Archive for May, 2018

Cultural Appropriation

May 16, 2018

Much fuss has been made in the past few weeks, both pro and con, over a young woman’s prom dress choice.  A girl in Utah chose a traditional Chinese dress as her prom dress, and after posting pictures online was accused of cultural appropriation, igniting a storm (well, a brief storm) of controversy over whether a non-Chinese person can wear a Chinese dress, which is really just a small scale discussion over whether anyone can utilize anything that is not from their own culture.  It sounds insane, I know.  But people apparently have a lot of time on their hands and they peruse it on their smart phones while they walk and buy groceries, looking for things to be outraged by.  Major news outlets picked up the story, so it must be important, right?

There are, admittedly, some terrible prom dresses out there.  Don’t just take my word for it.  But realize that you can’t unsee some of these things.

It got me thinking about the issue of cultural appropriation, something that has clunked around the back of my brain for decades now, courtesy of one of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury.

I’ve written before of his ability to foresee issues that evolved well after the time of his writing.  Brighter readers than myself agree.  But the story that came to the forefront of my mind in regards to this prom dress debacle is one of his more obscure short fiction stories written in 1953 called Sun and Shadow.  I’m not sure if this is a legal online reprint or not, but you can read the story here.

I prefer Bradbury’s treatment of the topic to the Twitter storm associated with the prom dress.  There are related themes but he takes the time to flesh them out a bit, driving the point home solidly in the closing paragraphs.  How easy is it for us to turn locations and people and fashions into backdrops for our own enjoyment?  Very.  So easy, in fact, that I’m not sure it can be avoided.  History is one long cultural appropriation.  From one group to another.  One nation to another.  One continent to another.  And back again.  We are forever taking ideas from other people and other places.  Sometimes it can be done well and beautifully and sometimes it is merely exploitative and tawdry.  But it goes on constantly.

Is it possible in any given instance to give full appreciation to the sources, the founts from which we draw our spur-of-the-moment decisions in fashion or photography or even literature?  I strongly doubt it.  I can hope that it is done well rather than poorly, but beyond that there is no clear way to limit a dress or a photograph.  Movies are rebooting themselves at a dizzying rate.  Everything we do or say is impacted to some degree by everything and everyone we’ve seen or read.

We can get past the potential anger at such appropriation by remembering that the whims of fashion and culture are not purely our own devices, but rather are made possible by so many factors that all ultimately find their anchor in a common Creator.  A Creator who endowed us with great creativity of our own that matches – in an appropriate lesser degree – his own creativity.   I can appreciate a palm tree as well as a fruit tree, a hedgehog as well as a kangaroo.  When I see these as gifts of the Creator rather than some kind of cultural heritage for me to protect from everyone else in the world, it reduces my angst quite a bit.  Likewise, if we can appreciate fashion from China as well as from Mexico, it should be something that elevates and makes all of us better, drawing us closer together rather than providing a point for further dissension and disagreement.  Finally, if I can see even my cultural heritage as a gift rather than as a commodity, this should free me from seeing it as something in need of protection.

As a Christian, should we find it wrong to sing an African spiritual hymn if we’re predominantly a congregation of Western Europeans?  Is it likewise wrong to teach a traditional German hymn to a group of recently baptized Syrian refugees?  Or should we be able to celebrate the creativity of God expressed through a still-very-much-at-work Holy Spirit?  Should we not join hands in repentance as we continue to learn to see God from one another’s perspectives as guided by the Biblical witness?  If this is our goal and methodology, is it possible for us to still see other cultures, other histories, other fashions, other architecture as simply something to exploit for our own benefit or enjoyment or profit?

I think not.

 

It’s Not You, It’s Me

May 14, 2018

At some point in trying to think through change, I would hope that any rationale person would struggle for some amount of time with the simple dilemma – Am I the problem?  Is my seeing the need for change really the problem, rather than the inability or unwillingness of others to change being the problem? 

This has to be a reasonable part of the equation.  We all look at things a certain way, conditioned by our experiences and knowledge and a myriad of other criteria that psychologists (social and otherwise) build careers off of pinpointing.  What if there really isn’t a need to change, and I’m just creating turmoil where none needs to exist?

Important, but confusing.

 

Reading Ramblings – May 20, 2018

May 13, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Pentecost Sunday – May 20, 2018

Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 139:1-16; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:15

Context: Pentecost Sunday occurs during the Jewish celebration of Pentecost, also known as the feast of weeks (Deuteronomy 16:9-12), a harvest celebration acknowledging God’s outpouring of grace and goodness in terms of ripening crops. It is a celebratory gathering of God’s people. It is during this festival that God pours out his grace and goodness in the form of the Holy Spirit, who comes first to the apostles in power, enabling them to speak in the foreign languages of all the myriad Jewish people gathered in Jerusalem for the festival. The term pentecost signifies that this festival falls 50 days after Passover. While we are apt to place ourselves at the center of these readings, the real center is the Word of God at work in the world, here embodied by the Holy Spirit of God.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 – God is the key actor in this passage. He acts through his Word and through the Holy Spirit. He brings life from death, restores vigor to the exhausted. He is hope and power where no hope and no power remains. Where we can only stare mutely, God is active and speaking, and his power is irresistible. We are tempted to think that we can force these things ourselves. We make our decisions and choose our paths the best we can, but at the end of the day it is the Word of God that determines outcomes according to his plans, not ours. This is not to denigrate our choices, but rather to contextualize them, to set them in the proper perspective of God willing rather than My choosing. This is as true in our spiritual walk with God as it is in our hope of resurrection from the dead. While we might like to determine the depth and nature of our spiritual experience with God the Holy Spirit, we are not in control of these things, thereby being denied the glory when they are going well, and called to faith and trust when they are going poorly. God is not a puppy on a leash or a jinni in a bottle.

Psalm 139:1-16 – What would you hide from God? Your guilt? Your ulterior motives? Your fears? Your questions about him and his Word? Do you really think you can hide these things? More importantly, do you really think it is necessary? Many of us would answer yes. Ashamed or prideful makes no difference. But the psalmist sees the perfect and complete knowledge of God as, amazingly, a good thing (v.6). It does not engender perfect obedience by any means. Instead the psalmist contemplates escape options. Flee to the heights or the depths? Nope. Hide in the darkness? Hardly. There is no where we can go to escape the sight of God, the presence of God, or the promises of God. And we are called to acknowledge that God’s knowledge – as with everything else about God – is a good thing (v.14). It is good because He is the God who constantly pursues us with his promises and love, constantly seeks us out when we strive to be lost to him, constantly reassures us of his forgiveness and grace despite our fear that these can’t possibly be true, can’t possibly be for me. Such perfect knowledge of us by any other person would be a cause for fear, as there is always the possibility that knowledge would be used against us. But God only uses that knowledge for us.

Acts 2:1-21 – Naturally we imagine ourselves in this situation. Perhaps enviously, wishing we had this experience of wind and fire, of Spirit and tongues. Perhaps we are horrified at the thought, of being a public spectacle. But the only real actor in this entire section is, once again, God. The Holy Spirit of God is sent to the disciples and is the sole cause of all that happens. It is God who deserves the study and scrutiny and glory. Rather than leave either of his covenant people as standing statues of flesh and blood over recently bare bones, He fulfills the final portion of Ezekiel 33 by sending his Holy Spirit that they might truly have life. That they might move beyond the realm of comprehension and obedience and into relationship with source of all goodness and life. And as the source of such things, it is always the nature of God to extend, to search out and reach out to all people with the saving grace found only in the crucified, resurrected, ascended, and returning Son of God. Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, connects the dots in Old Testament prophesy. The words of the past are not just words but the Word. And the Word is always a word for now as well as later.

John 15:26-16:15 – The official pericope excludes 16:1-4a, but I think this is a very important portion of the passage. If we presume that the abiding presence of God the Holy Spirit means we will never need to suffer, we are mistaken. This is not the purpose of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Rather we can expect to endure difficulties that might incline us to believe that God has forsaken us, or that our trust in him was mistaken or misplaced. This is not the case. The Holy Spirit comes to witness to the truth of God’s Word (15:26), and in so doing convict the world (16:7-11) as He guides us into truth (16:13) and glorifies the Father and the Son (16:14-15). Note the absence of any purpose in terms of our happiness, security, safety, etc. What we have of these things – by the grace of God – should be grounded ultimately in our knowledge of God the Father and God the Son and the abiding presence of God the Holy Spirit despite our circumstances. We are to give witness to these assurances in the midst of our joys and sorrows, our successes and failures, so that these experiential states don’t define us.

We should also expect a consistency of thought and revelation between what God the Father has said, God the Son has said and what God the Holy Spirit reveals to us. So it is that when others claim to speak for God, or to have a new revelation from God, we can expect that it will in no ways contradict what God has already said. Thus God’s Word forms a reliable baseline – the only reliable baseline, in fact, for our interactions with others as well as our own thoughts and ideas. It becomes the one authority we can trust, against which we not only can but must measure all the wisdom the world claims to possess.

YFA – May 13, 2018

May 13, 2018
A Weekly Devotional Resource

 

  • Sunday – Reflect Upon this Morning’s Service and Sermon
  • Monday – Old Testament – Ezekiel 37:1-14
    • Who is the one who restores flesh to the bones?
    • What is the final stage of life for these former bones (v.14)?
  • Tuesday – Second Reading – Acts 2:1-21
    • Who is the driving force in this passage?
    • Who is Peter quoting in vs. 17-21?
  • Wednesday – Gospel – John 15:26-16:15
    • Why does Jesus tell them about the Holy Spirit (16:1)?
    • What is the Holy Spirit’s purpose?
  • Thursday – Psalm 139
    • Is God’s knowledge of us a good or a bad thing (v.6)?
    • Why might we flee to God rather than from him?
  • Friday – Luther’s Small Catechism – Lord’s Prayer Conclusion
    • Review Matthew 6:13 – is the conclusion recorded here?
    • What does the conclusion mean to you?
  • Saturday – Hymn – Holy Spirit, Light Divine
    • What shades of night might lie upon your heart (v.1)?
    • How can we best admire God’s beauty (v.2)?

 

One and One is One

May 12, 2018

Tomorrow is the Sunday after Ascension Day, the last Sunday of the liturgical season of Easter.  The readings center on Jesus’ preparation of his disciples for his departure and his departure.  The Gospel lesson is from the Last Supper, and is known as the High Priestly Prayer, Jesus’ prayer for his disciples before they leave the room and before his ordeal plays out.  In a few last moments of peace together – even the peace of collective ignorance and confusion! – Jesus prays for his disciples.  At the center of this passage is verse 11 – Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. 

That unity has proven to be elusive, to say the least.  Judas has already shattered it in his heart and soon the evidence of this will be revealed to everyone.  From early on there have been those who sought to portray a different Jesus than the one the disciples and eye-witnesses proclaimed.  Those who sought to foist their own ideas about Jesus backwards onto him.  There have been theological differences of opinion, some of them heated and violent.  The history of the Church is fraught with internal violence as Jesus’ prayer for unity often becomes the pretext for enforcing unity.

Our polity makes a big deal about unity even as the unity we seek seems to crumble into smaller and smaller bastions of like-minded individuals.  And so congregations as well can struggle for unity.  We’re easily misled into thinking that our way is not only the right way, it should be the only way, and if others won’t see it then we are tempted to remove ourselves from the community or struggle for power or dominance over others.

Unity is hard when you have real freedom.  It would have been simpler for Jesus to draw up a complicated legal documentation to govern belief and practice so there could be no doubt about what unity should look like.  It’s another example of where I’d prefer a lot more detail from him but don’t receive it.  Joseph Smith sought to fill in some of those pesky missing blanks under the claim of further divine revelations.  Not much different than Mohammed in that respect 1200 years earlier.  In ways large and small we seek to not only identify or claim the proper rallying point for unity but to force it upon others.

But the Gospel is frustratingly free and it will not be pinned down and resists our efforts to pin others down with it.  Perhaps the essence of that freedom is in the relatively broad latitude within which we disagree with one another yet still consider one another more or less a brother or sister in the faith.  I may disagree with some Roman Catholic or Baptist theology but I’m pretty sure we’ll be in heaven together regardless of our disagreements.  And if the Gospel can provide for such a broad spectrum of unity, how much more should the smaller-scale decisions of individual congregations be governed first and foremost by a desire for unity, a refusal to allow Satan to sow seeds of discord or disparagement?   We are free, it would seem, to make bad decisions as well as good ones.  Paul picks up on this theme in some of his writings, and Romans 14 is particular instructive (as well as  challenging!) in this regard.

Perhaps if we set unity as our primary goal, it makes things easier.  Perhaps if we insist that we will bear with the weaker brother  or that we will not force our understanding of what is best on another brother or sister we come closer  to the essence of unity.  Perhaps this is where humility and a charitable spirit really develop.

Our unity is to reflect the unity of Jesus and the Father.  That’s a tough act to follow.  It implies a willingness to suffer in obedience to Jesus’ prayer for unity rather than to seek to impose  our will as a means of soothing our own consciences.  Of course there must be limits to all things.  There are aspects of our faith and our life of faith that cannot be altered or eliminated.  There are places where we need to stand firm against erroneous notions.  But in my experience, these are rarely the issues that divide congregations.  Denominations, sure.  But in congregations the divisions are more often over what we do or don’t do.  How do we spend the money we have?  How do we use the property we have?  It’s amazing how often these blessings can turn into curses and causes for separation and division rather than unity.  It’s frightening how strongly our insistence on what is right in these very fluid realms can destroy relationships and peace of mind, can shatter unity both between brothers and sisters in the faith as well as the peace of an individual heart or mind.

Isn’t it better to be wronged?  This is Paul’s’ argument in 1 Corinthians 6.  Isn’t it better to be wronged than admit to the world that two followers of Jesus Christ can’t agree on something?  That they aren’t willing to allow other brothers & sisters in the faith to arbitrate and render judgment?  Paul will use the very real possibility of personal damage and still insist that our goal should be the unity that Jesus prays for his followers in John 17.  A unity that insists that what is most important is not what we do but how we do it, that insists that we should do what we do together rather than allowing decisions to separate and divide us.  A unity that prizes the brother or sister in faith more than ensuring that a particular course of action is followed.  A unity that would rather stand with hands joined while the consequences of a bad decision bring down the church building around us, rather than push one another away in order to cling to what we think is the best course of action.

May we be one, Father, even as you and the Son are one.  May your Son’s prayer for unity echo in our hearts and minds and reverberate through what we do and say.  May our insistence on unity – made possible by your Holy Spirit within and between us – bear witness to your love for not just us but all of creation and give others pause to wonder at what power beyond ourselves could make such unity possible.

Leading Change

May 10, 2018

I’m not a big proponent of change.  I’ll be the first to admit it these days, something that is hard after considering myself an outsider and out-of-the-box-thinker earlier in my life.  Part of working in an institution of any kind is that you become part of it, and to one extent or another it becomes a part  of you, so that change becomes increasingly difficult to envision or push for the longer you’re part of the institution.  Probably why successful change-makers tend to be folks (at least in my conception of them) who come in quickly, make changes quickly, and probably leave again just as quickly.  There’s no chance for attachment to processes or people, because attachment makes change harder.

But I also like to consider myself a realist, which means that there are times when change is inevitable, and it’s only a matter of how you approach it.  Are you proactive and engaged and involved when change is something you have the ability to influence or direct?  Or are you bitter and angry when change is beyond your control and you’re merely forced to react to the realities you never thought were going to become real?  To me there’s a world of difference in those two positions, and part of the difference lies in whether or not you’ll be able to weather the change and continue on in a different form, or whether the change kills you, the institution, or both.

My institution is a historic denominational congregation that is part of a historic denominational polity that sees itself very much in the same stream of Christian worshipers and churches going all the way back to the Apostles.  Which means change is hard.  In part because the attachment is pretty darn huge, and in part because change has to be weighed and measured against a very long history of Christian belief and practice.  Change is not done in a vacuum (ideally), but rather is contextualized and shaped by everything that has come before whether static or dynamic.

It also means that my congregation (as well as myself to a lesser extent) are used to congregational life looking a certain way.  Worship on Sunday mornings.  Maybe even Bible study or Sunday School on Sunday mornings.  Maybe an additional service the same day or through the week.  Programs for the various demographics of the congregation.  A great deal of activity focused and centered not only on the life of the church but at the physical church itself.  So for over a century, my congregation has conceived of itself as a people of a place.  Four different places over the last century, but places all the same.  The only reason one place was let go of was to expand to a larger place that would better accommodate the needs of the congregation.  By American standards, that’s a good change.  Bigger and better is always good – often physically but other times just in terms of capacity.  But there was always a place because you needed a place for all those people to do all the things that they wanted to do or the church wanted them to do.

As Americans we equate places – ownership of places – with a lot of things.  Respectability.  Legitimacy.  Permanency.  In a country where people can come from a lot of different places and say and claim a lot of different things, traditionally the ownership of a building has distinguished (perhaps psychologically if not overtly) the real McCoys from charlatans; community members from passers-through.  And also as Americans, the bigger the place, the better or more legitimate.  You weren’t just hanging on, you had arrived.  You were established.  You only left your place for something bigger and better.  Choosing to leave for another reason was suspect, rare, and by-and-large unnecessary.

Is that still the case?  In the business world it isn’t.  Brick and mortar shops are closing all over the place.  Venerable chains like Sears or Montgomery Ward struggle to stay alive or don’t exist at all any more.  Shopping malls that were the social and commercial hub for communities and teen-agers now sit derelict and empty.  People found a new way to get what they wanted.  Or their needs have changed.  The commercial landscape is littered with the derelict remains of the behemoths of a bygone age.

In Europe we see the same thing with the cathedrals.  A few dozen people at most gather for worship in this monumental artistic accomplishments.  The congregations can’t care for them any more because there are too few members and therefore not enough money being tithed.  The Catholic Church struggles to maintain them as well.  Alternate uses are being sought for some of these properties.  More than just a new delivery system has brought about this change.  More and more people are saying they don’t need God, or they don’t need the Church.  Some find new religions or philosophies.  Many drift into apathy.

We’re seeing the same thing here in the US.  Despite a majority of Americans claiming to believe in God, fewer and fewer of them are showing up at church on Sunday morning.  The beatniks and hippies of the 50’s and 60’s have given rise to multiple generations that are even less churched and less familiar with the Bible even as a cultural phenomenon.  Congregations worry about how to let people know they’re there.  They build new signs or new buildings to attract people.  But it isn’t a matter of not knowing where churches are – Google can provide that information in a heartbeat.  The problem is that fewer and fewer people care.  The idea of Sunday worship seems anachronistic to many folks in a digital age.  Efforts to become more attractive by changing how we worship have by and large failed to result in any resurgence of interest in all but a few places.

How do you respond in this kind of a ‘market shift’?  You  find a way to adapt or you go out of business.  Just like Sears or JC Penny’s.  If people are shopping in an entirely new way you can’t simply hope that better advertising will win them back over to driving to your store.  You can talk about how it used to be, once upon a time.  You can hope to draw them back in with lower prices or sales or other events, but after some period of time you have to realize this isn’t working.  You have to find a better or different way to connect with your customers in ways and places that are relevant to them.  Or you declare bankruptcy and auction off your assets.

There are good ways to adapt and bad.  There are half-hearted changes and real changes.  There are faithful changes and unfaithful changes.  There’s a danger in change that you lose who you are, that you sacrifice or erase or muddle your uniqueness, the quintessential aspects of yourself.  But there are ways to bring who you are out in new ways, in new contexts.  To introduce yourself or what you represent to people in a different setting where they’re better able to receive it and appreciate it.

But those changes are hard, as the business world will attest to.  Just because you have a good product doesn’t mean that your model for  delivering it will be sustainable.  Brand loyalty is hard to measure when there are myriads of brands from all over the world instantly accessible through Amazon or Google.  And like many businesses, it seems many congregations can’t make that fundamental shift from what was and is to something different.  It’s not a fault, per se.  We aren’t naturally equipped for these sorts of decisions.  And many – perhaps most – congregations don’t.  They slip gradually in membership until there are too few left to keep things going.  Bitter and angry or perhaps relieved, they hand the keys over to someone else, or sell the assets off and distribute legacy gifts to others who are still operational.  These are good ways of blessing others, but most people in my experience would rather figure out a way not to have to give away these kinds of blessings.

Sometimes change is inevitable.  In which case you better really give some serious thought to what that might mean or deal with the likely results of insisting on keeping things the same.  There’s a world of difference between those two end-points.  God the Holy Spirit is alive and at work in both of them, to be sure.  But it’s a lot more exciting when a congregation is able to make a big change proactively rather than gradually react to a changing environment.  We sing the praises of those folks even as we acknowledge and marvel at what hard work or great faithfulness enabled such a switch.  Nobody wants to be in the other category.  We pray with them and for them and take solace in the comfort of our Lord and pray and resolve not to be in their shoes someday.

As long as it doesn’t require us to change.

Death and Comfy Chairs

May 9, 2018

Today I got to sit down with Chuck.

Every Wednesday I’m privileged to sit down with Chuck for about an hour.  We meet in his study, where I sit on a lovely leather love seat and he in his office chair, his dog oftentimes expectantly moving back and forth between us as we talk without rush.  We are comfortable as we sit, remembering and laughing and talking about past, present and the future.  Especially the future.

Chuck is dying.  He knows this better than anyone, and I think it affords him in the midst of this process a clarity of thought which is breathtaking at times even as it is heartbreaking and jubilant.  As a follower of Jesus Christ death is an unpleasant visitor but neither completely unexpected nor totally to be feared.  He won’t, after all, be the final visitor.  He comes and we go  and then we part company with him again, never to have to share his cold congeniality ever again.  Chuck trusts this.  And as he sits in his comfy chair he is comfortable thinking about the future both individually and on a larger scale, and taking the stance of one who is curious, not cowardly.

Comfy chairs have not been a major part of Chuck’s life until recently.  More often pick up trucks and chain saws.  Shuffling ordnance off the coast of Vietnam during heavy shelling.  Chuck and death have crossed paths on more than one occasion, as he’s happy to admit with a twinkle in his eye that defies the ravages of illness in his body.  He has time and need of comfy chairs now, at the last.

We talked about the future, about the decisions that congregations are sometimes called to make about the future and how to approach it, and I know such conversations are no stranger to Chuck either.  He’s spent his life trying to help people make decisions about life and death, individually and on a larger scale.  He knows firsthand the difficulty of such a decision, and all the amazing blessings that can flow from it.

We talked about drug and alcohol recovery.  How hard it is to start.  How much harder it can be to maintain it.  The statistics are sobering (pun intended).  Chuck ran a special program for inmates at the county jail to help put them on the path to real recovery.  That program won all sorts of accolades from people local and statewide for the impressive statistics racked up, particularly the percentage of graduates who were still clean and sober five years later.  The interesting aspect of today’s conversation was that long-term recovery is harder for women than for men, when I would have thought it just the opposite.  Even in his prestigious program, only 39-41% of the men were still clean and sober five years later.  But only 31-32% of the women were.

One of the reasons for that is  that women often have children.  Children, who were taken away by the courts at some point because of Mom’s addiction and related issues.  Once Mom has completed a requisite or voluntary treatment program, she wants to get her kids back, and the courts are eager to give them to her.  The problem is now she has left the program (often times a residential program) and now has her kids with her.  How is she as a single mom (which the majority are effectively, if not actually) going to get a job as well as a place to live while watching her kids or ensuring that they are getting to and from school?  Is she going to make enough to feed all of them and pay rent?  The pressures mount.  It’s easy to slide from an apartment after not making rent into a pay by the week or day hotel which is even more expensive.  Maybe you start selling dope again to help pay the bills.  Maybe you have a few drinks to try and sleep at night because you’re so worried about all of this.  Maybe you prostitute yourself.  In any event you’re back in environments that foster addiction and substance abuse.

The only real option for people entering recovery is half-way houses or sober living houses.  But these are often not much cheaper than other housing options, and kids aren’t allowed to live on site so that makes it undesirable for a woman trying to reunite with her kids.

We talked about how wonderful it would be if there was a place that a woman could go to after completing residential rehab.  Rent would be free for a period of time to help give her time to lock in a job and start earning money.  She would  be able to have her kids come and live with her.  And in exchange for the free rent, there would be requirements – attending regular recovery meetings, regular drug/alcohol checks, curfews, limitations on who can be on site.  But also required classes on parenting and other life skills.  Bible studies and required church attendance.  And ideally a strong Christian on site not simply keeping watch on everyone but also building relationships with the ladies and helping to connect them to their church family.  After a period of time fractional rent would be paid each month, incrementing gradually to full rent, and perhaps to a decision to move out into fully independent living.  He spoke with amazement, and I could see lists of organizations flitting through his mind, all the people who understand what needs to be done and could be done and the many beautiful things that could come out of it, but don’t have anyone to share that vision with and no way to bring it to fruition themselves.  All the people who would gladly lend a hand or even a few dollars to make it real.

In the span of 20 minutes or so, this beautiful vision sprang into being.  It started with a need as well as a desire, and sprouted out as we tried to think of how not simply to meet a need, but to meet the ultimate need that all people have, which is to be anchored in relationship with the God who created them and died for them and offers them hope and strength and comfort not just temporarily but eternally.  A beautiful vision of what could be rather than fearful worry about what might be.  A looking forward to something different rather than an obsessing about the past or the familiar, but which grounds itself both in the past and the familiar as the only means of making something new and different possible.  Within short order we had a rough, verbal sketch of what this all could look like and incorporate.

Of course a sketch isn’t a finished product, but it’s something that you can hang up on the refrigerator, or pass between friends in comfy chairs to help start sharing a dream or a vision, to help see areas that need a bit more thought or other options that could be included.  Eventually it requires getting up out of comfy chairs to start working with pencils and calculators.  It requires the hard work of determining what it would take to reach this dream, and further, determining what each person is willing to contribute towards realizing it.

Dreams and visions often start in easy chairs, in quiet contemplation.  Some start from the perspicuity of a life drawing to an end; new vistas opening up and familiar terrain suddenly transformed and illuminated in their light.  Visions can start in easy chairs but will eventually require the dreamers to stand up and stand together to determine if this is a way forward they’re willing to pursue and encourage and support others in as well, or if it’s a good idea but not the right idea for this particular time and place.  But by that point we’re up out of our chairs and on the back patio or in the office and we might as well look around to see what other visions are being discussed and find out if perhaps one of them is right.

Because comfy chairs, like death itself, should never be permanent.

You Don’t Say?

May 7, 2018

If you grew up in the Christian Church, how much do you remember of the sermons and Sunday Schools and Bible studies?  If you grew up in a tradition where there was a rite of Confirmation – a period of study culminating in a statement of faith – what do you remember of what you studied?

I don’t remember much of anything.  I was far more concerned with hanging out with friends and the shenanigans we might get into together than the Confirmation studies I hastily scribbled answers to as I sat down at in my seat before class.  I know I was not a good student, despite knowing the answers for the most part.  As with some clever kids (who are not so clever as they think) I abused my understanding to make more time for my own interests and pleasures.

Not everyone is so clever.  Or, more likely, they are more clever.  So I know that this essay doesn’t apply universally.  Just because some don’t pay as much attention as they should doesn’t mean nobody does.  And I’ve met more than a few octogenarians who still remember a great deal (at least comparably) of their Confirmation class and teachings.

But at the end of the day I know that I felt like a failure for my inability to keep my oaths, and that knowing that I was better than some (and worse than others) at doing so was no comfort.  At the end of the day, it was nearly five more years before I really had a grasp of the Gospel and the promises of Christ that I was to cling to, rather than my own promises.  And as I in turn now familiarize others with God’s Word in Confirmation (including my own children), I am far less inclined to assign memory work than I am to keep talking about the big picture, hopefully encouraging them not towards licentiousness but towards a freedom and wonder in a God who could love them so much when they are so unlovable at times even to themselves.

There’s a balance between the two I’m sure I’m missing, but I strive to keep aiming towards.

 

 

 

Reading Ramblings – May 13, 2018

May 6, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 13, 2018

Texts: Acts 1; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-15; John 17:1b-19

Context: This is the last Sunday in the liturgical season of Easter. It also follows the celebration of our Lord’s ascension (always on a Thursday). As such, technically the reading is only the second half of Acts 1 (12-26), but I like to include the ascension account. It is here that Luke overlaps his Gospel with the book of Acts. The ascension is described twice. The account in the Gospel of Luke is very succinct, while the account in Acts provides a bit more detail. I just finished reading an excellent theological paper from one of my former seminary professors on the book of Acts. He makes the point that we frequently err in referring to the book of Acts as primarily a history of the Church, or concerned with the Church’s actions after Christ’s ascension. Rather, he argues (as others have) that Acts is anchored around the subject of the Word of God that continues to be active in the world, through the Church. This shifts the focus from a story primarily about what the disciples and the Church did (and therefore might prompt us to erroneously presume that we are to be identical in all respects) to what God was doing in his wisdom and plan at that time (which may or may not look similar in some respects to what He chooses to do here and now in his wisdom and plan).

Acts 1 – Luke introduces the second section of his writings, which focus on what happened after Jesus’ ascension. The topic of the Gospel was all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up. Acts will continue from that moment of being taken up. However we are mistaken if we don’t see the power of God still very much at work in the world and through the disciples and the Church, even if the Word made flesh is no longer dwelling among them. As soon as Jesus can’t be seen any longer God is still using his Word to guide the disciples, brought first by angels (vs.10-11) and next by the Holy Spirit (vs. 24-26). The emphasis rightly belongs on the power of God still at work through his Word, rather than on the unique qualities of the disciples (aside from their singular proximity to the Incarnate Son of God).

Psalm 1 – The opening psalm sets the tone for all the rest of the psalms. Their focus and topic will be the Word of God. Why is this their focus? Because the Word separates the blessed from the foolish, who delights in God’s Word rather than the machinations of humanity. Oftentimes these blessings are obvious – a life that is fruitful and rewarding. But reading this as simply a promise of physical, material blessings seems rather shallow. Surely for the person who delights in God’s Word they are spiritually fruitful and do not wither regardless of the twists and turns of life and the efforts of our enemy Satan. And ultimately, the poorest Christian anchored in the Word of God receives eternal riches whereas the wealthy and successful person without Christ is shown to be eternally poor. A righteous and holy God will indeed punish wickedness, and those who reject God and his salvation in Jesus certainly will – by their own desire – be excluded from eternal fellowship with those for whom God and his Word are their central hope and joy.

1 John 5:9-15 – What is the Word that matters most, that has ultimate authority, that we must not only compare but submit our wisdom and knowledge to? God’s Word. God’s testimony is what matters most and finally. And that Word speaks most importantly and urgently not necessarily to the many things that occupy our thoughts and concerns and feelings (however transiently) but rather it speaks to the centrality of the Son of God. Whatever I am going through or dealing with, whatever thrills or terrifies me, whatever brings me joy or causes me pain, my relationship to the Son of God remains paramount. Nothing can displace the Son of God as the center of my life and identity. What I say about the Son of God ultimately says a great deal more about me. Our relationship to the Son of God is our soul source of life both here and now and eternally. This is the central matter of Scripture and the Christian faith. Not morality or ethics per se, not political or economic insight, not historical insight but rather the Son of God as the source of our eternal life. When the Church speaks on any issue separately and unrelated to this central topic, we ultimately speak falsely or at least inadequately.

John 17:1b-19 – Jesus’ high priestly prayer, his prayer for his people and most especially his disciples centers repeatedly on the concept of unity. It begins in his unity of will and purpose with God the Father, which results in a unity of glory between the two (vs.1-5). The next 14 verses deal with a unity of being in the persons of the apostles. While it is possible that Jesus is speaking of others who have followed him extensively (such as Justus and Matthias in Acts 1:23), and while in some sense He can be said to be speaking of all those who will eventually call him Lord, it is most natural to read this with the Twelve in mind. God the Father created them and entrusted them to the care and presence of the Incarnate God the Son. The Son entrusted to them the words of God the Father, words ultimately concerning himself and his purpose as the Son. A unity resulted – a unity of belief that Jesus was conveying the Words of God to them and should therefore be believed. He prays for their unity of presence after his departure, a unity of presence comprised at least in part by their physical preservation. He prays for their lives, for their safety, and for their continued unity together around the Words He has given them. The unity created between them by the Word of God will create a unity of opposition to them. The world – all of creation in some sense – will be united against them and the Word they carry and share. They need to remain unified in the face of overwhelming opposition and denial, unified not merely as brothers-in-arms, as the deepest of friends, but rather unified by the Word that will continue to dwell among them and through them continue to go out into the world.

Unity is something that the Church seems to have given up on in large part. And certainly from the world’s perspective, there is little unity, and talk of being brothers and sisters in Christ is compromised by what appears to be a competition-based approach with new congregations coming and going and old denominations entrenched in separate theological and physical spaces. Jesus indicates a few verses later that this unity is part of what will be convincing to the world of the truth of the Gospel, the truth of Jesus’ person and work. While theological differences seem inevitable, one can’t help but wonder if those differences should be considered of less importance than the greater goal of unity in Christ as a witness to the world.

YFA – May 6, 2018

May 6, 2018
A Weekly Devotional Resource

 

  • Sunday – Reflect on this morning’s Service & Sermon
  • Monday – First Reading – Acts 1
    • Should we obsess about when Jesus is going to return (vs.7-8)?
    • How do you feel about how the apostles chose Judas’ replacement?
  • Tuesday – Epistle Lesson – 1 John 5:9-17
    • What is the center of God’s Word to us (vs.11-12)?
    • What additional things do you wish Scripture had told us?
  • Wednesday – Gospel – John 17:1b-19
    • How would you summarize the major points of this prayer?
    • What comfort do you draw from this prayer?
  • Thursday Psalm 1
    • What two sources of wisdom are identified?
    • What comfort do you draw from verse 6?
  • Friday Luther’s Small CatechismThe Lord’s Prayer – 7th Petition
    • Does Luther’s explanation match how you think about these words?
    • What form or shape of evil do you most fear?
  • Saturday – Hymn – The Day of Resurrection
    • How is Easter our passover (v.1)
    • What is one of the effects of evil in us (v.2)?