Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally

The author William Faulkner once said, “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.”  His comment reminds us that, while our favorite stories might be based on actual events, they are often manipulated in retrospect with moments added or omitted to deepen the meaning or the moral.  Some stories of the Bible are like this.  Archeological evidence, things like pottery samples and settlement studies, suggests that the great exodus from Egypt to the promised land of Israel may have more of a trickle over years than a massive wave.  While there may have been historical kings like David and Solomon, there is little evidence that they were as powerful as the Bible suggests.  Even the book of Acts, with its stories of people falling dead at the feet of the disciples feels exaggerated for effect.  And yet there is a truth behind and within these stories, a reflection about hope for who God is and how God has made us. 

                One of the biggest barriers to faith I have encountered is the assumption that to be a Christian one must take the Bible to be 100% historically accurate, despite evidence to the contrary.  A college professor of mine who was not a big fan of religion spoke of the need for Christians to “check their brains at the church door.”  This was frustrating because I grew up with a faith that welcomed questions and encouraged exploration.  Later, in seminary, I was trained to seek the deeper truths behind the text, no longer asking, “Did this happen?” but the more ancient question, “What does this mean?”

                In Lutheran circles, especially more conservative Lutheran circles, this attitude will be argued against by noting that Martin Luther was a literalist.  While this statement does not tell the whole story of Luther’s relationship with the Bible, it is true that Luther treated the text as historical fact, that the events happened as the Bible testifies.

                However, there are two kinds of literalism, sometimes divided into cultural literalism and intentional literalism.  Cultural literalism existed for the first sixteen centuries or so of the church.  In that time, although there might be a few who raised questions, there was very little evidence in conflict with the biblical world view.  The earth was flat.  The sun traveled across the sky.  There could well have been a flood of water that covered the entirety of the earth.  Humanity may well have started with two people in a sacred garden.  There was also no concept of genetics; most people assumed that everything needed for the next generations was found in the male “seed.”  There was no concept of geology; the possibility that the world might be millions of years old instead of a few thousand.  There was a small sense of astronomy, but no one had ever seen the Earth from outer space or flown through the sky where the curvature of the planet becomes clear.

                But even as the Reformation was spreading across Europe, Nicholas Copernicus was writing On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, a book that would challenge the earth-centered view of the universe, calling into question one of the basic assumptions of the biblical creation stories.  Within a few centuries, as the influence of the scientific method increased, even more of the biblical world-view would come under scrutiny.  This leads to the other kind of literalism, intentional literalism.  Literalism of this form is an acceptance of the biblical narrative and world-view in spite of evidence to the contrary.  At an extreme, this view has created a small group of “Flat-Earthers.”  More commonly, it creates conflict around things like the age of the earth, creation and evolution.

                What is at stake is something deeper.  It is the idea that if one part of the Bible is not accurate, then the whole book can be called into question, most importantly including the stories of Jesus.  If the biblical stories of the creation and the flood and the exodus are not factual, then what of the healings and walking on water and resurrection?

                As someone who is not a literalist, I do not have an easy answer other than going back to the ancient question mentioned before, “What does this mean?”  I cannot prove that any of the Bible is factual, but I would assert that the Bible is true.  The texts have something to say to us today; good news and challenges; promises and life.  The Bible does not ask us to prove that the creation or the exodus or the resurrection happened.  Instead, the Bible challenges to live as though they happened, to live as though we had been created by a loving God; to live as though we had been set free; to live as though we had been raised.  In this lifetime, we can never prove that these stories are factual, but we can live knowing that they are true.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - The Study of Life

Some of the themes of this article will echo what I wrote near the beginning of this series, writing about the virtue of awe and wonder.  It is a holy practice to learn about creation.  It is not a coincidence that historically, much science was done under the auspices of the Christian faith.  For example, Gregor Mendel, who is sometimes credited as the founder of modern genetics was an Augustinian friar experimenting with pea plants at his monastery.  Other priests and Christian leaders have been naturalists, physicists and astronomers. 

                This is not to deny the conflict that grew as the scientific world-view began to question the assumptions of the biblical world-view; a conflict that was expanded with Darwin in the 1800s and continues to this day; a conflict created by the confusion of fact and truth (something I will write about next week).  Mendel’s science was “safe,” not raising difficult questions of scriptural inerrancy.  In spite of this conflict, it is important to remember the history within Christianity of exploring and marveling at the beauty of creation.  The theologian Richard Rohr describes the natural creation as “our first Bible.”

                The current age of easy access to information should encourage this kind of study.  Every time I turn on my computer, there is a picture of a new place on the startup screen, sometimes natural; sometimes made by human hands.  Each one fills me with curiosity, wondering at how unique rock formations happen over millions of years; wondering at how human beings came to reside in inhospitable places; wondering at the vast differences in the artwork of different cultures, often shaped by the vast differences among many landscapes.

                Echoing my last entry, pursing such questions is holy work.  Learning about how we are different is often also learning about how we are the same.  Gaining more understanding of a different culture helps us grow in our understanding of our own.  It can also remind us that we are strange and unique to someone else.  The things we think are rude to discuss are common topics in other places.  The way we in the northeastern U.S. rush around celebrating the importance of productivity is not the standard for the world.  We can discover that there are other ways we can choose to be; that our particular culture is not ordained by God.

                Studying life and studying lives is an ancient practice.  In the early church, there was a large emphasis on learning about the various saints.  The Reformation movement deemphasized the role of saints.  No longer were Protestant Christians supposed to pray to saints for intercession.  Yet Martin Luther encouraged learning about the saints as lives to emulate.  He cited the story of Saint Christopher, bearing the weight of Christ while walking across a difficult river as a story to teach us about Christian life.  (Note, he did not think this was a literal story, but more a teaching fable).   Although Lutherans did not venerate Mary, Luther celebrated Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a model of obedience and faithfulness to God’s call.  As we pay attention to lives, old and new, we might be inspired to take our own walk of faith more intentionally. 

          I will close this writing with a quote from one of my favorite saints, Therese of Lisieux: "Miss no sing opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love."  (You can read more about Therese here: Therese of Lisieux - Wikipedia)  The act of studying and learning, as with all acts of discipleship, is about finding small ways to turn to God in love.  In studying creation, we deepen our love for the Creator.  In learning about other people and cultures, we deepen our love for the neighbor.  This is holy work!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Study as a Discipline

I come from a family that loves to learn.  My father was a professor of biology.  My mother holds degrees in botany, library science and accounting.  Growing up, I remember that both of my parents were always reading something and encouraged my brother and me to do the same.

                The world is fascinating.  People are fascinating.  The myriad of stories in the world is fascinating.  So for me, studying and learning is a joyful discipline.  One of the greatest ways that we can honor God is to use the mental faculties that we have been given.  It is a holy action to learn and grow.  It is a holy discipline to study, even when that study might lead to doubt or difficult questions.

                Often when Christians talk about studying, they are drawn to Bible study.  It makes sense that Christians would seek a deeper relationship with scripture.  Unfortunately, many Christians avoid such study thinking it to be too difficult; leaving it for the professional scholars and linguists to boil the text down into preaching nuggets.  It is a great irony that Luther’s work in making scripture accessible led to a tradition of dusty, family Bibles sequestered on shelves.

                I am going to write more about biblical studies in a couple of weeks.  In this article, I want to suggest a Christian virtue of curiosity.  In the past, study has been used as a means to create boundaries for the faithful, learning traditions and proper theological understandings.  We need to allow curiosity to expand our understanding of God and faith, not ignoring or abandoning older teachings, but viewing them in the light of new knowledge and new points of view.  We live in a society where we might frequently encounter people of different cultures and religions in ways that our ancestors did not.  That reality need not drive us to isolate ourselves in fear, but might draw us out in curiosity.  We live in a society that is shaped by the work of scientists who have expanded our understanding of the world.  We need not reject science in order to cling to our holy stories.  We can read our stories in the light of science, allowing such knowledge to expand our understanding and interpretation.

                Religion that lacks curiosity turns into fundamentalism at its worst and foolishness at its best.  In order to maintain a literal view of scripture texts written centuries ago, one has to ignore or deny centuries of human growth.  It should not be a surprise that someone writing 2000 years ago might have a more limited understanding of the earth, the universe and the nature of life.  This does not remove the divine inspiration that led to the writing of scripture.  It simply acknowledges the human element of writing, that authors are always limited by their time, place and life experiences.

                It is a joy and challenge to explore and learn.  When we encounter something new, a new idea or a new tradition, we are changed.  We expand our range of view.  We challenge our own assumptions.  This is holy work!  We proclaim a God who is both eternal and infinite.  There is no limit to who God is and likewise there is no limit to what we can learn about this universe that God has made.

                Study and learn about the world.  Study and learn this joyful theology.  Study and learn.  It is holy work.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - When the Answer is "No"

                I know a number of people who maintain some sort of prayer journal or prayer list.  Every time they meet someone who expresses a concern or desire for prayer, they write it in the book.  Over time, I think this becomes their version of fulfilling Paul’s exhortation to pray without ceasing.  They will go through the list, page after page, in prayer.  You know that if you are in the book, prayers are being extended for you.  You know when this person says, “I’ll be praying for you,” that there is weight behind it, often keeping you in prayer until you say “Stop.”

                I have mentioned other communities and people who measure the power of prayer by numbers.  They feel that if thousands of people are praying for an outcome, then God has to be affected.  God cannot ignore the sheer volume of many and frequent prayers.

                Yet for all those who are dedicated to intercessory prayer in many forms, sometimes the answer is “No.”  Sometimes, in spite of our best wishes, thoughts and prayers, treatments don’t work, peace does not abound and famine continues.

                In her book on the history of the Christian prosperity movement, Blessed, author and historian Kate Bowler points to how traditions steeped in the power of positive thinking or “Name it and claim it” philosophies can struggle with this reality.  She tells the story of a member of such a congregation who was diagnosed with brain cancer.  Initially people lifted her up strongly in prayer and supported her.  Over time, as reports did not approve, her supporters in the congregation drifted away from her.  Her continued illness did not match up with a theology that expected God’s blessings and health for the faithful.  Either she had done something to deserve this illness or the bedrock idea of their faith was not secure.

                In some ways the Bible gives the church a mixed message on the power of prayer.  On the one hand, a number of the Psalms are written from the perspective of someone who has “cried to Lord” and had a positive outcome.  James talks about the power of the prayers of the faithful.  On the other hand, when asked to provide instruction in prayer, Jesus offers the Christian standard of the Lord’s Prayer which involves praying for basic needs and that God’s will be done.  It is a prayer that reconciles us to God’s will in the world rather than inspiring us to change or affect that will.  We pray to be part of God’s solution; God’s answer to cries for peace, healing and grief.

                I think it is important that we lift up others in prayer.  This action is a starting point that shines a divine light on our relationships.  In such prayer, I am connected to the one I am concerned about through God’s presence, the One who is the source of love.  Yet years of watching people struggle through illness, illnesses that are often the natural part of aging, inform me that not everyone I pray for will get better.  You cannot pray away our mortality.  Years of listening to the anger toward God expressed by people who feel like prayer has failed, who cannot understand why their addicted child overdosed or why a random tragedy took their loved one away, have challenged me to see that prayer is not an if/then conditional.  The belief that, “If you pray hard enough, things will get better,” sets people up for disappointment.

                I pray as a means to remind myself and the person for whom I am praying of God’s loving presence in all the moments of life, both joyful and tragic.  In the same breath that I pray for the health of a loved one, I also pray for their comfort in the midst of illness.  In prayers that question seemingly needless tragedy, I also pray that God’s love might support those who are left in the wake of such tragedy. 

                Sometimes the answer to prayer is, “No.”  But as Christians we can take comfort and celebrate that ultimately God’s answer is, “Yes.”  The No’s of life are temporary.  The final Yes is forever.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Answers to Prayer

As mentioned in previous articles, much of my personal focus in prayer is about deepening my relationship with God.  I wish to cultivate an attitude of prayer that sustains me throughout the day, whether I am preaching or doing chores or sitting in an intentional time of prayer.  I don’t spend as much time as I used to asking for God’s action or attention.  I spend most of the time seeking to sit in that loving presence.

                Yet there are a number of different traditions around prayer that do involve seeking answers to problems and concerns.  People might think of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. ”(Matthew 7:7-8)  Another example is Abraham arguing with God about the demise of Sodom in Genesis 18.  Abraham questions God about the justice of destroying the good along with the evil in wiping out the whole city.  He gets God to agree to spare the city for the sake of fifty righteous people and eventually talks God down to ten.

                What, then, should be our expectations of the power of prayer?  Here I think we enter the realm of the anecdote.  I have heard stories of people who have seen God’s intervention in response to their prayer or the prayers of others.  I have heard stories of people who struggle when it seems that the answer to their prayer is, “No,” or “Not yet.”  There does not seem to be a definite rule where the answer to prayer comes as the one praying expects.

                Prayer should not be a matter of sending our wish list to God, assuming that we have some sort of power over God.  While Jesus does say, “Ask and it will be given to you,” he also seems to indicate in the Lord’s Prayer that a deeper faith might limit the things that we are asking for.  In Lord’s Prayer we don’t pray for healing or better relationships or world peace.  We pray that God’s will be done.  We pray for bread for the day (to have enough, not more than enough).  We pray for forgiveness and the avoidance of temptation.

                I would suggest that the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ other teaching on prayer are about challenging us to become God’s intervention in the world.  We pray for world peace so that we might be people who seek peace in the world.  We pray for an end to hunger so that we might work God’s will and share so that none would be hungry.  We pray for healing and reconciliation so that we might be a source of healing and reconciliation for the world.

                I do not write this to take away anyone’s hope in the miraculous.  However, it has been my experience that often the miraculous involves the miracle of other people open to being part of God’s miracle.  When we embrace our part in God’s will and our role in God’s kingdom, miracles happen.  The hungry are fed; the sick are healed; the poor receive good news. 

                In prayer God changes the world by changing who we are.  Every encounter with the love of God has an effect and we are not the same people as before.  Prayer helps us grow into our role as the children of God; as saints of God.  Prayer takes us into the depths of God’s love and sends us as God’s good news for the world.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - The Need to Pray

There was time when I wondered about the need to pray.  As I thought about the nature of God, prayer, as I understood it, seemed a superfluous.  If God knows everything about me, then God already knows my needs and concerns.  God knows about the people I am praying for at a much deeper level than I ever will.  Why not just trust God to handle the world as God sees fit rather than bothering God with information that God already knows.

                Some will argue that it is a matter of obedience.  We may not know why we pray but we certainly know that Jesus was an example of prayer.  In Matthew, he does not teach the Lord’s Prayer with an “if you pray” but “pray then this way…”  Jesus calls us to prayer.  The Psalms call us to prayer.  Paul calls us to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  Prayer can be listed as one of those activities of discipleship that Christians are just supposed to do.

                Some might argue that it is a matter affecting the will of God.  In my last article I talked about folks who attach power to the number of people who are praying for God’s intervention or the intensity of those prayers.  In the book of James, the author writes, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up…The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”(James  5: 15, 17)  For me personally, this can fall into somewhat magical thinking, seeking God to change the laws of matter and physics, almost treating God as a genie granting wishes.  At the same time, there is a long tradition of valuing intercessory prayer.

                In my own understanding of prayer, I would say that we need to pray more than God needs our prayers.  One purpose of prayer is to come into acceptance of the will of God.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God’s kingdom/reign would come and God’s will be done.  In this most basic form of prayer, we are not praying to change the will of God but to accept the will of God and become part of that will, participating in God’s reign.  In essence, we are praying that we might be part of the answer to our own prayer.  As Martin Luther wrote in the Small Catechism, “In fact, God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in and among us.”

                A second purpose for prayer is taking the time to encounter God’s presence.  In the contemplative view, we are never far from the love of God; God’s grace is constantly with us; peace is always near.  Yet we go about our lives distracted, always seeking that which we cannot quite find and thinking the next shiny object will make us whole and satisfied.  Prayer provides us with an opportunity to realize that we are already whole and complete in the love of God.  It is the celebration of the way things already are.  God already loves you.  Salvation has already happened.  Everything necessary has already been accomplished so that you can be acceptable to God.  This is the essence of the good news that is the story of Jesus.

                We need to pray because we are distracted and because there are many conflicting message in the world, voices that say we are not good enough or healthy enough or smart enough.  In prayer we turn down the volume of the voices around us, even the voice of our own self-doubt, and listen for the constant whisper of a loving God.  This kind of prayer is God’s gift to us.  It asks for nothing but our attention.   It reminds us only of what we already have:  God’s love, God’s promise and God’s peace.

                A helpful way to carry out this kind of prayer is through the use of a version of what is known as the Jesus Prayer.  Commit to sitting still for five to ten minutes.  Sit comfortably away from any distractions like televisions, computers or phones.  Each time you breath in, say in your head, “Lord Jesus Christ.”  As you breath out, say, “have mercy on me.”  As with any contemplative practice, you will have thoughts roaming around your mind.  Acknowledge them and then turn back toward the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”  As being still becomes more comfortable, you might try extending this time to twenty minutes.  It is a beautiful way of prayer to begin or end (or both) your day.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - The Attitude of Prayer

When I was a child, I was taught that prayer equaled words.  Specifically, I was taught official words of prayer: the Lord’s prayer, prayers at bedtime, prayers at mealtime.  As I grew older, I learned a couple of psalms, especially Psalm 23 and 121.  These were psalms of comfort and assurance, words that were and still are often helpful when other words fail.

                As helpful as these collections of words can be, they can also be limiting.  When prayer is taught as verbiage, there can be great discomfort in straying from the prescribed words.  Pity the council member who forgets that he or she has devotions and now feels obligated to make up a prayer on the spot.  Will the words be right?  Will they be holy and proper?  Am I worthy to do so without an advanced degree or letter of ordination?

                As a student of prayer I have come to find that, first and foremost, prayer is an attitude.  I often describe prayer as the simple act of paying attention to God.  The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing used the image of prayer as an arrow seeking to pierce the mystery, if only briefly, that separates God from the one who is praying.  Others have described prayer as gazing back lovingly at the loving gaze of Jesus.   Prayer becomes much more about focus and intent than finding proper words. 

                Various schools of prayer have encouraged as few words as possible, using a repeated phrase as a means to focus.  The author of The Cloud suggested simply, “God” or “love,” ideally something with one syllable.  There is a long and ancient tradition of focusing on the name of Jesus or, in the Eastern Church, what has become known as the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”   A longer version reads, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

                This line of thinking also gets into some differing ideas about the purpose of prayer.  For some, prayer is primarily about making things happen.  You may hear people talking about the number of people who are praying for something or the intensity at which they are praying for something to stop or something to happen.  In this type of prayer, we are often praying for things that haven’t happened yet but we wish could.

                The more ancient tradition of prayer is about connecting to God as God already is, accepting the world and our situation as it already is.  We don’t need to pray for God’s love to come into our lives.  When we pay attention, we will discover that it is already there.  We don’t need to pray for God’s attention, but instead need to practice turning our attention toward God who is always lovingly aware of us.

                This understanding is not meant to discourage you from praying for other people or being moved to prayer in reaction to tragedy.  Such intercessory prayer has a long tradition in the Christian faith.  Instead, I would encourage you to consider how and why you are praying for other people.   Are you looking to make God change the world?  Are you looking to bring God’s love into a difficult situation?  Are you looking to be empowered to be God’s answer to your own prayer?

                For this article I would ask, are the many words we pray allowing God to encounter us in prayer?  When you pray, take the time to focus on the God to whom you praying.  Offer God the space to speak to you so that you might listen.  Allow a sacred moment where you dwell in the love of God that is already around you.  Pray the prayers you learned as a child.  Pray a psalm or two.  Pray for others.  But always take time to be still; always take time to listen.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Worship Together and Worship Alone

Most of the time when we are talking about worship in the church, we are talking about communal worship, especially the gathering on Sunday morning.  In my Lutheran tradition this gathering will be a service that includes scripture, song, preaching (or some form of interpretation of the Word) and Holy Communion.  This is a pattern of worship around which people have gathered for centuries.

                There are many other forms of communal worship, some more focused on preaching, some more focused on silence, some more focused on prayer.  Whatever the format of group worship, there is something different about worshiping in a group than worshiping alone.  There is something important about gathering together and turning as a body to pay attention to God, pray to God and praise God.  Over the years, I have had many people tell that they don’t need to go to church because they can worship God on their own.  I am sometimes skeptical that this individual worship life is actually happening, but more than that, I am sad because they are missing the gift that is worship in community.

                As a pastor, one of the greatest gifts I receive is the opportunity to serve communion to the community; to place bread that is Jesus in outstretched hands; to say to each person, “The body of Christ, given for you.”  I get to bless each individual in that gathering.  It is a powerful moment of individual connection that happens in the context of the community.  In the background there is the motion of people coming forward or going back to their seats.  Some sit in silent prayer as they wait to come forward or reflect on what happened.  Some support the moment with song.  Then we stand together for the final words of blessing, “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen you and keep you in his grace.”

                To say that communal worship is different is not to say that individual worship is wrong or unimportant.  There is nothing wrong with encountering God in nature and being moved to praise.  The next time you go to watch a sunset or stargaze, take a copy of Psalm 19 and read it out loud, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims its maker’s handiwork.”  Try different physical positions of prayer.  Stand up and say the Lord’s Prayer with your arms to the side and palms up in the ancient orans position.  If you have a yoga mat (and some flexibility) try praying in a kneeling position of supplication.  If you have a favorite hymn, sing it as you go for a walk.  Simply to walk and observe all the little things that are happening around you is a brilliant form of worship.  All of these practices can help draw the worshiper closer to the presence of God.

                Both communal worship and personal worship deepen your relationship with God.  Any time that you allow yourself to be open and honest before God; any time you are moved to praise in awe and wonder; any time you pay attention to the story of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, you are at worship and you are participating in the depth that is God at work.  Such encounters should not be relegated to single hour on Sunday morning.  At the same time, in a culture that celebrates individuality, we need the gift of community, being together in worship, reminded that all are welcome and all are equal in the eyes of God.  May all your worship strengthen your faith and deepen your life.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Worship as a Centering Moment

Those who know me know that I have found great comfort and depth in silent contemplation as a way of worship.  In addition to daily times of meditation, I also try to take part in meditation with a local Soto Zen Buddhist community.  In Zen practice, the focus is about learning to be present right here and now.  We learn to sit silently and observe what is happening in our own minds without getting swept away, pulled down the current of consciousness by an especially important or interesting or disturbing thought.  Instead we watch the important thought arise and subside, always followed by another thought and another.  Unlike what I understood about meditation before practicing, Zen meditation is not the practice of clearing the mind, but observing and recognizing that you are not your thoughts, that your thoughts are one of many things that are arising in this present moment.

                My understanding of Christian worship and theology has been affected by my experience of contemplation and meditation.  In contemplative Christianity, the point of prayer is to step outside of day to day reality and recognize the abiding presence of God that is constant, that supports and surrounds your day to day life.  As we wait in silence, we become aware that the search for God need not take us far, for God is immediately with us.  The distractions of the day, the important thoughts and tasks and errands, keep us from full awareness of that divine presence.  The more we spend time intentionally slowing things down and paying attention, the easier it becomes over time to rediscover and connect to our God who is always near.

                Part of Jesus’ ministry and his many calls to “Keep awake!” is pointing to God.  He points to lilies in the field and birds of the air and says, “God is there.”  He points to himself and says, “God is here.”  He points to the cross and says, “God is here.”  He point to the church, alive in the Holy Spirit, and says, “God is there.”

                Our worship is an opportunity to pay attention to God.  God doesn’t need our praise and will continue to be great if another “Alleluia!” is never spoken.  God doesn’t need our offerings, as God is already infinite, already owning what we are offering.  God doesn’t need our prayers, as God already knows the depths of our hearts and minds.  We praise, we make offerings and we pray as ways to turn ourselves toward God, to reconnect to God’s divine and loving presence.

                Worship is a moment to center ourselves.  If life is a stream flowing around us, sometimes raging around us, God is the solid bottom of that stream.  God is the place where we can stand even when raging waters threaten to pull us away.  Worship is a time to center ourselves on that solid ground, to plant our feet, to put our weight over our heels and settle into that solid ground. 
                Then we will go out and the waters of life will continue to flow by, sometime babbling sweetly; sometimes roaring dangerously; sometimes strong enough to knock us off balance.  And again we can turn toward God in prayer and turn toward God in worship and rediscover the solid place to stand.  When we worship we can be centered on God who gives us the stability and strength to continue.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Worship as Protest

                In 1999, the Christian theologian and author, Marva Dawn published a book entitled A Royal Waste of Time.  It was book that looked at emerging trends in worship as well as providing social commentary on worship and the Church.  Her title came from a common critique of worship given by folks who are not part of worshiping communities.  Worship is a waste of time.  Microsoft founder Bill Gates once said, Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.

                Dawn’s response was not to argue.  To the rest of the world, worship is a waste of time.  We gather together and accomplish nothing much.  Yet by adding the adjective, “royal” she was pointing out that worship is a different kind of losing time than watching funny YouTube videos.  From a Christian perspective we are not losing time so much as offering it back to God.  God has given us every second, every breath, and we choose to gather together to offer some of those seconds and breaths back to God in love, in hope and in celebration.

                Building on ideas previously written about the nature of Sabbath practice, we do not worship because it gets something done, but because, like God, it is good and beautiful.  In worship, we intentionally center ourselves in the divine, taking time to notice the One whose presence is constant and whose love is eternal. 

                In this way, worship becomes a form of protest.  As we go about our regular days, we receive messages that tell of our inadequacies, that our bodies are too flabby, that our teeth are too yellow, that our lives are not enough.  We hear messages of the need for productivity and making things happen.  We hear all sorts of messages that call us to be acquisitive, being more by getting more:  more stuff or more likes or more sex.  In worship we turn away, if only for an hour.  We say, “No” to productivity and waste time in the love of God.  We say, “No” to acquisition, and give of our resources and our time.  Most importantly, we say “No” to our imagined inadequacies and celebrate a God who receives us and loves us as we are.

                In the Gospel of Mark, the idea of repentance is not so much about changing your ways but changing how you look at the world.  Good worship is an opportunity to see how things could be and, at the end of things, will be.  We talk of the Eucharist as “a foretaste of the feast to come.”  We are sampling eternity together, an eternity shaped by compassion, abundance and kindness.

                Then we turn around and go out the door back into the world that tries to shame us as not good enough.   Hopefully we go out a little stronger and a little more convinced that the eternity we have sampled in worship is the real world, the real vision, the real place for hope.  Hopefully we go out a little more empowered to share that vision of compassion and kindness, love and abundance, with the world around us through our words and actions.  Hopefully we go out a little more prepared to stand in loving protest of messages of hate, division and greed.

                Sometimes we will stumble and forget the reality revealed in worship.  We will rediscover those inadequacies and pick them up (after all, we have carried them for such a long time).  Yet there will be another Sunday; another sample of eternity; another royal waste of time to lay such burdens down.  We will stand before God in praise and thanks and adoration, and once again God will nourish us with teaching and peace and nourishment.  God will send us once again with renewed vision and good news to share.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - On Worship

You wake up on Sunday and you come to a community of faith.  Maybe it is a traditional church building with a steeple on top designed for the specific purpose of worship and ministry.  Maybe it is a more modern worship space with stage lights and projection screens; a storefront in the city, just a large room with chairs and an overhead projector; a park or camp, where the outdoor space becomes worship space; in someone’s living room, where a small community gathers in simple worship.

                What happens in worship?  In many communities you might be handed a bulletin that serves as an instruction manual for the time.  You could point at the list of events from prelude to postlude and say, “Here is what happens.”  Yet I have been to communities where the order is less formal.  Songs are sung until it feels right to stop.  Preaching is a shared action, a discussion with a smaller group.  That is also worship.

                At a basic level, communal worship is an intentional turning toward God.  We carve out a time and place to be together and agree to dedicate that time and place to the living God.  Note that at this base level, I am not talking about praise or thanks because, while these are elements of most worship services, they may not be elements of all.  A funeral service for a child is a worship service but one that might ask for songs of lament rather than songs of praise.  Worship in the context of protest may call for songs and prayers of justice. 

                In many and various ways and styles and moods, we are turned toward God.  We listen to God speaking in scripture, preaching and discussion.  We speak to God in prayer.  We sing to God, often in praise, thanks and adoration.  We stand before the table and are fed, receiving Christ in bread and wine.  Through these actions we are reminded of the constant nature of God’s presence.  We are reminded that although we may pick and choose the times when we pay attention to God, God is constantly and lovingly aware of us.

                This is the grace of worship.  We may come to worship with the attitude that we are doing this action to please God only to discover that God is already pleased.  We may come to worship wanting to show our love for Jesus only to encounter the overwhelming love of Christ that is already present.  We come to do something for God and we encounter what God is doing for us, implanting us in the story of the good news.

                 Worship becomes an act of faithfulness, both a sign of our faith in God, but a reminder of God’s faithfulness toward us.  Worship is the opportunity to connect to this reality before we go out into a world where God’s presence is not always clear and God’s love in not always celebrated.  We are surrounded by the love of God in worship, and we respond with love, both in the act of worship itself and the acts of service that follow in our daily lives, sharing love with the world. 

                The measurement of true, faithful and good worship is not a matter of style or the feelings evoked as much as we like to talk about such things.  The measurement of faithful worship is how we meet God once we have entered and what sort of people we are when we leave.  It is fine if worship makes you feel happy or feel good about yourself for having done it.  It is faithful if worship sends you to live and share the good news in word and action.  

Friday, August 31, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Sabbath Practices

What is Sabbath? 

                The Sabbath tradition connects people who observe it to God’s gift of rest, as illustrated at the end of the seven-day creation cycle in Genesis 1.  It also serves as a reminder of God’s liberation.  Israel had the opportunity to rest because God had set them free from slavery in Egypt.  We rest because human beings need to rest.  We rest because it honors God who created time and space.  We rest because it is a gift to be able to rest.

How can I observe the Sabbath?

                Traditionally, the Sabbath was a day set apart each week.  For Israel, the Sabbath lasts from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday.  This was a day for worship, study and rest.  Emergencies should be handled.  Livestock should be fed.  No one else should be made to work so you can rest.  As Christians transitioned to worship on Sunday, the Sabbath day for most Christians became Sunday.

                If you have never observed a full-day Sabbath, recognize that it takes work and preparation.  Household chores that might have been done over the course of a weekend are done on a single day.  Work-related emails and texts should be handled ahead of time.  These days, for a real Sabbath, you probably need to turn off your phone and shutdown your computer.  You might also consider simply taking a Sabbath from particular activities.  Perhaps you need to spend a day without screens, or a day without commerce, or a day without chores.  This is not supposed to be the kind of fasting that some people do in Lent, giving up something as a discipline.  Sabbath is giving up work to create space for something else, something new; the God who dwells in peace and silence.      
                Although it has a different feel, you might explore the Sabbath idea by creating Sabbath spaces in your day.  Can you create a hour of Sabbath, a time that might be marked by the lighting of a candle in acknowledgement of the presence of God?  A deliberate time of prayer and study or, if the body needs it, a simple rest.  Can you get outside for a 10-minute Sabbath walk, just taking all creation in?

                My favorite personal Sabbath practice is three, deep and prayerful breaths.  Sometimes when too many ideas are flying around or too many priorities are calling, it is helpful to stop where I am and take three deep breaths to remind me that I am alive, that I am in God’s love, that peace is already near. 

                Remember that Sabbath is a gift.  It is not intended as a punishment but as a celebration of the God in whom we find peace, rest and life itself.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Sabbath, Loyalty and Faithfulness

One of the places where Jesus runs into conflict with the religious experts of his time is the observance of the Sabbath.  For one thing, he heals on the Sabbath.  It was acceptable to heal someone on the Sabbath if it would save a life.  In our day, it would be acceptable to perform CPR on someone even though it is a great deal of work, because the work is saving someone from death.  But Jesus was healing people who were not at death’s door, who suffered from chronic conditions that would still be there the next day.  He also allowed his disciples to gather grain on the Sabbath when they were hungry.  Facing criticism over these actions he declares himself “the Lord of the Sabbath” but also makes another important declaration, “The Sabbath was made for humanity and not humanity for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

                In thinking about Sabbath observance it is important to think about the origins of the Sabbath.  We can look at the beginning of Genesis, where a day of rest is built into the order of creation.  “And on the seventh day God finished the work that God had done, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work that God had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that God had done in creation.”(Genesis 2:2-3).  We can look at the 10 Commandments where the third commandment on the Sabbath is given as a reminder of Israel’s life of slavery in Egypt.  Everyone rests (including animals, slaves, and foreigners) in honor of the freedom that God had given Israel in the Passover story.

                And yet a common theme in most religions is that a practice that is given as a gift is turned into a law.  Over time, the freedom which the Sabbath was supposed to celebrate was replaced with a sense of obligation.  The rest that the Sabbath was supposed to offer was turned into duty.

                To be fair, the Sabbath was a practice that was also a sign of Jewish loyalty.  Not every culture in the ancient world took a weekly day of rest, especially a day of rest for servants and slaves and a day free from commercial activity.  The wealthy might rest but only because they had people below them to do the work.  In Israel, everything and everyone, as much as possible, was supposed to stop.  Doing so was a sign of loyalty toward God, honoring God’s work of creation and salvation for Israel.
                Jesus does not renounce the Sabbath.  Observing the Sabbath is still a sign of loyalty and devotion.  Instead, Jesus reestablishes the Sabbath as a gift, a practice that is not only faithful but is also wise.  Human beings need to rest for health and well-being.  Human beings need a pause from all the noise and commotion of life, the buying and selling, the constant call to do more and to obtain more.  From the beginning, God proclaims the value of simply being, resting in divine love.

                For me, the idea of Sabbath is a great comfort.  It implies that beneath all the noise, the confusion and the stress of life, there is peace and rest inherent in the universe.  God offers it, free for the taking.  Jesus points to it.  Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)   We are invited to step into it.  We honor God by stepping into Sabbath.

                Importantly, we show loyalty to God’s vision by stepping into Sabbath.  Turning toward the Sabbath means turning away from other visions, visions that define our worth by productivity or accumulation.  The Sabbath is the good news that we do not have to do more, be more or get more to be loved by God.  The peace of God is already here and we are already worthy of it.

                In my next article, I will suggest that how one observes the Sabbath can have a measure of freedom.  Certainly the tradition is a Sabbath day, but I believe that the way that Jesus frames the Sabbath opens the possibility for other ways of observance: Sabbath hours and Sabbath moments sprinkled throughout our days.  In our modern context, we might consider taking a Sabbath from screens (for the sake of our sanity) or a Sabbath from constant availability (for the sake of our humility).  The Sabbath is God’s gift to humanity.  May we use that gift to honor and rest in the One who is peace itself.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Faithfulness and Loyalty

At the beginning of this series I described the path of discipleship as one that seeks to develop a number of virtues and ideals.  For the past few weeks I have been writing about compassion and the works of justice and mercy that flow from compassion.  This week I want to start by talking about the virtue of loyalty and faithfulness.

                Earlier in this series, I wrote several posts about the virtue of love; how the love of God, especially for Christians the love of God as seen in Jesus, can inspire love within us, a love that extends from us back to God and to the world around us.  The important realization is that this love begins with God.  A common image is the Christian life as akin to the moon, shining with a light that is not of our origin, but a reflection of the love of God. “We love God because God first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).

                For many decades we have used the language of love as the primary description of our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us.  However, for much of the Hebrew Scriptures, the primary description of our relationship with God is not about love but about loyalty and faithfulness. 

                There is a phrase that is used several times in the Hebrew Scriptures as a formulaic description of God.  For instance, in my congregation, during Lent, we prepare to hear the gospel text with a quotation from the prophet Joel:
                “Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  (Joel 2:13)

                When I was in seminary I had a Hebrew professor who strongly disagreed with the translation, “steadfast love.”  He told us that the Hebrew word (chesed) is related to loyalty and faithfulness.  He translated it with the fancy phrase, “covenant fidelity”.  Chesed is more about the nature of God keeping God’s promises than it is the warm, fuzzy feeling that sometimes gets associated with love.  Joel presents a God who will be faithful to Israel, not because Israel is great or perfect or loving, but because God is a God who makes and keeps promises.  This is a significant idea because the covenants that God makes with Israel are often one-sided and unconditional.  God does not say to Abram, “If you are good, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.”  God simply says, “I will make of you a great nation.”(Genesis 12:2)  God is and remains loyal and faithful.

                In his letter to the Galatians, Paul lists faithfulness as one of the fruits of the spirit.  It is more than simply holding a set of beliefs.  Faithfulness is an attitude of being invested in those beliefs.  This is not an argument for blind faith, accepting things without question.  My understanding of faithfulness is the ability to stand in faith despite questions and struggles.  For me, the image of faithfulness is the image of Jacob wrestling with the divine and refusing to let go. (Genesis 32:22-32)

                Faithfulness in practice is also well-described by many of the Christian mystics.  The 16th century Spanish nun, Teresa of Avila speaks of periods of dryness in prayer.  At the beginning of the new practice, the disciple is thrilled and comforted by the action of contemplative prayer, but one day she sits in prayer and discovers nothing: no feeling of warmth, no sense of nearness to God.  Faithfulness is what continues the practice through such dry spells.  For John of the Cross, a dear friend of Teresa, faithfulness is what allows Christians to endure the “dark night of the soul,” a period when all the trappings of faith lose their meaning.  It is the virtue of faithfulness that turns the dark night into a transition period to a deeper relationship with God.

                Unfortunately, the church moved from a message of faithfulness to a message of guilt.  Rather than saying that we take part in the practices of discipleship out of a sense of loyalty to God, the church taught that we observe these practices out of a sense of guilt or fear, avoiding an angry God.  In some ways I think we overcorrected when we then put all of our focus on love, often arriving at a place of saying, “Take part or don’t; God loves you anyway.”

                I hope that we can find a way to hold loyalty and love in balance.  Growing in loyalty and faithfulness can be a powerful way to deepen our relationship, helping us grow in disciplines which in turn help us spend more time paying attention to God.  I believe that an emphasis on faithfulness can also help create a realistic faith practice, one that does not assume that we should always feel great or we should never have doubts or things will just get better and better.  Faithfulness and loyalty are what can carry us through the troubling times.

                But love is also constantly present when we do slip up or slip away.  God’s love is always there to sustain us, comfort us and welcome us.  Like love, our faithfulness is not our own, but a reflection of the faithfulness of God, who stands waiting to receive us when we turn away and to welcome us when we rediscover the beautiful relationship that is faith. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Justice and Freedom

“…with liberty and justice for all.”  So ends the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States, a pledge I said every morning in elementary school.  If you are looking to take a stance that America is shaped by Judeo-Christian values, that could be a place to begin.  Freedom and justice.  Unfortunately, most often when people make the claim of America as a Christian nation it is more about an appeal for prayer in school or some form of biblical literalism to shape our discussions.

                Again and again in the prophetic texts of the Bible, calls for religious purity are overshadowed by calls to justice.  Again and again, Jesus chooses to set people free: free from hunger, free from illness, free from religious restrictions, free from guilt, free from death.  One can argue that the narrative line of scripture is all about being set free to set others free.

                It seems our natural impulse is like that of Jesus’ story of the unforgiving slave (Matthew 18:21-35).  He is the one who is set free from an overwhelming debt to his master only to go out and find another slave who owes him something and demands to be paid in full, even throwing the other person into prison.  Too often in our history, we have celebrated freedom by looking for someone else to bind.  In American history, we can look back to the treatment of African slaves (and African-Americans after slavery), Native American nations or even current discussions of immigration.  Too often we have used bad science, bad theology and bad scholarship to treat different groups as less than human, and if less than human, not equally deserving of freedom or justice.

                The 19th century poet Emma Lazarus, author of “The New Colossus,” the sonnet that appears on the base of the Statue of Liberty once wrote, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”  At the time, the United States was struggling with the implications of European immigration.  This idea was rediscovered a little more than half a century later by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “No one is free until we are all free.”  It was a sentiment that applied to the quest for racial equality for which King is remembered, but also applied to his stance against the Vietnam War and his work to end poverty at the end of his life. 

                Freedom without justice is imaginary.  Freedom without equality is imaginary.  Freedom without peace is imaginary.  If the Church is meant to continue Christ’s vision of setting the world free, the Church must be involved with justice, peace and equality in society.  We are missing the point of the gospel if gospel only leads us to is Sunday morning worship or a few devotional practices.  The cross and resurrection are symbols of the ultimate freedom, freedom from the fear of death itself.  We have been set free to set others free.

                What does mean in our daily lives?  There are few people who can spend all their time traveling from protest to protest or who can wholly devote themselves to people in need in Mother Theresa fashion.  First, seek to grow in compassion.  Compassion is where the work for justice begins.  Earlier articles in this series point to prayerful ways to develop this virtue.  Second, pay attention to your local situation.   Who is experiencing poverty?  Who is left out of local decisions?  What services are available and who is helping?  Perhaps there is someplace where you can volunteer some time.  Perhaps there are needs that you can help supply.  Third, pay attention to where and when decisions are being made.  There is a power in writing letters, being present and asking questions.

                Finally, do all this in love.  It is too easy to let anger at a situation turn into enmity towards a person.  All people are worthy of God’s love and our love.  The call to justice demands that we treat all people as people, even the ones we are frustrated by, even the ones who disagree with us.  It is the inability to treat people as people that leads to inequality and other forms of injustice.  In Christ we are called to share a different way, one that embraces all people in love.