Saturday, January 01, 2011

A Possible New Year's Resolution?

One good new year's resolution might be to ask God to help us read His Word slowly and for comprehension. "Food" for thought here.

Friday, December 31, 2010

"This is Christmas?"

That's the title of this interesting post by my son, Phil.

Grace AND Truth

Scott Hoezee on Sunday's Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah 31:7-14:
Curiously, in the Revised Common Lectionary this Old Testament passage is paired in the gospels with John 1:10-18, which includes the verse about how when the Word of God was made flesh, he came to this world “full of grace and truth.”  As noted in the set of sermon starters on that passage, we rarely find that tenacious combination of grace AND truth on display in other people (or even in our own selves).   In our “Either/Or” mentality we too often opt to be either gracious (and so we bend or elide the truth) or we tend to be truthful (even if telling the truth or standing up for the truth leads to behavior that is downright ungracious). 

Similarly in Jeremiah 31: we have a hard time believing that the same prophet who had been hammering away in judgment against the people of Judah could also—and pretty much at the same time—point forward hopefully to a day of promised blessings even greater than what the people had known before.  What may be even more striking is the idea that somehow the blessings of all that restoration would emerge from the midst of all the sorrows Jeremiah had been talking about all along.  In fact, this lection stops one verse short of the well-known verse about Rachel weeping at Ramah for her lost children.  Jeremiah does not deny for one moment the presence of weeping and sorrow in this world but somehow knows that if a word of restoration and hope is going to be spoken at all, it needs to be spoken into precisely those contexts of raw and jagged realities.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Abbey burns...

...but books and beer are saved. (And I thought Lutherans were the only Christians for whom these would be priority items.)

What I Want: A Wasted Life

This BBC report tells about one-man's fifty-year plus project, undertaken after being expelled from a monastery for contracting tuberculosis.

The story appealed to me in several ways. Justo Gallego, the builder of a church building made of junk, who has no training in art or architecture, wanted to glorify Christ even though he could no longer be a monk.

One can argue whether this not-yet-completed and extravagantly unnecessary structure does glorify Christ. Some might dismiss the whole thing, perhaps rightly, as an eyesore. Or, as a danger to any who walk in it or near it. (There have never been any architectural plans or inspections of any kind.)

But before dismissing Gallego's church structure, consider some of the things this fifty-year effort may tell us about the life of faith and about Christ Himself.

Fifty-plus years ago, massive vaccination against TB had not begun in so-called developed countries, though there were treatment facilities that had some success. My mother, just a few years younger than Gallego, contracted the disease and spent some time at the Franklin County Tuberculosis Sanitorium in Columbus, when she was young.

Maybe the monastery lacked the capacity to care for Gallego as the sanitorium did for my mom. But his dismissal will do as a metaphor for what the institutional church sometimes does with those it doesn't know how to handle.

I myself have often experienced the institutional church as an organization peopled by gatekeepers whose function seems to be to tell people, "No." No, your service is not needed. No, you can't try to get that ministry started. No, you can't ask people for money to build that building.

When I was the pastor of a start-up congregation in the Cincinnati area, at least four times, our fledgling church hit goals for membership, giving, and worship attendance we were told would bring us a loan from our denomination to build our first facility, only to be told, "No" every time. The last time occurred after we'd had a capital campaign that raised precisely what our denominational officials told us we needed to raise. Our building committee, flush with excitement over the successful campaign, was shot down on lift-off by the denominational official with whom we met. "If you think you're going to build a church now," he told us, "you're smoking something funny." He wasn't done. "You're not the first ones to make a mistake like this, folks," he told us. "I make many mistakes," I finally said, "but this was not a mistake. We did exactly what you told us to do and now, you're saying that we can't forge ahead."

That night, we decided to forgo the "No" of the gatekeepers and, with the empowerment of God, erected the church's first building unit...after fourteen years of worshiping in a school gym. We found commercial lenders more excited about what we were doing as a church than our own denominational gatekeepers were.

You can't stop glorifying Christ, the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, the lifeline to God almighty, just because people with institutional power say, "No." Justo Gallego has lived that truth!

And how about the practicality of Gallego's structure? Is it necessary? Certainly, there are other churches in the Madrid suburbs, where he's built this building. And, who's to say that a Mass will ever be said there?

If the building is extravagantly unnecessary, then it is in good company. You see, that's exactly how I think of God's love for the whole human race. Extravagantly unnecessary. Richly superfluous.

Often, when I discuss Genesis 3, which recounts the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, people get (understandably) hung up on questions like: Why did God allow the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or the serpent to be in the garden of Eden in the first place? Where did the serpent come from? Is the serpent the same as the devil?

They're all good questions which we might take up with God some day. But to me, the most baffling question is this: Why didn't God give up the whole idea of creation as a bad project right then and there?

His most beloved creatures--the only ones created in His image--turned on Him and so, consigned the whole creation to centuries of groaning under the weight of their sin.

When I was a kid, playing with clay, and didn't like what had become of my creation, I smashed it and maybe, I'd start over again or, likely as not, put it away and move onto the next thing.

God didn't move onto the next thing! He kept His focus. He keeps it still. For God only knows how many centuries, He has been focused on one thing: Bringing the lost home. Being reconciled to the rebel human race.

God hasn't done this by forcing our return or coercing a forced reconciliation. He's been patient. He let one group of people in on His plan so that they could be a light to the nations until the moment was right.

Then, the one light who is life to all people showed up to live among us. Of course, being human and thick of head and thick of heart, we didn't recognize the Light when we saw Him. God blanketed the human race and the whole universe, in fact, with His extravagant love and all we could think to do was kill it. So we did. On a bad Friday we now recognize as good, we killed the Giver of life.

But God wasn't done loving us yet. Christ, the Light of the world, rose from the dead. His love is available to all who dare to turn from sin and turn to Him in trust. God's extravagantly unnecessary love turns us from God's enemies to God's friends.

A final aspect of Gallego's story that appeals to me is junk: The entire structure is made of leavings, left-overs, junk. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote a couple of letters to a first-century church in Corinth whose members had gotten full of themselves and were starting to do the Adam and Eve thing, rebelling against God's will. Paul said some interesting things to these folks. Among them:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
Hey, big britches, Paul was saying, the world considered you junk. God loved you anyway. Died for you. Rose for you. In Christ, God turned what the world calls junk into gold. Don't start acting like junk!

In another place, Paul, then being persecuted for sharing the love of Christ with others, tells the Corinthians about the treasure of God's love they carry in their bodies as baptized, believing Christians and says:
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:7-12)
If you don't understand everything in that passage, don't worry about it now. Take this away from it: God's extravagantly unnecessary love can come to live inside you, no matter how broken or filled with sin you may feel you are...or may actually be.

And here's the thing: God's love is a real extravagance. He's got plenty more where that came from. God's got so much love for us, in fact, that those of us who get it, can give it away and still not lose any of it.

When God's love comes to live in what the world calls "junk," the junk, like Justo Gallego's useless church building, can be a beautiful testimony to the greatness and grace of God. I want my life to be that kind of testimony.

There's a congregation in Denver, whose name I've mentioned before on this blog, a name I absolutely love. It's called The Scum of the Earth Church. It takes its name from more words from Paul's correspondence with the Corinthians, as translated in The New International Version (TNIV) of the Bible. It says:
To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. (1 Corinthians 4:11-13)
The church web site explains:

It doesn’t sound like a church name … on purpose. We really want to connect with people who have no interest in “church” by society’s definition. There are plenty of churches for “normal people” and we think we have a unique calling to reach out to our otherwise unreached friends. Our name is integral to that process. Whether outcast by society (e.g., punks, skaters, ravers, homeless people…) or by the church itself, many who come can identify with the name “Scum of the Earth” since they have been previously treated as such.

More important to us, however, the name implies that being people of faith does not mean we are better than anyone else. We know many non-Christians who think Christians are out to cast judgment on them. Our name makes it clear that we aren’t about that. We are just aware of our need for God, as Scum of the Earth. Fortunately, God never sees us like that! But the name is humble and we like that.
For all I know, Justo Gallego may be certifiably looney. He may have wasted the past fifty years. And Scum of the Earth Church may be a collection of crazy people.

But I want to waste my life glorifying Christ in whatever ways I can. I want to do it out of gratitude for the God Who "wasted" His extravagantly unnecessary love--His body, His blood, His grace--on me. I want to do it so that, in the end, none of that extravagantly unnecessary love is wasted, but accomplishes all it can do when God spends it on me...and you.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The word of the day... puerile.

This one is more common than the word I mentioned yesterday, but still not one used in common daily conversation. (At least not in the common daily conversations I have.)
Puerile came up in my s....l....o.....w reading of  Frank Freidel's one-volume biography of Franklin Roosevelt, A Rendezvous with Destiny.

Freidel describes the controversy which attended Roosevelt's attempts to raise farm prices through the doubtful ploy of buying gold above the prevailing price on the market, hoping that doing so would decrease the value of the dollar and so, make it easier for for other countries to purchase American goods, including crops.

Many "financiers, economists, and politicians" expressed disapproval of the scheme. Former FDR ally--by then, bitter enemy--Al Smith labeled the "commodity dollar," as it was being touted, the "baloney dollar." Roosevelt fired the under secretary of the Treasury, Dean Acheson, later to be Harry Truman's Secretary of State, because of Acheson's disagreement with FDR on the plan.

Also, John Maynard Keynes, godfather of deficit spending as a means of stimulating economic activity in depressed conditions, whose name is often associated with Roosevelt's approach to the Great Depression, weighed in opposing the Roosevelt gold purchases. Keynes, Freidel says, "in an open letter to Roosevelt that appeared in the New York Times at the end of the year, scoffed at the scheme as puerile...[and] irreverently remarked that the fluctuations seemed more like 'a gold standard on booze than the ideal managed currency of my dreams.'"

Puerile, boozey, or not, FDR continued the gold buying into January of 1934. "The results were disappointing, bearing out neither Roosevelt's expectations nor those of his critics," Freidel says. And isn't is that always the way things go? Nobody has a lock on wisdom.  Rarely is anybody utterly vindicated for having vision; everyone gets left with a little bragging rights.

Most agricultural commodities slipped as a result of Roosevelt's gold buyouts. The lone exception was wheat.

As Freidel tells it, Roosevelt's action was a short-term economic non-starter. But it may have bought Roosevelt and the country some time, preventing a second economic collapse.

So, was Roosevelt's gold-buying puerile or was it mature economic thinking? That's a matter of debate. But the answer seems to be somewhere between Roosevelt's sunny assertions of its efficacy and his opponents' belief that it was destructive at worst and irrelevant at best.

But the meaning of puerile is none of the above.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What I Learned Six Months Ago Today

This piece asks readers to look back on the previous year for major events in their personal lives.

Six months ago today, I went to Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus to undergo a heart catheter procedure. Sixteen days earlier, I'd had a "silent" heart attack, felt but undiagnosed. Twelve days later, my doctor seeking to eliminate possibilities, an echocardiogram was done. It was discovered that I'd had a major heart attack that damaged 40% of my heart.

I was to do nothing until the catheter procedure the following Monday, the doctor told me. This was Thursday. If I had any chest pain, I was to get to the nearest emergency room ASAP.

It was a long weekend.

But I have to confess that during the hour-long drive to Riverside from our house on the day of the procedure, I felt utterly calm. This is how I really felt: Whether I lived or died, I was in the hands of God.

I'm sure that I've written about the procedure before. But it was an amazing experience. I was awake throughout, talking with the doctor and OR personnel the entire time.

A 100% blockage was discovered in one of my arteries. The plaque material was recent enough--and therefore, soft enough--for the doctor to be able to push a stent through and I was released the next morning.

As I think I've explained before, when I arrived at the hospital, my ejection fraction, a number which measures the efficiency with which the heart is doing its job, was at 25. That's ten points below what's considered dangerous. No person's EF is 100% and average is about 65%.

So, I had been sicker than I realized, probably for longer than I realized.

Medical personnel have expressed bafflement at two things.

First: They can't understand why I had a heart attack. No relevant family history of heart disease. Great blood pressure. Good cholesterol readings. Not overweight. Exercised thirty minutes a day.

Second: They can't understand how I survived the heart attack I had. Their bafflement has to do with the location of the blockage. "There is no medical way to explain why you're still alive," a cardiac nurse told me.

Occasionally, as I reflect on the events of six months ago, Paul's words to the Phlippian Christians of the first century come to mind. His sentiments aren't precisely my own, but I do get what he was telling the members of that first century Macedonian congregation. Paul wrote it while imprisoned in a Roman jail, contemplating the very real possibility of being executed:
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith...(Philippians 1:21-25)
As I say, my sentiments weren't (and aren't) precisely the same as Paul's. But I found out how real Christ is and how real my relationship with Christ is six months ago today. I knew that Christ was there with my family and me and that He still would have been there with us had I not survived my heart attack. I learned the truth of some other words written by Paul, too:
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. (Romans 14:8)
Of course, I can take zero credit for this remarkable assurance which marks my living and my dying with a certain hope. All the credit goes to God Who sent His Son, so that all who turn away from the natural inclinations of sinful, selfish hearts and, powered by the Spirit, dare to trust their all in Christ and so, receive eternal life with God. (I still am a sinner, by the way. Christ died for sinners like me and He empowers the honest to daily push their sinful inclinations into submission to Christ. I try to be honest with God. It's better that way; God knows when I'm lying anyway.)

And that eternal life begins here and now--in hospital surgical suites and waiting rooms, in the places we live every day. The Savior Who took on flesh, Whose birth among us we are celebrating this Christmas season, has shared in our messy lives, invited us to own the blame for His undeserved execution on a cross, and commanded us to follow Him. Eternity belongs to those who dare to be honest with the God who dared everything to win us back death and sin and evil.

Six months ago today, that all became more real to me than it ever was before. And Christ--His love, His power, His grace, His righteousness, His willingness to destroy the sin I daily lay at His feet--all those things are more real to me today than the desk at which I set.

I've met the King and I'm intent on serving Him alone. He saved me for this, not just six months ago, but at the very moment He first saved me, on that cross two thousand years ago.

The word of the day...

is contumely. It's one that I run across infrequently in my reading, which is probably why I have to go to the dictionary again every time I read it. Maybe posting this will finally imprint it on my brain.

The word came up again last night in my re-reading of The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (A truly great book, enormously challenging to the Christian who wishes to live as an authentic follower of Jesus!)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sweet Baby Jesus: The Biggest Threat in the World

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 2:13-23
Christmas was just yesterday. Yet our Gospel lesson for this morning fast forwards us to events that happened two years and more after the birth of Jesus. In spite of the confusion that it might cause us though, I think it’s good for us to come to this lesson immediately following Christmas day. Through the centuries, our Christmas celebrations have been loaded down with what I can only describe as sentimental lies or pleasant sounding truth-blockers. Jesus, when acknowledged at all in most contemporary celebrations, is turned into a harmless little baby.

But Jesus was not and is not harmless. Herod knew that. The wise men did too. They knew what we must know: Christmas is D-Day!

Christmas is God storming the beaches of our resistant lives and wills.

In the name of the same freedom the serpent told Eve she would have if she disobeyed God, a freedom that ends in slavery to sin and death and futility, we willingly buckle under the authority of an evil, morally compromising world. At Christmas, God entered our world to upend that reality.

Christmas is God coming to overthrow the illegitimate occupier of power in our world, the devil himself.

Christmas is a just God come to overturn the tables of extortionists, to strip the selfish of their power, to put the violent and unjust in their places, and to bring life to those who, contrary to what the world tells us to do, repent for our sin and surrender our whole lives only to Him.

The bottom line is that the sweet baby Jesus is a threat to the standard operating procedures of the world, maybe even of our own standard operating procedures.

In the New Testament book of Acts, it was said of the first Christians that they had turned the world upside down. Filled with faith in Christ and with God's Holy Spirit, they were empowered by God to continue the mission of Jesus, each believer in Jesus an outpost of the kingdom that destroys all the powers of this world.

Jesus Himself was such a threat to the king of Judea, that, to protect Jesus, He and His earthly parents became refugees in Egypt.

Keep in mind the threat that Jesus represents to all the selfishness and injustice that exists in our world as we delve into today’s Gospel lesson. Please pull the Celebrate inserts from your bulletins and find it on page three.

Read along silently with me as I read the first few verses:
Now after they [that’s the wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod...
There are several things to notice here.

First: Herod, we’re told, wanted to “destroy” the child. The verb in the original Greek is part of the same verb family used much later in Matthew’s gospel to describe what the religious leaders in Jerusalem conspired to do to Jesus.

Herod loved power and personal comfort. Over his lifetime he had been willing to do anything to retain his power, including the killing of a wife whom he adored, but who, he was convinced, was plotting to take power from him. Herod was so selfish that, when he was dying, he ordered that the leading citizens of the town of Jericho be murdered to ensure that people would be crying during his funeral. The fact that the same word--destroy--was later used by Matthew to describe what the religious leaders—the priests and the levites—plotted to do to Jesus demonstrates what a threat Jesus can be not just to the rich or to those in government, but also to those who exercise religious power.

Jesus, in fact, is a threat to all who delude themselves with the idea that we human beings are self-sufficient and don’t need a Savior for a crutch. A woman in my former parish told me that she got angry with people who dismissed her faith in Christ as “a crutch.” Her anger wasn’t born of a belief in her ability to conquer any mountain in life. “Of course Christ is a crutch,” she said, “I need a crutch. That’s why I’m a Christian.” Jesus Christ, Who bore the weight of all our sin on the cross and then rose again to life, is the only crutch we can find that won’t buckle under the pressure of all our personal sins, our stresses, our difficulties, our daily challenges. I've often thought since that woman shared her insight with me that we Christians ought to wear lapel pins portraying a crutch in order to openly declare our total dependence on Christ!

Notice a second thing in these first verses of our lesson, something we see throughout the passage: Joseph did not hesitate. As soon as he was told to take the child and his mother to Egypt, he did so. He apparently took action on the very night he had his dream.

If I had been Joseph, I might have hesitated. I might even have simply ditched Jesus and Mary. After all, Joseph had no genetic connection to Jesus. Joseph could have turned Jesus and Mary over to the authorities and maybe lived a comfortable life in the employ of Herod and his descendants. He certainly could have spared himself the grief of being connected with a baby who was already a fugitive.

But Joseph opted to share the danger that the toddler Jesus faced. Joseph chose to obey God…immediately! Faith that doesn’t result in obedience to God, to the extent that you and I are able to understand God’s will and obey, isn’t faith; it’s just an idea. Wherever the call of the God we know in Jesus, sends us, that’s where we’re to go. That’s what faith does.

Back to the lesson:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men [who had left Herod’s kingdom without telling Herod where they found the newborn King], he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men…
Herod was taking no chances. He enjoyed his comforts and perks too much to allow a competitor for his throne to threaten him. This intolerance of other contenders for positions of privilege still goes on, and not just in the counsels of the national governments and big corporations. It even happens in churches.

I read once about a man who held a place of prominence in the church he attended, a large congregation in a small Texas town. People bowed and scraped to him and didn’t call him directly by his first name. He was Mister John. No decision was taken in that church without Mister John first giving his approval. A young pastor arrived, who, na├»ve enough to believe in the Bible's teaching that all believers are ministers, treated John with the same respect he showed all people, but not with deference. John wasn’t on the church council; so, the pastor didn’t know he was supposed to run things by John before bringing them before council. Mister John tried to correct the young pastor, but the pastor seemed insusceptible to any authority but God’s authority, as expressed in the Scriptures. No one knows how they got started for sure, but after awhile, rumors started being noised around the church and community: rumors about the pastor and his relationships with other people, rumors about church finances, rumors about the church’s decision making process, all false. Nonetheless, the pastor was forced from ministry altogether. Most people in the church had no idea what had happened. But Mister John did, which is why, to his credit, decades later, he found that pastor and his wife living in another town and apologized to the pastor. But much damage had been done, the same damage always done by those who are threatened by Jesus’ authority supplanting their own.

In the last verses of our lesson, Herod has died and Joseph, once again, is told in a dream to head out, this time away from Egypt and now, to Nazareth. To me, this may have been the hardest of all the orders Joseph received from God. By the time Joseph received it, he and his fledgling family had put roots down in Egypt. Anyone who has ever worked for a large corporation, been in the military, been in ministry, or grabbed a new opportunity in a different community, will know how hard it is for a young family to move to new places. The reasons for staying always seem to outweigh the reasons for leaving.

But Joseph took his family to Galilee immediately. The thought of keeping the life to which he’d grown accustomed seems never to have crossed his mind. For followers of Jesus, he status quo will never do; only Jesus will do!

And that brings us back to this. Christmas reminds us that Jesus and those who dare to follow Him are threats to this world. When you understand that Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life, the only means of being reconciled to the only One Who can give us life, all other ways, all other supposed truths, and every other way of life must be abandoned. This is hard; but, God has revealed, it’s the only way to truly live.

When I was a senior in high school, I asked a girl out on a date. She said, “Yes,” but later backed out. I was baffled. (I mean, I was real charmer back then. Right, Ann?) During the rest of the school year, she would speak to me, but in little more than grunts. When our yearbooks were delivered, I emboldened myself to ask her to sign mine. “You really are a nice guy,” she wrote. “But you have to quit worrying about what people think of you.”  It took me years to figure out what she meant. And it took Jesus to begin to liberate me from the tyranny of other people’s opinions.

There is only one person Whose opinion of you and me matters, and that’s the God we know in Jesus Christ. He has expressed His opinion of us in the suffering, blood, and cross of Jesus.

This Christmas, let Jesus storm the beaches of your will and heart.

Let Him assault and destroy the sin in you through a life style of daily repentance and renewal in His Name.

Let Jesus be all that matters to you.

None of that is likely to win you a popularity contest. And letting Jesus be first in our lives won’t earn us places of comfort and ease.

But surrendering all to Jesus will allow us to be ushered into the presence of the One Who tells all who grow weary of the rat mazes of a sinful world, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

May we hear that call from Christ above all the sinful din of the world and of our own souls, and so, always live in faithful obedience to Him. Amen