Archive for March, 2014

Reading Ramblings – April 6, 2014

March 30, 2014

Date:  The Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 6, 2014

Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:1-45

Context: Life from death.  Hope from despair.  This is the plan of God the Father, to restore his creation—brutalized by sin—to life again through God the Son.  As we draw closer to Holy Week, what is the implication of Jesus’ death and resurrection?  What has the death and rebirth of this God-man accomplished, and how are you and I affected by it?  In this week’s readings we see graphic depictions of the hope we have in Jesus Christ.  Hope for life and recreation, even when death seems so certain and final.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 — This memorable vision depicts the power of the Word of God.  That which seems beyond hope, beyond life, beyond restoration is brought hope, brought life, brought restoration through the Word of God as prophesied by Ezekiel in his vision.  What we cannot do for ourselves, God can do.  What we cannot hope to attain, God the Father gives to us in God the Son through faith conveyed by God the Holy Spirit.  For the Christian there is no situation without hope, because our hope extends beyond the grave itself to new life and restoration in Jesus Christ.    Our own suffering death is still a context for praise of our God who has promised not simply to preserve us from these things, but to deliver us through them to eternal life.

Psalm 130 — What is the constant condition of the Christian then?  That of waiting and watching.  We live in the constant cry to the Lord—when, O Lord, when?  It is a cry not of despair or anger though, but rather a cry of confidence.  We are bold to proclaim as Job did, For I know that my redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin has thus been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another (Job 19:25-27b).  Our Lord is coming again.  Let us watch and wait!

Romans 8:1-11 — St. Paul beautifully describes our hope.  Not the hope for piecemeal improvement by bits and pieces, starts and stops, but of full and final restoration in Christ.  This is what we already have through faith in Jesus Christ—peace with God the Father and the promise of eternal life just as Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead, and as Lazarus in the Gospel reading for today is a foreshadowing of.  Our minds therefore are not fixed on our own efforts, but rather constantly on what God has done for us through his Son.  That emphasis will lead us more naturally to be the children of God in our thoughts, words, and deeds.  Only by focusing on what God has done can we begin to realize the fruits of that victory here and now, as well as in the moment of death.

John 11:1-45— The story of Lazarus is a long one.  But it foreshadows Jesus’ own impending death and resurrection.  It is an opportunity for teaching as Jesus leads those He loves closer to an understanding not only of who He is as the Son of God, but what that means for themselves and the ones they love. 

Our hearts are all too often fixed on short-term prayers for temporal deliverance.  It is not wrong to lift our present concerns to the Lord as Mary and Martha do in verse 3.  We enjoy the blessed relationship of children to our heavenly Father and He wants us to come to him in prayer with all our joys and sorrows, hopes and fears.  But we so often seek only for small things, forgetting all that we have been given in Christ’s death and resurrection!

So it is that Martha can only lament that had Jesus responded more quickly, Lazarus would be alive.  She knows that Lazarus will live again on the last day, but this is not enough to mediate her grief now.  How easy it is for us to lose ourselves in the stretches of minutes and days and years that we think constitute our life, forgetting (in part because we cannot comprehend it!) how brief our time is here compared to the eternity that awaits us!  Mary as well is disappointed that Jesus did not save her brother from death by arriving sooner, and the Jews who gathered to mourn with the family also seemed disappointed that Jesus had not done for Lazarus what He had done in other ways for others.  Surely as close friends of Jesus, these people were entitled to preferential treatment!

Jesus has not come simply to comfort us in our scrapes and scratches in this life.  He has not come simply to ensure us a life of ease and simplicity and comfort.  He has not come just to deliver us from illness or blindness or frustration or disappointment or loss or sorrow or even the effects of physical death itself.  Rather, He has come to provide us with so much more, something that allows us to experience these painful things in their proper context.  Pretexts to a much larger and more beautiful story.  Part of the shaping of our eternal character and nature.  Opportunities for trust in the God who created us and redeemed us and has promised us eternal life. 

Jesus restores Lazarus to life.  But eventually, Lazarus dies again.  The blind that Jesus granted sight to eventually closed their eyes in death.  The lame eventually were compelled to lay down in their graves.  These signs that Jesus did were certainly important but they were not final.  Rather, they pointed to the most important work and sign—his resurrection from the dead.  This is where the life and ministry and miracle-working of Jesus finds proper understanding and recognition.  Jesus will settle nothing for complete restoration to life from death.  Not just for you and I personally but for all creation!  The creation that was dead in sin like the valley of dry bones will be made anew, the Spirit of God will breathe into it and it will live and we in faith with it! 

We do not seek out or embrace suffering here and now but we encounter it in the larger joy and promise of eternity with our Savior.  Moment by moment we declare by the strength of God the Holy Spirit within us that we are children of our heavenly Father, and our present suffering and even death itself will not change this nor separate us from his love.  Our future is more certain than any medical prognosis.  We will live!  And knowing this, we live now


Seeing Is Hard

March 30, 2014

The readings for tomorrow morning center around light vs. dark, vision vs. blindness.  We are exhorted to sight, to being light, not being dark.  It sounds pretty simple.  But seeing is hard.

Ephesians 5:10 encourages us to try and discern what is pleasing to the Lord.  Frankly, we all think we have this figured out in one way or another.  God wants us to behave properly, right?  That’s the extent of it all too often.  Do the right things.  Don’t do the wrong things.  But if it’s that simple, why is Paul exhorting us to continue to discern?  Could it be that it hasn’t all been discerned yet?  That discernment is an ongoing process necessary because while what is pleasing to the Lord doesn’t change, how we go about it might?
This is the issue in John 9.  The Pharisees think they have it figured out what it means to please the Lord.  Part of what it means is following a bunch of human restrictions on something the Lord initially gave to us – the Sabbath.  But they are blind to what is pleasing to the Lord.  What is pleasing to the Lord is that a man who has been blind all his life can see.  This is the basic thing that everyone misses in this chapter.  This guy can see!  And shouldn’t we be praising God for this rather than trying to figure out who to pin the blame on, as if restored sight could be something displeasing to God, even if it comes on the Sabbath?  In some ways, isn’t restoring sight to the blind something very appropriate to the Sabbath?
Congregations and pastors fall into this particular form of blindness as well.  We’ve been raised in church and shown what it means to be a congregation by faithful generations before us.  And as such, we think we know what it means.  We think we know what is pleasing to the Lord.  And it isn’t that it isn’t pleasing, per se.  But what is the Lord’s greater pleasure?  That we do things exactly the way we’ve always done them, or that the blind are brought to sight – those who wander in darkness are introduced to the Light of the World through the Word of God?  
Sometimes this means changing the question up.  Sometimes, and in certain situations, it requires us to start from scratch.  It requires us to use our God-given common sense and intellects to figure out the best way to bring the Word of God to his creation.  It may not be in the way we expect or even prefer.  It may challenge everything we think we understand about God and church.  Yet if the end result is that people are given sight, and in that sight they receive life, isn’t that what it’s all about?
We have to be careful in this of course.  We have to be wise.  Change for the sake of change isn’t necessarily pleasing to the Lord.  Change in the ways everyone else is changing, without knowing if those changes are really helpful or not is not pleasing to the Lord.  And we must be vigilant never to throw the Christ-child out with the bathwater!  But these caveats are pretty broad, and the latitude and grace we enjoy through our Savior is pretty huge.  It ought to excite us.  It ought to be as exciting as talking to a man born blind who suddenly can see.  If we can see that, there’s a good chance that our eyes are working as well.

Butterfly Update

March 29, 2014

We now have two chrysalis’ and nearly a third.  The kids report seeing one of the tiny new caterpillars, but I haven’t seen it yet.  Apparently it takes 9-14 days for butterflies to emerge from the cocoon, so sometime in the next few days or week, we’ll have butterflies to release!  

New fact learned – the chyrsalis is not something the butterflies spin around themselves, rather, it is what emerges from beneath their last skin shedding!  Fascinating!

Some Good Quotes

March 28, 2014

From one of the books I’m currently (re)reading:  Living by Faith by Oswald Bayer.  This book is a great exploration of what faith means and how it works through the Christian life.  This was for one of my seminary courses, but if the highlighting is any indicator, I didn’t quite finish it.  Looking forward to rectifying that soon!

Bayer begins by contrasting faith as a gift from God, as opposed to a faith based on our own works and merits.  If our own works earn us faith, we are never really free.  We are constantly under the power of our works – worried about whether there are enough of them to truly save us.  However, when we accept that faith is a free gift from God that has nothing to do with our efforts, we become free:
“When I am nailed down to what I have done and do, and let myself be nailed down by others, I am then profoundly not free.  But when I am freed from this lack of freedom, then distance and sense of proportion come with the freedom I am granted, and thus comes the room that is needed for action.” (p.21)
Bayer understands Luther’s placement of good works firmly and forever on the other side of justification by faith.  It isn’t that works aren’t present or don’t matter, but rather that they don’t matter to the gift of faith from God the Holy Spirit – they emanate from that gift.  Bayer quotes Luther:
“none of us can talk adequately or profitably about God’s glory and majesty unless we see god also in the lowliness and humiliation of the cross.”  Christian theology does not begin in the heights as other religions do; it begins in the depths, in the womb of Mary and the death of Jesus on the cross. (p.23)
Not necessarily an easy read, but definitely a valuable one.  Don’t let the small page count fool you – you’re going to be taking some time wading through some of his sentences and paragraphs!

Wet Bar Wednesday – Tequila Sunrise

March 26, 2014

Perhaps it’s just negative association.  There was a movie a few years back by this name.  I never saw it, despite the fact that it starred BOTH Mel Gibson AND Michelle Pfeiffer.  And some guy named Kurt Russell.  It looked awful, even if the cast looked great.  

That, and who hasn’t heard of a tequila sunrise?  Who hasn’t heard Tequila Sunrise?  And no matter how much you like the song, you’ve heard it a bazillion times and so making the drink itself seems so tiring.  
I finally gave it a shot last week, and the results were pretty pleasing overall.  As usual, adjust the quantities to your taste preferences – more tequila for more bite, more grenadine for more sweetness.
Tequila Sunrise
  • 1 tall glass (so you can admire the sunrise properly)
  • 2 oz white/silver/plata tequila (make sure it’s 100% blue agave)
  • ice
  • orange juice to top off
  • grenadine to taste/suitable effect (earlier versions use creme de cassis, which would be an odder color but still tasty)
The trick to executing this drink properly is technique.  The idea is that the various liquids will naturally stay separated, allowing the sunrise-y effect at the borders where they mingle.  
I poured the tequila in first, then added ice, and then topped with orange juice.  Putting the ice in earlier reduces the amount that the tequila and orange juice will mix.  Try to pour the orange juice down the side of the glass (on the inside, obviously) to further reduce mixing.  
Now for the tricky part.  You don’t want to pour the grenadine straight over the top.  Instead, take a spoon.  Turn the spoon upside down, and put the tip of the spoon against the inside of the glass.  Now slowly drizzle the grenadine over the back of the spoon.  The spoon will guide the grenadine to the side of the glass, where it will slide down to the bottom of the glass.  Do this slowly.  
DO NOT MIX THE DRINK!  You’ve gone to all this trouble to make a drink that is appealing visually as well as tasty.  Slide a straw into it and serve it that way.  Once the recipient has properly appreciated your prowess, they can mix the drink themselves.  They definitely should mix it before drinking it, otherwise they’re going to get a mouthful of grenadine and that’s a bit sweet.  
And, as an added bonus (and because I linked to it yesterday), here’s a fascinating infographic  detailing almost every major line of American bourbon.  It details who the parent company is, who the distiller is, how long the bourbon is aged and how it’s related to other lines.  A great visual, and helpful in determining whether it’s really worth it to pay a premium for a particular brand of bourbon!
In general, I prefer Jack Daniels, Knob Creek, Bulleit’s Bourbon and Maker’s Mark.  Woodford Reserve is also a good choice.  I keep some Jack Daniel’s on hand for mixing drinks, and use the others for sipping neat or in Manhattans or Old Fashioneds.  They’re fairly comparable price-wise overall, so it becomes a matter of what’s on sale on any given shopping run.  Costco often has larger sized bottles of Jack Daniels and Maker’s Mark for very good prices.  The Costco Kirkland brand of whiskey is also respectable and relatively inexpensive.

Redefining Pastors

March 26, 2014

It’s interesting that in current conversations among my colleagues, both current and past, conversations are swirling about what it means to be a pastor.  I have a colleague who resigned his pastoral position in a congregation because he would not reconcile the daily expectations of the congregation regarding how he should spend his time, with the actual purposes for which he was specifically Called.  He could have, and many pastors do, more or less, reconcile these two things.  But he chose not to.  To make a point and seek a different way forward.

Other conversations center on the diminishing of church in our culture as we’ve come to know it – a large, well-maintained physical campus with multiple staff persons (if possible!) offering a broad range of services and programs, some of which are only attended by members, and some of which are attended only by people with no other connection to the congregation.  In light of overall trends towards aging and shrinking congregations, this model is becoming untenable, quickly.  While I pray there will always be some “traditional” congregations, increasingly congregations are going to have to look different, because the economics just won’t support the old model as frequently any more.  
The pastor sits at an interesting juncture here.  Many pastors are traditionally trained in seminaries by professors who have not been in a parish for some time (if ever), and while these professors understand intellectually the changes out there, it is difficult for them to do more than mention them while continuing to teach curricula based on the assumptions of another era.  Pastors graduate from seminary (not all do, obviously) and go into parishes that are full of wonderful people and traditions.  It is a very self-reinforcing environment.  Pastors are often rewarded by accommodating themselves to the congregation’s preferences (over and above the fact that they were likely selected for the position because they already closely conform to these things!).  Routines are established quickly and difficult to change.  
In my polity, pastors are specifically concerned with Word & Sacrament ministry.  We are preachers and teachers of Scripture and the doctrine derived from it.  We provide the Sacraments of baptism, Holy Communion, and confession & absolution to the faithful on a regular basis.  This is the core of our identity.  It is how we are trained, and for many pastors, I’m betting that it is why they decided to answer the Call to pastoral training and ordination in the first place.
But on top of these duties other duties add on very quickly.  Some are natural extensions and alternate applications of preaching and teaching – delivering Word & Sacrament to the ill & home-bound, as well as conducting weddings and funerals.  Bible studies and opportunities for personal growth in Scriptural understanding are other natural extensions.  
Then things get weird.
My only parish experience has been in very small congregations.  I haven’t been in a large congregation since I was a kid.  I can’t imagine the dynamics that must go on there, though from colleagues I learn a little bit long distance.  Pastors are expected to be the public face of the ministry, attending many, many meetings both business and social, to offer prayer and presence.  They are head cheerleaders for the various programs and offerings of the congregation, always on hand to add legitimacy to events and to encourage others to attend and be supportive.  
Pastors have also been told in the last 40 years or so that they need to be leaders, where leader is defined not Biblically but rather from the corporate world.  Leaders are charismatic and inventive and focused and many wonderful things.  They are also successful in corporate terms.  I suspect that a good leader who does not increase company earnings is an oxymoron.  So the same is applied to pastors.  If you’re a good leader, then quantifiable metrics will rise.  More participation in church events.  More butts in seats on Sunday morning.  Higher levels of giving.  Failure to achieve these things – none of which are Biblical mandates or instructions – you are not an adequate leader, and your position may be placed in jeopardy. 
I imagine that pastors have always had to handle administrative work.  I’ll admit to being spoiled in having a very efficient and capable secretary who handles much of this for me, and having dedicated and capable leaders in the congregation who attend to the month-to-month business necessities of the congregation.  I attend at most three meetings a month at this point.  Two of them have to do with the training and development of the congregation’s Elders.  The other is the monthly business meeting of the congregational leadership.  There are many more things I could attend regularly, and I’ve undoubtedly annoyed people by refusing to be at every function of the congregation.  But I remain convicted that my
Pastors have also been told in the last 40 years or so that they need to be leaders, where leader is defined not Biblically but rather from the corporate world.  Leaders are charismatic and inventive and focused and many wonderful things.  They are also successful in corporate terms.  I suspect that a good leader who does not increase company earnings is an oxymoron.  So the same is applied to pastors.  If you’re a good leader, then quantifiable metrics will rise.  More participation in church events.  More butts in seats on Sunday morning.  Higher levels of giving.  Failure to achieve these things – none of which are Biblical mandates or instructions – you are not an adequate leader, and your position may be placed in jeopardy.  
That’s a lot of hats to wear.  It’s a lot of responsibility.  Pastors are to be expert evangelists, fantastic people-persons, deeply effective in one-on-one ministry, skilled preachers, knowledgeable teachers, talented administrators, compelling leaders, effective evangelists.  And let’s be honest – pastors are primed for this.  They are primed for it by watching other pastors.  They are primed for it from seminaries.  They are primed for it by the Christian celebrity circle of pastor-authors, pastor-motivational speakers, pastor-emperors.  
So we’re deeply inclined to take it all on.  The warm fuzzies when we do so are indescribably wonderful and addicting.  You like me.  You really like me!  Pastors want to please people, and the office of Pastoral Ministry has evolved into the awkward situation where we need to be liked at a certain level.  Doing the little things that make people happy, that place us at the center of attention – this is highly addictive.  
I suspect it’s also lethal.  Pastors burn out at an amazing rate.  I’m not sure if it’s an unprecedented rate or not, but there are plenty of statistics out there that say we’re killing ourselves.  Professionally and sometimes physically.  
All of which should give pastors pause for thought.  It should give congregations pause for thought as well.  If your pastor has been called primarily as someone who delivers the Word of God in a meaningful and understandable way, who tends to the faithful while keeping a foot in the world, who is expected to faithfully administer God’s sacraments – God’s gifts to his people – how much time is your pastor putting in to these areas, compared to the other responsibilities that are expected of them?  How deeply involved is
your pastor in budget planning?  How many prayers is he or she expected to offer at how many luncheons or other gatherings in a week?  How is their family doing?  
So conversations are turning more and more to what is the true and faithful role of the pastor, Biblically?  And this necessitates a reconsideration of what does it mean to be a congregation and part of the body of Christ.  How much of what we do is extraneous? How much of what we do is central to the Great Commission?  As congregational sizes dwindle, as fixed incomes make up more of the membership, as economics continue to squeeze and crunch, can congregations continue to insist that being a church means doing all the things we used to do, the way we’ve always done them?
I leave these discussions invariably awed and humbled.  I am blessed beyond measure because of the relationship I share with my congregation at this point.  I have what might be the ideal situation to consider these Big Questions.  Not that there aren’t expectations and pressures, but they’re nothing like what many of my colleagues apparently deal with.  
So we keep talking.  Helping to share vision and purpose and encouragement with one another.  And more and more, I am hearing others agreeing that pastors need to return to their Scriptural roots as preachers and teachers.  The winds of change continue to blow, and that makes for some really bad hair days.  Or years.  Or perhaps even careers.  But I suspect that we will all be astonished and impressed to see how congregations change and adapt in the coming decades.  
For the times, they are a-changin’.  

Theology Tuesday?

March 25, 2014

Not that I want to limit myself to just one day, but I figured I’d throw these two reads by you.

First off is a missive from my denominational polity’s president regarding the significance of the Hobby Lobby court case pending decision from the Supreme Court.  It’s a good reminder that things matter, despite the fact that we’ve been conditioned to separate knowledge from response.
The second is a little ditty I found on a Facebook friend’s wall.  I would add to this that if parents are not living out their faith at home, taking your kids to church is no silver bullet to ensure they pick up and maintain the faith.  If you don’t pray, if you don’t read & discuss the Bible together, if you don’t demonstrate how your own belief in the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth affects what you do and how you do it, your kids will figure this out pretty quickly.  
And, for making it through these two reads, here’s a diagram of the various whiskeys and their distinguishing characteristics!  

Spending Time

March 25, 2014

A brief update on some of the ways I’ve been spending and wasting time.  I’m not necessarily proud.  I’m never gonna get some of those hours back….

First in film.  A few restless nights over the past couple of weeks have found me disappointed by and large in my continuing capacity to choose lousy films.
Idiots and Angels – I remember discovering Bill Plympton’s animation in college.  It’s very stylistic and compelling.  This was an entire movie of it, and while it was at times visually stunning, the storyline itself was unfortunately inadequate to the task.  It follows the misadventures of the thoroughly dishonorable and unlikable anti-hero, Angel.  There is no speaking or intelligible dialogue in the entire film, so I wouldn’t have known that was his name if not for IMDB.  Angel finds noble sentiments stirring in his body – against his will.  While it’s a faintly curious visualization of this, the story is very inadequate and uncompelling.  You won’t like Angel, either at the beginning or the end of the movie, though you’ll be pretty sure that something is supposed to have happened to him so that he is likable.  If you can figure it out more, please fill me in.
America’s Sweethearts – This is a fairly shallow romantic comedy, and while there is plenty of acting firepower in the house, they’re all mostly on cruise control playing their most common stereotypes.  The deliriously gorgeous Catherine Zeta-Jones is the pampered screen diva.  John Cusak is the bewildered guy with the heart of gold.  Billy Crystal is the fast-talking wise-guy, also with a heart of gold, and Julia Roberts is the sweet wallflower with a heart of gold.  You know what’s going to happen pretty much in the first 20 minutes or so of the film, and you won’t be surprised.  While there are a few humorous moments, most of this is quite forgettable, which is a shame.  Some profanity.  
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters – I loved the trailers I saw for this film.  The idea seemed fresh and full of potential.  Unfortunately, like many action films the emphasis is on special effects rather than story line or characters.  Nobody in this story is original, and you can pretty much read the ending a mile off.  There are a few cute moments, but overall it prefers to catch your attention with fairly graphic violence and computer graphics.  The characters have a lot of potential, and while I think the actors & actresses were capable of delivering a compelling performance, they weren’t given anything to work with.  There is some pointless nudity in here, along with profanity.
The Final Cut – Robin Williams does a great job with dark characters, and the setup on this movie is fantastic.  In the indeterminate future, apparently in a parallel universe, people can have a biological implant that stores every second of their life’s audio and visual experiences.  Upon death the implant can be removed, edited, and played back for a remembry service.  Robin Williams is the best in the business, but finds himself in the center of a complicated effort to undermine the entire industry by activists looking to exploit the damaging details of one of the technology’s inner-circle members.
It’s a fantastic premise, and the story is laid out rather well.  But it goes nowhere.  There are pointless encounters and relationships.  Pointless resolutions to lifelong hauntings.  By the time the movie shifts into overdrive to wrap up, you’re left wondering what the point was, and why none of the obvious dots were connected in a way to bring closure.  Once again, more emphasis on character development and storyline could have made this a fantastic movie.  Some profanity.
How about books?
There’s really only one that I’ve finished recently, a gift from a colleague of mine that I finally got around to reading, George MacDonald’s The Curate’s Awakening.  My colleague is a huge fan of MacDonald, who might be known to some readers today because C.S. Lewis considered him his theological and literary father.  
Unfortunately, I’ve never been a fan of 19th century literature on the whole.  I can deal with Dickens and Poe, but most of it leaves me bored.  While this book wasn’t that boring, the emphasis is clearly on providing the opportunity for theological dialogue and reflection among the characters.  The characters are all interesting enough on their own, but it’s all so stiff and formal and forced.  There are two more books in the series, and I don’t think I’ll continue on to them.  MacDonald isn’t a bad writer, and his theological observations and insights are very good, it’s just that he’s not my literary cup of tea.

Beyond the Well

March 23, 2014

The Gospel lesson for this morning (at least if you’re using the 3-year lectionary cycle) is John 4 and the story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well.  It’s a beautiful story, a beautiful depiction of the love and patience of God in action in the life of an apparently troubled woman.  Some people call her the first evangelist, because she might be the first person who goes to share the Gospel with others after a personal encounter with the Son of God.

Some people also call her Photine.  Or more accurately, St. Photine. 
According to the interesting site, this Samaritan woman was baptized by Jesus’ disciples (that this could be possible is indicated in John 4:1-2, which simply states that Jesus’ disciples were baptizing people).  She was given a new Christian name, Photine, which means enlightened one.  She didn’t just help convert her town (as John 4:29 indicates), she converted her siblings and her sons.  They all became evangelists, and St. Photine eventually moved to North Africa, in Carthage sharing the Gospel.  There she was arrested and with several others, taken to Rome to stand before the Emperor Nero.  Accounts vary of the particular tortures she and the others suffered, but they refused to renounce their Lord, and were eventually martyred for their faith, but only after converting Nero’s own daughter, Domnina, and all her servants, to Christianity.  
These stories fascinate me.  The historian in me marvels at the accounts that have been preserved for hundreds and hundreds of years.  And, being a good 21st century rationalist/skeptic/post-modernist weenie, I can’t help but doubt.  Accounts of St. Photine begin around the middle of the fourth century – a long time after her death and the deaths of anyone who knew her.  Granted, in historical terms this is still the relative blink of an eye.  But it is hard to accept.
Much as my trip to Israel two years ago, I need to challenge my skepticism.  The woman at the well was a real woman, every bit as real as Jesus was a real man.  I have no problem with this proposition.  But because I hold Scripture to be the inspired Word of God, subject to his special protection and purposes, I trust it at a level I don’t trust other historical work.  I don’t believe this is problematic.  A brief investigation into the textual transmission and accuracy of both the Old and New Testaments ought to convince anyone that there is something extraordinary about these writings.  
But the people in Scripture don’t live in a Bible-vacuum.  Their lives also bleed over the pages to potentially touch other history.  If the woman was bold enough to go back to town and share about Jesus with the people who probably despised or mocked her, who is to say that she wouldn’t be capable of everything else said about her?  And while hagiographers (people who devote themselves to researching and writing about the lives of saints) might have an imaginative field day with the particulars of her tortures, are there kernels of truth to be ferreted out in the broader details?
I won’t likely know until the Day of Our Lord, but it’s fascinating to wonder.  And I am grateful for the witness of the saints through history, and to one day being amazed again to learn truth from fiction, and see the thread of faith that God has woven into the structure of space and time itself.  I look forward to meeting the Samaritan woman, whether her name really is Photine or not.  

Reading Ramblings – March 30, 2014

March 23, 2014

Date:  The Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 30, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 42:14-21; Psalm 142; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Context: Lent continues.  While the readings and songs for worship follow the Lenten theme of focusing on repentance and our Lord’s obedience and mission, Sundays themselves are not counted as part of the Lenten journey.  Sundays always are a celebration of Easter, always an emphasis on the victory of our Lord over sin, death, and the power of Satan.  As with Advent and festival Sundays throughout the year, we are reading from the Gospel of John rather than Matthew, who is the assigned Gospel for this first year of the three-year lectionary cycle.

Isaiah 42:14-21 — Themes of obedience to God fill the readings for this week.  Isaiah 42 tells of the Lord’s servant, his chosen one, the one who will be obedient to him.  The Lord has been silent, He has restrained himself and chosen his time, the time for his servant to come into the world and to change everything.  The power of the Lord will be demonstrated through this servant.  The Lord’s chosen people Israel have grown deaf and blind to the voice of their God, and so into their midst will come the Lord’s servant.  He will be blind to the sinfulness that entices and beckons others.  He will be deaf to the Siren call of temptation to sin that lures and slays others.  Where God’s people are blind and deaf to God, the Lord’s servant will be blind and deaf to sin.  He will see and hear nothing other than the will of his heavenly Father, and so remain pure, sinless, and capable of bearing your sins and mine to the cross and the tomb. 

Psalm 142 — In the midst of suffering where can we go but to the Lord?  What options lie before us?  We might be tempted to take matters into our own hands, to seek solutions that turn out to be traps to us.  It may seem pointless to hold out in faith to the Lord, yet this is what we are called to do.  We cry out knowing that He hears.  Knowing that not only will He answer, He has already answered in his servant who came to bear our sins.  So we know that regardless of how bleak our situation, we will be surrounded with the righteous (the cloud of faithful witnesses who have gone before us), and we will receive the Lord’s bounty and goodness! 

Ephesians 5:8-14 — We have been transformed.  Not just as dramatic as going from darkness to light, we actually have been brought from darkness to light; once we were lost in our sin and did not know our way.  In Christ, we are made light, and we see the way the Lord lays out for us, what is proper and appropriate and what is not.  Because we are now light, we must flee from the acts of darkness.  We must see them as antithetical to who we are in Christ, even if we were once very, very comfortable with them.  Light changes everything, and nothing can remain the same as it was in darkness, once the light is turned on.  We know things for what they are in the light, and we ourselves are known for what we are and whose we are in the light. 

John 9:1-41— Jesus frequently uses the metaphor of sight to convey truth to his disciples.  In Jesus’ day, it was assumed that if someone suffered some misfortune, this was divine retribution for their sins, or perhaps for the sins of their parents.  Jesus transforms their understanding of misfortune, however.  Even in the midst of suffering the power of God can be made manifest to the glory of God.  However, this may require us to discard some of our cherished assumptions about reality and God. 

Jesus heals a blind man, which might seem a very straightforward (if inexplicable!) thing.  Compared with the disciple’s blindness, this man can now see clearly.  But the disciples are hardly the only ones who have trouble with their vision.  The townfolk are amazed that the man can see.  They can’t believe it—maybe this is somebody else?  The man insists that he is the one who used to be blind.  The people are amazed—how is it that now he can see?  What ought to be immediately praised as a miracle, a gracious work of God the Father is instead interrogated.  They can’t see the work of God in this man’s life for what it is. 

Confused, the people bring the man before people versed in Scripture.  Maybe they can make sense of what has happened.  Again, these people who should immediately know to give God glory and honor for restoring sight are instead more concerned about who it was that restored this man’s sight.  They are already familiar with Jesus and his unconventional ways.  Some want to acknowledge that He is a man of God, but others can’t see this because He doesn’t observe the Law they way they have been taught to observe it. 

Blind to the truth that Jesus teaches, the Pharisees assume some trickery must be at play.  They interrogate the man’s parents, who clearly understand the danger they are in.  Lives can be ruined in court cases and public opinion.  They direct the Pharisees back to the sign, the man himself with his restored sight.  Resigned that he is indeed the former blind man, they assure him that the glory must go only to God, not to Jesus, since Jesus must be a sinner for not observing the Sabbath properly.  Their dialogue with him once again reveals their insistence on remaining blind.  They will not see what is in front of their faces—the power of God manifest in Jesus.  Instead, they belittle the man.  They prefer their blindness to the blinding brightness of seeing Jesus for who and what He is.  The healed man accepts his newly granted vision.  The Pharisees insist on their blind speculations.

Jesus’ words in verse 39 may sound strange, compared to Jesus’ words in 3:17 two weeks ago.  But we have to be careful not to assume that a single word used in two different contexts has the same meaning.  Jesus assured Nicodemus that the Son of Man did not come into the world to judge but to save.  But in coming into the world, the Son of Man reveals the blindness of those who cannot or will not accept him.  The judgment against them is revealed when they refuse to accept and follow him.  The coming of the Son of God into the world is hope for those who can see that they are lost without him, but for those who insist on the blindness of assuming they are good enough for God, or that there is no God that they must justify themselves before, their alleged wisdom and insight is demonstrated to be blindness. 

Jesus’ admonition to the Pharisees at the end of this chapter should serve as a warning to the Church today.  Those who claim to know God’s stand under the higher expectation of seeking to live obediently to it.  Claiming to know the will of God condemns our sinfulness and should force us to fall again daily on the mercy of God the Father through our baptism into Jesus Christ.  When claiming to know the will of God creates only hardness in our hearts, we can be sure that we are just as blind as the Pharisees, and perhaps in just as great danger.