Saturday, June 23, 2012

Seeing Color

Well, that was lovely.  A friend just sent me an email thing about seeing color.  You know those forward things that you usually just delete and sigh, wondering why they seem to fill your email inbox with this nonsense.  But since I was kind of stuck on the bible study writing so far, I thought, what the heck, give it a go.  And it was lovely. 

Someone made a little movie made up of still pictures, some gentle piano music in the background and the words “Did you even think what a blessing it is to be able to see, and to see in color?”  Then it says sit back and enjoy for a few minutes, so I did.  And there were these dramatic landscape pictures that first appeared in black and white and then burst out in color.  It was quite a change from one to the other, I must say.  And it was fun to watch for a few minutes, carried away by the music and loveliness of the photography.

Then it hit me, I had the answer to the question for this week.  OK, stay with me here.  This is the question I chose to answer: “Why don’t we hear about the 10 Commandments any more?”  There was more on the card though.  The writer went on to say that his/her history growing up in the Baptist tradition meant that there was regular exposure to the Ten Commandments.  But now it seemed as though they had disappeared from view.  Or at least from active consciousness. 

So, the question implied, do we United Methodists not care about the Ten Commandments anymore?  Have succumbed to the “anything goes” culture in which we live and spend all our time just pouring out buckets of grace in endless forgiveness mode, or really NBD mode (no big deal) since forgiveness implies a wrong-doing and no one wants to go there. There’s a free pass whether anyone asks for it or not? 

Well, no.  Any denomination that traces its origins back to someone who spoke so often about spiritual discipline, about sanctification, about Christian perfection in love can’t be completely casual about law.  At least it seems that way to me.  On the other hand, it might be argued that we have gotten a little casual about law.  In our effort to be nice, to be tolerant, to be user-friendly, it could be said that we have been a bit neglectful about law.  We’ve gotten lazy, or embarrassed, or indulgent and what we really need is a re-emphasis on the law, starting withe the ten commandments.  Am I right?  Well, then, here they are.  Let’s have at it.

Exodus 20:1-20   Then God spoke all these words:  2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;  3 you shall have no other gods before me.  4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,  6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.  7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.  8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work-- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.  12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.  13 You shall not murder.  14 You shall not commit adultery.  15 You shall not steal.  16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  17 You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.  18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance,  19 and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die."  20 Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin."

OK, I went on a bit.  Couldn’t just stop with the ten, the way most folks do.  Had to add in a little commentary.  But there they are.  All ten.  The law, the big ones, the words.  That’s what they are called in Hebrew, you know.  It doesn’t say that God called Moses one day and said I’ve got these commandments I want to try out.  Let’s run a focus group and do a test market and run them up the flagpole and see who salutes.

No, it just says God spoke all these words.  These are the Ten Words, or even more literally, The Utterances.  Doesn’t have the same zing to it, does it?  The Ten Utterances.  Not something you want to post in courthouses and make yard signs out of.  Well, ok, but what does that mean, exactly?  That these aren’t really laws?  That these were just words, just a conversation God was having with Moses that somehow got written in stone and maybe we should just all lighten up?

Well, maybe.  Maybe yes, maybe no.  Let’s start with no.  God doesn’t need to name them as laws for them to have weight and authority over our lives.  God spoke them, to us, to the people of God.  God said this is who you are, who you will be.  You will be in right relationship with me, first of all.  Don’t let anything get in the way of me, don’t let anything take the place of me, and please, God said, don’t use me as your personal battering ram to get your points across to others.  Those were the first three utterances, no gods before me, no idols and do not make wrongful use of God’s name.  

Then God said, I know that’s hard to remember all of that stuff.  So, once a week you need to sit down and reorient yourself to me.  Set your life aside for a day and remember that you belong to me.  Sabbath, keeping it holy means we keep it for God alone.  A chance to get back on track.

From there the conversation turned to reflections on how we were going to live in community.  God said in the end it is all about respect, Moses, respect family and tradition - what brought you here, respect life itself, respect the covenants you make, respect ownership, respect truth and a fair system of justice, and guard your heart against the greed and self-centeredness that causes us to stop respecting. 

Sounds good, Moses must have thought.  Sounds like the kind of place I would like to live.  But then he thought, Why?  Turning to his friend he asked, “why do you care?”  Maybe that was where all the smoke and fire came from.  That was what set the folks back on their heels enough to say to Moses - you talk to God, we don’t want to.  We might not survive the experience.

But it was a good question, and thousands of years later the answer said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Because it was never about black and white, about obeying the law or getting burned.  It was about seeing color, the rich hues of God’s creation in community.  It’s not about staying in the lines, but about fulfilling the potential that is within each of us and within all of us.  It’s about making connections within the divine palette of possibility.  It is indeed a blessing to see beyond the simple black and white, right and wrong into the color of what is good and what is godly.   We spend more time talking about the community the ten words make than the words themselves.  So we can see the color and not just the lines.  The lines are there, make no mistake, but oh, how glorious is the color we can see.  And wouldn’t you rather live there?


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Hi Dad

So, how come the big, buff football players all say “Hi mom” when the camera finds them on the sidelines and no one says Hi Dad?  Just wondering.

I know I said that I wasn’t going to do this bible study on the weekends when I wasn’t preaching, and I’m not preaching this week, and in a couple of weeks I’ll be gone on vacation, so I definitely won’t be doing it then, but here I am on this Saturday, stealing a couple of minutes on the computer to write a very brief bible study on the Sunday passage, or sort of at least - so what’s the deal?

Well, I decided I couldn’t just quit cold turkey.  I had to taper off.  And besides it is Father’s Day this weekend and one of my best readers is my dad, who also reads it to my mom.  So, I couldn’t just let it drop this time.  Hi Dad!

And besides the question that Chris chose to respond to this week is “How do we reconcile the God of the Old Testament?”  Now, I assumed that the questioner really was asking how do we reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the God of New Testament?  Or with the God that Jesus introduces to us. Not how can we get right with the God of the Old Testament.  Or to say “hi dad” or something like that.

Frankly, I’m excited to hear what Chris will tell us. Though I am puzzled by the scripture he chose.  Which is this one:

Revelation 22:13-21   I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."  14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.  15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.  16 "It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star."  17 The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.  18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book;  19 if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person's share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.  20 The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!  21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

I have some guesses, but I’ll try not to spoil things for those who would hear what Chris has to say.  So, let me just say this – Nowhere in the Old Testament or the New does God ask us to understand God.  Nor are we told to make excuses or to explain God to anyone else.  We are told to obey.  To follow.  And Jesus said those words really mean to love.  With our whole heart and soul and mind and strength.

And I’m relieved.  Don’t ask me to explain my dad either.  But I do and will always love him.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

The End of Questions

Graduation day.  We finally made it.  He made it.  Well, him and 500 and some other Homestead graduates, not to mention millions of high schoolers across the country.  Congratulations to all.  To grads and to parents and teachers and administrators.  And support staff and friends and colleagues.  And ... well the source of all knowledge and wisdom!  Thanks be to God!

Did I leave anyone out?  Hope not.  Cause I can’t think of anyone else.  The brain is tired.  And mine isn’t the only one here today on cruise control.  The graduate himself came home and crashed.  Of course a big celebratory lunch with extended family might have had something to do with that.  But I seem to recall hearing a mutter under the breath around here about how there wasn’t going to be any thinking around here, at least until school starts again in the fall.

“Too much thinkin’ cain’t be good for you!”  That was said to me many years ago when a little church in Arkansas was trying to tell me how much they liked me as I was and was pretty sure I didn’t need to go back to Seminary for more “book larnin’.”  There is in some circles a certain amount of suspicion of too much education.  There are just some questions we ought not ask, some are saying.  Just some knowledge we don’t need to have.

Well, perhaps there are things we all wish the world could unlearn, destructive things, hateful things.  But that isn’t likely to happen.  And most of us believe learning, knowledge and questions are good things.  That is why we begin this summer a series of questions raised by the congregation of Aldersgate.  Some of them are questions that some might think we shouldn’t even ask.  Not because they are bad questions, but simply because it disturbs some to even ask them.

A long time ago the Episcopal Church ran an ad campaign.  There were some edgy posters and advertisements in magazines and newspapers.  There were many quite clever ones, but the one I remember the best simply had a partial photo of a depiction of Christ on a cross and the caption was “He died to take away your sins, not your mind.”

The church ought to be a place of questions.  Within the community of faith, there should be security and trust and support enough to ask even the most difficult of questions, the freaky and wild ponderings, the what ifs that would stump a saint.  There is room for questions.

So, my debate this week has been do I deal with the questions I intend to answer in this space, or do I stick with a bible reflection on the passage which, I must confess, may have only a tangential relationship to the question at hand.  For example, the question this week is the one that more than one person asked.  It was on the bible side of the question form and it is this: “How were the books of the bible chosen?”

Simple enough, right?  Well, actually, it is a long and convoluted process where some of the most beloved parts of the bible didn’t make the cut and some of what are to us obscure texts were almost put in.  It was a lottery and political process all wrapped up in one.  There were debates and arguments, splits and accusations of heresy on this very issue.  Not only that, it could be argued that it almost didn’t happen.  The struggles were so great, the divisions so deep that the movement might not have survived.  But it did.  By the grace of God, it survived.

When some folks talk about the inspiration of the Bible, they mean that the words themselves came from the very mouth of God.  A process of divine dictation, perhaps, or overwhelming manipulation of the various authors that forced them to write an error free text.  But given what we know about history, and the variety of manuscripts of the various books of the bible, such a robotic transcription of the holy text seems unlikely.  But the evidence of the Spirit is throughout the history of the bible, from composition to selection to translation to the very survival of the text despite various efforts to erase it from the minds and hearts of the people of God. 

I have no hesitation in declaring the Spirit-breathed nature of the Bible.  Which leads me to ask the question that I believe is even more crucial than how did we get the bible we have.  And that question is “what are we supposed to do with it?” 

Is it cheating to switch questions?  Perhaps, but allowable because I am here to preach not to lecture.  I’m not a professor in a class in biblical scholarship, but a preacher in the community of faith gathered to worship God and to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ.  It is that second, and I believe connected, question that led me to assign our text for the week.  (Whew, after all of that we finally get to actually read the bible!  Who’d a thunk it?)

1 Timothy 4:7-16   Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives' tales. Train yourself in godliness,  8 for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.  9 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance.  10 For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.  11 These are the things you must insist on and teach.  12 Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.  13 Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching.  14 Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.  15 Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress.  16 Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Chapter four of First Timothy is one of Paul’s standard “not this ... but that” structural arguments.  The first part of the chapter is the not this, you can go back and read the first five verses and see what he is setting aside.  But here we have an outline of ministry, not just of the clergy, but of every Christian.  “Train yourself in godliness,” he writes.  It takes effort, it takes energy, it takes will to be a Christian.  It doesn’t just happen because you made a choice somewhere along the line, because you joined a church.  We have to work at it.  And here is an outline of what we work on.

In the midst of this presentation (since I don’t have space to cover it all) is attention to public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching.  The bible, says Paul, is central to our faith.  It is what gives it a shape,  draws boundaries.  But it does more than that.  It draws pictures, it casts vision.  We study the bible to get a glimpse of what the community of faith looks like, and feels like, and acts like.  We are drawn into this picture, we are inspired, encouraged, challenged by what we read in this text. 

Do not neglect the gift, he writes.  In this case he means the gift of the gospel, the gift of faith, the gift of the bible itself.  Do we see it as a precious gift?  A treasure store of hope and joy?  Do we claim it as a living document in which we find ourselves, our true selves and our better selves?  Do we hear the call of Christ to claim the kingdom, right now, right here?

I hope so.  And if so, then put these things into practice, devote yourselves to them, so all may see your progress.  In other words.  Just do it!  And keep on asking questions, there is always more to learn.


Saturday, June 2, 2012


My mission today is clear.  Finish this just as quickly as humanly possible.  La Donna has just gone to take the crazy dogs to the kennel for their weekend away, while we prepare the house to receive various and sundry tomorrow afternoon.  It is graduation party weekend.  Not graduation, that’s next Saturday.  But open house party tomorrow afternoon.  Y’all come.  Can I say that?  Might as well, that’s what an open house is about, opening the house.

But before we open it, we have to clean it.  And not just clean it, but mom clean it.  See if it were up to most of us here at the house, we’d look around an nod, saying “yep, good enough!” And then sit back down and read or watch or whatever.  But there is one in the house who has a higher standard.  Who sees the tumbleweeds of dog hair rolling in the corners.  Who notices the layer of dust on our precious screens that we’ve managed to look through and around and completely miss.  Who sees the piles of papers and books and important stuff that “we’ll get to when we get a moment” and declare that the moment is now!  We’ve got work to do.

Obligation.  Not one of our favorite words.  Almost anti-American in some circles.  Freedom is the highest ideal, it seems.  Don’t fence me in.  Don’t lay burdens on me.  Don’t cramp my style.  Hey, it’s a free country!  Right?  Well, yeah.  But ... but.

If we are going to value community then we enter into the whole arena of obligation.  Don’t we?  If we choose to come down out of our caves where it was just us and our complete freedom, and live with other people then we have to make room and make allowances and decide that maybe it isn’t just what I want and how I want it, but that there really is something called the common good and that sometimes I have to set aside my own preferences for the moment and to participate in something bigger than myself and my own freedom.  Whew.  Living in community is hard work.  And sometimes uncomfortable work.  But also glorious.

Seriously?  Yes, seriously.  We are fed the lie that it is all about ourselves, that getting what we want when we want it is the best way to find fulfillment.  But the reality is that giving ourselves away, that sacrificing, that living for and through someone else is not only more fulfilling, but is in fact the reason for our existence.  The old catechism asked what was the purpose of the human being.  The answer was to love God and enjoy God forever. 

So if we were meant to live in relationship, with God and with others (after all, Jesus told us that the most important commandments were not about self, but about relationship - love God and love neighbor), then the whole idea of obligation begins to rear its not so ugly head.  Its lovely head?  Its head of potential and possibility?

Which means, it seems to me, that obligation is a good thing.  It helps us be more fully us.  More fully alive.  Claimed, you might say.  Or at least Paul might say.  And does say.  In our passage for the week.  You do remember this is a bible study in the end.  And that I’ll eventually get around to that.  Like now:

Romans 8:12-17  So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh--  13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!"  16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Paul could have used a marketing course, don’t you think?  You can’t get too far by telling people that we need to suffer.  Talk about the benefits and not the burdens, talk about the joys and not the heartache.  We always have to start off with something like “OK, he didn’t really mean that ....”

Paul doesn’t mean that bodies are bad.  The whole spirit verses flesh thing is wildly misunderstood.  In our current context one way to reinterpret that dichotomy would by to say “if you live according to self you will die, but if by the Spirit - the love of God and others - you put to death the desires of the self in isolation, you will live.”

OK, it doesn’t flow like Paul’s prose, but it helps us see the point he is making.  Can we live acknowledging our obligations?  Can we live as debtors?  Not to ourselves.  We hear that - “you owe it to yourself!”  Paul argues that our ultimate debt is to God, to grace.  We owe it to love. 

We owe it to those who have loved us when we weren’t all that loveable.  We owe it to those who saw in us what we couldn’t see for ourselves.  We owe it to those who let us be wrong because that was the only way we would learn. 

We are recognizing our graduates this weekend.  Not just the one in my house, but all those who are connected to Aldersgate.  Congratulations, we will say.  Honor their achievement, pat them on their back, join in their hopes and dreams for tomorrow, we’ll do all that stuff.  But mixed in all that congratulatory talk will come, subtle and with a gentle spirit, that they are debtors.  And I’m not just talking about school loans here.

They are debtors to love.  Debtors to the Spirit who shaped them, who claimed them, who offers them a future with hope and fulfillment and joy.  And that they experienced that Spirit most vividly through those who walked beside them every step of the way.  May have been parents, may have been teachers, may have been fellow students, may have been a combination of all the above and more, maybe it was the church that nurtured them and told them that they were worthy of loving, that they were the beloved of God and it was our honor to guide and shape and love them.

We are all debtors, we like to think we are free and unfettered.  But we are bound together, in human community.  And the truth is that we are better that way.  We are able to be glorified, to reach our full potential, to claim the gift of eternity, because of the debts we accumulate.  Because of the relationships we are blessed to live in.  Because of the community that we are becoming. 

And it is our privilege to suffer in service to those relationships. 

Now, where is that dust rag.