Saturday, June 26, 2010

On a Map Quest

“We’re all over the map!” I’m sure you’ve said that before. Usually in frustration or acknowledgment of a lack of direction or purpose. One of those meetings, you know them, where you thought you were there to discuss one thing, and someone brought up something else and everyone got distracted, so off you went. Pretty soon you forgot what it was that you were there to do in the first place. You’ve covered a lot of ground, but haven’t really accomplished much, if anything. Except an aimless sort of wandering that doesn’t satisfy anyone.

We went shopping yesterday, Maddie and mom and dad, Rhys is somewhat out of commission with the broken ankle. (Whoops, sorry about that family and friends, forgot to make a general announcement.) And it turned out as it usually does. Mom wants an agenda and a direction and a list, Maddie wants to wander to find the cool stuff and an unlimited budget, and dad wants to play with toys. Cross-purposes to put it mildly.

I’m a wanderer myself. La Donna is a planner, giver her a destination please. It doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy the journey, but she just wants to know where she’s going. I like to wander around a new place, a new city especially. I don’t always know the destinations, but let’s just go and see what we see and find what we find.

Our scripture text looks like an interesting bit of wandering, but maybe there is a destination after all. I’m not really sure, to be honest. Let’s just wander through and see what we find!

2 Kings 2:1-14 When the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here; the LORD has sent me to Bethel." But Elisha said, "As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you." So they went down to Bethel. 3 The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha and asked, "Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master from you today?" "Yes, I know," Elisha replied, "but do not speak of it." 4 Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here, Elisha; the LORD has sent me to Jericho." And he replied, "As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you." So they went to Jericho. 5 The company of the prophets at Jericho went up to Elisha and asked him, "Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master from you today?" "Yes, I know," he replied, "but do not speak of it." 6 Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here; the LORD has sent me to the Jordan." And he replied, "As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you." So the two of them walked on. 7 Fifty men of the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha had stopped at the Jordan. 8 Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground. 9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?" "Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit," Elisha replied. 10 "You have asked a difficult thing," Elijah said, "yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours-- otherwise not." 11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. 12 Elisha saw this and cried out, "My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!" And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them apart. 13 He picked up the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 Then he took the cloak that had fallen from him and struck the water with it. "Where now is the LORD, the God of Elijah?" he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.

Now, the lectionary skips over verses 3-5. Not sure why, except that it makes it a bit shorter. And they are somewhat repetitious. But then when you are wandering, you sometimes find yourself covering the ground you’ve already crossed. But that’s ok. So, I added those verses back in.

Surely you agree with me that there is some significant wandering going on in these verses. We start in Gilgal, head to Bethel, then over to Jericho and then to the Jordan. Quite a hike for a guy on his last day on earth! I heard a sermon once that counted the miles. From Gilgal to Bethel was 7 miles. From Bethel to Jericho was 11 miles and from Jericho to the Jordan was only a mere 5 miles. All of which means that on Elijah’s last day on earth he wandered 23 miles. Almost a marathon. Wow, pretty amazing really. But why?

Maybe it was just wandering. Maybe he was looking for a little alone time, a little “Elijah time.” He did keep telling Elisha to stay behind. Some commentators say Elijah was testing Elisha, to see if he would really go through with it. But I don’t know. It seemed like Elisha was making a pest of himself, wouldn’t give him space. So, maybe he kept moving trying to shake the kid.

Or maybe there was a destination in mind. Gilgal, while there are many places with that name and we can’t always be sure which is referred to here, but it was a place of remembering. There were standing stones set up there as a reminder of what God has done in our midst. So from a place of remembering, Elijah headed to Bethel, the “house of God.” This is the place where Jacob wrestled with the angel in order to receive a blessing. Then Jacob named it Bethel, perhaps thinking that he wrestled in God’s living room. But it was a place full of the presence of God.

So, from a reminder of the Presence to a place where one wrestled with that Presence. From there he went to Jericho. We know Jericho, a place of victory, or walls falling down and battles won. So, is this a place of triumph? Well, yes, but who’s triumph? Remember the story of Jericho? Before the march and the trumpets and the urban renewal? Joshua stands on the brink of war, not sure he can win, but dedicated to the fight anyway. When, in the dark of the night, a warrior appears to him. And Joshua asks what any of us would have asked: Friend or Foe? Whose side are you on? The warriors answer? “Neither! I’m here as the commander of the Lord’s army.” Or as one commentator says, the warrior said I’ve not come to fight on either side, I’ve come to take over. And Joshua let him. Joshua falls on his face and says “what does the Lord want from me?”

Jericho was a sign of triumph, but it was God’s triumph and not ours. So, while a scene of victory it is a victory that comes from surrender. It is pledging allegiance not to any earthly power, but to the Word of the Lord. So, from victory out of surrender, what might be left? Where else should we wander on our last day on earth? Well, no where else but the Jordan.

The Jordan is the river down by which we lay down our sword and shield. The Jordan is that barrier across which we look and see a band of angels coming to carry us home. The Jordan is the symbol of death and resurrection in baptism and it is the entrance into the Promised Land. Elijah wandered the route of the people of God, from awareness to contention toward surrender and victory and then came to the end in the Presence of the Kingdom.

It is the journey of our own life in faith. And we may at times find ourselves retracing our steps, revisiting different stages on the journey. But by the grace of God, and the mantle of our mentors in the faith, we will find our way in the end. We may be all over the map, but we do indeed have a destination.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Playing with Prepositions

It’s such a small thing. Maybe too much to hang this whole essay upon, I’ll admit that. Sometimes we preachers get carried away with small things, things that most folks would just skip over. And maybe they are things worth skipping over. Perhaps if we just focused on the big picture we wouldn’t get ourselves tangled into such big knots. Maybe if we didn’t spend so much time on tiny things we would have less conflict in the body.

Our passage for this week is a big picture kind of thing. So maybe we would be better served by focusing on that. We are drawing a grand design, glimpsing the Kingdom in our verses this week. So, we should stand on the mountain top and gaze in wonder. Slip on the wide-angle lens and capture the vista that opens before us. It will take our breath away. Our jaws will drop at the glory, our hearts will pound at the vision. It will seem too beautiful, too powerful, too hopeful. Almost unattainable.

Almost unattainable. The big picture is what captures us, but we often turn away because it seems out of reach. It seems beyond our capacity. We ache to live in that vision, and yet our hearts betray us, our will fails us, our strength deserts us. Sometimes a focus on the big picture leads us to despair. “How long, O Lord?” as the Psalmist wondered when the big picture stayed consistently our of reach.

Which is why sometimes we have to look closer, down to the detail, to the small things that seem insignificant and yet just might be within our reach. Or within our understanding. Just might move us closer.

OK, enough suspense, right? What are we talking about? We’ll these familiar words from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Take a look:

Galatians 3:23-29 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Let’s start with the big picture, shall we? It’s right there in verse 28. The image of the church and the world without barriers. It is about acceptance and about equality. This is a picture of a community that gets along because it values everyone, everyone is respected and honored. There is no such thing as a second class citizen. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

But wait it gets even better. Earlier in the passage there is the idea that we don’t need the law any more. The function of the law, says Paul, was to keep us in line. It was a diagnostic tool, it showed us our failings. The law was not about making us better, it was about disciplining us. It didn’t change hearts. But now we don’t need it anymore, because hearts are changed. We keep within the bounds of the law because we want to. That is how we choose to live, that is what defines us, that is who we are.

At least, that is who we can be. Who we want to be, don’t we? At our best we do. And that is just the problem. We are so aware of our own shortcomings, our own prejudices, that we know such a vision is beyond us. We try, we really try to love our neighbors. We try to see the face of Jesus in those around us. We generate the energy, we grit our teeth and put our backs into it. We live in a culture that values individual effort. The bookstores are lined with shelf after shelf of self-help materials, all telling us that we can do it if we try hard enough. So we try. And we can’t do it.

It simply isn’t within us to love like Jesus loved. As much as we would like to think we could do it, we can’t. And this is where the despair kicks in. This is where the big picture vision begins to wear on us. This is where, if we’re honest we want to give up. It’s a dream, some argue, a pipe dream. It would be better to turn back to the law. To legislate our morality. Except even there we fail. And Paul told us we would, so we shouldn’t be surprised that law doesn’t work any better than will.

So, where do we go from there? We as much as admitted that there’s nothing we can do. So, what’s left. A preposition. Such a tiny thing, yet it might mean the different between despair and hope. Three letters in Greek - eis. In English we use four letters - into. All the difference in the world.

Take a look back at verse 27. That is the verse that sets up the vision of the true community that appears in the next verse. Paul is saying without 27, verse 28 can’t and won’t happen. And what is in Verse 27? Baptism.

Uh, right. A little water on the head and we are all different. Everything becomes possible with a ritual and a symbolic action. Right? Then how come we haven’t been doing a better job of it? How come the church, which has been doing the baptism thing for thousands of years, can’t get it right, can’t live the vision, can’t create the community?

Because of the preposition. Read it again. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ...” Into. Paul implies a direction, a process. Our baptism is not simply an outward sign, it is an inward grace, to use the old description of the sacrament. And that inward grace is a process of transformation. Keep reading: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” We’re getting dressed. We aren’t dressed yet, because we don’t yet look like Christ, but we are getting dressed. Or maybe better I should say we are being dressed. It is like having a helper because the garments are too difficult for us. We need other hands to button the buttons and tie the ties.

And those other hands are Christ’s. By being baptized into Christ we are letting Christ take over, we are letting Christ’s will supplant our wills. We are letting Christ dress us that we might live into the vision of the Kingdom (and maybe this helps us understand that parable about the wedding garment!) We have to be properly dressed in the uniform of the Reign of God. Hold onto the vision as we live into Christ.


PS - I used that word uniform purposely. Once again I invite the bible study community to join with me in prayers for the Aldersgate Community. This coming Tuesday we will be having a funeral for a young soldier who was killed in Afghanistan while he was performing a rescue. Joel Gentz was as fine a young man as I have been privileged to meet. I officiated at his wedding to Kathryn a member of our church family, just two years ago. And now we will gather with broken hearts to say farewell. Pray for Kathryn and her family and all those who are affected by this war that seems to have no end.

Why I Hate Annual Conference

My daughter Maddie would tell me “hate is a strong word, daddy.” And she would be right. With her spiritual guidance ringing in my ears, I should confess that I don’t really hate Annual Conference. But despise seemed too extreme even for me. I thought about titling this “Why Annual Conference Wears Me Down,” but then you might think it was a statement about my aging or unfit body. That isn’t what I mean, however, though I am aging and unfit. On the other hand, I love walking, and have refused the shuttles and elevators by choice, preferring to enjoy the sights and sounds of walking back and forth across the Ball State campus.

So, it is not a physical wearing down that brings me to this essay. Rather, Annual Conference wears down my soul. It erodes my sense of call and place in the church. Now, let me point out an omission in the title of this rant. (OK, I’ve named it!) I didn’t say “Why I Hate The Annual Conference.” The Annual Conference is the body that gives me a place to live out my call, to exercise my gifts, whatever they may be. Beyond that the Annual Conference is my family, brother and sister clergy, many of whom have been formational in profound ways, some of whom have shared significantly in a variety of moments of my life, and a few of whom I name as some of my closest, deepest friends. In addition, the Annual Conference, in a variety of iterations, has been my family since my birth. The Annual Conference baptized me, sent me and my family hither and yon across Indiana into a rich tapestry of living environments for which I am grateful.

No, I don’t hate the Annual Conference. I couldn’t, because it is me or in me, and in those I love, including my congregations, yesterday and today. Most of you reading this are also the Annual Conference. So, read carefully, please. It is not the entity, but the gathering. Once a year, hence annual, the entity gathers together representatives to do the business required by the human institution that we are, and - in theory - the spiritual booster shot and call to accountability that John Wesley envisioned when the Methodist movement began.

If you had asked me five years ago why I was reluctant to go to Annual Conference I would have talked about the mind-numbing tedium of the administration of the Conference - and a whole lot of it focused on the benefits for me and my colleagues. The rules and regulations of churches and institutions are frighteningly complex. The structures of the Annual Conference would cause a Washington bureaucrat to stare open-mouthed in amazement. Thankfully, the church and the Conference have people who love to wrangle out the details with exacting care. I’m glad they are there, but also wish they would do it behind closed doors! I was reluctant to attend Conference because of the necessary tedium of the institution, or so I thought.

I don’t know whether things have changed lately. Perhaps in our panic in the face of decline has brought about a shift in emphasis during the annual gathering. Or maybe I was just oblivious to it until the cumulative effect has worn me down to a raw, overly-sensitive mass of insecurities. But for the past few years, it seems as though the main purpose of Annual Conference is to tell me how worthless I am.

Probably an overstatement, but it doesn’t feel that way. Over and over again I am told that I am not doing the right things, that I’m valuing old out-dated ideas, that I am contributing to the continued decline and irrelevance of the church.

Let me give you an example: A bishop told us this year that since he hasn’t been able to find a radio station that plays organ music and 18th Century English hymnody that we ought to junk the tradition. It doesn’t speak any more, he claimed. He also introduced us to the fact that most folks, particularly young people, don’t wake up or go to work with a desire to sing 18th Century English hymns. And he’s right, I have to say. But then, I doubt that most young people wake up with a burning desire to read a confusing ancient text with a dizzying array of literary styles and references to obscure historical events. Or, come to think of it, they probably don’t go to work with a hankering to know a two thousand year old son of a carpenter from a tiny Middle Eastern country who only managed to preach and teach for three years before meeting a grisly end. So, by the bishop’s logic we should dismiss the bible and Jesus because they are no longer relevant. Let me put some minds at ease and point out that the bishop in question is not our bishop, but a hired gun who came to conference to sell a book, I mean to teach us something about being the church.

I liked the book, I think that the bishop is on to something, to be honest. I’ve used it in a class, and used it to take a look at some of the things I do and the priorities I have. But I was a bit surprised to hear the claim that there is only one way to be the church and our way isn’t it. It seems to me that the theology of the Wesley hymns is so much deeper than much of what seems popular in worship today. Maybe the form doesn’t appeal like it used to, but surely there are other choices than abandoning something that has fed centuries of Methodists and others and taught us the essence of our faith.

Maybe I’m overstating. Maybe I’m misreading. Maybe I’m whining a bit. Or more than a bit. But it seems to me that there is room in the United Methodist Church for a variety of approaches, a variety of styles, and to continue to be told that unless you do it this way you aren’t really doing it right, or well wears on me after a while.

So, let me turn away from all of that and toward a bible study which is what this space is supposed to be about. When I asked Don what the scripture is for this weekend, since I am heading out of state to prepare to teach in the School of Christian Mission this summer, he said there isn’t a text for worship. ... sigh ... But, the text for the Lifetree ministry which is forming the basis for our Sunday morning worship is this:

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

OK God, I can take a hint. Get over myself and listen again. Being loving includes loving even bishops and Annual Conferences. “Does not insist on its own way.” You know, sometimes trying to be like Jesus is darned hard. “Not irritable or resentful.” Come on, give me a break. “Bears all things ...”

These verses, and a number of others I have to admit, are why I’ll go again next year. I admit that I have things to learn. I confess that I don’t always do things right. And I am sure that I don’t have all the answers. So, I’ll keep plugging away. And I hope you’ll keep plugging away where you are too.

Maybe hoping all things is a better way for all of us.


Saturday, June 5, 2010


I know, I know, you are looking at the heading of this essay and thinking, “how long are we going to have to hear about the 30th anniversary of his marriage to his lovely wife?” And my answer would be, as long as it takes to make up for years of neglect!

Sorry, no. That isn’t really my answer. Because I’m not talking about that Anniversary. As significant as that is. I’m talking about a different anniversary. This past week I had another significant milestone. On June 1, 1985 I was ordained an elder in the United Methodist Church. Twenty-five years, just a few years short of half my life. If you add in the years since I was ordained a deacon (we used to do things differently in the UMC), or the years since I started seminary you end up with more than half my life I have been pursuing this call.

Or being pursued. If you sit down and count it up, on good days it seems like six of one and half dozen of the other, when it comes to pursuing or being pursued. On not as good days it seems like half of one and six dozen of the other! It’s a question we clergy frequently ask ourselves and anyone around us who will sit still long enough to listen (sorry, you’re elected this time!), whose idea was this anyway? How did I get myself here? We are always teaching our kids about making good choices, but maybe we are just messing with them. Maybe the choices aren’t really ours to make after all. At least after that first one. The one that knocks us off our horse on the way to Damascus.

Oh, wait. Now I’m getting me mixed up with Paul. Maybe I should return to the purpose of this essay and do a bible study. I told the group that gathers on Wednesdays to look at the text that I wasn’t really sure why I chose Galatians 1:11-24 for this week’s text. I’m still not sure how it is going to turn into a sermon in time. But now I’m wondering if maybe it wasn’t my choice after all!

Galatians 1:11-24 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. 18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother. 20 In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22 and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23 they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." 24 And they glorified God because of me.

“Not of human origin,” Paul writes. On the one hand you could read this as saying, “hey, it’s not my fault! Don’t blame me, blame God, why don’t you?” Paul says he was doing pretty well on his own, until God got hold of him. “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”
I was, says Paul, one of those who didn’t like change. One of those who thought everything was fine the way it was. Better than fine, it was the way it was supposed to be. And when someone came up with a new way of doing things, I was one of the first to shout them down. We’ve never done it that way before!

But then God got hold of me, Paul points out, and now everything is different. So radical was the change that I had to go away for three years to sort it all out. You don’t like what I’m saying, take it up with God!

Before I get even more carried away imagining Paul’s state of mind, let’s jump back into the historical context a little bit and see if we can figure out why Paul is taking the approach that he takes. The problem we often have in reading the Epistles is that we are never quite sure why they are written. In almost every case the letter is in response to something else, and it is a something else we don’t have. We can make some guesses based on the content of the letters. Sometimes, the writers refer to a letter that they received, or a conversation that they had. Sometimes it simply says “I have heard about you” or something to that effect. But we rarely have concrete evidence of what it was that caused the letter to be written.

In the case of Galatians, Paul is boiling hot. He skips over the usual pleasantries in the opening of his letter to get right to the problem. Verse 6, instead of giving thanks for the community of faith that they were, as was usual, he says “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ ...” Apparently there is a group of folks following Paul, going to the new churches and telling them that Paul has it all wrong. That Paul got a crash course in Christianity from the Apostles in Jerusalem, but didn’t hang around long enough to really learn it. And now he is running around in the Gentile world lopping off important bits and giving you a defective gospel. So, don’t listen to him and his emphasis on grace.

Paul’s defense is that he didn’t choose the Word he shares, the Word chose him. He didn’t invent the gospel he proclaims, it was given to him. And it didn’t come from any human agency. How does he know this? Because they, the other humans, didn’t like it either! When Paul went to the Apostles with the commission to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the Gentiles, the Apostles resisted him. It took a long drawn out argument that might still be going on (in fact it is still going on, but that’s the subject for another time) if it weren’t for some divine intervention involving a bed sheet and some pigs and lobsters (read Acts 10).
It is obvious from the biblical record that God wants this message out. And sometimes it goes out because of the work of the church, of the faithful people of God. But sometimes it goes out in spite of the church and the people of God who firmly believe they are being faithful. We must always remember that though we are a part of the story, it is not our story alone. We don’t own the copywrite, we don’t control the distribution. Our job has never been the hearing of the Word, that is up to the Spirit. Our job has simply been the telling of it, which is sometimes done with words and sometimes done with our lives. We are casters of the seed of faith, we don’t control how and where it takes root and begins to grow. And sometimes God surprises us in which seeds begin to bear fruit.

After twenty-five years of casting that seed and watching what God has done with it, I continue to be surprised. I continue to be involved in ministries I had no intention of doing, but because that is where the need is, because that is where the fruit is, because that is where God is, then I will go too. Paul ends this first chapter in Galatians with a word of hope for me, and I hope for you. The result of all of our efforts is that they might have “glorified God because of me.” Amen.