Monday, March 24, 2014

Christian Practices - Sabbath

Lent is a time to take a broad view of our faith and the ways we practice it. Focusing on Christian Practices allows us to consider not just our heritage as believers, but also the manner in which we live out our lives in Christ. Craig Dykstra writes, "Christian practices are not activities we do to make something spiritual happen in our lives. Nor are they duties we undertake to be obedient to God. Rather, they are patterns of communal action that create openings in our lives where the grace, mercy, and presence of God may be made known to us. They are places where the power of God is experienced. In the end, these are not ultimately our practices but forms of participation in the practice of God."[i]

Giving attention to the Sabbath is a place to begin. Dorothy Bass explains, “Sabbath keeping is not about taking a day off but about being recalled to our knowledge of and gratitude for God's activity in creating the world, giving liberty to captives, and overcoming the powers of death.”[ii] In Judaism, Sabbath comes from the Hebrew shabbat, which means primarily to cease or desist. The Hebrews were instructed to cease work on the Sabbath – see Lev. 23:3 – in order to honor the covenant God. The key to experiencing the Sabbath is in recognizing the rhythm of once every seven days. There is relief in knowing that there is one day in every seven on which we can cease our working.

The message of Scripture is that our value lies not in what we produce or how much we have, but in the fact we are loved by God. Isaiah reminds us,” I have summoned you by name; you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.”  (Isa 43:1-4)

A second meaning  of the Hebrew verb shabbat is “to rest.” A day of complete physical rest gives us extra strength for the tasks of the other six days. Many times Jesus insisted on time apart from his disciples and the crowds. It gave him opportunity for prayer and time with God. To give ourselves a day’s break from emotional and intellectual problems enables us to come back to them with fresh perspectives, creative insights, and renewed spirits.

Practicing Sabbath allows us to stop worrying about accumulating more and to embrace the values of the Kingdom of God. The grace of God offers stability for our lives; the word of God provides authority; the fellowship of the church offers intimacy. These supports help us find a sense of order, direction and hope in a chaotic world. What would it take for you to practice Sabbath for a day, a half-day, or even two hours a week?

[i] Dykstra, Craig
[ii] Bass, Dorothy C  Ibid



Those who sow in tears will reap in shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5)

The other night I came home from our Lenten Study time to put the kids down to bed. As I walked in the door Jennifer asked me, “So, how did it go?”

“Really good. I think the spirit was moving. I don’t know how talking about Old Testament Hebrew feasts translates to the Spirit’s moving, but it did,” I replied.

“How is that,” she said.

“Well, people were moved to tears,” I replied, “I take that back, they were not crying, they were moved enough emotionally that they were restraining tears as they shared how they had experienced God’s providence and watch care over them. Tears, or almost tears, I think, is often a good sign that the Spirit is at work, in my experience.”

She nodded and smiled. Ask Jennifer to share her testimony of faith in Christ, and she can hardly get through a paragraph without being reduced to tears. Still, it is the Spirit’s work in her life is that real and that raw for her. It is truly a beautiful thing.

Ancient Church Father Evagrius said that tears “soften the savage hardness in your soul”[1]

I, like some of those folks on Wednesday night, have an aversion to shedding tears in public. To be honest, I have an aversion to shedding tears anywhere. I don’t like tears because they represent, for me, a loss of control. A failure to master my own tear ducts, so to speak. This may be part of why believers, throughout history, including myself, have seen the appearance of being moved in some direction toward tears as a sign of the Spirit’s moving. Because, in the right time and the right place, this sense of being out of control is the evidence of the Spirit taking control.

I used to organize youth gatherings during my days as a youth pastor. We would bring together teenagers from around the state, we would sleep on the floors of a church, and we would play, worship, and pray together. And, inevitably there would be a service where the power of God would be at work, and there would be tears. For some, it was coming to terms with the grief of the pain they were dealing with, and letting God minister to them with his love in the midst of the heartache they felt. Other times, it was a deep sense of regret over sin and personal failure, and seeking God’s help them make meaningful change in their lives. It was often in response to something unplanned that this sort of thing would come about, so that none of us could take credit.

As we walk toward the cross this Lenten season, let us open ourselves to the Spirit’s work among us. Let him renew our faith and cleanse our hearts, so that Easter hope may once again be born in our hearts and lives through a renewed relationship with him. Amen.

[1] Ford, Marcia,  Traditions of the Ancients, p.9

Sunday, March 23, 2014

I'm not sure what to do here. I have spent so much time on Facebook that I generally only think in status mode. I talk about how cute and awesome and funny my 7-year-old nephew is and how we can all do things to change the world and how social justice is how I believe God is calling us to live and love. Oh, and bacon. I talk about bacon. And tea. And how I would like to grow things but don't. And grad school. Well, I've mostly quit talking about that because I'm like a kid and I don't know what I want to be when I grow up and I'm not sure that a PhD in Communication is part of the plan. I've done a miserable job with Lent this year. I'm not focused on anything. My mind is flitting from one thing to another and therefor so are my hands. A little of this, a little of that. Perhaps being a part of this blog will help me settle and focus. This isn't profound or entertaining or well, I don't know what it is but here's to the beginning. My God's sacrifice pull me to my own sacrifices that I should make in my life.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Christian Practices - Forgiveness

What do you need to do to receive God's forgiveness? What do others need to do to receive yours?
In the years after 586 BC, the populace of Jerusalem finds itself in trouble. The Temple has been destroyed and much of the population has been carried into captivity in Babylon. The dilemma it faces is this. The Temple, the dwelling of God, is no more. With no Temple there is no opportunity for sacrifice, and thus no way to find reconciliation with God. In the face of their hopelessness and despair  Ezekiel, priest turned prophet, challenges the former approach to reassurance. By steering away from retelling the old stories of God's mighty works, he turns instead to relating the true nature of the Judeans. They have taken God for granted, worshiping idols and playing fast and loose with God's mercy. This offense to God has resulted in their exile.

The path to restoration, according to Ezekiel, lies in awareness of sin, repentance, and the formation of communities (which will become the synagogues that replace the Temple) that hold dear the word of the Lord. The Lord gives Ezekiel  a scroll and instructs him to eat the words so they become part of him, and then to proclaim the words to the House of Israel in captivity. And as a counterpoint to the words of judgment and condemnation there is hope:    

"This is what the Sovereign Lord  says: 'I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again.'

 "They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols.  I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh." (Ezek 11:17-19)

It really is another hint we have that God's interest lies in spiritual rather than legalistic renewal. What Israel needed – what we need – is the heart of God within us. What Israel needed – what we need – is God's forgiveness. And that’s the promise: “I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity and will rebuild them as they were before.  I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me.  Then this city will bring me renown, joy, praise and honor before all nations on earth that hear of all the good things I do for it; and they will be in awe and will tremble at the abundant prosperity and peace I provide for it.“ (Jer 33:7-9)

And so Jesus comes granting forgiveness to the paralytic (Mark 2:1 ff) and instructs the disciples to forgive repeatedly (Matt 18:21ff). Why is that so challenging? Peter asks, “How often must I forgive my brother?” (Not “how often am I allowed to forgive him”!) Jesus basically responds by saying, "There is no limit," and later prays that God will forgive the crowd that crucifies him (Luke 23:34). And as with the paralytic and others, he does so before they ask, and before they repent.

God  insists that we forgive and love unconditionally. At times it sounds conditional. 
“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.  And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." (Mark 11:24-25)

But in what sense? That God is some sort of accountant, keeping records of our actions and dealing out reward or punishment in turn?

More correctly, we simply cannot understand the forgiveness of God until we have pursued it ourselves. We are encouraged to experience how hard it is to forgive the ones who insult us, steal our material goods, threaten or take the lives of our loved ones, by forgiving them and loving them before they love us. We may not be successful, but we're to try, with God's help, repeatedly. From the counter-intuitive perspective of the Gospel it is forgiveness that leads to repentance, and not the other way around. In other words, we are called to respond to those around us with the heart of God. Then we begin to grasp the depth of God's sacrificial love for us so we can make it our own.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Christian Practices - Hospitality

Martin Copenhaver argues that no Christian practice is more necessary today than hospitality.[1] He points out that in Biblical times it was common practice to offer hospitality, because travel in the ancient east was so dangerous. You were morally obligated to supply food and safe travel to a stranger – or an enemy – who came to your door asking for help or shelter. Marjorie Thompson says, “All sorts of people had to travel at times through ‘enemy territory,’ which meant that hospitality to strangers was a matter of mutual survival.”[2] Or as Copenhaver puts it, “Remember that the next time you may be the stranger in need of hospitality. This time you may be the host, but next time you may be the guest.  … It is a reminder that you never know which role you may be required to play next.”

“To understand why I would say that,” says Copenhaver, “I think we need only consider some of the elements of hospitality. For one, we are hospitable when we welcome someone to a safe place. To be sure, we do not live under the same threats as ancient near east travelers. Nevertheless, there are still so few safe places in our own time.

Safety means freedom – as President Roosevelt put it, freedom from want, from fear, freedom of worship, of speech. Churches can offer that kind of freedom. My youth group in high school was a safe place, away from competition, being belittled, freeing all in our group to explore who we were for one another and for God. A critical moment for us came when we asked our youth minister if we could have communion when the group next met – in a private home. As far as he knew the group had never been permitted to do that before, but he knew of no reason why we couldn’t. So we did. It was a most intimate, sacred moment.

Copenhaver points out that some individuals are themselves a kind of place where you can feel safe enough to let down your guard and be yourself. Their hearts are like sanctuaries. He says Henri Nouwen put it this way: “Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space... The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free, free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances.”

For Copenhaver, hospitality, welcoming the stranger, also means accepting differences. He recalls Will Rogers being remembered for saying, “There are no strangers, just friends I haven’t met yet.” But there are some strangers we would not choose as friends. Perhaps they are strange. But hospitality insists that they be welcomed in and they are not asked to change.

This can be a most difficult task for church people. We operate conditionally in the world, and it carries over into the community of faith. Our inclination is to welcome the stranger, but to do so with our hidden agendas. We invite them in on the condition that within a reasonable amount of time they (take  a shower) (accept Christ) (learn English) (be baptized). We are willing to accept them as they are for a while, but eventually they need to come around. True hospitality makes no such demands.

Copenhaver finally defines generosity as a mark of hospitality. “ I don’t mean the kind of generosity that leads us to share a little bit of what we have with others. Rather, true hospitality requires that we begin to loosen the grip of those distinctions between what is mine and what is yours.” He relates the story in Genesis:

In Copenhaver’s words, Abraham sees three men, three strangers approaching his tent. He doesn’t even wait for them to arrive. Instead, he runs out to meet them and says, “My lords, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and a morsel of bread—just a morsel—that you may refresh yourselves, for I am your servant.” And then, once Abraham is on the other side of the tent door, he says to Sarah, “Quick, get three big sacks of flour and make cakes.” He takes a calf—the one he was saving for a grand occasion—and gives it to his servant to be prepared. Then Abraham takes milk and makes cheese. All of that without a pantry chef. When he is done, he lays the meal before his guests. (Mind you, this is before he knows who these guests are.) And Abraham stands by while the guests eat their fill of that “little morsel” he had promised them.

Copenhaver: “For the most part, we are not prepared to recognize the extent to which hospitality requires generosity. We are people who say in a thousand ways that good fences make good neighbors. What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours. But the hospitable spirit says, What is mine is yours. The hospitable spirit holds possessions with open hands. Understood in this way, hospitality is not a trivial thing, but the quality on which the whole of Christian ethics rests.” In Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, the thief Jean Valjean is granted refuge in a mountain church, but awakens in the night to steal the church’s silver communion settings and run away. Dragged back by the police, he is taken to the priest, who says that the silver wasn’t stolen, but was a gift. And to Valjean: “Here. You forgot the candlesticks.”  
“The Hasidic masters tell the story of a rabbi who disappeared every Sabbath Eve to commune with God in the forest -- or so his congregation thought. Then one Sabbath night they sent one of their cantors to follow the rabbi and observe the holy encounter. Deeper and deeper into the woods the rabbi went until he came to the small cottage of an old Gentile woman, sick to death and crippled into a painful posture. Once there, the rabbi cooked for her and carried her firewood and swept her floor. When the chores were finished, he returned immediately to his little house next to the synagogue. Back in the village, the people demanded of the one they'd sent to follow him, "Did our rabbi go up to heaven as we thought?" "Oh, no," the cantor answered after a thoughtful pause, "our rabbi went much, much higher than that."”[3]  Hospitality is generous unconditional welcome – and generous service.

[1] Copenhaver, Marvin B. “Practicing Our Faith – Entertain Angels.” Wellesley Congregational Church, March, 1999. Many thanks to Marvin for his attention to the Christian Practices, especially this sermon on hospitality. It and many other resources can be found on the website, .
[2] Ibid
[3] Joan Chittister, from "There Is a Season," excerpted from Spiritual Literacy, Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life, p. 343, in Norfleet, Agnes W. “Practicing Hospitality” North Decatur Presbyterian Church Decatur, Georgia.

Songs for Thought

♪ You can't run when you're holding suitcases ♪ I think the song "Suitcases" by Dara Maclean is a great song for Lenten introspection. What extra baggage am I carrying that's holding me back from following God? ♪ Anything I put before my God is an idol ♪ Need a song that cuts right to the heart of it? Try Jimmy Needham's "Clear the Stage". Sometimes, you just need to think in song lyrics.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Christian Practices - Consumerism

Christian Practices are built on the notion that God encourages us to live out our lives in certain ways. Consumerism focuses on how we deal with stuff (material possessions) in ways that deepen our relationship with God, other people, and the whole created world. Christian practices can help us figure out the difference between good stuff and bad stuff and let go of stuff we don’t need. We're told to get jobs that will be fulfilling - monetarily fulfilling, socially fulfilling, stuff fulfilling.  You can't be whole without a lot of money, cars, getting all the new gadgets you can, at least one recreational vehicle, a TV in every room, and this list goes on.   A lot of us grew up thinking we needed to own certain things to be whole people. 
George Carlin says that for many the meaning of life is stuff. Carlin says, “A house is just a place with a lid on it to put your stuff,  while you go out and get more stuff. Sometimes you have to go get a bigger house so you can get even more stuff.”  He talks about going on vacation to visit other people and there is no place for your stuff  because their stuff is piled everywhere. If you get too much stuff you have to put some of it in storage. There’s a whole industry dedicated to piling up our stuff. When you go on vacation you have to bring some of your stuff with you. Not all of it. Just the stuff you need. Two bags, a carry-on and the stuff in your pockets. So even though you’re a long way from home you’re ok, because you still have some of your stuff.
So what is the deal?  What is this obsession over materials?  And how does being Christian fit in with it all?  How can we be a Christian in a society that insists that money is everything, social status is everything, and having everything we want is a normal feeling?  How do we balance career, family, goals, and being a Christian? What does the church say about stuff and money?
Think about how we use our money and stuff.  Do we hoard it?  Are we frivolously spending what we earn?  Are we willing to help those in need- whoever they are? And what about the Bible?  What does it have to say about money?  Jesus talks about money a lot, and in many different ways.  For example, we are told that a widow gives all that she has while others only give of some (Mark 12:41-44); a rich man is to give all that he has (Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-30); it is hard for a rich person to get into heaven (Mark 10:24-25, Luke 21:1-4); and that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10). 
Jesus tells this parable in Matthew 25:14-27:
14 "Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17 So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18 But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.
19 "After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.' 21 "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!' 22 "The man with the two talents also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.' 23 "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'
24 "Then the man who had received the one talent came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.' 26 "His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
How would you summarize this teaching? In our culture, how do our possessions define us? How does Jesus define his servants?  We might be defined by the kind of car we drive, the clothes we wear, the house we live in. Jesus defines his servants on the basis of their willingness to risk for the benefit of their master.
Paul says to Timothy (1 Tim 6:17-19)
17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

Paul is affirming than an attitude of faith leads to a lifestyle of kindness, generosity, and sharing. What stands in the way of that lifestyle? What are the “realities” that cause us to hold back our resources for our own benefit?
Consumerism is about choices. We look for ways to be Christians in the world we live in, at home, in the work place, as we walk down the street, while we grocery shop.  In fact, the very stuff we have and the money we earn can be and is a part of how we can be and are Christians in the world.  And just because we do not have money or stuff to give to others, we always have ourselves to give. 
We use our gifts to help those in need, be it through our money, our stuff, or even our bare hands.  As we live and work in the world, we can be mindful of what we have been given and who has given these gifts to us.  And the best way to use these gifts is to share with those around us. We can share the stuff that we have, and the money we have earned, in a way that will serve God and serve other people in this world.  That is what God has given us:  the talents we bring to this world to use in our relationships, not only with God, but also with everyone we meet.  Ask yourself, how do I use my stuff, my money, my talents?  How can I use them to help out my fellow human being-no matter their background? Who is my neighbor?  How can I help those in need? 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014