Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Chronological Snobbery: Review of The Right Church

Chronological snobbery. Do you have it? While it might sound like a disease you might catch towards the beginning of a New Year, it is simply favoring the ideas of the present as vastly superior to those of the past. Ours is an age and culture fascinated with the new, improved, and updated. It seems my phone, my Apps and my software are always in need of updating. As soon as we get a new tablet or phone, the newer and improved version hits the shelf and the older version becomes obsolete.

While so much has seemingly become disposable, this isn't true for Christianity. The saints who have gone before have much to teach us. Chuck Gutenson's The Right Church: Live Like the First Christians serves as a helpful way to explore the diverse wisdom from early church theologians. I was amazed in my church history classes to learn how much those theologians disagreed but even more by how much they challenged conventional wisdom. Gutenson's book hits a number of relevant topics and explores them through the lens of a wide variety of early church fathers. His aim is to put us in conversation with their ways of thinking in order to challenge some of our current presumptions that too often go unexamined.

For example, while there were lots of agreement about the importance of Scripture in the early church, there was also a variety of interpretations and even schools of interpretations. Gutenson challenged me to see that it wasn't the more historical perspective of the Antioch school, but the more allegorical school from Alexandria that had the lesser tendency to fall into heresy. From a quote fromOrigen, Gutenson reminds us what has been too often forgotten, "the goal of Scripture is to form us into the people of God, into a people who live out with integrity the life of faith." (12) Additionally the early church fathers point out why individualism and schism is a danger to ourselves.

Another concept that too often goes unexamined is our use of the word freedom.  This was evident to me watching the news recently in an interview with a person smoking pot who could do so legal for the first time in the state of Washington. He declared, "I am free to be free." Gutenson's discussion reveals why many staunch conservatives would be surprised to learn how "liberal" their ideas about freedom really are philosophically speaking. Instead, Professor Gutenson shows why slavery to Christ is highest and the only real freedom.

It was illuminating having just finished Gutenson's exploration of the early church fathers on wealth and poverty prior to reading about the factory fires in Bangladesh where workers were killed and burned making low cost clothes in inhumane conditions. This made St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom's words that much more convicting. Perhaps most thought-provoking and convicting was St. Chrysostom's observation about 2 Thessalonians 3:10 ("Anyone who would not work should not eat") wasn't simply for the poor, but the wise ancient preacher points out was instead for the rich who "are often guilty of worse idleness." Having someone quote that passage to me to justify their own inaction recently, I was glad I had read that chapter. Similar is true for the chapters on Stewardship of Creation, Society and Government, and especially fascinating is his observations about the early church's stance on war and military service pre-Constantine.

For those looking for a few short stories or even sermon examples that sum up the early church's critique's to our way of life, the last chapter on the Desert Fathers is for you. Gutenson invitation "to reflect upon these 'strange' early fellow Christians" is certainly true. Their lives present a stark contrast to our society that builds debt amounts hard to comprehend, clamors for more gadgets, eats our way into a heath-care crisis, and requires storage units for all our excess possessions. The long quotations throughout further his intention about engagement with, not necessarily agreement with the early church. For ours is a different time. Yet in reflecting upon their lives and wisdom with openness instead of chronological snobbery, hopefully Gutenson's attempts will spark renewal to a people called to distinct way of love.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Scrolls Show

This past Sunday evening our church had the opportunity to host a Christian non-profit organization that has one of the only full sets of the Tanakh scrolls. The Tanakh is the Jewish way of referring to the Hebrew Bible Bible or what the Christians would call the Old Testament. (There are very few full sets for various reasons.)
Rabbi Marty Cohen joined us to explain what goes into the making of a Hebrew scroll. One of the larger scrolls on display was over 600 years old! One of the lasting aspects that stuck with me is just how tedious and labarious a process that goes into making a Hebrew scroll. All the letters are the same sizes, the space between the letters are the same sizes, the space between words are the same sizes, just to name a few of the intracaces of the process.
More emotionally impactful was the story he related about one of the scrolls the group has purchased that survived the Holocaust. Nazi's would unroll scrolls and drive large trucks (weighed down with Jewish leaders) over them. Or even play catch with their bayonets.
Rabbi Cohen reiterate through recounting the processes of making a scroll and their survival just how precious a book the Bible really is and how too often we take it for granted. While we might not worship the Bible, hopefully such an event can inspire us to get a Bible off the shelf and read it as the God inspired, transforming book that it is. Because as I've repeatedly quoted another's wise words, "For some people, the only Bible they might read is you!"

Thursday, April 26, 2012

General Conference Day 2 Reflections (Naive & Gullible as they may be)

As I leave General Conference, I leave a little more impressed with the global connection that is the United Methodist Church. I am impressed how passionate so many are for Christ, for the world, and secondarily for the United Methodist Church. I also leave a little less gullible and naïve.
I found it interesting yesterday in how speaking to a group of people on the conservative side theologically and reading a blog of those on the liberal side of the theological spectrum interpreted the discussion on rules and amendments very obviously informed by their respected perspectives. Each saw the manipulative hand of the other at work in the discussion about how the rules to govern our legislative process. Either I'm more naïve than I thought (which is possible) or each was relatively blinded by their perspectives.
My prayer as I leave General Conference over the next eight days is that more people will be able to be willing to take off their ideological glasses and risk trusting one another instead of viewing everything through prior commitments. Whether the glasses be those that view bigger is always bad, conservatives are manipulative, liberals are unbiblical, or whatever they may be so that a risking trust would find unity in mission and unity in Christ. Hopefully that is not as gullible and naive a wish as perhaps it seems now.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Random Thoughts from General Conference

Here are some random Thoughts from my first day observing as a visitor at General Conference.
I'm impressed with the openness and transparency that is part of the process. Each of the committee meetings are open meetings to observers. There is great concern for how the process works so that it is fair to all and voices can be heard.
We are intentional about inclusiveness and diversity.
We are around 40% non American with regard to representation in the 988 delegates. That will only grow.
We are a global connection and will hopefully restructure ourself to go where the growth is happening (outside the US) and not necessarily where the money is (US).

Monday, April 2, 2012

Scripture: James 1:27
I saw a bumper sticker the other day that declared, "The bigger the government the smaller the people." Like much bumper sticker ideology it is only skin deep. Having visited Haiti on a mission trip, I can say rather conclusively that the smaller the government in no way results in people that are more responsible and of higher character. There is a need for government and Charles (Chuck) Gutenson's book Christians and the Common Good aids Christians in thinking through how we engage politically for the benefit of all God's people.
I feel the need to begin with full disclosure. I am an independent politically speaking. Despite what Rush Limbaugh asserts about moderates as fence sitters, being moderate can mean getting shot at by both sides and feeling isolated without a predominate home base in either political camp. I am a moderate because I see complexity and gray areas. As well I see the need to preserve the best of the past. I say that to give my perspective in reading Chuck Gutenson's book. I must also disclose that Gutenson was my professor and Sunday School teacher for a short time.
With all that out of the way, I whole heartedly recommend this book for all Christian thinkers wherever you fall on the political spectrum. Whether you are like my liberal cousins to my other rigidly conservative cousins to even my libertarian uncles, all claiming a "Christian" perspective. (Perhaps that explains a lot about me.) Chances are good you know people with similarly diverse opinions. Perhaps you too have heard someone justify their position by citing a Bible passage as a proof text for their position. What is needed today is less politically rhetoric and far more rigorously intellectual and Scripture based discussions about complex issues that involve real people who face real difficulties.
As a pastor I hear people use Christian jargon unquestioningly and cite Bible verses uncritically. Whether it is immigration arguments that bypass direct commands against oppressing aliens or healthcare debates that begin with fiscal issues before, if ever, surveying Jesus own ministry to the lowest, least, and lost, not near enough Christians think through issues such as the role of government or grasp how biblical themes like the call to self sacrifice and social holiness might impact their politic ideology.
Readable and challenging, Gutenson's book is a great place for anyone to begin. While Christians too often seek to legislate morality or at the other extreme see politics as dealing with unspiritual matters, Gutenson challenges those who claim to follow the God of love, by asserting that to "love someone is to desire their long-term well-being and to be willing to engage in acts of self-sacrifice to bring it about." (p. 61) Gutenson also helps his reads work through key issues like hermeneutics, relevant Scriptures passages, all the way to giving biblical and theological reasons for the role of government and tax credits.    
Gutenson aims not so much to sway opinions as much as to help his readers think through their own political positions biblically and theologically. He is certainly to be commended for encouraging us to go beyond bumper sticker theology and exhorting us to, "'think Christianly' about public institutions and their role in developing communities that live out God’s intentions." (p. 170). As a whole, the book made me think of John Wesley's aim for the Methodist movement, "to reform the nation and to spread scriptural holiness across the land."
Link to Christians and the Common Good
What do you see as God's vision for humanity?
How do you believe the government has a role in that? How is it different/same from the church?
How does your theology shape your political ideology?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Bachelor, Happiness, Lent, and Holiness

Scripture: 1 Peter 1:15-16
I was "outed" a few weeks ago in a church service which revealed  I watch the "reality" show The Bachelor (if you stop reading at this point I won't blame you). I stand by my statement that I watch this show purely because I love my wife who watches the show. There are many elements about this show that make my head and heart hurt. As you might know toward the end of the season the bachelor meets some of the girls' family. Watching this episode I noticed the contrast between those families who's aim was their daughter's lasting marriage relationship and those who's primary concern was their daughter's happiness.
Unfortunately in our society the highest pursuit in life is happiness. Yet, as we've all learned, happiness is relative and fleeting. More lasting and our deeper craving is God's call to holiness. Happiness points beyond itself to something greater and that is holiness.
Thus Ash Wednesday and Lent can help in our journey toward holiness. Ash Wednesday service and the 40-day season Lent can seem solemn with the themes of repentance and examination. Though seemingly at odds with happiness and holiness, Lent's themes are important steps toward holiness. Holiness often gets a bad rap. Holiness is neither a badge of self-righteousness nor following legalistic rules. Holiness is certainly not a solemn pursuit either. Rather, holiness is about pursuing God personally and corporately. Holiness is more than a solitary effort, it is a communal endeavor. It is through holiness that we get glimpses and foretaste of joy which far surprises temporary and fleeting happiness.  
Just in case you need a refresher for Lent, checkout: http://youtu.be/m3L3c23MfC0
What do you see as the difference between happiness and holiness?  Which are you aiming for?
What Lenten practice of giving up or taking on something new will you try?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Lin-sanity, Predictability, and Discipleship

Scripture: Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23
First there was Tebow and now there is Linsanity. Have you heard of Jeremy Lin and how he is taking the NBA by storm? The NBA's first Taiwan-American was the Player of the Week last week. This is after being cut by two teams and going virtual unnoticed by NBA scouts playing his college basketball at Harvard. Due to a ration of injures for the New York Knicks, Lin got his shot and he has taken advantage of it. Lin's latest dramatics is that he hit the last second three-point game winning shot last night. The reason for Jeremy Lin's comparisons to Tebow is that both are evangelical Christians. Both have also had to overcome skeptics and doubters. What caught my attention this morning was the quote of NBA Commissioner David Stern about Lin. With all this rise in notoriety Stern is obviously happy. Though I couldn't find the actual quote it went something to the effect, "In an age where scouts pigeon-hole NBA ready guys at the McDonalds All American Game (for graduating High School players) it is nice to see someone like Lin who has brought some unpredictability to the game."
This made me immediately remember George Ritzer's book The McDonaldization of Society. (What, you didn't go there?) Sociologist George Ritzer points out systems in our culture designed to ensure rationality. He presents four dimensions: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. You can go to a McDonalds in the state of Washing and in Florida and know that when you order a Big Mac it will be same in both places. That is by design both in terms of ingredients but also in terms of the systems that control the employees and the methods they use. This ensures the ingredients and taste of the Big Mac are predictable.
None of these dimensions are completely bad. Having predictability in life is necessary for a sense of order and stability. We can predict when the sun will rise and set. We can predict that mail will come each day. We can predict what our orange juice, coffee, etc. will taste like when we purchase our favorite brand. But too much of anything is a bad thing. As much as we  psychologically need predictability we also crave unpredictability. We desire some drama, we desire adventure. There's a reason action adventure movies are so popular. As is the reason the media hypes stories like Jeremy Lin. He comes from out of no where. No one predicted it. Will the story and fascination continue? For how long? How will it end?
In our "McDonaldized" age, we look for unpredictability often through harmful means: drugs, alcohol, dangerous adventure seeking, pornography, etc. Yet when Jesus declared that the Kingdom of God had come near, I believe He was giving us an opportunity to live the adventurous life we truly crave in following Him. When Jesus declares "Take up your cross and follow me" He is calling us to the ultimate life of unpredictability. Just go ask Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Elijah, David, Jeremiah, James, John, Peter, or Paul.
How does viewing discipleship through the lens of adventure and not a preprogramed set of rules help or change things for you?
Where is God calling you? Another way to look at this question might be: where does my God given passions line up with a need in the world that I feel called to? How would this be a good adventure adding some unpredictability to your life?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Being spectacular through the mundane

A Man Just Like Us…
1 Kings 18-19
            If I had to do it over again, I think this sermon probably better fits last Sunday better than this Sunday. With last Sunday being Super Bowl XVLI, the spectacle watched by 111.3 million viewers corresponds well with the spectacle that is the Prophet Elijah’s life. With the Super Bowl we have the two best teams going head to head. There are the commercials that make us reminisce and make us laugh. There is the glamorous halftime show that again came with a bit of controversy. There was a last second hail-Mary pass. If you’re like me there were good friends to be around and good food to munch on.
            The Prophet Elijah is a Super Bowl sort of character with a flair for the dramatic. He is kind of like the spiritual seeker’s patron saint. We meet Elijah the Tishbite when he declared to King Ahab that the Lord will not allow rain until God says so. This comes just after Scripture tells us that King Ahab has taken Jezebel as his wife. With Jezebel came the worship of the Canaanite god Baal, who was seen as the God of thunder and storms. So for Elijah to say this to King Ahab is like a declaration of a war among the gods. God tells Elijah to flee for safety which he does in the wilderness next to a small pond called a wadi. For food God sends ravens who bring Elijah bread and meat. Like I said, pretty spectacular stuff. Then God sends word to Elijah to make his way across the country to the city of Zarephath, the heart of Canaanite country, when he encounters a widow who is making her last meal. She’s has just enough ingredients for a last meal for her and her son. Elijah asks her to bring this to him, since I guess he famished, but also notes that the God of Israel will keep her supply of ingredients continuous if she obeys. She does and they all have food until one day the boy dies. The grieving widow takes her anger out of Elijah and blames him. He proceeds to go to the boy. He lays on top of the boy and prays to God three times who then resuscitates the boy. Again we see the spectacular.
            The drought that the Prophet Elijah declared goes on for three years. Elijah then has a run in with an assistant to King Ahab who is on the search for water. Elijah then encounters King Ahab himself and summons the King and the prophets of Baal for a divine duel if you will. They go up to the top of Mount Carmel where the prophets of Baal set up an altar as does Elijah. The contest is for each side to pray to their god and the God that consumes the sacrifice by fire will be seen as God of the land. Elijah allows the prophets of Baal to go first. They cry out to their god for hours. At noon Elijah begins to mock the prophets. It’s kind of like Elijah stacks the deck in their favor a little bit. It’s like Elijah allows the opposing team to score some points all while mocking them by saying, “Go ahead and score at will. I’m still going to beat.” (Elijah would not have gotten the sportsmanship star if he were playing Upward.) In fact, Elijah mocks them saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 1 Kings 18:27 In the Message paraphrase it has Elijah in jest suggesting that perhaps their god in using the bathroom that’s why he doesn’t hear their cries. So the prophets not only begin to cry louder but cut themselves in hope to get the attention of their god. With a flair for the dramatic, Elijah has everybody come closer to his altar. He digs a ditch around the altar and has his people douse the altar and the sacrifice on the altar with water, three times. Then Elijah prays to God, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 1 Kings 18:36-37 Sure enough fire comes down and consumes the sacrifice, the altar, and even the water from the ditch is dried up. The people fall down and begin to worship God. Elijah then declares to King Ahab the drought will end even though all anyone can see is a small cloud over the sea. Elijah has a flair for the dramatic. Wouldn’t it be fun to be Elijah? To say a simple prayer and God respond in such an overwhelming and spectacular way?
            Before you get to wrapped up in desiring to be Elijah let’s continue his story. Elijah’s dramatics get the attention of Jezebel who promises to end Elijah’s life. Yet again Elijah had to flee to the wilderness. However, you might think Elijah still has some boldness or brashness or at least a little confidence left after such an amazing event. Instead Elijah has a pity party. “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 1 Kings 19:4 What has happened to our extraordinary hero? Has anything like this happened to you? After an emotional high your rollercoaster of emotions takes over and you hit a deep valley? Things appear to be going your way and then life crashes into you?
            I’ve mentioned before how much preaching takes out of me. My last appointment was to a three point circuit where I preached three times twice a month: 8:30, 9:30, and 11:00. That first year I was absolutely wiped out after preaching three times in a row and driving about ten minutes between each church (depending on how fast I drove the country roads in between them). Usually after preaching three services my adrenalin had been going so much that I would crash the rest of the day. Getting home I’d go into the parsonage’s large living room close all the currents and just sit for a while. I was so wiped you could have asked my name and I’m not sure I could have told you what it was. Though Elijah has the tendency for the dramatic, he is a lot like the rest of us with highs and lows, great faith and great doubt.
            God tells Elijah to get up and eat. An angel repeats this instruction to Elijah. Then Elijah journeys for forty days nights to Mount Horeb, the same mountain we discussed last week with Moses. God and Elijah have another conversation and again Elijah has bit of a pity party. God then tells Elijah to go out on the mountain and God will pass by. Elijah goes out and a strong wind comes by such that it was splitting rocks. But God was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire. But God was not in the fire. Then came the sound of sheer silence.
            God and Elijah continue their conversation and God gives Elijah farther instruction that will help the Israelites and give Elijah a helper and successor. Elijah goes on to continue serving the Lord, but his ending is even dramatic. God carried Elijah up into heaven on a chariot. Seemingly a fitting end for a person with such flair for the spectacular. Though Elijah’s story is full of excitement it is telling that Elijah wavers, fears, doubts and encounters God most of all in sound of sheer silence. As perhaps we’ve heard it said before about worship and serving God, “It’s not how high you jump and praise, but how you walk when you come back down.”
            The danger of Elijah’s story in our day is we too hope that God will show up in the miraculous in the spectacular overlooking to the ordinary and seemingly mundane. As my professor from January points out in his book What God Wants for your Life, "Signs and wonders offered reassurance, certainty, and a sense of God's presence in the midst of seemingly meaningless and painful events."[i] We can get caught looking for God only or exclusively in spectacular when God is often trying to speak to us in the stillness of a small voice. We’re so busy, so often on the move, with so much noise around us and we wonder where God is or why we’re not growing more in our spiritual walk with God.
Have you seen the shirts and signs going around that say, "If I agreed with you, then we'd both be wrong." Humorous for sure, but I think it reveals something else about us as a society. We're bad listeners. We really are. Look at our political process and there are debates, tweets, sound bites, speeches, and a few town hall meetings thrown in for good measure, but how much real listening takes place? We live in the rise of the digital information age with broadband speeds and as it has been pointed out it has not exactly made us anymore wise. What has become too common place is we can go to the websites and news sites that confirm our previously held beliefs rather than go to websites and news organizations that are different than what we hold to be true. Thus we are rarely challenged and rarely do we listen to the other side, we just lock and load with more of our own arguments.
The same can be true within the church. People suggest new ideas or creative proposals and are shot down because we don't things like that around here. Listening really is a lost art in our society. I actually got that from a title of a book by Michael Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening. It’s a book I had to read for one of my seminary classes. I remember getting this book and being humored at a 250 page book on listening. My first thought was to think that this author must be a terrible writer to spend more than 100 pages on listening. What can really be said about listening? We'll thankfully I read the book with a better attitude and learned a great deal about listening. One of Nichols main ideas is that "Listening is a strenuous but silent activity." I don't think many of us are really surprised to learn that silence is a crucial part of listening, but strenuous? One of those things you learn as you're growing up is that God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a purpose, to listen. But for most us during our moments of silence in a conversation, we're figuring out what we’re going to say next. We're getting our defense ready. If we're a parent listening to our child we're usually trying to figure out how we're going to set them straight. If we're a spouse listening to our mate we're usually trying to prove why we're right and they are wrong. If we're trying to convince a friend or acquaintance while their political ideology is crazy we're remembering arguments and looking for holes in their argument and so on and so on we go. Thus, I think Nichols sentence is exactly on point.  "Listening is a strenuous but silent activity." It takes effort, a lot of effort, to shut off those voices in our heads and truly be silent and hear what the other person is trying to tell us. This morning we’re blessed to have our Boy Scouts join us. I was a Boy Scout at one time. I didn’t get real far in scouting. One of the reasons why I didn’t get real far was that it requires some strenuous effort to get the merit badges to move up in rank and at that time I was unwilling to put in the effort. It takes work. They have to volunteer time. They have to learn new skills and a variety of them. They have to learn from others. They have to go through discomfort. And on and on. It’s strenuous.
This is true for listening and it is also true in our spiritual lives especially as it relates to God in prayer. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we're so often looking for God in the extraordinary and the miraculous. That’s easy really. It requires little of us. Thus we take little to no time to cultivate an inner relationship with God. We're so busy running from errand to errand, from children's activity to grandkids activity to meeting to event and on and on we run too busy to stop and listen and cultivate a spiritual life that is an ongoing conversation with God much less to hear God’s small still voice. If God would just speak to us out of the clouds or with fireworks or on billboard signs perhaps we'd hear because that's really the only way to get our attention at the lifestyle we are running. We wonder where's God? We wonder why we have so little energy? I really like my phone. It does all sorts of neat things. I’ve told you before how my prayer guide for morning and evening is on it. I’ve got all kids of Bible software on it. I can check Facebook or Twitter. GPS if I need it. Lately I’ve been playing chess. It’s funny how we can get addicted to those games. But you know this gadget is worthless if I don’t plug it in and charge up its battery. Isn’t that true for us? We can refuel our bodies with food and the will keep us going, but that plus a whole lot of spectacular wasn’t enough to sustain Elijah and it won’t sustain us either. It takes the strenuous, daily activity to listening to God in prayer to energize to live the Christian life.
Nichols goes on to observes, "Genuine listening involves a brief suspension of self." instead of formulating our arguments or biting our tongue until we can get a word in edge wise, to really listen we have to let go of our stuff, of our agenda, of what we want to see happen in order to genuinely hear our children, our spouse, our friends, our church members and the same is true for listening to God. I don't think this is far from Jesus' words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25 There is more encompassed in Jesus' words than listening, but I think that's a part. If we really want to know what God wants for our lives, what God is calling us to do, to hear what God is desiring to do in us and through us as individuals and as a church, it will call from the strenuous activity of suspending our own agendas and listening to hear the still small voice of God. Maybe this sermon would have fit better last Sunday. But maybe now that we’re away from it, perhaps we’ll have new ears, both ears, to hear and an inner disposition that is ready to do the hard work of listening to God’s still small voice that we can begin listening to the real cries of others around us who are also like Elijah, worn out, burned out, looking for light.   

[i] Schmidt 66

Monday, February 6, 2012

Prayer as...

But Moses said to God
Exodus 3:10, 4:10-13
            I was at the funeral for a family friend’s father this week when my father poked me and pointed across the church aisle to an elder lady he identified as my kindergarten teacher. Following the service there was a reception for the family and sure enough I recognized her and she said she recognized me. Picture. I attended kindergarten at the Baptist church my grandmother and former kindergarten teacher still attend. She remembered me because I when I started kindergarten I was months removed from open heart surgery. Turns out my kindergarten teacher’s granddaughter had the same condition I did, but it went undiagnosed in her though she too had successful surgery. Also at my family friend’s father’s funeral, the family friend told a few stories about my dad’s younger days that were somewhat embarrassing which was fun. It was interesting watching my dad, my mom and some former classmates reminisce. So despite the tears and sadness there was also joy and even a strange sense of home for me. It is interesting how we can experience feelings of home in such strange places. Here I was surrounded by an atmosphere of grief yet celebration for a life well lived; a group of mostly strangers I had never met with a few who knew me and my family well; in a church I had never been in, and yet there was comfort and reunions. Home can found in the strangest of places.
            Moses. I wonder if you asked him where his home was what his answer would have been. You remember the story. Moses was born a Hebrew at a time when the Pharaoh had decreed all Hebrew babies to be killed. Moses’ name means drawn out. Moses was drawn up out of the water by Pharaoh’s daughter but then nursed by his own mother. Decades later, Moses a man of compassion, saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew ended up killing and trying to cover up his murder. Seeing two Hebrews fighting and again trying to help, they called Moses on his cover up. Moses then fled as the Pharaoh was seeking to kill Moses. And I mean fled to Midian. We can see on this map how far Midian is from Egypt. Moses had to go far away from home to be safe from Pharaoh’s reach.
Though safe from Pharaoh, Moses received a dangerous call from God. Again Moses’ compassion comes out as he helps the daughters of a priest. This priest, Jethro, became his father in law. When Moses had a son, he named him Gershom which means “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.” Moses recognizes he is not home. His family might be here now, his career his in Midian, but this isn’t home.
            Moses becomes a shepherd for Jethro. One day Moses passed a bush that was burning but not burning up. Turning aside to see this spectacle, God speaks to Moses. Up until this point in the story God has been in the background of the plot. The people are suffering and it is not until the end of chapter two that we hear of God’s compassion, The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.Exodus 2:23-25 Earlier in the story God did deal favorably with the midwives who feared God by not killing the Hebrew children, but other than that God has been a bit absent from the story. But now God and Moses come face to face on top of Mount Horeb. God tells Moses that God has come down to deliver up His people. And the way God will go about doing this is through Moses. It might make some sense for Moses to be humbled by this or even overwhelmed by this call. Moses takes it to a new level.
            In fact, I imagine that if Moses were running for say presidential office of the United States he wouldn’t get very far. Today’s candidates are bold and brash. They put down their opponents, they mock contrary opinions, and most of them have confidence in excess to say it nicely. Moses was far down the confidence scale. Confidence was not a strong point of Moses. With the invention of television to cover political debates, our politicians have also had to become skilled debaters. Moses would have failed on this qualification as well by his own admission.
            When God tells Moses that he is to go to Pharaoh to demand the release of the Hebrew slaves, Moses’ first question is “Who am I?” (Exodus 3:11). Who am I to do such a thing Moses protested. God’s response is to take the burden and focus off of Moses by stating, “I will be with you.” Moses then responded with this second question, “Who are you?” (Exodus 3:13) God then reveals to Moses the divine name, “Yahweh,” normally mistranslated to “Jehovah” which means “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” I favor this later interpretation because it calls for act of faith. If you want to know who I am, God is saying to Moses, just watch what I can do.
Now Moses really begins to back pedal protesting, “It Won’t Work” (Exodus 4:1). “They won’t believe me.” God points out the shepherd’s staff in Moses’ hand. The staff was the symbol of his current career, his current residency, all which Egyptians mocked. This was a symbol of Moses temporary comfort zone. Moses could simply be this forever. Moses could ignore God. There is a rabbinical story that notes that the bush was burning every day and God was waiting for Moses to notice it. I like the story because it reminds me that God is always calling, it’s just a matter of us having the eyes to see it? And once we see it, how will we respond? God asked Moses to throw the staff down. Moses does so and it becomes a snake. God commands Moses to pick up the snake by the tail and it becomes a staff again. God then tells Moses to put his hand in his coat. When Moses pulls it out, it has a skin disease on it, leprosy, that was incurable at the time. God commands Moses to put his hand back in his jacket and when Moses does and then pulls it out it is healed. Moses has proof that what God is asking, God can achieve. This leads to Moses fourth response, “I Can’t!” (Exodus 4:10) Moses reveals that he has a speech impediment. God gets a little testy at this point and questions Moses, “Who gives speech to mortals?” (Exodus 4:11). “Did you forget who created you? Did you forget that I knew that already? Do you really think there is anything I can’t accomplish even through you?” If we’re honest, we’ve had those moments of self-doubt. We’ve had those moments where we have a pity party and wonder if we can ever do anything right. We’re in good company. Moses certainly wondered and doubted. Moses doubted directly toward God. That leads us to Moses fifth response, “I Won’t!” (Exodus 4:13) Actually, Moses puts it this way, But he said, ‘O my Lord, please send someone else.’ Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, ‘What of your brother Aaron, the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad.’Exodus 4:13-14 In loving and angry words, God convinces Moses, that it is not a matter if Moses is up to the task, God is. God stays with Moses, they wrestle together over God’s desire.
            We begin this week a three week exploration of prayer. It may seem really odd to begin with this passage, but I think we can learn a lot about prayer from this interchange between Moses and God. Too often, we settled for a version of prayer that makes God out to be like a gumball machine. I drop in a pray for this, God shoots down an answer. Perhaps a broken gumball machine might be a better analogy because we drop in some prayers and all too often our prayers go unanswered. But really, that's a warped understanding of prayer. Technically when we ask for something in prayer it is a petition. We are petitioning, asking, requesting of God for a certain action like healing or forgiveness. It is petitionary because we can't make God do anything. If we could, we would be practicing magic and not praying before Almighty God. God is free and beyond whatever best intentions we have. We can only petition. But as important as petitionary prayer is, it is not the only way to pray and prayer itself is about much more than simply asking for answers and hoping for solutions.
            Prayer is intentionally being in the presence of God. We tend to be rather pragmatic and utilitarian people. We desire to do something if it works. That’s why people engage in debates about whether prayer works or how it works. If prayer is intentionally being in the presence of God, it is fundamentally about being in God’s presence and not getting answers to our requests. I’m not saying prayer doesn’t work. On the contrary, I absolutely believe it does, but what pray is about primarily is being in the presence of God. I’ve probably used this quote before, but it is worth repeating, “Love loves to be told what it knows already…It wants to be asked for what it longs to give.”[i] P. T. Forsyth. 
A few months ago, following children’s church, one of the workers told me how one of my sons was requesting prayer for their football team or their fantasy football team. My initial response was, honesty, a bit embarrassed. Here I am a pastor and the pastor’s kids are praying for football. Were these really worthy of prayer request? What kind of role model have I been? The more I have thought about though and if we take seriously that prayer is about being in the presence of God with all that we are and all that is concerning us, it’s probably not the worst thing in the world that their prayer request is about football. The more important notion to learn is to present God all that is within us. C. S. Lewis said about prayer that we should “lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.”[ii] Perhaps my over serious side should take a chill pill and instead of focusing on what I think is worthy or not worthy, to continue to cultivate my child’s willingness to bring all His concerns about God so that the point isn’t about getting what we ask for, but about being who we are in the presence of God. Even when that means truly wrestling with God with our doubts, fears, questions, trivialities, all of it.          
We see this with Moses. Moses' prayer seems odd to us. So much so we might not even acknowledge it as prayer. Moses’ dialogues with God, questions God, even argues with God. That's entirely appropriate if prayer is intentionally being who are in the presence of God. God can handle our emotions and doubts. I would even say God welcomes it. God desires that we be honest with Him in prayer. In fact it is rather silly that we aren't honest with God. God is well God and knows anyway whether we verbalize our frustration or anger or whatever feeling it is we think we are holding back with God.
            What we learn from Moses, is that prayer as a place of home. We are home whenever we are in God’s presence. We can experience this home whether we are at a funeral or fleeing for our lives in a foreign land. The early church father Gregory of Nyssa wrote a biography of Moses called The Life of Moses. In the book he notes that our goal is to be in the presence of God like a good friend and the worst state of life is not being a friend of God. “We regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire. This…is the perfection of life.”[iii] I would say that being God’s friend, being intentionally in God’s presence is a life worth living.
            Whether our prayer is answered or not, in God’s presence we are at home. In fact if it is not answered, we’re in good company. In many of the Psalms we read where the Psalmist is crying out for God to answer their prayers as God seems especially absent. “But I, O LORD, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O LORD, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?Psalm 88:13-14 I say to God, my rock, "Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?"Psalm 42:9 We could cite many more. George Buttrick expressed prayer as sometimes like “beating heaven’s door with bruised knuckles in the dark.”[iv] In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed three times for the cup to pass and it doesn’t. Jesus cried out from the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
            Moses cried out to send someone else. God sent Moses. In the beginning of the book of Exodus, we noted how God seemed distant, even absent. By the end of the book of Exodus, God has delivered the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, defeated Pharaoh and his army, as well as becoming radically present with the people of God. This is a new world, a new home for Moses and the people. The most amazing thing about prayer to me, is that God desires to be with us and hear the concerns of our heart. Not simply a god of our making or a god we can manipulate, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Moses and the Father of Jesus Christ desires we make room, find our home, in God’s presence. In this presence, God can change us and do remarkable events through us beyond what we can imagine.
            How do we make time to be intentionally in God’s presence? Are you willing to give God all that you in prayer?

[i] Prayer p. 181
[ii]Prayer 12
[iii] Prayer 150
[iv] Prayer 17

Friday, January 27, 2012

Theology of Seeking (The Pope advocates for Twitter?)

Scripture: Psalm 95
Opposite of the theology of dwelling is the theology of seeking. The spirituality of seeking emphasizes God's immanence. No longer are there sharp boundaries between the sacred and the secular. Equality triumphs hierarchy. The Pope's recent comments on the use of Twitter illustrates the theology of seeking, "Ultimately, this constant flow of questions demonstrates the restlessness of human beings, ceaselessly searching for truths, of greater or lesser import, that can offer meaning and hope to their lives."
The spirituality of seeking is a Tabernacle religion. Tabernacle religion is characterized by words like journey and quest. It is more about the questions than the destination. God's presence is no longer as localized and in fact can be ubiquitous. As the Psalmist declared, "In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed. " Remember Jesus' adage in the Great Commission: "I am with you always" Matthew 28:20.
In a spirituality of seeking, no longer is there a clear top down order to confer authority and roles. Negatively this leaves individuals the burden to create their identities. In our age of consumerism we can refashion our identity based on whims and by simply changing clothes to fit a particular lifestyle. It is no wonder people say they're not sure who they are or that they must "find themselves." Additionally problematic is the focus on quests and questions. Can't quests end with devastating consequences? Can't we ask the wrong sorts of questions? Quests seek a destination and questions an answer that the spirituality of seeking can't always provide.
The positive and opportunity of the spirituality of seeking, however, is that it gives more responsibility and freedom to individuals in their spirituality. We have to work to understand what and why we believe. With such personal investment we can integrate better who's we are and what then we are to do, whether on twitter or in our workplace.
Which do you identify with more? Spirituality of dwelling or seeking?
What are the positives and negatives of each?
What is the destination of Christianity?
Where are your questions leading you?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Do you prefer Temple religion or Tabernacle religion?

Scripture: 1 Kings 8:1-27
Do you prefer Temple religion or Tabernacle religion? Asked differently, are you a dweller or seeker? (Perhaps Scrabble vs. Words with Friends doesn't quite fit.) Robert Wuthnow contrasts the theology of dwelling versus the theology of seeking in his book After Heaven. These can be helpful categories to think about in relation to our spirituality and about how spirituality has evolved over the last few generations.
The spirituality of dwelling emphasized God's transcendence and therefore a top down, ordered world. Social systems reflected this authoritarian worldview. Conformity was expected and status was conferred from those in positions of power.
We see this reflected in the way the Temple functioned in ancient Judaism. The Temple was not only a fixed structure and a symbol of strength and the backbone of the community, it was the place where heaven and earth came together. Temple religion, therefore, gave sharp boundaries along lines of geography and dress. Place was important and it was easy to identity those who were in and out. For Wuthnow the local church functioned similarly with regards to spirituality in the 1950’s.
The Spirituality of dwelling has the positives of knowing our place in light of God's ordered world, solace in security and rigid boundaries, and a systematic way of approaching life. 
The problem with the theology of dwelling is pointed to by King Solomon as he dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem. God can't be contained. Beyond King Solomon's advice, we know life is complex. Certain places can become idols. Our identities are no longer a given. Though we might prefer a theology of dwelling, is that a possibility in today's Postmodern culture? (Theology of seeking will be explained in the next blog post.)
In what ways do you identify with a theology of dwelling?
Where do you find a sacred space?
What problems do you see?
How does this play out in congregations?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Do you get much out of worship?

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-3; Revelation 4
A new report seems to suggest that half of people who go to church aren't getting much out of it. A Huffington Post report notes that about 50% of churchgoers says going to church has no effect on them. The articles goes on to observe three fifths of responders to a recent survey got no new "religious insight from their last church visit." Yet the article reports two thirds of the respondents had felt a real connection with God while attending church.
This leaves me wondering what the article was trying to say and more importantly wondering how we measure whether going to church matters. I certainly wouldn't measure worship's worth in terms of gaining religious insight or knowledge. Though that can be a result and appears to be the goal of some churches, to me the aim of worship is greater than mere insight. The hope of worship is more than you will leave better equipped to be a better spouse or more wise financially or the like. While those are fine values, they are not the intent of worship. Successful worship can't be measured by new religious insight. How is it possible to measure being in the presence of God?  
Here's another way to put what I think of this article and what we get out of worship: It's not about you! Worship is about God. As you probably heard it said: God is the audience of our corporate worship. Worship is about being who we were created to be in the presence of God. Worship matters. Worship does affect us, but in ways often beyond our comprehension.
What do the Scriptures above teach us about worship?
How do you prioritize corporate worship?
What was your most memorable time in worship?

Friday, January 13, 2012

What is prayer really about?

Scripture: John 15:1-14
Does God answer the prayer petitions of football players hoping their kicker will win the game for them? If God doesn't care about that, how can we be sure God cares for our prayers? Perhaps this is just a faulty way of looking at prayer. Instead of looking at what prayer achieves, we should begin with what prayer is. How would you answer that question? I'd answer it by saying that prayer is a conversation between us and the God who loves us more than we can love ourselves. With that as a the starting place, shouldn't we pray about everything that's on our hearts. Does that mean we'll get what we hope for? Not necessarily, but that's not the point is it. The point is simply being in the presence of the God who loves us. What happens from there is in God's hands.
With that here is a summary of one more prayer App and three other devotions that can used to help deepen your prayer life and ultimately your relationship with God. 
PrayerProLite - Definitely for the OCD type of spirituality. Begin by picking a category of what you'd like prayer for, "Wisdom, Peace, Relationships, etc." and click "Let's Pray" and not only will there be a prayer, a short section called "God's Promise," and a Scripture verse, with one more click you can email that prayer from the interface. Under the "Requests" tab you can schedule prayers. If you'd like to pray for a person or particular topic for a period of time you can do so. You can move prayers to the "Not Answered" or "Answered" folder. I like I would find this as more guilty inducing  and makes prayer something you check off, but you might find it helpful.
The Upper Room Daily Devotional Guide (Online Edition). The Upper Room has been a favorite of United Methodist for over 75 years. This devotional begins with a Scripture reference. gives a "Thought for the Day" and short, often one sentence prayer followed by a "Prayer Focus." You can also submit your prayer request to their Upper Room Living Prayer Center or post a comment in blog format about the devotional. 
Under Upper Room you can link to Method-X (http://upperroom.org/methodx/thelife/). This website is great for learning about various ways of praying. You can choose to learn about prayer methods (9 different ways), create your own Sacred Space, take a Spiritual Types Test, Learn about Saints, or share joys and request on a Prayer Wall . 
Common Prayer: For Ordinary Radicals. There is a book and website (they are coming out with a pocket version). Modeled on the Book of Common Prayer that has been in light of Neo-Monastic movement. This is much more user friendly than Book of Common Prayer. There is an unique morning prayers for each day, seven evening prayers for each day of the week, one midday prayer for everyday, and occasional prayers. One interesting feature is that it adds the expectation that this is to be done in community. There are short biographies of modern and ancient saints. A worthy tool for leading one into a habitual prayer life.
What kind of prayer works best for you?
When do you like to pray? Morning? Evening? Throughtout the day?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Prayer - There's an App for that?

Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Last week I was trying to find an Laundromat open near the campus where I am in school. The problem was that since most of the regular classes are not in session the closest Laundromats were closed. I asked permanent residence and even had a classmate making calls to help me find a reasonably priced Laundromat. Then came the voice of reason - ask your iPhone. Sure enough, I used my an iPhone app that found the nearest (and cheapest) Laudromat less than half a mile from my hotel. Score for the iPhone.
When it comes to prayer it is hard to say that there is truly an App for that. Nothing can replace the intimate encounter that occurs when we pray. Yet our technological work mitigates against slowing down to intentionally encounter the God who is not just there to met our every desire or answer our every immediately pressing issue. Francis Fenelon was quoted in class as observing, "Of all the duties enjoined by Christianity none is more essential and yet more neglected than prayer." My guess is this quote hits you similarly as it me. We know we need to pray more, we know prayer is important, but making intentional time and space for it seems to evade our grasps.
What our technological world does afford us is a variety of useful tools to help us pray. I'll be reviewing a few on the next couple of blogs.
The Daily Office from Mission St. Clare. This happens to be the App I use for my iPhone. This App is laid out well and is extensive. I really like that there is a morning prayer and evening prayer reading. There is lots of Scripture reading (as some have said, reading Scripture can be the hearing side of prayer). I like that there is a confessional in the beginning of each reading as well as the Apostle's Prayer, Lord's Prayer's Prayer, prayer for missions, etc. There is often a biography of a notable Christian among many other avenues to expand your prayer vocabulary. 
Confession App. This, as you might guess, is Catholic and as it notes is to be used "during the Sacrament of Penance with a Catholic Priest only and not a substitute for a valid confession." With that said, being a Protestant who believes we don't take enough time for confession, this can be a useful App. There is a place for Examination which comes from 10 Commandments. Then you move to Confession where you select which sins, broken commandments, you've committed. Then comes the Act of Contrition. There is a place to go direction to prayers to select from and this is App is password protected. Despite the obvious Catholic bent, I like the App.
UM App. While wanting to promote all things United Methodist, this isn't my favorite App. If you can spare only a minute in a day, then this would be for you. Each day has a very short devotion that comes from books by UM authors.  Usually there is a short Scripture reading and sometimes a short prayer. There are other aspects to this App about UM news that are helpful and it appears that it will be something they will be growing into. I hope so.
More to come soon...
What aspect of prayer do you struggle with the most?
Why do you think you don't pray enough?

Monday, January 9, 2012

I have a belly button so I guess I should have an opinion on Tim Tebow, right?

Genesis 1:26-27
I have a belly button so I guess I should have an opinion on Tim Tebow, right? Actually, I think the varying opinions of Tebow are revealing about how our culture views faith. Opinions on Tebow range from hypocrite to saint. (I wonder if "Tebowing" will get word of the year honors?) Some people obviously find Tebow's public display of religious faith on the football field and in interviews as offensive. While not new in America, it is revealing that our culture is fine with faith so long as it is practiced privately and has little to no bearing on the public sphere. This is why we struggle as a country with Ten Commandment displays, nativity scenes, and the whole war on Christmas.
Others of us, myself included may not find Tebow controversial because we don't see the problem of faith and the public sphere mixing. Personally, I believe who we are fundamentally (actually ontologically speaking if you need one of those big words) is derived from our religious faith. As a Christian, I believe who we are comes from the fact we are made in God's image. As a Christian, I believe who we are is shaped by the God who sent Jesus Christ who lived, ministered, and died (all very publically) and so seek to be a follower of His. We certainly could go one about our identity, but if it is religion that shapes who I am, I am that wherever I go and whatever I do. This is no mere private belief. Perhaps we could expand on this to note that if we keep all religious convictions private we won't have to be critical of our own, but we'll leave that for another blog.
So while our culture likes to make a false separation between public and private spheres added to the fact that we have a  tendency to be skeptical, people can confuse displaying authentic religious faith in public as either doing so for personal gain or somehow shoving religion down other's throats. To me, this Tebow phenomenon shows that people are uncomfortable with public displays of religious affection (PDRA). That's what I think makes Tebow "controversial." 
So this blog post actually isn't about Tim Tebow. It's about us. While we are not called to be offense or shove religion down anyone's throats, we cannot escape being a child of God wherever we go, even if that is on a football field.
What if Tebow happened to be a Muslim? How might that change the conversation? 
Are you comfortable displaying your faith publically? Why or why not?
How would you continue to expand on the idea of who we are because of what we believe?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Falcons coach a Life-long learner. Are you?

Scripture: Luke 14:25-35
It might be because I innately root for underdogs or more probably that I've lived most of my life around the city of Atlanta, but I am unabashedly an Atlanta Falcons fan. I've been through one Super Bowl appearance but more often than not too many embarrassing years to count. With that said, it is not simply the winning ways of their current coach Mike Smith that makes me a his fan. One of his repeated mantra's, and he repeated it again yesterday at his press conference for the upcoming playoff game, is that he is a "life long learner." Based on other comments it is evident he instills this approach in his players as well. More than simply a mantra, if you watch closely, you can see how the coach makes notes and his attitude and speech reveals he is always learning from past experiences, both good and bad. On a recent video from the Falcons' website you can see how detailed oriented he is with regard to his team.
This mantra of being a "life long learner" is a refrain I've heard in Christian Education circles. And that certainly makes sense when you look at the Greek term for "disciple" found in the New Testament. A disciple, biblically speaking, is more than an adherent to a cause. Rather discipleship, especially in the Scripture passage I've referenced, requires commitment and dedication. It calls us to examine our experiences, relationships, values and everything that constitutes who we are and makes them relative to following Jesus Christ. Discipleship is a life long process that we should continue to work on in every aspect of our lives. Just because we attended a short term class or took a religion class in college or even attend worship on weekly basis doesn't mean we can stop there. Life long learning, discipleship as Jesus calls His followers to, requires sacrifice and commitment few of the large crowd (v. 25) would be willing to take on until at least following His resurrection.
What values does this passage call into question for you?
What does Jesus mean in v. 23 by giving up all your possessions? Is this a literal call or even more demanding? What might that look like for you?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Scripture: Leviticus 11:44-45; Matthew 5:48; 1 Peter 1:16
"Who am I?" A question someone recently asked on her Facebook status. It is a common question in modern America and a particular interest of mine. How we define our identity is important not only to who we feel that we are but also helps give direction to our lives. So if you were asked who you were, how would you respond? If you're like most Americans you probably are unsure where to begin.
With that in mind here is some help. You can define your identity by looking at yourself across three levels or spheres: Cosmological, Metaphysical, Social.
Most people narrowly define their identities by focusing on the Social level: which is the network of our family relationships, career, and other relationships (wife, mother, daughter, home-maker, etc.). The Cosmological level is the level of truth (or God). The Metaphysical level is the level of values (those things you stand for) that are in derived from the Cosmological level. So begin with the Cosmological level (who God is) and work your way down (If God is holy and just, what might that mean about what you value, etc.). You will have a fairly well worked out identity.
Who are you?
What insights did this exercise give you?