stories that we possibly would rather not hear.

We have to confront our fears, and we have to do it with love.  That is, we must do it with love if we are to be Easter people.  Otherwise, we deny the resurrection power Jesus gives us.

5 1 jn 4The story is told of St. Francis of Assisi, who “was afraid of lepers.  One day he kissed a leper and the fear vanished.  It is important to note that the fear vanished after he kissed the leper, not before.  Before the fear left him, Francis had to take the risk of loving…

“There is a mutuality here in terms of cause and effect.  It is necessary to work against fear if we are to try loving our enemies, and it is absolutely necessary to risk loving our enemies if we want to be free of fear.  Like St. Francis, we need to risk acts of love before we experience feelings of love.”[4]

Why, at this point, do I bring in love of the enemy?  Besides the fact that Jesus stresses the need for it, “love of the enemy” speaks to so much of what we fear.  It is so darn hard to love those we consider enemies, whether consciously or subconsciously.  It requires a setting aside of self.

According to our scripture reading, the remedy for fear is love.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (v. 18).  Earlier I asked, “What would happen if this little congregation broke the rules and removed the fear by promising to care for one another?”  Can we take that one step more?  How do we translate that love among us to the outward community?

How do we go from the church father Tertullian, who famously reported the saying about Christians, “See how they love one another,” to living that here and now?  How do we live the call, and loving encouragement of Jesus to live a life of no fear?  Are we plagued by an inner bully, a bully who needs to hear again the warning—and the reassurance, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

I imagine we can see how that is warning.  It does sound stern.  However, can we see it as reassurance?  I sure need to.  Sometimes my love grows cold.  I need the fire of the Holy Spirit to set me aflame.  When I am floundering and drifting, when I do not know God, God is merciful, for God is love.

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Verse 13 says, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.”  (I’m going to draw on my experiences with the Assemblies of God, those blessed Pentecostal folks!)  Do we yearn for the Spirit to fire us up again, to burn with holy love?

By the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit, we will tell those bullies, “We have no fear, because we live in love.”

 

[1] Patricia McCarthy, The Scent of Jasmine (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 46.

[2] www.religion-online.org/article/ties-that-bind-1-john-316-24-john-1011-18-acts-4-12

[3] medium.com/@SamMcKenzieJr/white-privilege-its-stuck-in-the-pages-of-the-bible-764dea10aaa5

[4] McCarthy, 60-61.


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


living in exile

Banu and I were ordained in February 1997.  Both of our pastors, just before the benediction, gave us a charge.  Banu’s pastor charged her “to fail.”  He wasn’t wishing ill on her, rather, he wanted her to take risks that would probably end in failure.  Still, keep pressing on.  That’s advice I need to remember.

Using imagery from the parable of the prodigal son, my pastor charged me to tell my story of being in a “distant land,” a “far country.”  He might have thought of several things, like my worshipping with Christians of many different stripes.  (One example would be going from the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal church, to going to the Presbyterian Church.)  But his main meaning of being in a “far country” was my experience with brain cancer.

1 exile

The charge to fail from Banu’s pastor also has that sense of exile, of not belonging.  His church was in an inner-city neighborhood of Philadelphia.  The streets around the church were not in good shape.  There were even what you might call ditches.  He spoke of a pansy that he saw growing in one of those ditches.  That pansy didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be there, but we might think it was in exile, a place where it didn’t belong.

We can see that sense of exile, of being in a far country, in our epistle reading in 1 Peter.

In the very first verse of our letter, Peter calls his audience “exiles.”  The Greek word (παροικια, paroikia) can also mean “sojourning” or “living in a strange land.”  For them, being exiles, being refugees, is something they can relate to.  For us, it’s no doubt less likely.  But it is possible.  It’s more likely we would at least feel that way.  Have you ever been—or are you now—in a far country?  Can you see yourself as an exile or as a refugee?  In this season of Easter, can we see ourselves as resurrection people?

I want us to think about that.  If we can’t imagine or feel the need to live another way, then it will be pretty difficult to in fact live any other way!  If we have no longing to live more deeply, more fully, then in a sense, we’re already dead.  We need to be resurrected!

Peter picks up the theme of exile in verse 17.  “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.”

There are Christians in this country who actually claim the identity of exile.  It isn’t such a stretch for them to see themselves as living in a strange land.  That’s “strange” as in “foreign,” but I suppose “strange” as in “weird,” would also apply!  I imagine all of us could testify to times when we’ve felt like we’re living in a strange land!

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the chapel at Emmaus Community in Victoria, BC

When I speak of Christians who claim the identity of exile, I’m thinking especially of those who might be called neomonastics, the “new” monastics.  From every tradition and denomination, these are Christians who really do put into practice the idea of “blessed be the tie that binds.”  They don’t live in monasteries, but as communities of faith, they make a commitment to follow Christ in a particular way, which I’ll get to in a few moments.  They do this as communities, not just as a collection of individuals.

They take Peter quite seriously when he says in verse 22, “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.”  That last line in the Good News Bible says to “love one another earnestly with all your heart.”  How about Eugene Peterson’s The Message?  It’s “love one another as if your lives depended on it.”  The original word (εκτενως, ektenōs) means “intensely.”

Kyle Childress, a long-time Baptist pastor in Nacogdoches, Texas, tells an interesting, and sobering, story.[1]  In September 2005, a month after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi, Hurricane Rita slammed into East Texas.  There was plenty of destruction, but their church building avoided the worst of it.  They were able to house some evacuees from Houston, as well as some of their own church members.

During the day, people would be cleaning up from the hurricane.  At day’s end, they gathered at the church, eating delicious meals—then playing games, having conversations, and getting ready for bed.  It was, as Rev. Childress says, “a good time of sharing life in Christ” (p. 33).  Now, here’s the story he tells.

“After most of the people from Houston had left town,” he says, “I went down to put gas in my car.  By this time, the lines were short and I waited behind a man and his wife in their one-ton pickup with a dual-wheel rear-end.  Guns were hanging prominently in the truck as they got out.  She glared at everyone and kept the door open on the truck with the guns in easy reach, while he proceeded to fill up his two twenty-two-gallon tanks on the pickup and then fill up his many gas cans and two fifty-five-gallon drums in the back-end.  I watched them, gave them a wide berth, and I felt a shiver.  I was not only looking at American society in microcosm, I was also witnessing what the Church is up against.  Here was an apocalyptic moment, when our society’s pretense, politeness, and orderliness were blown aside.  Clearly, this couple believed they were on their own; they did not need anyone or want anyone to interfere with their individual lives, and they were going to make sure they got what they wanted or needed, by any means, including the use of violence.  Meanwhile, down the street was a church full of people who believed that the good life was found in sharing a common life in Jesus Christ” (34).

When Childress speaks of that “common life in Jesus Christ,” he isn’t referring to something that happens by accident.  He isn’t talking about something that just comes up out of nowhere.  He’s talking about a rule of life.  A rule of life is something that people agree together to follow.

He continues, “Since it is rare to see local congregations share such a common life, and most church members have no idea such a life exists, much less is desirable, it is imperative that we look around for other glimpses and models of what a common life might look like.  One of those places is among the communities of the New Monasticism movement.  As a local church pastor I am interested in what the new monastics might teach us” (34).

He’s not proposing that his local Baptist congregation become a neomonastic community, but he’s convinced there are things to learn from them.

A rule of life isn’t so much a set of beliefs; it isn’t so much a confession or a creed.  It’s about how we behave in the world.  Probably the best-known rule of life is the Rule of Benedict.  This goes back to the early sixth century.  Saint Benedict is known as the father of western monasticism.  He wrote his Rule to govern life within the monastery, but it has principles that can be applied in every walk of life.

One good example of this is in chapter 53.  Benedict says, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.”  That’s the spiritual foundation for Christian hospitality that extends throughout the Rule, and for that matter, throughout life itself.

3 exileWhat a revolutionary, and counter-cultural, thought.  Imagine if we welcomed every visitor as Christ!  Imagine if we welcomed each other as Christ!

There isn’t any one single way to arrange a rule of life.  At the institutional level, our Presbyterian Book of Order does that in some respect, at least in how we govern ourselves.  It’s a way of helping us follow processes that are laid out.  It’s a way of making sure that we’re all on the same page, so to speak!

Childress notes, “Whenever there is conflict or misunderstanding—and living in close proximity to others, there always is conflict—the rule is part of the conversation among the members.  Over time the rule is often clarified or modified…  What is essential is that the rule is used in service to sharing their common life in Christ and not as a form of domination” (36).

This is an extremely important point.  If we are to follow Peter’s mandate to “love one another deeply from the heart,” the way we go about it cannot be “a form of domination.”

This might be a shock to you, but there are churches which seek to control and coerce their members!

To embrace a common life in Christ, the American church has to resist that “lone wolf” mentality that is so much a part of our culture.  One last quote from Childress: “If our people are going to live the Christ-like life, then they had better do it as a body or else they will never make it.  Lone individuals trying to live faithfully cannot stand against sin, death, the Powers, and the overwhelming pressure of society.  Church members, as individuals, are easy pickings for the Powers of Death; they will separate us, isolate us, dismember us, pick us off one at a time, and grind us down into the dust” (39).

That is an awesome statement, and I couldn’t agree more with it.

What are the “Powers of Death” he refers to?  What are the forces that kill us inside and turn us against each other?  What are the things that distress the Spirit of Christ, and bring suffering?  These are some of the “Powers of Death.”

Sometimes events happen, and we are compelled to say something about it, because it’s right there in our faces.  I remember when we all heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed.  I guess like most people, I did feel a sense of relief when I heard the news.

4 exileHowever, my real preference would have been for him to be captured and then put on trial before the entire world.  Still, I have to say that I didn’t shed any tears because he was dead.

But when I saw the images of people dancing in the street, having parties, I was saddened.  On 9-11, the terrorists were doing the exact same thing.  Imitating that kind of behavior is, in my opinion, probably the very least Christian thing we could do.  It is the most un-Christlike way to go.  I would dare say that we could see the “Powers of Death” at work.

Admittedly, it’s a difficult thing to apply Jesus’ call to love our enemies when the enemy is a mass-murderer.  It’s difficult to know what that would look like.  Still, if we would be people who love Jesus, we need to learn to love what Jesus loves.

Verse 23 says, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”  The powers of death, the forces that have us living in exile (whether we realize it or not), can do nothing when faced with the living and enduring word of God.

It’s kind of like the old country gospel song, “This World is not My Home.”  “This world is not my home; I’m just a passing through / My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue / The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door / And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

We are living as refugees in our homeland, but we also need to remember what Psalm 24 says: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (v. 1).

One thing that is sure; we belong to the kingdom of God and its exhibition to the world.  That’s paraphrased from the Great Ends of the Church in our Book of Order (F-1.0304).  When we commit ourselves to follow the one who leads us out of exile, we automatically invite others to join the journey.

“‘The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’  That word is the good news that was announced to you” (vv. 24-25).

That’s the good news.  When we fail, and fail we will, in that far country, in the place of our exile, the Lord fails with us, only to raise us up.

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After all, even in a ditch a pansy will grow.

 

[1] www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/116016.pdf

(“Ties that Bind: Sharing a Common Rule of Life”)


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.


imitate me (not the dogs)

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That seems to be one of those universal truths, expressing the way life seems to remain in a state of flux. Things are always changing!

Actually, the fact that things continue to change is part of life itself. Whether we’re thinking about single-celled organisms that jitter and ooze around—or the larger creatures we call animals that are “animated”—by its very nature, life requires movement; it requires change.

Here’s where I trot out my scientific acumen. There is a technical term for something that never changes: it’s called “dead.”

image from www.liveintentionally.org

Congregations are living things. As a result, they also are constantly changing. Some see a difference between change and transition. “Change” is something that simply happens. Change is an event, whether we choose it or not. “Transition” is how we experience that change. We have very little say about whether or not we want change (that is, of course, if we want to remain alive!). Transition, though, is something we can control.

In Philippians 3, we see the apostle Paul trying to lead the people through the change that the gospel inevitably brings. It’s inescapable. In this particular case, it’s abandoning circumcision as a requirement for faith. That’s a good thing for more than one reason (including the fact that I squirm when thinking of circumcision!). A more important reason is that the practice excludes females. As Christians, our rite of entry into the church is the all-inclusive sacrament of baptism.

Whether people embrace change as transition in the new reality is another question. Will they come to terms with it? Will they change their practices?

In his book, When God Speaks Through Change, Craig Satterlee looks at congregations in interim, transitional times. He says that in-between times can seem “wasted and meaningless.” (Kindle edition, 1.5.2) But that need not be the case. He even uses extreme language. “Chaos,” he says, “is more hospitable to new ideas than are standardized methods and routines.” If we’re satisfied with old routines, we tend to shut out fresh perspectives, innovative points of view.

For Satterlee, we need to “resist the desire for certainty and closure. Congregations often try too quickly to ‘get back to normal’ when in reality there is no ‘normal’ to get back to.” (1.5.4) There is no “normal,” because due to change, we’re in a new environment, a new world. He adds, “Resisting people’s desire for certainty and closure is continuous.”

That might seem counter-intuitive. Certainty and closure are by no means bad things. But when speaking of moving through transition, they can lead to some big time foot dragging.

I’ll ask something that we always need to consider. What changes are we facing now? If we want to choose life, what transition do we need to follow? The season of Lent, with its focus on reflection and discernment, lends itself well to questions like that.

I began my sermon by setting the stage in a way different from the way the apostle Paul does it. If you notice my sermon title, you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. In verse 17 he says, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” Imitate me, he says.

And on this business of “imitating me,” this isn’t the only place where he gives that particular bit of advice. He does it in 1 Corinthians chapters 4 and 11, where he qualifies it by saying, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (v. 1).

But if we go back to the beginning of the chapter, look at what he calls those who insist on circumcision. “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” (v. 2). It sounds like the tagline for a horror movie!

A few years ago, Arthur Paul Boers wrote a book on troublesome behavior in the church. He gave his book the title, Never Call Them Jerks. I wonder what Paul would make of that.

Nevertheless, his heart is in the right place. At the end of our passage, Paul addresses his “brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved” (4:1).

So yes: St. Paul doesn’t always use diplomatic language. In fact, he can be quite salty. In verse 8, he says he regards “everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish.”

The Greek word translated as “rubbish” (skúbala) refers to something a bit more odorous than that. In his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung.” And that’s being euphemistic!

Is there anything we might think of as skúbala, something we know it’s time to, say, bag and dispose of?

Still, we should be mindful that what Paul now rejects isn’t necessarily something bad, in and of itself. Think of food that, when fresh or newly cooked, is very tasty. But after a while, it begins to turn. It’s no longer nutritious, leading to health and life; it actually becomes poisonous, leading to sickness and death.

With the often intense language Paul uses, it can be easy to forget that. He speaks of those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ” (v. 18). These aren’t necessarily people bent on acts of terrorism! In verse 19, we hear this: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.”

They are on a path that doesn’t lead to fullness of life. They follow their own appetites first—which sadly, is a very easy trap for all of us. They’re proud of stuff which should make them ashamed. They don’t allow their vision to be lifted up; they run from challenges.

image from 292fc373eb1b8428f75b-7f75e5eb51943043279413a54aaa858a.r38.cf3.rackcdn.com

As I hope I’m making clear, these “dogs” aren’t necessarily bad people. Sometimes, they are just stuck. They need the Holy Spirit to get them unstuck.

There’s a Lenten Bible study, Toward the Sunrise, that poses the question, “Is it sometimes fear of failure that stops us from doing something, or can it also be the fear of what we might discover?” (3) That can apply to many things, including change, which can be pretty daunting. As I suggested earlier, there can be a tendency to dig in our heels and resist transition.

Is there a fear of failure? To me, that second question might be even more compelling. Is there a fear of what we might discover?

The study looks ahead a couple of weeks to Easter. In Luke’s version, when the women visit the empty tomb, two men in blazing garments ask the question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (4) (By the way, there’s that technical scientific term I started out with!)

What about us? Do we look for the living among the dead? Are there structures, practices, ways of organizing, that once upon a time, served very well, but no longer function that way? Is there anything of which we can say, “They don’t lend themselves to the flow of the Holy Spirit they once used to”?

Too often (and I include myself), we say that we welcome change—just as long as we’re not the ones undergoing the change! Let other people change. But that’s what transition is all about. That’s what life is all about. That’s why looking for life among the dead is ultimately self-defeating.

In my early twenties, I was a member of the Assemblies of God. Among the Pentecostals, I heard on occasion that “the Holy Spirit is a gentleman.” That’s not a reference to gender, although it’s not very helpful that it’s presented with masculine language! No, it means God does not coerce us into anything, including the transition that accompanies change. Even though we might feel the Spirit stirring within us, a tugging at our heart, so to speak, we still have a choice. We can still say no. God is love, and God does not force us to do anything. God is gentle.

In fact, if we feel shoved, overly pressured, that might be a red flag. That also goes for your interim pastors. We are here to offer guidance, not compulsion. We share observations, celebrate wonderful achievements, and perhaps note things that might require a second look (or even a first look).

But thank the Lord; we don’t take on this interim project all by ourselves. And by “ourselves,” I’m also speaking of the larger community and the presbytery.

No, in verse 21, St. Paul says that Christ “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory” (v. 21). The body of humiliation is transformed to the body of glory. You know, that’s not such a bad deal!

So, as we revisit the questions I mentioned earlier, “What changes are we facing now?” and “What transition do we need?” we can be assured that we’re not alone in that.

God is doing and will continue to do a new thing. God is moving us calmly and steadily to places where we will experience new ways of being with God.

That’s what the community of Christ is about. That applies to us, regardless of our age or station in life. While we draw breath, we are called into that adventure which is the imitation of Christ. And that, brothers and sisters, beloved, is how we stand firm in the Lord.