Friday, July 24, 2015

All the Treasures

There’s a bit of a lull here in the culminating hours of Choir School.  So I thought I’d try to dash this off in preparation for the weekend.  This Sunday morning is the conclusion of our Ordinary Time series, where we’ve been focusing on the need to make faith an every day experience, not just a high point, once a week, save it for the special times way of living.

The irony here is that this week has been a high point, special time.  I have been chaplain for Choir School here on the campus of Anderson University, which is a choral music camp focused on singing sacred music in large choirs and living in community and engaging in worship from Sunday evening until Saturday morning.  I preached 10 times this week (well, nine so far, I’ve got one more to go as of this writing).  And I’ve known some of these people for twenty years or more.  It has indeed been a highlight, as always.

But this year there was an added dimension.  I created a Preaching Academy to go alongside Choir School.  Seven Indiana preachers took me up on it.  And we spent time reflecting on this thing called preaching, I would teach for three hours each morning and then we would either read and write or engage in conversation around the preaching process, both how sermons are crafted and what do we mean by a preaching ministry and even how do we give our hearers avenues for response to the Word they hear.  It was an invigorating time.  Deeply personal, as preaching comes from within; but also community based as the preachers mingled with the musicians and we shared some activities together, most notably worship.  We grew together as a small group of colleagues and learned from one another all week.

So, what is ordinary about all of that?  Nothing, or everything, depending on your point of view, I suppose.  There is nothing ordinary about the Choir School community.  Get this many musicians, even church musicians, together and there are bound to be sparks.  There is inspired goofiness, bruised egos, passionate worship and honest attempts to care and connect.  Extraordinary.

There is nothing ordinary about a gathering of preachers (a pulpit of preachers?  A narthex of preachers?  Hmmm). Inspired goofiness, check; bruised egos, check; passionate worship, check; and honest attempts to care and connect, check and check.  Extraordinary.

Yet, none of us feel anything but ordinary.  We are just who we are.  We are who God made us, loved and redeemed, but nothing special.  So, maybe the ordinary is overcome only in the gathering together.  The goofiness increases as the crowd increases.  The worship is more passionate when we worship together with enthusiasm and power.  You get the drift.  Maybe what seems ordinary to one, becomes transformative in community.  Maybe it is time to set ordinary aside to embrace something beyond ordinary.

Colossians 2:1-10  For I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face.  2 I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ himself,  3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  4 I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments.  5 For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, and I rejoice to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ.  6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him,  7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.  8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.  9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,  10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.

Paul writes (I know that some folks don’t think Paul wrote it, that some other scribe wrote this epistle.  That may be, who knows, does it matter?) that the whole fullness of deity lives in Jesus.  Which is not very ordinary.  And Jesus wants us to receive that fullness too.  Paul wants us to be like Jesus.

So, how does one go out and get such a thing?  The whole fullness?  It seems a pipe dream, it seems a vain hope.  Yet Paul seems to think that not only is it possible, but it is the ordinary expectation of every Christian.  It is how life is supposed to be lived, filled with the whole presence of God.  It seems out of reach.  So how do we reach it?  Paul tells us that too.

To begin with we need hearts that are encouraged.  That seems an ordinary thing.  Everyone likes a little encouragement now and then.  Everyone needs to be lifted now and then.  There is so much that knocks us down, so much that makes us feel less than able, less than important, less than included.  Maybe, come to think of it, hearts that are discouraged seem much more normal these days.  Those who are lifted up seem few and far between.  And the times in our lives when we are up seem fewer than the days that we are down.  So, which is ordinary?  What does ordinary even mean in this context?

I don’t know.  I know that Paul says in order for us to have the fullness of Christ we need encouraged hearts.  And united hearts.  Now, surely that’s ordinary.  United hearts.  Isn’t that we are all seeking, hearts with which we can connect.  We all want to be in relationship, we all want to love and be loved.  But there seems to be more hinted at here than just somebody to love (nod to Freddie Mercury).

Hearts that are encouraged and united in love describes the church, the community of faith. Or at least the church as it could be, should be, might be and is at its best.  Encouraging and united.  Isn’t that the church you want to be a part of?  Isn’t that what you’d like to see in your church?  Encouragement and unity? A sense of belonging to something bigger than just yourself, just your own limited vision and understanding.  But something larger, deeper, wider.  Sure there is a one on one dimension to our work in the church, but there is also the wider community.  Both for encouragement and for uniting.

As the week draws to a close on these two extraordinary events, Choir School and the Preaching Academy, I wonder how I will return to the ordinary life of the congregation in which I serve.  How will I return to the daily life and rhythms without feeling like I’m missing something.  That’s the problem with mountaintop experiences.  As soon as you leave the mountain you miss it.  Nothing here in the flatlands of Indiana comes close to being a mountain.  Right?

Except that with hearts encouraged and united in love we receive Christ in all His fullness, the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  Which would seem to me to the very definition of extraordinary.  Except that Paul goes on to say, having received Christ in this way, we “continue to live your lives in Him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

Continue.  Again.  And again.  And yet again.  Day after day, hour after hour, choice after choice.  We live this life, this every day, over repetitious life, this ordinary life, we live this life abounding in thanksgiving.  We life this ordinary life with an extraordinary presence.  We live this mundane same old same old kind of life forgetting that we have all the treasures, the ones in Him, in Christ, we have all the treasures.  The treasures of wisdom and knowledge that come from Christ.  All the treasures.  There is no such thing as ordinary.  Or rather, everything is ordinary, since God is present everywhere.  Even in my ordinary life

If claiming all the treasures of Christ means being ordinary, then where do I sign up?  Or where do I get my marching orders for living the ordinary life?  Cause you can’t do much better than that!


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Ordinary Magic

Gina Barreca wrote my Bible study this morning.  Actually, she didn’t write a Bible study, but an editorial in this morning’s Journal Gazette.  There is no Bible quote in it, no reference to much of what I intended to say, but still, it is as if she was writing what I had wanted to write.  The title of her editorial is “Ordinary days’ bliss not to be missed.”  Go read it if you haven’t.  Pick up a paper if you can.  Or I’ll bring a copy to church tomorrow and you can see it there (those who worship with us at Aldersgate in Fort Wayne).  If you aren’t in town, go online, maybe you can get it there.  I don’t know.  I haven’t checked.  But I’m trying to save myself some writing!

OK, not really.  Because as good as the article is, there are some things missing.  Two things in particular.  One is the Bible passage I wanted to use to launch this whole conversation.  The other is a little bit of magic.  I know, I know, as soon as you start talking about magic then you’ve moved away from ordinary.  Either into fantasy or illusion or something darker.  But trust me, this is ordinary magic.  But that’s later.  

First, Bible.  This is a Bible study after all.  That is my supposed purpose is writing this.  Preparing for a sermon tomorrow that will help us grab hold some deeper truth that is right in front of us all the time, but until we use the lens of the living Word, we never even see it.  

Ms Barreca says that she realizes that she often doesn’t pay attention to her own life.  “The idea of being in the middle of happiness and not knowing it unnerves me because it happened a lot when I was younger.  It wasn’t so much that I didn’t know how good I had it, but that I wasn’t able to offer myself permission to enjoy what I couldn’t prove was somehow worthwhile.”

What I couldn’t prove was somehow worthwhile.  That is profound.  How do you celebrate the ordinary when it is so ... ordinary?  It doesn’t mean anything, it just is, we think.  It doesn’t make a difference, it just is our life.  Or a small insignificant part of it.  Nothing special.  Nothing profound.  Nothing transformative.  After all, we are “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!”  Get to work, slacker!  We’ve got to be doing big stuff, changing the world stuff.  Not just living.  Right?  

Well, yes but.  How does the world change?  Incrementally.  Most of the time.  We grow into it.  The world as we have it now didn’t happen over night.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Or Constantinople.  Or Versailles.  Or Washington.  Or Beijing. Or ... well you get the idea.  Sure, dramatic things sometimes happened, wars and revolutions, discoveries and inventions, stuff that seemingly changed the world instantly.  But even those had to be lived into.  Day by day.  Step by step.  “More than the days of magnificent accomplishment or great passion, I suspect that most of us would hug the everyday most tightly if someone tried to pry it away from us,” Barreca writes.

The every day.  Ordinary.  Why is the ordinary not so ordinary?  Paul had an idea.

Colossians 1:15-20  He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;  16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him.  17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. 

While not giving Charles Wesley a run for his title, Paul was something of a hymn writer.  Or a hymn quoter, as some scholars think these doxologies were already being used and Paul just wove them into his writing, like I might quote a popular song or newspaper article.  But whether he wrote these words or chose them to make his point, Paul is giving us a hymn of praise to Christ here in the early part of the letter to the Colossians.  Jesus is the “He” referred to in verse fifteen, if that was not already obvious.  Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  Perhaps these words inspired John to open his Gospel with a similar tune, a similar chorus.  In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through Him.   That’s John’s version of this song of praise, this doxology.  It sounds similar.

It goes on from this declaration at the beginning to describe the place, the status, the power of Christ.  And the beginnings of Trinitarian theology.  “For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell.”  All the fulness.  True God of true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father....”  It makes your head spin to try to comprehend it.   And maybe that is part of the purpose, to make our heads spin.  A little head spinning is good for us.  Not for confusion’s sake.  But to open us up to the wonder of Christ.  To the power of God.  What an incredible, certainly not ordinary, thing God chose to do.  To put on flesh and walk among us.  To enter into our reality, our brokenness so that we would know God understands.  We would know God feels our pain, knows our weakness.  We would know that God is not just some distant force out there, but is also some intimate presence right here.  Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.  Head spinning, indeed.

But, wait.  I mean, good for him and all.  But this was about the ordinary.  The everyday.  The moments that pass by almost unnoticed until we with a great act of will force ourselves to wake up, to pay attention to each breath, each  encounter.  How do we open our eyes to those passing moments, so that they don’t pass unheeded?  How do we stop and acknowledge those we love in front of us, the ones who make our hearts pound even if we forget to pay attention to the pounding from time to time?  How do we grab hold of the ones who are slipping out of our grasp before we even see it?  How do we hang on this moment long enough to let those around us know that we are who we are because they are in our lives, they came to bless us, they came to shape us, they came to love us even in our most unlovable?  We’ve missed too many moments, they disappear way too quickly and by the time we pay attention to them, they are gone and the chance was missed.  How do we wake up to the ordinary?

With magic.  Ordinary magic.  When I was a kid there was a presence that still resides in my memory who told us to remember the magic.  Every morning Captain Kangaroo would gently open our eyes to the world around us and would conclude every program with the admonition to remember the magic words, please and thank you.  The ordinary magic is gratitude.  Gratitude reminds us of our connection, our reliance on those around us to make our lives meaningful.  Thank you, for loving me.  Thank you for feeding me, for clothing me, for making me laugh and holding me while I cry.  Thank you for being there for me.  And, wonder of wonders, thank you for wanting to.

I’m amazed at Paul’s hymn here in Colossians.  Amazed at the wonder of who Christ is, yes.  But really amazed at the end.  After all this about God in Christ, it ends with the words that this whole thing, this whole wonderful, amazing, head-spinning thing, was so that you, and so that I could find our way home to the arms of God.  “Through him, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.”  All things, you and me.  To Himself, to God, himself.  Brought back into relationship.  And, and!  This is the best part.  He was pleased to do it.  He was pleased to bring me home. God was pleased to bend down and lift me up.  God was pleased to hold the door, to stand watch at the end of the lane so that He could run to greet you when you came to yourself and stumbled home.  This wasn’t just a duty born out of the nature of God.  This wasn’t just in the job description.  No, we are made right, brought home, welcomed into the loving arms of our Father, nurtured by our Mother in heaven because God was pleased to do so.  Pleased by us.  By you.  By me.  God was pleased.

Magic.  Thank you.  Thank you God.  Thank you who stand in for God from time to time.  Who carry the ordinary moments of our lives and make them rich and deep and full.  “Our ordinary days need cultivation and attention: They are what we harvest in our lifetimes,” Barreca concludes.  Amen I say, amen.  And that cultivation and attention is the ordinary magic of gratitude.  First to God and from there into everywhere.  Thank for who you are.


Saturday, July 4, 2015

Rockets Red Glare

Oh, my goodness.  I’m late with this mostly because I couldn’t get out of bed this morning.  I got back yesterday morning from a week at Epworth Forest with eleven of our Senior High youth and other adult leaders.  It was a wonderful and educational week.  The main learning is that I am not as young as I used to be.  My goodness, the constant breakneck pace of camp and the late nights and early mornings like to nearly killed me.  I thought I was doing fine, actually.  Getting by, hanging in, enjoying the time.  But after getting home (and spending the rest of Friday wrestling with Comcast - which no doubt contributed) and dropping off multiple times I went to bed only to be unable to function this morning.  Wow.  Did anyone get the number of that truck?  Yeah, it was called youth camp!

But you didn’t log on here to listen to me whine about my adrenalin crash today.  You came for something else.  For an opportunity to reflect on a few verses from the bible.  Something less intense than 24/7 young people wrestling with a faith that both excites and energizes.  Something more quiet and internal.  No flashing lights and smoke machines here in the Late Night Bible Study, just quiet contemplation.  Right?

There is an irony here that the weekend back from the high energy of “That Thing” - which is what they are calling camp these days - is also the week we launch a new sermon series titled “Ordinary Time.”  From extreme to ordinary, from sublime to mundane.  Hmm, why would we want to make such a leap?  Aren’t we all about sensation?  All about the big picture, the wide screen?  Seems un-American, on this Independence Day, to scale it back.  American exceptionalism is the order of the day.  The frequent explosions surrounding me indicate that my neighbors would agree.  

Rockets red glare.  We sing about it. We celebrate it.  The big explosions, the power and light.  How can the day to day life of an average ordinary follower of Jesus ever measure up to our heroic imagination, ever compete with an extreme world in which we live?  It can’t!  Short answer, it can’t.  Which is why we spend our lives thinking we are missing something.  Thinking we are falling short as followers.  Thinking we are wash-outs as witnesses.  

But what if Jesus wasn’t calling us to climb mountains and swim oceans?  What if we weren’t really to fight demons or battle God’s enemies?  What if we were just supposed to follow Him?  Day by day, step by step.  The little victories of faithfulness and incremental growth of discipleship.  Just live every day, every day filled with the presence of Christ.  What might that look like?

That’s what we’re about this month.  Ordinary Christians living ordinary lives and yet alive in Christ.  Is such a thing possible?  And if so what does it look like?  Or feel like?  And is it something we settle for or strive for?  The answer might surprise you.

To help us we have a few verses from the letter to the Colossians.  In fact this little letter with be our guide for the whole series.  No considered one of the highlights of the New Testament, it is nonetheless useful for our purposes.  There is some debate as to whether this was actually written by Paul.  And frankly I don’t know either.  But I’ll take the easy way and talk about Paul anyhow.  Just seems simpler that way.  

We are in the first chapter of the letter.  The usual greetings begin the letter, and then the promise of prayers takes the stage.  And in those prayers is the call to live.  To live a life of fruitfulness.  To live a life of presence and hope in Christ.  Then there is a reference and commendation to a leader, a pastor who taught and cared and helped the community in Colossae.   

Our text begins right after that.  “For this reason” is not really a beginning place.  Not the launch of a journey.  Not the start of an adventure.  Rather it is more like a continuing on.  Another day, another step, just keep going.

Colossians 1:9-14  For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,  10 so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.  11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully  12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,  14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 

For this reason means what Paul heard about them.  He heard that they loved one another, and that they loved him in the Spirit.  He heard that they bore fruit, that they served and helped and healed and taught.  He heard that they lived lives worthy of the gospel.  And because of that, because of the love that lived in them and came forth from them, Paul praised God for them, and asked that God continue to pour out into them all that they need to live.  Paul prayed that they might have wisdom and understanding, have the knowledge of God’s will, and that they keep growing, keep moving forward.

But it was the middle verse and a bit that caught my attention for this ordinary series.  “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully  12 giving thanks to the Father...”  There are some words in there that describe the life of the ordinary Christian, at least as I understand it. 

First Paul wishes them to be strong.  May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power.  Wow, all the strength that God’s power can bestow!  All the strength.  Hardly ordinary.  God’s glorious power is for changing the world, isn’t it.  It is for mighty deeds and feats of faithfulness that take the breath away of any onlooker.  Be strong with all the strength.  Superman level here.  

So what is to be done with this strength?  Endure with patience.  Wait, what?  Endure?  If you’ve got all the glorious power of God, all the strength that comes from Him, you’re going to do more than endure, aren’t you?  Endure sounds like surrender.  Endure sounds like put up with, outlast, tolerate, wade through, stomach - as in I’ve got to stomach this medicine that’s horrible but good for me.  Endure.  But then Paul makes it worse, endure with patience.  Yikes, we can’t even grumble about it.  About our lives that are messy to say the least, unfair, heavy, burdensome.  We’ve got to endure.  With patience.

But he doesn’t even stop there.  Endure with patience, while joyfully giving thanks.  Oh my heavens.  Endure and be joyful?  Is such a thing even possible?  I mean, I know how to endure and let everyone know I’m enduring, looking for brownie points, or sympathy.  But now I’m supposed to endure and be joyful?  Supposed to endure without dwelling on the burden, but giving thanks for the life, giving thanks with joy?  How is that supposed to happen?

By remembering whose we are.  By remembering who is with us.  Joyfully giving thanks to God means being aware of that Presence.  It means knowing that we are not alone.  Not forgotten, not abandoned.  Joyfully giving thanks to God means that we know that our help comes from the hills, as the Psalm says, the hills where God dwells.  I lift up my eyes.  Enduring with patience and joy means being able to lift up your eyes.

We are also reminded that this Presence is most often felt through the community of faith around us.  That’s the inheritance of the saints of light.  But not just those who have gone before, but those who are around us every day, every week when we gather to sing God’s praise and bask in God’s glory.  The glory that shines from the faces of the faithful who walk with us every single ordinary day. 

Another rocket exploded outside just now.  A big one, loud one.  Extraordinary.  There will be no rockets in church tomorrow.  Just an ordinary act of worship of the extraordinary God.  Joyful, but ordinary.  Like us.