Archive for July, 2013

A Painfully Good Reminder

July 16, 2013

There is a great danger, I think, serving in the role of pastor.  When you’re in a healthy relationship with a congregation, when there is mutual love and respect.  When you are accustomed to the compliments of your people on sermons and Bible studies.  When you become sufficiently distanced from the classroom setting of seminary.  

It can be easy to begin to feel pretty confident.  Pretty adequate.  Pretty insightful.  Pretty clever.  And it is dangerously easy to avoid the cold splashes of water that bring you to your senses and then to your knees in humility.
I’m grateful for the opportunity this week to be doused in ice water.  This will be the third year I’ve participated in a theological conference in Los Angeles.  The third year in a row that I’ve been able to sit at the feet of someone who has dedicated their life to the intricacies of the faith in one aspect of another, whether preaching the Word, or applying the Word in doctrine, or deciphering the Word faithfully.  My third year of being reminded that there is so much not only that I don’t know, but that I probably will never have the time to learn or appreciate.  
In some ways that’s frustrating.  I want to know it all, I want to keep growing and expanding in my skills and knowledge.  But on the other hand, it’s a wonderful opportunity to be humbled.  To be brought back down to earth and reminded that I’m not nearly as smart or clever as I might be tempted to view myself, or as others might be tempted to see me.  That splash of cold water is important for me personally and for the people of God that I serve.  

Reading Ramblings – July 21, 2013

July 14, 2013

Reading
Ramblings

Date: Ninth Sunday after
Pentecost – July 21, 2013

Texts: Genesis 18:1-10a
(10b-14); Psalm 271-6)7-14; Colossians 1:21-29; Luke 10:38-42

Context: The season of Ordinary
Time focuses on the work of Christ in the Church. Old Testament and
Gospel readings will work together, and often times the Psalm will
also. The Epistle reading will generally not, since each Sunday we
will read contiguous portions of Scripture (most all of Galatians in
June, followed by Colossians, then Hebrews).

Genesis 18:1-10a (10b-14)
Abraham has visitors – none other than the Lord himself, though we
are unclear as to whether or not Abraham realized this right away.
But when travelers arrive, it is his responsibility and privilege to
show hospitality. Abraham clearly goes above and beyond in this
respect, preparing far more food than three visitors could be
expected to eat. Perhaps it is not until the stranger predicts that
Sarah – who is quite old – will have a child in a year’s time
that Abraham suspects who his visitor is.

What is described here is a theophany
– when God makes himself known and present to a human being. This
happens a few times in the Old Testament. Is this God the Father
taking on human form? It seems unlikely. What seems more likely is
that God the Son, who we know takes on human form, is appearing to
Abraham and others in the Old Testament. It is a prefiguring
– a sneak preview, if you will – of the incarnation of the Son of
God as Jesus of Nazareth.

Psalm 271-6)7-14 – The first
six verses of this psalm proclaim confidence in God. Confidence that
God will protect his faithful, and that the enemies of God’s people
are the ones who will falter and fail in their plans and schemes. As
for the Lord’s servant, he desires nothing more than to dwell in the
house of the Lord, which is his temple. Here it is that safety is to
be found, and in the house of God is where victory will be assured.

The last half of the psalm – the
focus of today’s reading – is a request for God to hear and answer
when his servant calls on him. In light of the Genesis reading, we
pick up on the theme of seeking God’s face, and asking God not to
hide his face, indicating rejection. While all others may forsake
us, God never will. It is this confidence that the psalmist closes
with, echoing the confidence of the opening verses. We must wait on
the Lord’s timing, knowing that it is perfect and it will come.

Colossians 1:21-29 – As Paul
begins to wrap up his introductory comments, he reminds the
Colossians of what has happened to them. They were once enemies of
God because of their evilness, but they have been reconciled to God
the Father by God the Son. Specifically, the incarnation of God the
Son, culminating in his death (and resurrection) is what has
accomplished this reconciliation. This is what the Colossians are to
stand firm in faith in (contrary to some of the other things they are
hearing, which Paul will deal with later in his letter).

Paul then goes on to define his role –
suffering for the sake of Christ’s church so that the Gospel can be
proclaimed. It is God himself that has appointed Paul to this task
and the suffering attendant with it. Paul’s role is helping to
reveal the mysteries of God to those formerly considered outside of
God’s people, the Gentiles. It is Christ that Paul proclaims, and
Christ who must be our focus, rather than our own works.

Luke 10:38-42 – Once again we
have a story of hospitality in the presence of God incarnate. Once
again a great deal of effort is being expended to demonstrate good
hospitality. This time, that effort is too much, and Martha has to
complain about Mary’s preoccupation with Jesus and his teaching,
rather than being a good host and helping Martha.

We can empathize with Martha. Nobody
likes to get stuck doing all the work while others leisurely enjoy
themselves. Yet Jesus makes it clear than when the choice is between
busying ourselves with other things, or focusing on the one needful
thing (himself), there can be only one proper choice. Nothing else
must interfere with our attention to our Lord.

The OT and the Gospel lesson share
common elements. God is present incarnate in both scenes. Both
scenes take place in the home of a follower of God. Both demonstrate
women making the preparations for the hospitality that is shown. In
both cases a woman is incredulous with her Lord – Sarah for the
Lord’s promise of a son, Martha because Jesus can’t see that she
needs help from her sister Mary. Both women have expectations –
Sarah has the expectation that she won’t have any children because
she is too old, Martha has expectations that Mary should be helping
her prepare the food for their visitor. In both scenes God deals
gently with these women, redirecting them to his Word, and away from
their expectations about how things should work.

In each situation, coming face to face
with God requires that we shift our expectations. What would
normally be the expected course of events may not be so in his
presence. Roles and responsibilities can be altered, and even our
physical condition may prove to be transformed and capable of more
than we or anyone else might expect. God does not come to us in
order to conform to our expectations and confirm us in our patterns.
His presence transforms us and our circumstances and demands that we
be open to his miraculous power.   

I Am a Bus Driver

July 13, 2013

One of Caedmon’s Call’s most enigmatic songs, in my opinion.  But tangentially related to this article, which shouldn’t need to be enigmatic and yet ends up that way.  

The article purports to take on an extremely important issue – the matter of Christian vocation.  Pastors and theologians are fond of reminding people in the pews that every job matters, that no matter what you do (so long as it isn’t in contradiction to the Word of God), you serve God by serving your neighbors.  The difficulty in such assurances is that it is easier for the person in the pew to see how a pastor or a theologian serve God in their vocation, and perhaps harder for them to accept that the same is true for them in their vocation.
To wit, is there a Christian way to drive a bus?
The article above never gets to this issue.  What I was hoping for was a direct article outlining how a bus driver can, indeed, do her work in a Christian manner.  What I walked away from the article with was the impression that the author wasn’t quite sure about how this was true, though they were convinced that it was indeed true.
So let’s try and remedy this.  How would a Christian approach their vocation as a bus driver, beyond the more philosophical and esoteric ways that philosophers and theologians might go to first regarding internal, personalized faith.  I suppose the way I’d approach this first of all is to say that for the Christian, the Word of God forms the basis of everything they do and say (or at least should, more and more, each day of their lives).  What the Word of God permits or encourages I strive for.  What it sets aside as harmful I seek to avoid.  But that’s also the realm of ethics, an arena that isn’t strictly Christian (in that every religion and philosophy has to deal with ethics and morality in some way, even if Christians would assert that God is the source of all such efforts).  Still it’s the easiest way to see how the Christian approaches bus driving since the Biblical ethical injunctions direct our actual behavior and thinking.
So let’s begin with the Ten Commandments as the baseline summary of Biblical ethics that should guide every Christian, including the bus driver.
  1. You will have no other gods before me.  In Scripture, God is the one who created everything.  If you created everything, you’re God.  If you didn’t, you aren’t God, nor are you any god, in fact.  If God created all things and all people, then as the bus driver I want to strive to see each of my passengers this way, from the aloof businessman who won’t make eye contact with me, to the gangbangers swearing away at the rear of the bus.  God the Father created each of them.  God the Son died and rose again for each of them.  And God the Holy Spirit desires each one of them to dwell eternally in the Father’s presence.  My attitudes need to convey this conviction.  
  2. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.  This is more of a stretch.  But it governs my reverence for the name of God.  It is not the same as an injunction against swearing, but rather a warning that God’s name is holy and I need to treat it as such, regardless of my vocation.
  3. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  This could mean seeking to have Sundays off so that I can worship and rest.  But that isn’t strictly necessary.  The more important issue would be seeking to have a day of rest at some point each week.  The sabbath is not first and foremost about worship in the corporate sense, but about being mindful of the provision of our Lord.  Whatever my driving schedule, I should prioritize a time for worship each week as well as a time for rest.
  4. Honor your father and mother.  Again, unless Mom and Dad are regular fares on my route, this may seem difficult.  Over time it has been taken to mean respect for all authority, and that would include those who oversee me.  I should represent my company positively, rather than constantly complaining about things.  I think it wouldn’t be too far out of the lines to also say that this commandment should encourage me to respect the elderly and ensure that they are safely accommodated on my route, including in their gettings on and gettings off.
  5. Do not kill.  Matthew 5 makes it clear that this doesn’t just mean don’t run people over.  It affects my attitude behind the wheel.  I can’t imagine the constant stress that a bus driver has to endure because of other drivers who see the bus as an annoyance.  But as a bus driver, it will be crucial for me to keep my cool so as not to put other drivers, pedestrians, or my passengers at risk.  More than that, I need to cultivate a peace with those around me on the road regardless of how they drive.  This links me back to the first commandment (as it should – and as every commandment ultimately does).
  6. Do not commit adultery.  This means with eyes as well as hands.  In my bus riding experience you get an interesting assortment of fashions.  Last week when I road the bus there were several young ladies en route to the beach with see-through ‘cover ups’ over their bikinis.  For the bus driver (and me!) this commandment reminds us that these young ladies are not means to an end, either figuratively or imaginatively.  Again, if I seek to cultivate a view of  them in keeping with the first commandment, this becomes easier. 
  7. Do not steal.  Be honest in my dealings with my customers and my employers.  This means not breaking the rules to extend discounts or other perks to customers at the expense of my employer.  And it means that any time I have control over the matter, I am not to take advantage of my customers.  Beyond that, if I notice someone has left a purse or wallet on the bus, I need to figure out the best way to secure it and get it back to them, whether that’s saving it until I see them again or getting it to my company’s lost and found.
  8. Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.  I need to speak well of all people to the best of my ability.  Certainly I should not lie about them.  This means not exaggerating the negative aspects of my customers or company, and it means not taking sides unfairly in a situation which I have no direct part to play in.  I need to try and refrain from hasty first impressions that might lead me to treat a customer less lovingly than I would another.
  9. I’m lumping the last two commandments together here, since they both deal with coveting.  I need to be grateful for what I have – employment and a paycheck and all the things that they provide me.  I need to resist being unhappy with that, and certainly from being obsessively unhappy about it.  Bus driving may be my life’s dream and I should give thanks to God for that rather than constantly wanting something else or more.  And if bus driving is a last resort for me, I should give thanks for God’s provision in this job, even if I ultimately hope to do something else.  As part of this, I shouldn’t envy the gadgets or wealth or fashions or girl/boyfriends of the people on my bus.  
Jesus summarizes all of these ethical injunctions in two commands – love God and love your neighbor.  Whatever I do on my route should attempt to please God and speak of him well to others who know me and might know of my love for him.  Whatever I do on my route should attempt to love my passengers, co-workers, supervisors, other drivers and pedestrians as children of God.  
Beyond these ethical issues, as a Christian I should focus my
thoughts on all that God has done for me in Jesus his Son.  By focusing on this, I find it easier to deal charitably with others.  If I never think about what Jesus did for me in his Incarnation, death, and resurrection, then I’m not going to be particularly loving of my neighbors.  
Other issues?  Well, I would hope the Christian bus driver would be regularly in worship, where she can hear the Word of God and fellowship with others who believe the same thing, and where he can be fed with Holy Communion.  I hope that he is spending time in prayer and study of God’s Word as a means to constantly deepening his relationship with the God who created and saved him.  These actions have repercussions in all areas of our lives – they aren’t simply stuff we’re supposed to do to keep us out of trouble.
So yes, driving a bus is a Christian vocation, and I pray that Christian bus drivers fulfill their vocation faithfully to the best of their ability because my safety depends on it as another driver or pedestrian or passenger.  In very real ways the Christian bus driver is just as important to me as the pastor or theologian – perhaps more so on a daily basis!  

Rhyme and Reason

July 12, 2013

What we do on Sunday mornings in worship matters.  Worship shapes and is shaped by theology – what we believe about God.  There can be a lot of freedom in worship, and that’s a good thing.  The Bible provides very little direction about what a worship service should look like, though it says a great deal about the theology that should craft it.  

Worship wars are powerful things that have rocked almost every denomination and led to a massive shakeup in the Christian landscape in America.  I personally think that there can be room for a great deal of diversity in worship.  But I also believe that anytime we reinvent the wheel, or modify it, we need to give it a LOT of thought, to make sure that to the best of our ability, the changes or additions or deletions we propose don’t substantively alter what we say about God, or what we claim is happening in worship.
Maybe it’s laziness then, that prompts me to stick with liturgical worship.  I’m comforted by the fact that if it is laziness, at least my laziness relies upon centuries of Christian thought and practice.  There are reasons that we do what we do on Sunday mornings.  Every month with a fifth Sunday in it I make sure to teach about the particulars of the worship service – what they are and why we do them.  I can do that because there has been a lot of thought put into them by far more gifted theologians than myself.  
Worship matters.  It shouldn’t be the grounds for the intra- or inter-denominational fighting that we hear about, but it does matter, and we should know why it is we do what we do.  

Better Late Than Never?

July 11, 2013

That depends a great deal on what is late, and why.

A new app is coming out to help women understand their bodies in relation to fertility.  While this information has been freely available forever (literally), it certainly isn’t something you hear about very often.  It’s nice to see anything that reminds us that chemicals are not the primary – or even best – means of controlling our bodies.  We were designed with a great deal of thought, and it’s amazing what we can do without pharmaceutical assistance.

Coming and Going

July 9, 2013

So long, Alta Vista.  You were my search engine of choice for several years, and I wouldn’t have guessed at the time that the stumbling Yahoo! would be the one to bury you.  But I guess Yahoo! is only doing officially what Google did to you years ago.  

Basking in the Shade

July 9, 2013

Today is our thirteenth wedding anniversary.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t really impress either of us, numerically speaking.  Both our parents have logged over 40 years together and are still going strong.  More than a few couples in our congregation have over fifty years of marriage together.  And we know a few folks who have topped the sixty-year mark.  
While marriage may be suffering as a whole in our culture, we personally are blessed with an inferiority complex in terms of anniversaries.  Not that we’re calling it quits at thirteen, mind you.  We pray for many more to come, and hope to one day attain the more impressive numbers of our parents and parishioners and trust we will.  We just feel kind of silly making a big deal about the number thirteen, compared to all of these other more impressive numbers.
I guess it’s a good kind of inferiority complex to have.  Maybe the best kind.  Whatever it is, we’re grateful for it, and for all of you who have been, are, and will continue to be part of our story. 

Reading Ramblings – July 14, 2013

July 7, 2013

Reading
Ramblings

Date: July 14, 2013,
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:
Leviticus (18:1-5)19:9-18; Psalm 41; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke
10:25-37

Contextual
Notes:
Ordinary Time consists of those Sundays in
the Church year that are not festival Sundays (Christmas, Easter) or
part of special seasons (Advent, Lent). Ordinary time began in the
season of Epiphany this year, lasting three Sundays prior to
Transfiguration Sunday and then the beginning of Lent. Now we begin
Ordinary Time again during the season of Pentecost. Ordinary Time
readings focus on Christ in the life of the Church. The readings are
no longer necessarily as tightly bound together as they were in
Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. The Gospel and the Old
Testament are linked together, but the Epistle reading is now used to
read through contiguous blocks of Scripture.

Leviticus (18:1-5) 19:9-18:
Don’t let your eyes glaze over too quickly when you see the reading
is from Leviticus! While this book is notorious for its dryness,
there is also a great deal of fascinating and helpful material here
in terms of helping us know how to live. While as Christians we no
longer adhere to the Levitical laws in the strict sense of the word,
they still can provide us with helpful insights into how to live.
Some of the laws seem specifically aimed at helping to maintain the
distinctness of God’s people over and against their neighbors. But
others aim at more fundamental ways of considering our lives and the
lives of others.

The prelude from Chapter 18 provides
the context for the commands that constitute the main reading in
Chapter 19. These rules help distinguish the people of God from the
people around them. It helps them to remember that they have been
called apart by God for his purposes, and therefore their lives are
not strictly their own. Life is different as a child of God, because
we don’t live for ourselves, and this is just as true for the Church
today as for the people of God 4000 years ago, even if the specifics
may have altered slightly.

The verses in Chapter 19 order our dealings with others, whether they are foreigners or locals,
rich or poor, friends or enemies. Specifically, these rules direct
the people of God to respect and seek the best for their neighbor (as
the section header often indicates in many translations). We do not
get to define how we love our neighbor – love for neighbor has very
specific parameters that ensure their economic and social well being.
Failure to seek our neighbor’s best in these fundamental ways is a
good indication that we do not really love them, and are therefore
failing not just in half but all of Jesus’ Great Commandment (Matthew
22:36-40). You do not love God if you will not love his children.

Perhaps the most surprising is verse
15. It is easy to assume that we love our neighbor by slighting the
rich to favor the poor, but this is not to be the case! The rich do
not get special consideration because of their position, but the poor
do not either. Justice remains an objective thing, and justice is
not served by tilting the scales in either direction.

Psalm 41: This psalm is
a prayer for deliverance and healing, but it begins with the
exhortation to love and care for the poor. A variety of specific
blessings are associated with care of the poor – protection of his
life, a good reputation, protection from enemies and recovery from
illness. The turn in this prayer occurs in verse 4. The speaker
recognizes that such blessings might be withheld from him, because he
has sinned – most likely in respect to care for the poor. As such,
his enemies multiply against him (vs.5-7), he suffers sickness that
could lead to death (v.8) as well as
betrayal by his friends (v.9). Verse 10 is a cry for deliverance,
and verses 11-12 are a statement of faith and confidence that God
will answer, leading to the final glorification of God called for in
the final verse.

Colossians 1:1-14:
We move on from Galatians to Colossians. Paul and Timothy write to
the Colossians, and Paul begins his letter in typical fashion, with a
blessing for his hearers and a celebration of their faithfulness.
Particularly, Paul highlights their love for God and for God’s people
that flow out of their assurance of salvation (vs.4-5). Verses 5-8
specify the source of this assurance – the Gsopel of Jesus Christ
as taught to them by Epaphras. Paul writes this letter to combat
heretical teachings and teachers that have come to the Colossians.
While their identity is not specifically mentioned, their false
teachings are referred to in 2:16-23.

Paul goes on to indicate the nature of the prayers he and Timothy
have been saying for them (v.3, 9), and not surprisingly these
prayers focus on spiritual wisdom and understanding (v.9), while will
lead to a God-pleasing life (v.10). Paul prays for their strength
(v.11) to endure with joy and give thanks to God, indicating that
there is cause for struggle and a need to endure. Paul concludes
this opening section with a brief summary of the Gospel, that we are
forgiven through Jesus Christ and brought out of darkness into light.

Luke 10:25-37:
One of Jesus’ most famous parables, the purpose of this parable is
to demonstrate not only what love of neighbor might look like, but
also to help define who we might consider our neighbor, two issues
that would stem directly from the injunctions in Leviticus 19. A
good Jew would not question that they should love their neighbor, but
they might quibble about who that neighbor is.

Jesus puts the quibbling to rest. Samaritans were hated by the
zealous Jews of Jesus’ day, because they had rejected the reforms of
Ezra and Nehemiah after the return of the remnant from captivity in
Babylon. They insisted on worshiping God at their ancient worship
sites rather than only at the Temple in Jerusalem. The animosity ran
both directions, understandably. The presumably Jewish victim of the
parable would have been offended and shocked by the Samaritan’s care,
just as Jesus’ hearers were.

In
broad strokes this parable indicates that our neighbors are not
neatly predefined, but that very unlikely people who might not
ordinarily be considered neighbors can become neighbors based on
circumstances. While the Jew and the Samaritan might not usually see
each other as neighbors, their unexpected proximity requires that
they adjust their behaviors. The ultimate intention is love and
care for God’s children – any of them who cross our paths and not
just those we prefer or agree with. Love for neighbor thus
emphasizes love of the foreigner among us alongside love of our kin and
cultural (or religious) neighbor. Nobody is to be beyond the mercy
of God that should flow by the power of the Holy Spirit through the
people of God. Failure to do so – not universally but whenever the
situation arises – demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of
what
we have already received from God
.
Love of neighbor is not a means of earning salvation, but rather an
indication of the salvation we already understand ourselves to
possess in Jesus Christ.

We are to love the people that God places in our lives, whether we
expect or want to find them there or not. We are not held
accountable for all people everywhere, but we are given the
opportunity every day to share the love of God with the people we do
meet – whether that is a member of our family or an old friend or a
random stranger. We cannot just pass by – we must see in that
person a child of God that Jesus died for. When we do that, our joy
in our own salvation should move us to tend to respond to them in
love and in fairness.

Stumped

July 6, 2013

In our new back yard, there are eight or so shrubs that line the northwestern edge of the yard.  The previous owners had cut them back severely, so that when we moved in six months ago there was really nothing left but stumps & limbs about three to four feet high in each case.  I knew that we wanted to put a fence along that stretch, and so it seemed reasonable to commit to digging out those out.  

I’m not what you’d call a yard work fanatic.  My first taste of yard work came when I was 14 or 15.  My first summer employment lasted a single day.  At the city library I found a posting for a guy that lived near us who wanted someone to come and do yard work for him.  I was excited at the idea of making some money, and full of youthful stupidity that covers over a multitude of misgivings.  I arrived early for work and lasted for several hours in the hot Arizona summer sun before calling it quits.  I may not have even lasted as long as I was supposed to – I honestly can’t remember.  I just know it was miserable.  I knew very early on that I was not well-suited for any vocation requiring consistent heavy manual labor.  I have the utmost respect for those who fill those vocations!
I also know from hearsay that digging out bushes can be hard work.  Still, what else was I going to be doing with my free time?  So one weekend a few months ago I took a new shovel and began digging around the smallest of the stumps.  It took about an hour to expose the main roots and hack through them with the shovel, then manually twist and turn the stump until it tore free from the remaining roots.  With a cry of triumph, I tossed the pulpy carcass to the patio to dry and use for future firewood.  It was an elating experience, to know through force of will and strength I had triumphed over this half-dead stump.
A couple of weeks later, after recovering from my exploits, I tackled the next smallest shrub, with similar results.  Perhaps I had given up on manual labor too quickly as a youth, I seemed blessed with the ability to rip out stumps quickly!  Why did everyone else complain so much about it?
A week later I tackled the third stump.  This one was on a substantial incline.  Digging around it proved to be difficult.  My previous tactic of using my own mass to overwhelm the root systems was severely hampered by the incline.  I gave up for the time being, reasoning that it made more sense to try one of the other ones on level ground.
I started in on the smallest of the stumps on level ground.  I dug around it, exposing some pretty impressive roots.  I managed to hack through some of them, though admittedly a shovel really wasn’t the ideal tool for such work, regardless of the dedication and sheer personal aptitude the wielder of said shovel might have.  I’d hack through one root and then throw myself against the stump, sure that now I could manipulate it to its rapid dislocation.  Each time it barely budged.  
I rested for a week or two, to give the stump time to weaken from the injuries I had undoubtedly inflicted on it.  Then I renewed my attack, digging out further, finding additional roots that I hadn’t known about the week previously.  I couldn’t hack through all of them but I managed to get through some of the smaller ones.  Still, I was unable to budge the stump.  With slight dismay, I realized that if this one caused me such difficulty, my odds of success with the other, larger ones around it – that had begun to leaf in evidence of their sustained vitality and to mock my sweat and efforts – were seriously questionable.  
One of my parishioners was helping me pick up and move some furniture a month ago.  As he surveyed the back yard and the partial pile of drying shrubs, along with two other half-dug out stumps, he surmised that I intended to dig them all out.  Conveniently, he owns a towing company, and offered to come out with one of his trucks to pull the stumps out.  Gratefully I accepted, with a bit of guilt since I still believed deep down in side that it was within me to conquer these silly things on my own.
Yesterday afternoon, he sent over a guy and a truck.  Our neighbor had graciously permitted us to back the tow truck into her driveway for a straighter shot at the shrubs.  He wrapped heavy steel chains around each stump at a time, then hooked them up to the tow line on the tow truck.  It seemed clear that he had done this before.  He understood that sometimes you couldn’t just apply full power and rip out the shrubs.  Sometimes, that sort of approach would destroy things around it.  He warned me that the small concrete channel that ran between our property and our neighbor’s might get damaged.  I assured him I wasn’t worried about that.  How likely was it that those silly shrubs would damage concrete on their way out?
I’ve never witnessed anything like the next hour or so of work.  One at a time, the shrubs were torn from their moorings.  In the process, they revealed massive, extensive root systems I never would have guessed to be beneath such unassuming stumps and branches.  The root system was, in fact, far larger and more robust and developed than the branches and stump that remained above ground.  It was like pulling an iceberg out of the ocean.  Or some other analogy that probably would make a lot more sense.
There were times when the guy had to come back with a massive ax to hew through a particularly large root.  Not because the tow truck couldn’t pull the stump out otherwise, but because in the process of doing so, it would destroy the concrete channel – which was already being significantly mangled as it was.  It was amazing to watch the ground for four feet around any given shrub lift up and crumble back down as the stump was extracted. 
At the end of the hour all of the stumps lay on the patio, drying in anticipation of a wonderful bonfire some night.  There were massive, gaping holes in the ground where the stumps had recently lived.  Roots remained, even after they had been pulled free.   I’m honestly not sure I could ever have gotten them out.  Certainly not with the wrong tools I had been trying to deal with all along.  I was so grateful for my parishioner’s generosity and his employee’s good nature in being willing to help me out.  Otherwise, I would remain in a pickle.  Stumped.
It struck me (because this is what I think about a lot) that this was a powerful analogy for the issue of sin in our lives.  There are a lot of people who focus on getting rid of sin in their lives.  At a certain level, this makes good sense, is thoroughly Biblical, and yields some powerful results.  We should not get comfortable with our sin.  The problem often occurs though, that those who don’t suffer from a particular sin treat those who do as though they just aren’t serious enough about getting rid of it.  If you just applied yourself, if you just had faith, if you just prayed enough, then you wouldn’t still be struggling with this sin.  
Sometimes that is true.  Some sin is like the smaller shrubs that I could manipulate through force of will and strength.  With some determination, those shrubs – and certain sins – can be eliminated almost entirely.  The inclinations may remain, the remains of root systems that we’ll never fully clear out.  But the external, above-ground evidence of those inclinations is gone.  We no longer act on the sinful impulses.
But other sins aren’t quite so easy.  We may dig and hack and try to twist and force the stum
p above ground with all our might, and we can’t get it to budge.  It is not within our power.  Not even prayer seems to make a difference.  Not even the laying on of hands, or the commands of a religious leader, or public or private confession and absolution.  It isn’t that we want the sin, it’s that we can’t seem to get rid of it.  We make limited headway, but it remains firmly rooted to our anguish and frustration.  
What makes it trickier is that the sin that proves to be insurmountable in one person’s life may be easily dealt with in another.  It isn’t as though we can neatly organize sins and say these are the ones we are going to be able to get rid of and these aren’t.  It can vary from person to person.  The pernicious preference for gossip or a sharp tongue can be just as insurmountable for one person as sexual preference may be for another.  If I don’t have a serious temptation to a certain sin, it becomes easy for me to belittle the brother or sister who does, and visa versa.  
What are we to do?
Recognize first and foremost that this is why the Son of God had to come to be one of us and suffer and die in our place.  If sin was something we could deal with on our own, his sacrifice would not have been necessary.  If I ever think that I have sin in my life under control or eliminated, I am fooling myself.  I may have stripped it back, I may have hacked it down to the base, but below that lies an extensive and powerful root system that wraps through my heart and mind and body.  
Depressing?  We are to take comfort and hope in the promise of our Lord and Savior, the promise that says that one day we will not struggle and suffer with sin and the effects of sin as we do now.  We carry our burdens of guilt and shame to him (Psalm 6).  We do not exempt ourselves from the struggle with our sins, but we must recognize that only He can heal us and deliver us.
We must never permit ourselves to quit viewing our sins as sins.  St. Paul famously writes about a “thorn in the flesh” that he prays will be removed (1 Corinthians 12:7-10).  It is not removed. 
Most scholars agree that Paul is not literally talking about a splinter, but rather about some sort of struggle – perhaps a physical ailment or a temptation to sin.  While we don’t know what precisely Paul is talking about, Paul does not make the move to declare the thorn actually a rose or a marshmallow because God does not remove it.  Paul boasts in his weakness – not meaning that the weakness is no longer a weakness, but boasting that despite his weakness, God is at work.  While we may not be able to overcome them through force of will or brute strength, this does not mean that they are not sinful.  We do not help ourselves by calling evil good, or pretending that a sin is not a sin.  A kleptomaniac is not delivered from his condition by convincing himself that he is not committing a crime.  
We must commit ourselves to loving those in their struggle.  It’s easy to love a success story, easy to admire and appreciate and bask in the glow of someone who seems to have overcome their sins.  It is far harder to be with the person who continues to be broken by their sin, to speak the Word of hope and forgiveness that is greater than their sin and shame and struggle, and that promises to one day free them from their chains.  
We must continue to pray with and for those who cannot uproot a particular sin in their life.  We never give up praying that the Holy Spirit will remove the sin, uproot it where the person can’t on their own.  We pray because we know that the Lord does respond to our prayers, and may see fit to remove this struggle (Isaiah 38:1-4).  So long as we rest in the Word of God, committing ourselves against a sin even if we are not able to fully resist it, we can go to the Lord in prayer and hope that He will do what we cannot.
And we must love the person.  We are not free to determine the content and nature of that love, and we are not free to say what the Lord does not about a given situation or sin.  We must never hold back from affirming what the Word of God says – both in condemning the sinfulness and uplifting the sinner.  We must condemn the sin but love the sinner.  We must be willing to commit ourselves to help that person in whatever way we can.  Do they need people around them at certain times, to help ensure that they don’t fall into sin?  This is the privilege and burden of Christian community.  It is not easy and it is not fun, but it is faithful to our Lord who gave up everything for us.
The stump analogy came to mind in reading this article that my wife forwarded on to me.  It reminds me how hard it can be to love someone while refusing to love the sin that is rooted within them.  It is a reminder that sin is not what we do, it is who we are.  And it is ultimately a reminder to cling to the one who has, can, and will deliver his people from this sin once and for all.  The one who has, can, and will do what we cannot on our own, no matter how much we may desire to.  What great cause to give thanks, even as we suffer!

On a Happier Note…

July 5, 2013

Thanks to Gary for sending me the link to this little article and video from The Onion.  

This sort of relates to my last post on atheist worship.  If there is no God behind it all, I can’t see how you can possibly reach any other conclusion than sheer horror at the immense cruelty of the universe!
(as a side note, for whatever reason this video clip that is linked to above is extremely temperamental, so you may have to reload the page a few times before you can get it to play properly)