words

wordless words

Sometimes, events happen that simply must be addressed in a sermon.  Unfortunately, this is one of those times.  When the president and first lady tested positive for the coronavirus, that pushed its way to the front.  It’s a tragedy when anyone contracts Covid-19.  It has happened tens of millions of times worldwide.  Over one million people have died.

I don’t think I’m going too far when I say 2020 has been a year unlike any other for every human being alive on planet Earth.  (I know we’ve said that for various years in the past—but this time, it’s really true!)

Aside from the global pandemic, which is way more than enough, demonstrations have spread across America, the political landscape has been incredibly volatile, the ice caps continue melting, the oceans are getting warmer, but guess what?  The Spirit of God is moving.

And I trust the Spirit of God was moving me when I wrote this sermon.

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In July, I started noticing something else about 2020.  I began a frequent ritual of gazing into the night sky.  From our vantage point, Jupiter and Saturn have been doing a nocturnal dance since early this year and will continue to do so for the rest of 2020.  The two largest planets in our solar system have recently begun sharing the sky with our neighbor, Mars.  I often like to await the appearance of Jupiter as the sky gradually darkens.  It becomes visible well before any stars.

Seeing those planets has been a gift.  They are my cosmic friends!  I have been reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, our problems—as genuinely serious as they are—still are part of a vast intergalactic tapestry.  Contemplating such matters has become almost a spiritual discipline.  It has been therapeutic.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”  So says the beginning of Psalm 19.

That psalm is one of my favorites.  It would seem I’m not alone in that.  It has been celebrated down through the ages for its poetic beauty.  A prominent writer in the 20th century also had great admiration for it.  That would be C. S. Lewis, professor at Oxford and author of numerous books, including The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity.  A professed atheist, he came to Christ, partly due to his conversations with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Lewis’ praise for the psalm has been widely quoted.  “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter,” he wrote, “and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”[1]  I wish he had said how he really felt!

2 psHe spoke of how the psalmist describes “the sun, the bridal joyousness of its rising, the unimaginable speed of its daily voyage from east to west…  The key phrase on which the whole poem depends is ‘there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.’  It pierces everywhere with its strong, clean ardor.”

He’s really passionate about this psalm!

Psalm 19, which displays the eternal word of God, is laid out in three sections.  The first part, verses 1 to 6, is an exaltation of the majesty of creation.  Verses 7 to 11 glorify the written word, with the benefits thereof: it is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure, true, and righteous.

It revives the soul.  It makes wise the simple.  It rejoices the heart.  It enlightens the eyes.  Its beauty puts gold to shame.  And how does it taste?  Sweeter than honey, child!  Psalm 119 agrees.  “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (v. 103).

We end with verses 12 to 14 with a prayer of repentance and protection—and that includes protection from oneself.  You did know we can be our own worst enemy?  The psalm ends with words that might be familiar.  “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  (More about that one later.)

So there’s a lot in this psalm, but I want to focus on something I know I need help with—silence.

I started with speaking about admiring my friends, those radiant beauties in the night sky.  I think of how long it’s taken their light to reach me.  (Minutes?  Over an hour?)  I can’t hear them, but they proclaim the work and word of God.

Verse 3 speaks, “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.”  Recall the line from our call to worship: “Without a word being spoken, all creation bears witness to the goodness of the Lord.”  Their voice is not heard, and yet, “their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (v. 4).

Maybe if I would just shut up, I could hear their silent statements, their wordless words.  Maybe if I weren’t too busy thinking about what I could say about them, I could listen, and my soul would be enriched.  I could pass that blessing along to others.  But no, I have to focus all my attention on myself.

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Sometimes my dog joins me on these nightly sojourns.  After a little play time, he will lie down and occupy himself with chewing on a stick, or he’ll walk around, sniffing stuff.  He doesn’t say much.  I could take a lesson from him.

I want to revisit that final verse: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, etc.”  The word translated as “meditation” is an interesting one.[2]  It carries the meaning of a “murmuring sound.”  It’s compared to the sound of a harp when struck.  There’s that lingering sound as it begins fading to silence.  It’s not like a drum, something percussive, something rat-a-tat.  It’s smooth.

Another translation speaks of “the whispering of my heart.”[3]  It is as loud as a whisper.

We’re reminded of the prophet Elijah when he is on the run from the wrath of Jezebel, wife of King Ahab.  Elijah has presided over the killing of the prophets of Baal.  Jezebel is not happy, and she gives orders to her hitmen.  That’s when Elijah hits the road.

In the desert, the word of the Lord comes to him.  It isn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.  It isn’t in any of the sound and fury.  It is in sheer silence, a small still voice.  It is “a light murmuring sound” (1 Kg 19:12, NJB).

We tend to be quite uncomfortable with silence.  We can notice that in worship.  Moments of silence can seem to go on and on.

There’s another thing I want to mention in this psalm.  Verse 13 says, “Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.  Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.”

The poet wants protection from the insolent, the arrogant ones.  The plea is to be shielded from the harm they would do.  However, as before, the Hebrew word (אֵל, el) can have another nuance.  It also refers to “proud thoughts.”  It can also mean inner insolence.  I wonder if that isn’t the meaning that better applies to most of us.

You know, I have my opinions.  (And of course, they are always the correct ones.)  But at the end of the day, they pale in comparison with Jupiter and Saturn and Mars, who keep doing their thing.  The noise we humans make doesn’t affect them at all.  And my opinions pale in colossal fashion in comparison with the one who says in Isaiah, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:9).  Period.

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Our proud thoughts affect the way we treat others.  They affect the way we treat planet Earth.

Besides being World Communion Sunday, today is also the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  He is considered the patron saint of ecology.  He was noted for befriending the animals!

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing prayer walking.  Last Monday, I considered something with which St. Francis would be an excellent guide.  I reflected on how we called to tread lightly on the earth.  Indeed, walking on God’s good creation can be an act of prayer in itself.  Think of it.  We easily disregard that.  We pave over everything.  Our bombs and weapons of war kill more than just humans.  Lord only knows how many plants and animals we kill.  We dump poison and plastic on land and in the sea.  We foul the atmosphere.

We destroy ourselves, and in doing so, we defile the presence of God within us.  We grieve the Holy Spirit.

As I move toward my conclusion, I’m not going to tell you to do anything.  Just turn off the noise.  Open yourself to the word, however it appears.  When we befriend silence, we can better hear the word of the Lord; we can better hear those wordless words.  Let that sweetness fill you up.  “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8).

 

[1] reiterations.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/c-s-lewis-on-psalm-19/

from Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harper One, 1958), pp. 73-74.

[2] הׅגָּיוׄן, higgayon

[3] New Jerusalem Bible


a (humble) observation

I know my comments might sound snarky to many.  With God as my witness, I don’t intend that, but our president’s latest dust-up has me yet again concerned.  His repeated words and actions continue to have the (deliberate?) effect of encouraging the divisions that plague us as a nation.  I do pray for his administration to help foster wisdom and compassion.  (Although I must confess, my prayer hasn’t been as diligently pursued as it should have been.)

Some of his supporters in the church have noted, “We didn’t elect a pastor.”  Fair enough.  However, the only president who “sort of” was a pastor was James Garfield.  He was not ordained but did some “pastor” like stuff.  (On an unrelated matter, his presidency lasted less than a year, due to his assassination!)

Still, one need not be a pastor to be a model of decency.  He seems to enjoy giving people nicknames—and they aren’t flattering nicknames.  Authoritarian language like “the enemy of the people” doesn’t help.  I could go on.

Something that continues to be a thorn in my side is the advice of Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, advice which has its origins in the Sufi tradition.  He speaks of the three gates through which the words of a wise person must pass.

Here’s the first gate: Is what I’m saying really true?  If it’s not true, then, of course, don’t bother.  The second gate: Is it loving?  Am I about to say something that will build up life and trust, or will it tear them down?  And the third gate (and probably the most difficult): Is what I am about to say really that necessary?  If it’s not, why clutter up the moment with more words and noise competing for space and attention?

SufiNow those are words of wisdom.  Assume the first gate has been successfully traversed (that is, are my words true?).  At some level, I hope they are!

We come to the second gate.  It might be true, but is it loving, is it life-enhancing?  It is possible to speak the truth, but in a way that is not helpful; in fact, it can be hurtful.  It is possible to tell the truth with the purpose of crushing someone, beating them down.  The truth can be told with malevolent intent.  I call that “the devil’s truth.”  It’s meant, as I just said, to hurt and not to help.  To the extent it does that, it really isn’t the truth.  It isn’t God’s truth.

Then we come to the third gate.  Even if it’s true and it’s loving, is it so important for me to throw in my two cent’s worth?  Do I (always) need to draw attention to myself?  Do I need to ruin the silence?  I suppose we need to decide if we are earnestly trying to be constructive or merely engaged in self-promotion.

Based on all of that, I offer my reflections with a bit of humbleness—because Lord knows we are woefully in short supply of it.

[Richard Rohr’s words come from On the Threshold of Transformation, p. 341]


offering with Spirit

Here’s a newsflash: churches do things differently, and that includes passing the plate.  In the Assemblies of God (where I had my first life-changing experience of church), and other churches, the language of an annual pledge for giving isn’t often heard.  At least, I didn’t hear it.  I became more used to hearing things like, “Give what the Lord lays on your heart.”  Sometimes I heard calls for a literal tithe, ten percent, to be offered for the work of the church.  (Some people debated if it should be before taxes or after taxes!)

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Something else I heard of on a fairly regular basis was the “prosperity gospel,” or prosperity theology.  It is especially demonstrated by many televangelists.  It’s the idea that God financially rewards those who have enough faith.  Sometimes preachers will refer to giving to their ministry as sowing seeds.  The more you sow, the greater the harvest you will reap.  Oh, and you might hear, “God has promised me a private jet.  I need this jet.  Will you believe with me and stand on the promise of God and support us in this vital mission to spread the gospel all over the nation and all over the world?”

(By the way, we’ll come back to strong-arming people out of their offerings!)

We Presbyterians (and others in the so-called mainline churches) aren’t exposed to the prosperity gospel quite so much.  Still, it’s really not anything new.  It’s even in the Bible—though not that anyone prayed for a jet.  Take Job, for example.  When he lost all of his livestock, all of his wealth, and then suffered the loss of all his children, and then his health, his friends concluded he must have sinned.  (Actually, that was after he professed his innocence.)  He must have done something wrong.  If he would only repent, he might see the return of his fortune.

There is something in the human spirit that drives us, that impels us, to please a God who apparently, in an almost whimsical, capricious fashion, will withhold blessing if we don’t measure up.  We are put on the scales, and if we are found wanting, then something will be taken away.

One more note about Job.  If you skip to the final chapter, we see that the Lord is angry with Job’s friends.  “[Y]ou have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7).  The idea that God acts like a vending machine—insert money and a goody comes out—is upended; it is rejected.

2 lvIf that’s true, then what do we do with scriptures throughout the Bible that mandate giving to God in order to find blessing?

Let’s go back thousands and thousands of years ago, when humans began to have some awareness of a reality beyond them, when they eventually began to worship deities.  Sacrifices were deemed necessary to guarantee good hunting, to ensure healthy crops, to assure health for themselves.  It’s the vending machine mentality.

And as we’ve already seen, that mentality, that spirituality, does appear in the scriptures.  There is indeed a tug of war, a back and forth, a struggle to walk the path.  There is the vending machine.  Yet contrary to that, there is the call to act in faith, to act in faithfulness, to act in gratitude, to be thankful.

In particular, the prophets denounce the approach of offering the proper gift, saying the proper words, going through the proper motions, but without it coming from the heart.  The outward form of worship, without a concern for holiness, for justice, for love, is useless and empty.

That’s true with the call for the first fruits in Leviticus 23.  The word of the Lord comes to the people: “When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest.  He shall raise the sheaf before the Lord, that you may find acceptance.” (vv. 10-11).

If it feels like we’re still in transition from the “give to the deity, so that you may get back” mentality, that would not be totally wrong.  In the following verses, it is stipulated what’s involved in bringing the first fruits.  Along with the sheaf, a lamb is to be brought for sacrifice, a lamb “without blemish.”  There is also a grain offering, one of “choice flour.”  Translation: if you are to give to God, then you are to give your best.

I wonder if that applies to donations.  We’ve all done this, haven’t we?  You know, you’re going through your belongings and deciding what to give away.  There’s the “donate” bin and the “trash” bin.  Sometimes you get them mixed up—no big deal.  It’s going to the thrift store; they don’t know the difference!

3 lvHere’s a crazy thought: what about buying brand new items and donating them!

But back to the sheaf of the first fruits of the harvest.  Just a few verses later we read, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God” (v. 22).

Wouldn’t that fit into the category of performing the proper form of worship and pursuing a concern for holiness, for justice, for love?  By not hoarding every scrap of produce, of product, there is an effort made to provide for everyone.  By not maintaining a mercenary economy—by building into the system care for the poor and the alien—holiness, justice, and love are given at least an equal standing with the profit margin.

Along with the poor, there is the alien, the foreigner, who is valued as a member of society.  The foreigner is to be held in esteem.  The refugee is to be held in esteem.

Pointing out how God’s peace is found in these structures of laws of worship is part of what prophets do.  Among the various approaches that can be used, there is one that seems to have greater meaning and effect.  Richard Rohr addresses this.[1]

“Prophets, by their very nature,” he says, “cannot be at the center of any social structure.  Rather, they are ‘on the edge of the inside.’  They cannot be full insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either.  A true prophet must be educated inside the system, knowing and living the rules, before they can critique what is non-essential or not so important.  Jesus did this masterfully…”  We will see an example of that in a few moments.

Rohr continues, “Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value.  A prophet critiques a system by quoting its own documents, constitutions, heroes, and Scriptures against its present practice.  This is their secret: systems are best unlocked from inside, and not by negative or angry people.”

The prophets want their traditions to expand, evolve, and frankly, just get better.

In the New Testament era, we see the apostle Paul model this approach.  He calls himself “a Pharisee, son of Pharisees” (Ac 23:6).  He is “a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Ph 3:5).  He is thoroughly educated in and familiar with the system.  He is also able to see where the system falls short, indeed, how it can crush people.  The vision of Jesus the apostle Paul has enlightens him to these truths.

4 lvIn Acts 20, Paul is saying goodbye to the leaders of the church in Ephesus.  He has lived there almost three years.  They are heartbroken at the news he is leaving them.

Among his final words are the reminder that he commends them to God and to the message, the good news, which will build them up.  He also reminds them, “I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions” (v. 34).  Paul gives them a challenge.  “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak” (v. 35).  He shows the proper use of money and resources.  As with the first fruits of the Hebrews, the harvest must benefit all.

And then, he finishes the thought with “remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

If you do some checking, you’ll find that these words appear nowhere in the gospels.  They’re more in tenor with Jesus’ overall teachings.  For example, in Luke 6 when Jesus is talking about loving one’s enemies, he says, “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great” (v. 35).

Obviously, the few writings we have about Jesus do not contain everything he said.  These words of wisdom are among them.

Toward the end of John’s gospel, we have the modest statement, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25).  There isn’t enough room in all the world!  I think there might be a tiny bit of exaggeration at work.

We do have some of Jesus’ words, and they continue our theme on money and its uses, for good and for ill.  They appear at the beginning of Luke 21, and they go like this:

“He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.  He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on’” (vv. 1-4).

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In Doug Pagitt’s book, Flipped, he brings up this story of the poor widow.[2]  Jesus points out that the wealthy are contributing to the temple fund out of their abundance, money they won’t even miss.  However this widow, with her two coins, is putting a major dent in her finances.  Indeed, she is left destitute.  The moral of the story, the way it’s often presented, is that we should praise and imitate the widow; she’s making a big sacrifice for God.

Our friend Doug speaks about a visitor to their church who shows up while they’re having a discussion about this story.  I love the line this fellow comes up with.  “I think you have that story totally wrong.”  Now that’s the kind of guy you want at a Bible study!

But it’s true.  Those other folks, in terms of the amount of money they’re giving, are doing a great deal.  But when you look at percentages of what they have, it’s almost a pittance, a drop in the bucket.

Here’s where we come back to strong-arming people out of their offerings.  The system of the temple, with the religious and political structures that go with it, can be a beast.  It can chew you up and spit you out.  Think of the poor souls who are swindled by the prosperity preachers.

Still, we need not go to the extremes of people being bullied or scammed.  We can expand our vision and ask, as noted earlier, is money offered in a spirit of holiness, justice, and love?  Do we share our resources in that spirit?

We could come at those questions from many different angles, but I would like to make an observation from these last few days.  Actually, it’s not my observation, but that of one of the mothers of the dance students who have been staying at the PERC [Presbyterian Event and Retreat Center].  She wrote down her thoughts in a letter, and I’m quoting part of it.  (She gave me permission!)

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[This photo was not taken in the summer!]

She speaks of last year having been “in a pretty rough place mentally and emotionally.”  But then she underwent “a transformation,” and a big part of that was “the respite [she] was given at the PERC.  There is a peace that exists at the mansion that is nothing short of healing.  It is home and family and rest.”

She says she couldn’t wait to come back this year, noting, “Toxicity has a way of creeping in while going through daily life.  I needed to come to refocus and renew.  I needed my whole family to have that opportunity as well, because I can describe my experience all I want, but that doesn’t lead to understanding.”

When her family returned this summer, they were offered lodging that was, let’s say, underwhelming.  Reflecting on that, she notes, “When I knew that we needed to have a different experience than what we arrived to, I knew I could just make a phone call and be welcomed with open arms.”

Here’s how she finishes: “The PERC is not just a building, there is a presence there that is palpable.”

Friends, that is what sacred space is all about.  Sometimes we need to get out of the way and allow the Spirit in to create that sacred space.  We are seeing that happen at the PERC.  We are seeing that happen right here.

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Give with holiness, justice, and love.  Give what the Lord lays on your heart.  Amen!

 

[1] cac.org/the-edge-of-the-inside-2019-07-09

[2] www.dougpagitt.com/writing


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.

4 ac 2

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.


Lydia's listening

St. Lydia and her household are baptized in the reading from Acts 16.  Her feast day is August 3.  That just happens to be the date when I was baptized.  In fact, I still have the shirt I was wearing when I was baptized.  It was the upper half of some blue surgical scrubs.  It’s a bit raggedy now, and it has some green stains due to a summer job I had a few years later, painting machines for a factory.

1 lydiaI begin with this talk about baptism, because the story of Lydia—her story of baptism and the change of heart and mind that goes with it—is a key moment in the early church.

Here’s why.  Earlier in chapter 16, the apostle Paul is in Asia Minor, where he has a vision in the night of a Macedonian man who says, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (v. 9).  So Paul makes his first journey to Europe.  He and his friends go to Philippi, where they encounter Lydia and her friends.

After they part company with Lydia, Paul and his group meet a slave girl who we’re told can predict the future.  There is a spirit of divination within her.  The girl’s owners use her as a fortune teller, and the biggest fortune is the one they make off her!  After a few days of her pointing out that Paul and his friends are “slaves of the Most High God,” the apostle gets irritated and casts the spirit out of her (v. 17).

Seeing that their source of income has been cast to the winds, her owners grab Paul and his friend Silas, have them viciously beaten, and tossed into jail.  To make a long story short, that night there’s an earthquake which knocks all the doors loose, but Paul and Silas refuse to escape.

In the morning, the magistrates—the local Roman officials—find out that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens, and they have rights.  The order that they be arrested and beaten was an illegal one, so they want Paul and Silas to leave town quickly and quietly.  (This kind of stuff ruins careers!)  But Paul says, “Are you serious?  I’m not moving an inch until they come and apologize!”  That takes some guts.

After that, they still have one more stop to make.  They can’t take off without saying goodbye to Lydia.  So we come full circle back to this woman whose name has been preserved for us, and that’s a rarity with women in the Bible.

So who is Lydia?  The first thing we learn about her is that Paul meets her at “a place of prayer” on the sabbath (v. 13).  That would sound right, since we’re told she’s “a worshiper of God” (v. 14).  That’s a term used to describe the so-called “God-fearers.”  They were Gentiles who admired and followed the Jewish faith.  We’re also told she is “a dealer in purple cloth.”  That’s a lucrative trade, so she’s got to have some money.

2 lydia

What’s so remarkable about this godly woman of means?  The scriptures say that the “Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (v. 14).  In his paraphrase called The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “As she listened with intensity to what was being said, the Master gave her a trusting heart—and she believed!”

There’s a theme of listening.  Why is listening so important?  Why do we listen?  Do we listen?  We listen to go deeper.  We listen to go deeper into life, to not stay at the surface of life.

What is the result of Lydia’s listening?  It’s her conversion.  In her essay, “Opening the Heart to Listen: Becoming Mystics and Prophets Today,” Judette Gallares says conversion “involves much more than a moment, it is a process which involves long periods of time…  It involves relationships that…are woven into [our] life story.”[1]

She uses Lydia’s conversion story to describe how all of us are called to be both mystics (those with a direct, loving experience of God) and prophets (those who address our society with the word from God, however that happens).  We might think of it as the inner and outer life.

Lydia does a very good job of this with her hospitality.  There’s more to that than serving tea and cookies!  “Part of the practice of hospitality during that time was to offer a safe haven for one’s guests, especially when there was an immediate possibility of real danger to them.”  Remember verse 40, when she welcomes Paul and his friends after they’re released from prison—on the condition that they get the heck out of Dodge?

It takes a certain depth of spirit, a certain willingness to listen, to demonstrate the courage that Lydia does.

Gallares puts it this way: “In today’s fragmented world, which [has] different levels and degrees of homelessness, our mystic spirit, our sense of ‘belonging to God’ must open us up to others and to the world, to offer ourselves, our communities and our planet earth as a hospitable place for humanity and the whole of God’s creation.”

We all experience homelessness to a degree, even if we’ve never been without physical shelter.  As humans, we often feel alienated; we feel like aliens, even to ourselves.  We feel like we’re in a foreign land.  We’re like Moses: I’ve been a stranger in a strange land! (Ex 2:22).  As Christians, the waters of baptism carry us to our homeland.

Gallares, like Lydia, is well aware of the risks involved.  Being from the third world (the Philippines)—as well as being a woman—she understands the dangers of violence and terrorism.  Still, she asks the question: “How can we listen with an open heart, willing to understand where the other is coming from?  This is the true spirit of hospitality.  It is not abrogated when there is danger or differences, but only at that moment proves itself to be genuine hospitality.”

3 lydiaHow can we imitate that Lydian listening here, in this church and in our community?  Remember, this involves being both mystic and prophet.  It involves finding that place within ourselves and within the community, the world around us.  It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, on this subject of listening, mentions what he calls “three gates” through which our words should pass.[2] 

First, we have to ask ourselves, “Is what I’m saying really true?  If it’s not true, then, of course, don’t bother.”  The second gate has us ask, “Is it loving?  Am I about to say something that will build up life and trust, or will it tear them down?”  He says the third gate is “probably the most difficult,” and I agree!  “Is what I am about to say really that necessary?  If it’s not, why clutter up the moment with more words and more noise competing for space and attention?”

So to sum up: is it true; is it loving; and is it necessary?  Imagine how our private and public discourse would look, including the internet (including Facebook and Twitter), if we took those things to heart!

We see this modeled by our government and our mass media.  The pundits and experts sit at tables and begin debates which often turn into shouting matches.  They’re already thinking about what they want to say next.  Sometimes they are literally talking at the same time, and it can go on for a while.  I like it when they go to split screen and have two, three, four, or even more people all wanting to get their two cents’ worth in.

We talk at each other, but not with each other.

Do you remember the show The A-Team?  Mr. T played B. A. Baracus.  I don’t remember much about that show, but I do remember one of B. A.’s favorite lines: “Quit your jibba jabba!”  Using myself as an example, I’ve spewed more than my share of jibba jabba.  And shockingly enough, there is actually jibba jabba in the church!

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Again I ask, why is listening so important?  Why do we listen?

Listening is the posture of faith.  Before speaking—before speaking even good words—we have to listen.  We have to listen to hear the call to conversion—the call to baptism—the call to ongoing conversion.  We must listen for the word of God.  We must listen like Lydia.

That involves more than keeping our traps shut while someone else is speaking.  There is that internal narrative, those words and images that run through our minds.  We especially notice them when we’re trying to silently pray or to meditate.  It’s best to not hang on to them or examine them, but to let them flow through us like leaves in the wind.  (It’s not easy, I’ll admit.  It takes a lot of practice.)

Imagine the reward when we take hold of that.  Look at the great gift Lydia gave to the early church—and to the world.  When we imitate Lydia’s listening, we also give a great gift to the world, to each other, and to ourselves.  However it happens, may we be open to the Spirit of Christ and listen.  Just listen.

 

[1] www.cori.ie/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/judette-gallares-rc.pdf

[2] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 341.


wilderness of words

I like words. I do; I love words. I’m fascinated by the whole concept of language. When I was young, I seriously thought about a career in science. I was, and still am, fascinated by mathematics—which is its own kind of language. Still, as I got older, I discovered a love of the humanities, the liberal arts. Language is central to the liberal arts, be it history, literature, philosophy, or a number of other fields, including my college major, political science. (That term “political science” is strange to me. I’ve tended to think of it as more an art than a science!)

Unfortunately, no matter how much one may like words, they can prove to be slippery little devils. Words aren’t always the best way to communicate. That’s true, even when we’re careful with the words we use.

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com
In a meditation on “choosing words wisely,” Henri Nouwen underlines the necessity of thinking before we speak. “When we are boiling with anger and eager to throw bitter words at our opponents,” he says, “it is better to remain silent. Words spoken in rage will make reconciliation very hard. Choosing life and not death, blessings and not curses, often starts by choosing to remain silent or choosing carefully the words that open the way to healing.”*

But even when we choose our words carefully, there’s no guarantee that the recipient of those words will understand or receive them in the way we intend. There’s plenty of puzzling over what is, in fact, being communicated.

In 1 Timothy 1:1-11, Paul is guiding “his true-born son in the faith” on the pros and cons of using words. He warns him of “certain people” who are “teaching erroneous doctrines and devoting themselves to interminable myths and genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation, and do not further God’s plan for us, which works through faith” (vv. 3-4). You may find this impossible to believe, but there really are people who enjoy using words, not for the sake of clarity or faith, but rather, they’re motivated by listening to the sound of their own voices—or seeing their own words in print or on the internet.

The instruction of the apostle to his younger colleague—which includes correcting those who are disrupting the well-being of the community—“has love as its goal, the love which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a genuine faith” (v. 5). If this is absent, everything else is useless. We can have true words, but without that love, they become false.

Paul alerts Timothy to those who go off course. It’s easier to notice when someone is spouting complete nonsense. What’s more difficult is when the teaching—or ordinary conversation—is apparently in line with the truth. In verse 6, Timothy gets this caution from his teacher: “Through lack of these some people have gone astray into a wilderness of words.” That’s how it reads in the Revised English Bible. I must confess; I believe I have spent some time in that wilderness. There have been times when I was talking about stuff I really didn’t understand.

The Greek word mataiologia literally means “vain” or “empty talk.” The neglect of love leads to empty talk. When we’re more concerned with winning a debate than seeking the truth, we wind up in that wilderness. Paul warns against those who “do not understand either the words they use or the subjects about which they are so dogmatic” (v. 7). Here’s how the Good News Bible puts it: those who “do not understand their own words or the matters about which they speak with so much confidence.” Unfortunately, we have no shortage of that.

When love is absent, our actions are worse than useless; they’re positively harmful. Jesus is not served through hateful words and deeds. He weeps when we indulge in that spiteful foolishness. And it’s especially bad when we do that stuff in his name—when we claim that our Christian faith leads us to do horrible things.

When we yield to the powers of death and hate within us, we have no gospel. We have no good news, for ourselves or for others. We only have bad news. We demonstrate how poorly we know and love Jesus.

Fortunately for us, Jesus knows all about wilderness—even a wilderness of words. In the wilderness, he is tempted by the devil. And in what form do these temptations come? Don’t they come in the form of words that sound true? One of the temptations is even backed up with scripture.

Jesus shows us a world without fear, anxiety, or rejected emotions. He shows us a world where his words bring about the reality of his truth as the living Word. Jesus speaks into the wilderness without his words being a weapon manipulating the reality of love. When we sense that we’re lost in the wilderness—even a wilderness of our own choice—we do indeed spend our energy on controlling, oppressing, hurting…without patience, forgiveness, mercy, but only passing judgment.

As I just noted, yielding to the powers of death and hate within leave us with no gospel: no good news, for ourselves or others. We only have bad news. We keep Jesus at arm’s length.

But Jesus is the one who leads us to safety. Our job is to fight the appalling appeal of hardening our hearts. Remember that our words alone do not convey truth. For that, we must submit to the living Word who is Jesus the Christ. May he shine in and through our words.

www.henrinouwen.org (from Bread for the Journey, Daily Meditation for 5 September 2010)