Saturday, June 29, 2019

Not Neglecting to Meet

I was sitting at the funeral dinner last weekend.  I was talking with the daughter of the deceased, and another mutual friend, about all sorts of things, as you do.  We were catching one another up on life and opportunities and paths we were on and such like.  They were very interested in this new twist in the road I was on in ministry and asked lots of questions about it.  Then suddenly, one of them sat back and said, “I’m worried about you.”  “What? Why” I said.  “Well,” came the reply, “think about it.  Yes, you’ve moved lots of times, but until now everywhere you’ve gone you moved into a community of faith who welcomed you and included you and La Donna and the kids into their family.  You had a network of people there to help you find a way forward through a new place.  But now you’re going to an office.  Sure it’s ministry, and they may even become friends, but they live all over Nashville and probably worship in different churches.  So, you’re going to have to find a church home for the first time in your life!”

I hadn’t thought that much about it, to be honest.  For a while we were working under the assumption that I would be appointed to a weekend church somewhere in addition to my full time job so the community would be built in again as we moved.  Then when we discovered that it wasn’t going to happen because of the Conference situation and the needs down there, we were stressed about how to find a house and an area of the city or the surrounds to live in that we hadn’t thought much about the church where we would worship.  

That we would worship didn’t even need to be said.  It is built in.  I read recently an article about a group of “church leaders” who were no longer worshiping regularly in a local church.  They had kind of given up on the church, even while they were still training pastors and speaking about the value of the faith community all the time.  Seemed ironic if not hypocritical to me.  I guess I can understand.  These days there is a lot of giving up on the beleaguered institution of the church.  Some are feeling like the church is abandoning them.  Some feel like they no longer recognize what the church is or has become.  So, I get it.  

But then, no I don’t get it.  Is the church a disappointment?  Sure, often.  Is the church a place of brokenness and failure?  Certainly, it reeks of it.  But is the church a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, at least once in a while?  Of course.  And that’s why it is worth hanging in there.  Or finding a community where you can find your way.  It isn’t really negotiable.

Hebrews 10:19-25 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,  20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

The Letter to the Hebrews has an interesting history.  First considered one of Paul’s letters, but then that was quickly debunked, even in the years after it first appeared.  But nonetheless, it was considered to have authority in the church which is why it was included in the canon, even without a clear Apostolic authorship.  In other words, it just made sense.  

Those who have read and studied Hebrews might argue with the “it just made sense” designation.  There is a lot that is confusing and or convoluted to our modern way of thinking.  But if you dig down and stick with it, there is so much that lifts the spirit and guides our steps.  And the view of Jesus, the Christology, is higher and more grand than in any other book in the Bible.  So, it is worth the effort of reading it.  

These verses remind us that we need one another.  The following chapter is probably the most famous from the letter, and it waxes eloquent about the people of faith throughout history who live a life of faith as an example for all those who follow behind.  And then the next chapter is the one that reminds us of the cloud of witnesses who cheer us on and bring us to run with perseverance the race that is set before us.  And if you just read chapters eleven and twelve, you might come to the conclusion that this cloud is all those who are no longer with us.  Those who have gone before and now we can read about them and gain inspiration from them.  All of which is true, but not the whole story.  If you read chapter ten, particularly the verses I chose to highlight, then you will see that the cloud of witnesses includes those who are around us now.  Those friends of the heart with whom we may communicate electronically more than physically now because of distance and divergence of paths.  But they remain important to us, instrumental to us despite that distance.  But then there is also the community of faith with whom we worship week by week.  Let us not be “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.”  This leaving church phenomenon isn’t new, apparently.  

But let’s buck the trend, let’s hang together.  Let’s be the church.  And the purpose, according to Hebrews anyway, of being the church together, of meeting together, is for encouragement.  Not for reprimand, not for condemnation, but for building one another up.  And, of course, that will call for transformation, for repentance and a new start.  But that always happens best inside the church, alongside those who are also being transformed.  Deciding who can come in and who isn’t welcome isn’t the remit of the church anyway.  Our job is to welcome, and then encourage all.  

So, I’ll learn to worship as one who sits in the pew again, next to my wife – yeah, that’ll be weird for both of us.  But we’ll get there.  And we’ll find a church that fits us, that cares about the things we care about, that speaks about the things we need to hear and to say.  It may take a while, this is important.  And yes, there may be reasons for leaving the church you’ve been a part of for a while.  Relocation reasons, for example.  Or maybe the Spirit has left that church, it does happen.  Maybe things have gotten so toxic it isn’t really functioning as a church anymore.  We humans are capable of fouling even the most godly things.  But you still need a community.  You still need a family around you to encourage you, to challenge you, to build you up.  And the church can be that place for you. 

I’m not giving up on the church.  I pray you won’t either. 


Saturday, June 22, 2019

For God So Loved

I stumbled around the parking lot feeling terribly overdressed.  It was Southport’s version of Vacation Bible School compressed into a Saturday and called the “Backyard Bible Blast.”  It was designed to be a festival, a fun expression of community joy and hospitality but not just for the kids who attend our church, but the neighborhood as a whole.  And the neighborhood came.  Maybe not as many as we might have hoped because it was threatening rain for most of the day.  But still there were plenty of little ones and not quite as little ones bounding from booth to booth, from games to displays, from food to farm animals, from bounce houses to a re-enactment of the nativity, and of course the dunk tank, which always seemed to have line of kids wanting to watch someone splash down in the tank of what had to be cold water.  

Someone might ask so how is this a “Bible” blast?  Besides the nativity re-enactment, it doesn’t seem terribly biblical.  True, we didn’t read chapter and verse.  We didn’t have a flannel graph off in the corner somewhere with Bible stories for kids.  We didn’t sit them all down and sing a song that will echo around in your head for days afterward.  No, maybe we should have just called it a Backyard Blast and been more honest about it.  Except.

Except our job had never been to teach the Bible.  Or to pound the Bible.  Or to memorize the Bible.  Those are good things (except the pounding thing - hard on the binding), but not our central task.  No, we are called to introduce Jesus to any and to all.  And we believe that the best way to do that is to act like Him first.  To welcome, to invite, to encourage, to laugh with, to enjoy, to love.  It is to be the faith we’re trying to share, to be that love we want to pass on.

That’s a very biblical idea.  The Bible is, of course, full of all sorts of ways of communicating faith.  But one of the most compelling is embodied witness.  To embody the message is simply to live it.  To live it powerfully and openly.  Like Hosea.  

Most folks don’t know Hosea well.  He’s one of the twelve minor prophets tucked away in the back of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Minor because the book that bears his name is shorter, not because he isn’t as important.  He just doesn’t have as many words.  Because he was called to live his proclamation. Hosea’s encounter with God begins not with “say this” but with “do this.”  And his “do this” wasn’t performance art, like Jeremiah.  No, Hosea’s “do this” was a life.  Marry a prostitute, and have children with her.  That is Hosea’s story.  Loving an unfaithful woman.  Raising a family.  And here’s the deal, God said love her.  Not, put up with her for the witness.  Not just go with it for a while until the credits roll and you can take your bows on stage.  No, love her.  Go get her when she strays.  Raise the children, your children, her children, when she abandons them to run back to her old life, because the pull is just too strong.  Love her.  And keep loving her. Keep loving her.  Because I do, says the Lord.  

Really?  Way back then?  We thought the loving God was introduced by Jesus.  But this is long before Jesus.  This is the God we sometimes fear.  The God who puzzles us, troubles us.  The God who seems so harsh, so angry.  I’m not trying explain away a whole lot of difficult stuff in the Bible.  I’m just trying to present to you the God that Hosea knew.  Was there frustration there?  Was there judgment?  Yes, of course, that doesn’t stop even when Jesus comes to town.  But it is always a judgment the arises out of love.  We forget that.  We struggle with that.  We believe it, but don’t really ... you know ... believe it.  We recite it, but it doesn’t seem to be a part of our being, our inner understanding, it isn’t in our soul.  Yet, this is the God Hosea knew.

Hosea 11:1-9   When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.  3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.  5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.  6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.  7 My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.  8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. 

You are loved.  That is the third and final essential truth I want to leave with the congregation I served these past two years.  You are loved.  Not as a matter of course, not because it is in the script, but you are loved with a love that staggers the imagination.  God says through Hosea, through his life and his words both, that God’s love is not like the love we may be used to.  It is not conditional.  Not based on behavior, not conditional or limited.  God’s love is not based on a false understanding of who you really are, a role you play, a mask you wear.  God’s loved is a creator’s love, a parent’s love, the one who taught you to walk, who picked you up every time you fell and is willing to keep doing it.  Every time you fall.

Hosea went out and brought his wife home every time she strayed.  Every time she forgot the covenant she made with this strange little prophet, he waited patiently and loved continuously.  Every time.  Did he have harsh things to say in the name of God?  Of course.  But if you listen carefully, the harshness is in what they were missing.  The harshness was the willingness to allow them to stray and to live on the consequences of their actions, live with the brokenness they had chosen.  Because underneath it all was this compelling, constant, perfect love drawing them back.  

Underneath it all is a compelling, constant, perfect love. You are loved.  That’s a truth no one can take away from you.  You can pretend you forgot it.  You can believe your own doubts and your own insecurities.  You can live as though you aren’t loved.  That’s part of the freedom we have.  We can walk away and pretend we aren’t.  But there is nothing we can do to make God stop loving us.  Nothing.  It is why God does everything God does.  

John 3:16-17  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Remember that?  Of course you do.  Everyone knows John 3:16.  It is the single most quoted verse in the whole Bible.  It is scrawled on cardboard and held up in the end zone in football stadiums across the country.  It is graffitied on rocks and walls on lonely stretches of high in the middle of nowhere.  It’s on billboards and t shirts and buttons and patches and calendars with pictures of kittens or mountains.  It’s everywhere.  We know that verse.  But.  Do we believe it?  Better yet, do we live it?  Live in the truth of God’s motivating love?  Live in the confidence that God is here, that Jesus walked this earth, that the Spirit meets us where we are not for condemnation but for love?  
I was overdressed for the Backyard Bible Blast this afternoon because I had participated in a funeral for a colleague and friend, who had given his life in ministry and witness to the love of God.  And he was remembered today as one who knew how to laugh.  The best witness any of us can give to the world is to live knowing that we are loved, and then to love because of it.  Love as you are loved.  

This is my final word to Southport United Methodist Church.  This weekend I say farewell to those whom I have loved and those who have loved me.  And there is nothing I can offer them more important that this truth: You are loved.


Saturday, June 15, 2019

Memory Serves

Well, that’s done.  Annual Conference, I mean.  Another year’s obligation checked off.  Another one of those painful business meetings interspersed with a family reunion is now all done.  For this year.  There’ll be another one.  But for now, we’re done.  And I survived. Not just survived.  I stepped into the flow, waded a little deeper into the water this year.  (Our theme was “Water to Witness” – meaning the baptized are called to share the gift and invite others.  Hence the water metaphors).  I stood for election to the delegation to General and Jurisdictional Conference.  And was elected to be a part of the Jurisdictional Conference which will be held in Fort Wayne in July of 2020.  

Some of you are thinking, wait a minute you grumble like an upset toddler every year about having to go to Annual Conference, and now you agree to do more?  Yeah, I admit the incongruity.  But it seems to me that this is a time where sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option.  And while I do not claim to have all the answers as to what would be the best direction for the church, my church, your church, to take in regard to faith and culture, I want to be a part of the conversation.  No, that’s not quite right.  I feel like I should be a part of the conversation.  It is a part of being in the family.  To be involved, to be committed, to be known.

Known.  We want to be known.  All of us want to be known.  And I don’t mean we want our names in lights, or printed in mile high letters on the marquee, or on every lip and every website and social media post.  Most of us don’t really want that – though fame has a certain appeal, let’s be honest.  Yet, we are rational enough to know the downside most likely outweighs the upside of that equation.  So, it isn’t notoriety that we want.  I still suggest, however, we all want to be known.  By someone, a few someones anyway, by those close to us, those we know in return.  

In our astoundingly connected world, loneliness is still a devastating social ill that affects far too many people.  Hundreds of friends on Facebook, but no one who knows the real you.  No one who notices your worth, your giftedness, your grace.  No one who remembers you.  We’ve all encountered that blank look when someone we thought should remember us doesn’t.  It’s a sobering, devastating feeling.  We feel insignificant, unimportant, alone. 

Though, maybe we’ve been the forgetful ones.  Maybe someone does that horrible game “Remember me?” and then refuses to tell you their name.  Memory is a tricky thing, let’s be honest.  We have trouble in the best of times recalling the names and the faces of even those closest to us.  Add to that the devastation of dementia of various kinds and we are dealing with one of the worst fears we have these days.  Because there is a part of us that believe when our memories are gone, then we are gone.  We are made up of the memories we have.  Without them we have nothing, we are nothing.  A cipher, a zero.  

Which brings me to the second essential truth that I hope to leave with the congregation I have been serving these past two years.  Another stunningly obvious statement that on the surface might not seem all that important.  But I believe that it is not only a profound truth, it is actually a taste of the salvation we are offered as children of God.  You are remembered.  

Psalm 98 O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. 2 The LORD has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. 3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God. 4 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.  5 Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. 6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD. 7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. 8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy 9 at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity. 

The Psalms might seem an odd place to go for propositional truth.  The psalms are songs, hymns and poems of the people of God, seeking to grasp the mystery in metaphor and emotion.  The psalms are a great place to go find companionship for your personal journey, because wherever you are there is a psalm that echoes the state of your soul.  If you are joyous, read the psalms.  If you are hurting, read the psalms.  If you are broken or victorious, if you are hurting or whole, if you are grieving or in love, all this and more is captured in the images and rhetoric of the psalms.  

But in the psalms you find descriptions of the nature of God.  And here we see that part of the essence of what makes God God is that God remembers.  Indeed in the 98th psalm the praise comes because God is a God who remembers.  It is essential to the nature of our God.  God remembers God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.  God remembers.

Perhaps that is too general for you.  Sounds nice in the abstract.  But not necessarily sustaining.  Well, then, let’s get personal.  Let’s get specific.  Let’s get individual.

Luke 23:39-43 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." 42 Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 43 He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Oh, we know this one.  We read it during Lent, or perhaps in Holy Week.  When we remember how Jesus poured out His life, and the words He spoke as He did that pouring.  One of the seven last words from the cross.  We know this one.  But it’s the request that amazes me here.  In that moment, that brink of death moment, that ultimate despair moment, this man - of whom we know almost nothing - makes an incredible request.  Me, I would ask for rescue.  I would ask for relief from suffering and pain.  Or maybe I would ask for a place in the next world, if I was able to grasp the concept of the next world in any form or fashion.  But not him.  This man, we call him the penitent thief, but we don’t really know his crime or condition.  After shushing his compatriot on the other side in what some commentators call the first Christian sermon, he then makes a simple request.  Remember me. 

I don’t know what he expected from this request.  I don’t know what was on his mind when he asked it.  Did he simply desire that someone somewhere would remember that he once existed, was that enough to give his living and his dying meaning?  Or did he know, or suspect, or even hope that what Jesus revealed was actually true.  Which is that to be remembered by the living God is to live in paradise.  Or living in paradise is being remembered by God.

You are remembered.  You who have claimed this gift and tried to walk in love.  You are remembered.  You who may have doubted your place, felt insignificant, wandered lost and afraid and so very much alone.  You are remembered.  Can you hear the power in this truth?  Can you grasp the gift of this truth, even just a little bit?  You are remembered.

The hard truth is that all of us may lose our memory.  We may lose our grip on those we love most.  And those we love may lose sight of us.  It is happening with all too frequent regularity.  But even forgotten by our own family, or even when we forget every face in front of us, we are remembered.  So, what else can we do with this truth, but tell everyone we know, until they become the ones who tell us.  

You are remembered.  Thanks be to the God who remembers.


Saturday, June 8, 2019

Living Life Alive

The final stretch.  My last three weekends to preach at Southport.  And then what God has in store for me in terms of preaching, I don’t really know.  I know I’ll be working on preaching, writing about preaching, teaching about preaching.  But will I actually be preaching?  I don’t know.  I would assume so, but that remains to be seen.  Seems ironic, I know.  But there it is.  

So, given that this is it for a while anyway, what should I say?  What words, themes, ideas would I want to go out on?  What would I leave my congregation with as I shuffle off to new and unknown horizons?  Well, I decided on some basic, almost embarrassingly basic truths.  Truths so simple they are likely to bring a snort of derision as I trot them out these three weeks.  Truths so fundamental that I believe we sometimes forget how radical they are, on the other hand.  What do I mean?  Well, here’s truth number one: You are alive.

Uh, really?  That’s it?  Yes, really.  That’s it.  You are alive.  But of course there’s alive and there’s alive.  If you get my meaning.  Oh, you don’t?  Or you want a little more information?  OK, let’s start with Pentecost.  This is Pentecost weekend in the church.  A story of power and wind and fire.  Kind of a “huh, how about that” most of the time, a “well, my goodness, wouldn’t it have been cool to be there, back when God seemed more ... alive.”

There’s a dynamic in the Bible stories that grips us.  It is as though the barrier between this world and the Kingdom world is thinner somehow.  As if all you have to do is reach out your hand and then you can feel Someone take hold.  All you have to do is be quiet enough and you can hear a voice that calls your name.  All you have to do is ...

Well, take a look, or a read.  See how present the Spirit is.  See how close the Kingdom is.  Take a look:

Acts 2:1-13  When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,  10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,  11 Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power."  12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"  13 But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine." 

But that was then.  Now it is a lot quieter.  Or a lot noisier.  Quieter on the divine side, noisier on our side.  When was the last time that you were amazed and perplexed by something that God was doing in your life?  When was the last time that you were blown away by the presence of the Spirit?  It seems like that sort of experience is left for others.  For the heroes of the faith, or for those who profess a Pentecostal faith that seems wrapped up in signs and wonders and woefully out of touch with how the world really works.

Is that what we are supposed to hear on Pentecost Sunday?  That “slain in the spirit” and “speaking in tongues” kind of faith?  Is this a call to live like that?  Maybe.  But I don’t really think so.

Our story is in two parts.  The first four verses tell of the coming of the Spirit on the little band of followers who had lost their way when they lost their leader.  Only four verses that function as the fulcrum around which the whole story of the church pivots.  Before that these twelve did almost everything wrong.  They missed the point, they ran and hid, they got in the way, they didn’t score too well on the disciple aptitude test.  Before this moment in the story, you just know that if Jesus was serious about leaving this whole church thing in their hands, disaster was sure to follow.

But then something happened.  The something described in the first four verses of chapter two of the Acts of the Apostles.  Something noisy, like a violent wind.  A tornado, that sounded like a freight train roaring through the room.  Something that gives a simple choice - get out of the way, or get on board.

Then tongues, Luke says, tongues as of fire, divided, meaning coming from a common source but able to spread out, like a vine and its branches, reaching out to touch each one.  And these tongues, these fire-like divided branches rested on each of them.  Rested.  Doesn’t that seem odd to you?  Rested on each of them.  Not, dove right down to the core, not, cut through to where soul and spirit meets, joints and marrow, not, cleansed them like a purifying fire, washing them like fuller’s soap.  The sound was violent, but the tongues rested.

The second part of the story is what spills out into the street.  That’s when you know it is a good party, when you can’t contain it in the house.  At the Pentecost party, the neighbors complained - well some were cynical and sarcastic, but others were curious.  Some passing by wanted to join in, they were peering in the windows, hoping for some of what they were having.  They were amazed, they were captured, they saw something beyond the surface - some of them did anyway.  “We hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

But only some.  Maybe things weren’t closer to God in those days.  Maybe it just seems that way because they find a God excuse, or a God explanation for everything that happens.  Maybe if we decided to start looking deeper into everything that happens, we’d realize that the Spirit is closer than we realize.  We think we are alone because we don’t hear the freight train, but the Spirit is actually resting upon us, close as a breath, close as a heartbeat.  

Breath.  Something about a breath.  “Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) In the Greek version of the Old Testament this verse ends with a curious phrase.  It essentially says “the human being became an alive living thing.”  An alive living being.  Meaning we can be living and not alive.  It is the breath of God that makes us alive.  The breath that wakes us up to what is really going on in the world around us.  That’s what happened at that first Pentecost, the Spirit made them alive again.  Alive the way they were intended to be, the way they were created to be.  

This is the life that Jesus came to bring us, “ I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)  He was talking to living people, but they weren’t alive.  Do you see?  I know it sounds like semantics, but there is a deeper reality than just words.  There is a deeper truth that we often forget.  In our noisy world, in our just getting by world, in our going through the motions hoping that one day we’ll make it to wherever we are heading and it will finally make sense world; we lose track of the sense of being alive.  The consider the lilies aliveness, the wind like a freight train aliveness and fire like a comforting friend aliveness.  

Now you’re thinking, how do I get me some of that?  Well, here’s the truth you need to hold on to: you’ve already got it.  The Spirit came, the wind blew, the breath breathed on you.  You’ve got it.  You are alive!  Now live as an alive living thing.  Open your eyes, open your heart, open your mouth and breathe it in and breathe it out.  So that everyone comes alive because of you.  You are alive.  So, for heaven’s sake, start living.


Saturday, June 1, 2019

Something Like a Fire

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, then you’ve been introduced to all of the denizens of the home in which I live.  There’s people, of course, me and my wife of thirty-nine years (!).  Then there is our son Rhys, the newly minted Master of Library and Information Science (though we are still waiting for the paperwork to prove that he has completed all collegiate righteousness).  But we humans don’t sum up the life force in this address.  There’s Nick, the three legged terrier mix, who passes comment on the goings on of the entire neighborhood (and La Donna is fond of saying terrier is close to terrorist).  Rounding out the sometimes peaceable kingdom of our dwelling are the feline members of the family, Dora, the substantial cat and Cato.

It was Cato that brought this inventory to mind today.  There is something about her that embodies the theme for this week’s message.  See, Dora came to us in the usual way, someone in town, a friend of our daughter Maddie, had a cat who had kittens and wondered if we wanted one.  Maddie went to see them and of course she simply had to bring one home, so after receiving permission the little ball of fur came with her into the house.  So, Dora joined us and quickly became comfortable and content.  And she grew, and grew and now takes up some considerable space.  Granted some of it is fur, as she is a long haired, silky and beautiful cat.  But some of it is ... Dora.  Just a lot of Dora.  Cato, on the other hand, was a stray.  Half wild, she was born on the campus of Wittenberg University where Maddie attended.  Apparently this wasn’t unusual, as the campus was sometimes called “Kittenberg” in recognition of this feline phenomenon.  One day as Maddie and some friends stood at the front door of their sorority house, a gray streak darted through the open door and ran from room to room, keeping the giggling college girls at bay for a considerable amount of time.  Finally, however, the numbers won out and the few ounces of shivering fur were gathered up and claimed.
After much debate, they named her Cato.  Maddie, always innovative with names wanted to name her Cat.  Someone else suggested something more substantial, like Catastrophe, and it got abbreviated to Cato.  The story how she came from University in Ohio to full time resident with us also long and convoluted, so I’ll skip it for now.  I tell you part of her story to help you understand her personality a little bit.  I don’t think she ever lost a little bit of wild in her.  She would probably be diagnosed as ADHD if there was someone competent to evaluate cats psychologically.  Cato is constantly on the move. I’ve debated attaching a pedometer to her somehow, just to see how many steps she gets in on an average day.  There isn’t a corner she won’t investigate, a door she won’t go through or demand be opened.  When she’s in she wants to be out, but don’t close the door behind her, or she’ll turn and want back in.  

It’s like there is a fire burning inside of her, driving her to move, to explore, to discover, to go.  Just go and embrace a world that’s much bigger than her little kitty eyes can endure, and often bigger than her little kitty heart can withstand.  Sometimes her explorations send her running back into the house with a puffy tail and arched back having encountered some threat, some terror that overwhelms her.  But it doesn’t keep her down for long, it doesn’t keep her in behind closed doors.  As soon as her heart stops pounding so hard and the hairs on the back of her neck lay down again, then she’s off.  Like Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 20:7-9 O LORD, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. 8 For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, "Violence and destruction!" For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. 9 If I say, "I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name," then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

We are concluding our Disciple’s Heart series this week.  We’ve talked about a lot of different dimensions of this process, this journey in these past six weeks.  It’s called “sanctification” in proper theological terms. Or striving for Christian perfection in Wesleyan language.  Becoming more like Jesus, learning to love God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength, we could say.  And we’ve talked about the role of the individual, of the community and of the Spirit in making this happen.  But no matter how diligently you work these ingredients into the mix, it isn’t going to produce what we hope.  Because something else is required to make this work, to sustain us in the journey, to keep us on the path.  A fire.  

Jeremiah had a difficult task.  Some would say impossible.  To announce bad news to a nation that thought it was doing well.  A nation where the numbers showed growth and strength and prosperity.  Jeremiah had bad news to share.  He had a reprimand to administer, a warning to proclaim.  And he hated it.  He hated how it made him feel, almost as much as he hated the response it evoked.  He’d just as soon give it a pass.  Just sit this one out.  Let them go on their merry way, thinking all was well and everyone was happy.  Let them continue to ignore the broken being trampled in the mad rush to progress, let them continue to ignore the hungry and the hurting on the margins.  Just let them, he thought as he turned off the TV and pulled the blinds and hunkered down to let it all go skipping along without him.

Except he couldn’t.  He just couldn’t.  Even hiding in his blanket fort on his comfortable bed, in the dark of his room, he heard the cries.  He felt his call vibrating in his skeleton from within, urging him out yet again.  Something like a fire, he said, burned inside of him.  The presence of the Lord resided deep within him and if he tried to keep it in, tried to take the easy way out, the comfortable route through this life, then it flared up.  Like he had eaten something so spicy it burned inside of him.  Like he had biting insects covering his skin.  Like he backed into a cactus.  He had to move.  

It’s this compulsion that is required to complete the journey of sanctification.  This something like a fire burning within that drives us to continue on.  But not just a compulsion to completion.  Not just a drive to be better.  That could be a part of it.  That self motivation to be all you can be.  But it won’t sustain you for this journey.  Because this is a journey outward.  What we discover about this pathway is that it leads out to serve.  To give.  To love. To walk alongside, particularly the forgotten and the broken, hurting and the hungry.  It is a journey to live a life of love like Jesus showed us.  

In the end, this journey is not really about us.  Or, it’s not really only about us.  It’s about the Kingdom, about the reign and rule of God, and the world that matches the prayer we pray week after week: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  We’re seeking, no, we’re driven to live in the kingdom, to be shaped by that hope, to gather up all those that God loves and find our way to heaven.  
I don’t know for sure what Cato is seeking in her mad dash to everywhere.  What adventure she seeks to encounter, what friends she searches to include, what world she seeks to inhabit.  But she continues to search, is driven to discover.  

May we all be so driven.