Saturday, February 25, 2012

All Ears

It’s another Lenten season. I don’t know whether you read that sentence with joy or dread. A little of both, I suspect, for most of us. There is something exciting about a season with such a clear purpose and direction. At the same time, that purpose and direction can be painful to say the least. If the purpose is to examine the innermost thoughts and inclinations of the heart, then that can be sobering, troubling, disturbing of our long held belief that we are good enough at the very least, and better than most at our best. Lent can be unsettling, if we work it right.

Wait. What? Why would we want to “work Lent” in such a way that we are unsettled? Because we know that without a little work, we’ll never get anywhere. Or without a little upset, we will never be set right. Or as Fred Buechner said before the Gospel can be good news it has to be bad news. Before we can be comforted we have to be disturbed.

This Lenten season I am inviting my congregation to consider Spiritual Disciplines. These disciplines are ancient practices that have given followers the opportunity to deepen their faith, to practice obedience and adoration on a daily basis. I’ve chosen ten different disciplines to focus on over the five Sundays of Lent. There are others, and perhaps you have some that you find meaningful for you. But I invite you to consider these ten for this Lent. Perhaps they might help with the upsetting, or the refocusing that I was talking about here.

And then, to help us get into these disciplines, I decided to let the Psalms be our guide. These are the selections from the lectionary, that ecumenical guide to scripture each Sunday that many mainline churches use. But we don’t often use the Psalms as texts for worship and preaching. So, yet another stretch for this season.

Let’s recap: Psalms and Spiritual Disciplines coming together to help us be upset by Lent. Uh, ok. Let’s give it a try. Here is the Psalm for this Sunday, you tell me which disciplines are called for. OK? Give it a try.

Psalm 25:1-22 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. 2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. 3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. 4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. 6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O LORD! 8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. 10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. 11 For your name's sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great. 12 Who are they that fear the LORD? He will teach them the way that they should choose. 13 They will abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land. 14 The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them. 15 My eyes are ever toward the LORD, for he will pluck my feet out of the net. 16 Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. 17 Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress. 18 Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins. 19 Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me. 20 O guard my life, and deliver me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. 21 May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you. 22 Redeem Israel, O God, out of all its troubles.

The lectionary only has the first ten verses, but I decided to bring in the whole thing this week. Partly because this Psalm is an acrostic. You can’t tell it from the English translation, but in Hebrew each verse begins with a different letter of the alphabet. There are 22 characters in the Hebrew alphabet, and there are 22 verses in Psalm 25. I consider for a moment retranslating it so that it started with successive English letters, but decided that was too much work! You’ll just have to take my word for it.

But the main reason for including the whole thing was so that you could see the flow from beginning to end. How it seems to jump from internal to external struggles, how the enemies named in the psalm sometimes seems like real flesh and blood bad guys and how sometimes they seem to be inner demons afflicting the confidence and well-being of the psalmist.

Yet, despite the struggles from whatever source, there is an antidote suggested. Verse four is the beginning of that antidote. “Make me know” it says, “teach me” it continues, “lead me ... and teach me” the next verse records. Kind of hard to miss when you look at it. And it is possible that if we continue on this line that you would think that the discipline that fits here is study. That is an important one and will be coming up in a couple of weeks. But no, that isn’t where we start this week.

Instead we ask the question what do we need to do in order to learn, in order to be led? We need to listen. The Voice on the mount of transfiguration said “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” Jesus said, “let those who have ears to hear hear!” So our disciplines begin with Silence and Solitude.

Dallas Willard divides spiritual disciplines into disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement. He puts Silence and Solitude under abstinence and that makes sense. In a way. There is a letting go involved in these disciplines. They are about moving yourself aside, about letting go of your need to speak or to fill up with quiet with sounds of your choosing. A Discipline of Silence requires that you listen to another voice. Perhaps it is an inner voice, perhaps it is a voice that comes from beyond yourself.

Which means that perhaps Silence ought to be a Discipline of Engagement. Yes, you are abstaining from speaking, but you are looking to plug into the Word of God. You are seeking to engage with a presence beyond yourself. Silence is not, in the end, about emptiness, but about a fullness that is harder to define.

But whether we see it as abstaining or as engaging Silence is about learning, about being willing to be led. That is what the Psalmist is trying to get us to understand. The way out of trouble, whether inner demons or external enemies, is to learn the ways of God, the paths of the Lord. And the first step toward learning is to listen.

So, are you all ears this Lenten season? Are you ready to be taught and to grow and to follow? That’s my prayer these 40 days.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Double Share

A lot of activity in the Late Night Bible Study community. We had a guest join us for a few days who wanted to let us in one some important opportunities. As one with Scots heritage who has never had a tan in his life, the offer of skin whitening cream didn’t interest me at all, but the spy software, now that was tempting. It is good to keep track of everyone, to have insider information, to know what is going on at all times. That would be cool, to say the least. Provided that it worked, which I doubt. As with most too good to miss kind of deals. So, despite my commitment to hospitality, I unceremoniously removed our interloper. So, you shouldn’t receive any further invitations of that ilk, at least for a while.

Unless you consider the invitations regularly issued in this space as also too good to be true. It isn’t usually a hard sell, I admit, but there is usually a call of some sort here. Sometimes it is a do or to be something. Sometimes it is to understand something. Sometimes it is an encouragement to take another look at something. And that something is often yourself.

This is the weekend before Lent begins and is, traditionally, Transfiguration Sunday. That’s that odd story in Matthew and Mark about Jesus on the mountain and the change in his face and clothes and the words from the cloud and the light. You remember that story. One of those we sit and listen to and say “huh.” Because it is, after all, about Jesus. It is just something for us to see, or to wonder about. It’s about Jesus and who he was and who he is. We are bystanders, observers, at best. It is about Jesus.

At least that is what we’ve always assumed. So, this year I decided to not read the Gospel story and to pick the Old Testament passage assigned for this Transfiguration Sunday. To see if maybe it might help us see this story a little differently.

2 Kings 2:1-12 Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they went down to Bethel. 3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, "Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?" And he said, "Yes, I know; keep silent." 4 Elijah said to him, "Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho." But he said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they came to Jericho. 5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, "Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?" And he answered, "Yes, I know; be silent." 6 Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan." But he said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. 9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." Elisha said, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." 10 He responded, "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not." 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, "Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

Like the Gospel story this “transfiguration” is all about Elijah. The old word was translation. This is the story of the translation of Elijah. It begins with the whole story in the first verse “When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind.” Wait. When the Lord was about to... When? That’s kind of an odd way to present the climax, the main point of the whole story, isn’t it? It almost makes you think that the point of this story is something other than the miracle. Something other than the special effects.

Please don’t misunderstand, I love the wide screen stuff. I like the lights and sounds and the awe-inspiring wonder of some of this Old Testament stuff here. Chariots of Fire, wow! Horses of fire, wow 2! A whirlwind carrying Dorothy off to Oz. I mean Elijah off to God’s heaven, wow to the max. I would have stood there with my mouth open not making a sound like the company of prophets who came and stood on the other side of the Jordan to watch the spectacle, standing at a safe distance so as not to get fiery horse droppings on their heads. I’m ready to applaud the awesomeness of God just like anyone else. But Jesus had a few words about miracles for show, as I recall, so I’m inclined to think that maybe the pyrotechnics are not the center of this story. Whether we are talking about the light show with Jesus on the mountain or the last round-up with Elijah and the whirlwind.

Let’s take another look at this story to see if we can figure out what it is really about. For example, why does God take Elijah on such an extended journey to the pick up point? Sort of a Close Encounters vibe, in a way. And yet would it profit Elijah (sorry, bad pun there) to make this journey? A farewell tour? If so, he didn’t say much, no proclamations, no final warnings or sermons. Just one foot in front of another, mile after mile - it was just a couple of miles short of a marathon, near as we can tell. Twenty-three miles of marching from place to place at the directions of a God who can’t read the timetables of the Jordan Cannonball.

Unless, it wasn’t for Elijah. What if, just suppose for a moment, it was all for Elisha? What if the constant suggestion that he go away was not a request from an old man about to meet his maker, but a test from a mentor prophet. The trip was for Elisha, a rehearsal of the activity of God with God’s people. The first destination was Bethel, where God dropped a ladder and made a promise of Presence. The second destination was Jericho, where God proved that there are no walls, no barriers strong enough to block that Presence and that Hope. Then there was the final destination, the Jordan River, the entrance, the welcome home, the gate opened by the hand of God.

Then because he went along, Elijah asked the question, what do you need still. “A double share,” answers Elijah. Greedy? Make me twice as good as you? Was that what he said? Well, no. A double share meant, let me be your heir. Let me stand for you, let me represent you, let me be you to those who miss you as I will miss you. Let me love like you loved, serve like you served. Let me be the one who carries on hoping in God, the one who points out the brokenness within only because there is healing to be found. Let me bring God’s word to God’s people.

Elisha was the one who was transfigured. Just like the disciples were the ones transfigured on that mountain with Jesus. Oh, I know it was His face and His robe that shown like light. But when that voice said “Listen to Him,” the disciples became something more than what they had been, something more than was within them to be. Transfiguration is about Jesus, yes certainly. But it is also about us. Like Elisha, we’ve been led on a journey and asked a question. Led through the Providence and Presence and Power of God and then asked what we need. And we reply, give us a double share. Let us speak for you, let us live for you, let us service for you, let us love for you, let us die for you.

It’s a hard thing, Elijah replies to us. We know that. We’ve wrestled with it before. But in the end it is an offer we can’t refuse. Give us a double share.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Spending Time

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe.” In honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th, I open with a Lincoln quote. He was one of our most quotable presidents, I must say. The difficulty was not in finding one, but in choosing one. There are certainly more profound ones that could have started this bible study. “A house divided” and all of that, that was Lincoln. Well, OK, it was Jesus to start out with, but then Lincoln picked it up when lamenting the civil war and what it was doing to our nation.

One of my favorite Lincoln quotes is “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” I like that one. Sometimes they are funny ones: “I can make more generals, but horses cost money.” He was a witty guy was our Abe.

But I chose the one I chose because we are in the second week of our series on time. The text that Pastor Chris chose is ... well, it is way long for one thing. It goes on and on and on. And it is from Leviticus. Now if that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what would.

OK, just kidding there. Leviticus is a fine book, one of the big five, or Pentateuch as they called it then. So, I would never speak ill of it. Heck, some of my best laws are levitical. So there.

The passage is about the ordering of time. Or as Chris puts it in his sermon title “the re-ordering of time.” Which means what, exactly? Well, take a look. At least give it a skim if you don’t want to read all the way through. Like I said, a long passage.

Leviticus 23:1-38 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: These are the appointed festivals of the LORD that you shall proclaim as holy convocations, my appointed festivals. 3 Six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work: it is a sabbath to the LORD throughout your settlements. 4 These are the appointed festivals of the LORD, the holy convocations, which you shall celebrate at the time appointed for them. 5 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the LORD, 6 and on the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the LORD; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. 7 On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. 8 For seven days you shall present the LORD's offerings by fire; on the seventh day there shall be a holy convocation: you shall not work at your occupations. 9 The LORD spoke to Moses:

10 Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. 11 He shall raise the sheaf before the LORD, that you may find acceptance; on the day after the sabbath the priest shall raise it. 12 On the day when you raise the sheaf, you shall offer a lamb a year old, without blemish, as a burnt offering to the LORD. 13 And the grain offering with it shall be two-tenths of an ephah of choice flour mixed with oil, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD; and the drink offering with it shall be of wine, one-fourth of a hin. 14 You shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God: it is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your settlements. 15 And from the day after the sabbath, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the elevation offering, you shall count off seven weeks; they shall be complete.

16 You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the LORD. 17 You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering, each made of two-tenths of an ephah; they shall be of choice flour, baked with leaven, as first fruits to the LORD. 18 You shall present with the bread seven lambs a year old without blemish, one young bull, and two rams; they shall be a burnt offering to the LORD, along with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD.

19 You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering, and two male lambs a year old as a sacrifice of well-being. 20 The priest shall raise them with the bread of the first fruits as an elevation offering before the LORD, together with the two lambs; they shall be holy to the LORD for the priest. 21 On that same day you shall make proclamation; you shall hold a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a statute forever in all your settlements throughout your generations. 22 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the LORD your God.

23 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 24 Speak to the people of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts. 25 You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall present the LORD's offering by fire. 26 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 27 Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the LORD's offering by fire; 28 and you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God. 29 For anyone who does not practice self-denial during that entire day shall be cut off from the people. 30 And anyone who does any work during that entire day, such a one I will destroy from the midst of the people. 31 You shall do no work: it is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your settlements. 32 It shall be to you a sabbath of complete rest, and you shall deny yourselves; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening you shall keep your sabbath. 33 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

34 Speak to the people of Israel, saying: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month, and lasting seven days, there shall be the festival of booths to the LORD. 35 The first day shall be a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. 36 Seven days you shall present the LORD's offerings by fire; on the eighth day you shall observe a holy convocation and present the LORD's offerings by fire; it is a solemn assembly; you shall not work at your occupations. 37 These are the appointed festivals of the LORD, which you shall celebrate as times of holy convocation, for presenting to the LORD offerings by fire-- burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings, each on its proper day-- 38 apart from the sabbaths of the LORD, and apart from your gifts, and apart from all your votive offerings, and apart from all your freewill offerings, which you give to the LORD.

Whew. What was that all about? Well, the re-ordering of time. Or sharpening the ax. Or ... It is about choosing how we spend our time. And remembering that our first allegiance is to God. And therefore choosing to do that which prepares us for the task that God has given to us. Which is many and varied, but at the heart is about being the body of Christ. It is about ordering ourselves in such a way that we are honed in ways that are useful to God and to our deepest selves, fulfilling our purpose and building up the body.

So, then, what do you want to spend your time doing? Chasing the empty promises of a consumer culture? Or seeking after that which brings us the most profound joy - service, sacrifice, reconciliation and relationship?

Excuse me, but I have an axe to sharpen. How about you?


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Time is a Fire

I ran across this poem recently. It is by Delmore Schwartz, an American poet of the early 20th Century. He lived in New York and many of his poems are of the observational type. He simply looks around him and describes what he sees. It is often the very mundane, people walking in a park, or sitting on a bus, but in his description it becomes something more. Something eternal, in a way.

The poem I am referring to is titled “Calmly We Walk Through This April Day.” It begins, “Calmly we walk through this April's day, / Metropolitan poetry here and there, / In the park sit pauper and rentier, / The screaming children, the motor-car.” The poet goes on to observe that things are passing by, all we see will one day be gone.

Time, like an ever rolling stream,/ Bears all its sons away; / They fly, forgotten, as a dream / Dies at the opening day. Maybe that seems more familiar. The hymn “O God Our Help in Ages Past” has as the 5th verse this somewhat depressing realization that we are helpless in the face of the march of time.

Or maybe it is just me. Having just come through an ordeal with my father in law and presiding over his funeral, maybe I am seeing things through a glass dimly. We took some time off, mostly because Ellen Rhoades, who is much wiser than I am apparently, knew I needed it. And she was right. The reordering of life, the re-examination of time is a difficult process that weighs on us more that I realized. “Time is the fire in which we burn,” Schwartz writes. And it isn’t easy, this being burned up thing. This being burned out.

Which might be why our passage for this week is one we avoid at all costs. Oh, it is familiar enough, thanks to the folk rock group the Byrds and their song “Turn, Turn, Turn” way back in the mid 60's. So, we know it, but do we really embrace it? Or even understand it? Read this, (and try not to let the tune enter your head while you do!)

Ecclesiastes 3:1-17 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. 9 What gain have the workers from their toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11 He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. 14 I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by. 16 Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work.

We went on a bit long there. Longer than we are used to, anyway. We usually stop before verse 9 which raises a question we’d rather not think about. And you can’t help but feel, as you read on from there, that the Preacher (the author of Ecclesiastes, while tradition believed it was Solomon, calls himself Qohelet, which is translated as the Teacher, or the Preacher) says “what’s the point? Just eat, drink and be merry, cause that’s all there is!”

Some have tried to find some significance to the list of things there is a time for in the first part of this reading. Declaring that these are the weighty matters of life, these are the things that God makes time for, and anything else ought not to be engaged in. Sort of an ancient “never be triflingly employed” that John Wesley quoted much later on. And maybe there is something to this list. But on the other hand it just seems like an arbitrary list (a time to seek and a time to lose?) that we could continue almost ad infinitum – a time to sleep in and a time to get up, a time to eat Cheerios and a time for toast, a time to play ping pong and a time to read your Kindle, and on and on and on. And on.

So what do we do with this seemingly meaningless existence? Do we just enjoy it while it lasts? Or do we find something bigger to live for? Something more profound to build our existence around? And how do we find that in the midst of the ever rolling stream that bears all our sons, our loved ones, ourselves away?

I don’t know for sure, to be honest and I hope that Pastor Chris can figure this out for us on Sunday morning (you think I’d tackle something like this?), but in the meantime I offer you the conclusion of the poem that I found as perhaps a pointer to that something. Take a look:

Each minute bursts in the burning room,
The great globe reels in the solar fire,
Spinning the trivial and unique away.
(How all things flash! How all things flare!)
What am I now that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.

Maybe that’s what we’re left with. Yes, there is the fire that burns, yes there is loss and grief and that which is no more. But there is also the school in which we learn. We are the result of our experiences and our encounters. I have learned from the past and from those I have known in the past. While some are now gone what I have learned remains with me and becomes part of what I have to teach and to share to others.

Which means maybe this fire that burns isn’t a consuming fire, but a purifying one. One that makes us stronger, better. Maybe when the Preacher says that God has appointed a time for every matter, we are that matter; a time for every work, we are that work. Maybe time is a gift, our gift and how we use it, what we fill it with is our response to that gift.

What time is it? Maybe that is a deeper question than we realized. Maybe it is more theological than we usually admit.

What time is it? Your time. My time. God’s time. It’s time.