Thursday, September 2, 2010

Humility before God

There is an arrogance in theologians and in theology which increasingly troubles me.  Theo-logos, word about God, is human speech and thought and song and life centered on the reality of God in the world.  But surely we should speak, sing, write, live such theo-logy with deep humility and awareness that we are not God, nor can we ever truly define or encompass the reality of God in this world, let alone the universe.

The strange thing, I suppose, is that I am called and ordained to be a minister of Word and Sacrament, and that first part means I am one who is constantly called to do theology, to speak of God.  I don't preach sermons and fill them with disclaimers or caveats.  At least most times I don't.  We who are baptized into Christ and shaped by the Scriptures, by worship, by our sisters and brothers in faith, believe that there are truths and realities God has revealed to the world in the person of Jesus, and we are called to proclaim these things to each other and to the world.  The very idea that God is incarnate among us in the person of Jesus and now continues that incarnation through the Holy Spirit in each one of us implies that each of us speaks on God's behalf, is an ambassador for God (for good or for ill) to the world.

I accept that.  I still preach.  I write.  I sing.  I think.  It's what we do as Christians, and what I do as a pastor in Christ's Church.

I just think that while we speak we might want to keep a deep humility about us.  I posted this on a friend's blog, but it's worth remembering the words of Oliver Cromwell (who could have used a modicum of humility himself) to the Presbyterians of Scotland in 1650:  "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."  Again, Cromwell might not have lived this, and it's likely it wasn't intended as a universal specific.  But I feel free to make it mine, and offer it to others here.  We might avoid future inquisitions, crusades, intifadas, cross-burnings, and other horrors including excluding people from our fellowship if we kept in mind that whatever we think about our theology, God ultimately will be God and will reach people and do what God wants to do, even if it doesn't fit our theology.

I think what I'm saying is that we Christians, like many other faiths, believe we have received a revelation from the God who made all things.  We Christians believe this God is fully known to us as Triune - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - which we have come to believe primarily because of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus.  We did not come up with this on our own, or so we claim, rather God found us, God sought us, God chose us (see Genesis 12 and following, John 15.)  Which means we are people who believe that the Logos of God, the Word of God for this world, became human flesh, one of us, and showed us the full truth about God, or at least the truth about God we need to know.  We can argue, we can postulate, we can try to discern.  We can write, sing, speak, live what we believe.  But ultimately only God can be God.

The challenge, I think, is that in faith, through the Church, in Word and Sacrament, with sisters and brothers helping, we learn to follow the Logos, not our own theology.  We learn to listen to God's continuing revelation together in the Spirit through all these means and gifts.  We pray together, read Scripture together, and listen together, and yes, sometimes speak. But always with this in mind: we might be wrong.  We might make mistakes about God's intention, God's nature.  In fact, as broken humans, nothing is more likely.  If we can keep that humility, then we can truly engage in listening to what God is actually saying and doing among us, even if it doesn't fit our labels and boxes.  That seems like a worthy goal of theology, in fact.  But, of course, I might be wrong.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Where two or three are gathered in my name . . .

I read a thoughtful and gracious blog the other day which made me think once more about the gift of community Jesus gives us.  The blog was an open letter to author Anne Rice after she publicly left the church, though apparently she said she hadn't lost her faith.  The link is here, and it's well worth your time to read: .  This writer makes the point far more eloquently than I could that while the institution of the Church is flawed, human, sinful, and often causes pain not only to its members but to the world, we cannot "do the Jesus thing alone."  It is a paradox, but it is nonetheless true.

This is the mystery of the incarnation.  God-with-us, in the flesh, that is our proclamation.  However, that incarnation is not lived in one person, in an individual, but in the community the Son of God created, as flawed and broken as it is.  "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst," Jesus said in Matthew 18:20.  And in John 15 he says, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love."  This "you" is consistently plural.  This is a community request, a community promise, a creation of community abiding in the love of Jesus who abides in the love of the fullness of the Triune God.  This means that this is our mystery: the presence and love of Jesus lives in our midst when we are together, not when we are apart.  The life of the Incarnate God is lived in our midst, among us.  This is why our worship leaders face the assembly, not a Holy of Holies, when they lead prayer, because it is in the midst of the people that our Lord Jesus is present, incarnate still in the world.

I have not always thought this was a good idea of God's.  Trusting frail and often evil human beings to be the presence of God, the continuing incarnation in the body of Christ for the sake of the world, seems incredibly risky.  We do horrible things, and people like Anne Rice finally have enough and leave the community.  People are wounded and trampled on by the very Church Jesus created to heal and lift up.  Congregations split, denominations fight.  That denominations exist at all is a sign that we can't be trusted to be faithfully the body of Christ without messing it up.

But the triune God did not do this unaware of our sinfulness.  Jesus had ample evidence that we were flawed and untrustworthy throughout his ministry, just from his followers alone.  Their betrayals and actions of the days surrounding his crucifixion only cemented that awareness.  Yet, risen from the dead, Jesus still turned to these flawed, broken disciples, and called them together for breakfast, made them a community again.  The first thing he did after that breakfast was to send them out once more to be his body, his love, his grace in the world.

As Tevye would say, "Sounds crazy, no?"  It does, and sometimes it seems as if God should have thought of something different.  Yet it clearly is God's way to love the world, and so I have hope.  I have hope that if God knows what God is doing here, it will come out alright.  "My word will not come back to me empty but it shall accomplish that which I purpose," God says in Isaiah 55.  This plan will work, in us, through us, for the sake of the world and through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Where two or three are gathered, there is our Lord in our midst.  There is God in the world.  That's incredibly good news, indeed.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Silence is golden . . . but always?

After a spirited discussion at our pastors' text study this morning on the merits of Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen (modern American composers of powerfully moving choral music and if you haven't heard them, hie thee to a store and get some CDs), I find myself thinking once again about the power of music to move me to prayer and into God's presence.

I am not someone who finds silence terribly helpful in my private devotions.  If I am reading the Bible and then trying to reflect on it a little, and pray, and listen for God, the silence often defeats me.  If it's early in the morning, I drift back into sleep.  If it's late evening, sometimes sleep also comes, but more frequently the thoughts of the day intrude like the thorns of Jesus' parable of the sower, tugging me away from my openness to the movement of the Spirit of God.

Silence in worship is different for me.  Many experiences of worship today involve precious little silence.  People constantly feel the need to interrupt silence with speech, or more music, or immediate movement to the next part of the liturgy.  In those times of worship where silence happens, then, it is a great source of peace and joy for me.  I am also part of a spiritual direction group which includes three other pastors and a director, and we have very long silent times as a part of our time together.  Those times are fruitful and good and are silences in which I frequently feel God's breath moving, hear God's voice.  If prayer is conversation with God, silence to listen to the voice of God in our hearts and lives is essential to prayer.

The challenge for me, clearly, is when I am alone.  The conversation this morning reminded me of something I've been considering for the past few months, and that is the power of music in opening my spirit to God.  When I listen to Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium," for example, or Maurice Durufle's "Ubi caritas," I am transported from daily cares and woes into a different world and find myself open to deep reflection and to insight from God.  I find a deep joy sometimes, sometimes sadness, sometimes exhilaration.  I could make a blog which only reflected on the latest piece of music to move my soul, and not run out of ideas for the rest of my life.

I am beginning to wonder what would happen if I brought music into my daily devotions intentionally.  As important as silence is to our lives in a world of cacophony and noise, music, at least the music that moves me, is the opposite of cacophony and noise.  Perhaps I need to listen to and understand my own life-long experience with music and recognize that if taking time with God on a daily basis is important, and if I'd really rather not sleep through it, it is possible that God's gift of music can replace the silent meditation.  J. S. Bach instead of the ticking of the clock?  It might be worth trying.

I'll let you know how it works out.  In the meantime, please get the final album made by the Dale Warland Singers, Lux Aurumque.  There was a wonderful story Lucy Pevensie read in the magician's book in C. S. Lewis' Voyage of the Dawn Treader which was subtitled "for the refreshment of the spirit," and which, upon reading, filled Lucy with joy and wonder and refreshment, filled her very soul.  This Warland CD is just such a gift for me.  I think I want to find out if there is a place for it and all the others in my prayer life as well.

Monday, August 2, 2010

On being full

I started this blog last spring, and after a few posts during Holy Week I let it sit idle.  A good friend of mine periodically asks whether I'll be posting again, and that nudging has been a good thing.  I think I've been struggling with the idea that it can be a little self-centered to think that others really want to listen in to another person's thoughts.  However, I find the few blogs I do read helpful in opening up ideas, asking questions, and generally making me think.  In some ways, these are dialogues in monologue (unless someone posts replies and makes it a true dialogue.)  And that's an interesting way of thinking and communicating.  It's definitely a  good thing for me to engage the thoughts and writing of others.

The title of this blog is "In the Center of All Things," and the explanation for that choice is over on the side.  And Sunday's sermon (I preached on the Ecclesiastes and Luke texts, with a little Colossians mixed in like a nice herb from the garden) reminded me of why I thought I might write here.  Because the focus on "emptiness" that the Teacher has, combined with Jesus' parable about a rich man who thought he had everything but in the end had nothing, led me once more to the realization that this is what I want to consider here.  What does it mean to be centered on God, to be unable to move from God's presence (which, like Psalm 139 can be read as a good thing or a scary thing), to recognize that at our heart, at our core, is the love of God Jesus has made known?  That's what I want to think about and explore, with anyone who might want to explore it with me.

I preached Sunday about gas gauges, and how I tend to push the limit on my little orange light which tells me to fill up.  And how it struck me that our lives are often the same, but without the warning light.  We can be running on empty and not know it, and we can be having priorities and choices which drain our spiritual, emotional, or physical tanks, and unlike being left on the side of the road with a gas can, our life consequences are harder to trace to their source, and harder to notice until they've been accumulating over a lot of time.  So cause and effect are harder to understand and see clearly.  And that means Jesus' warnings in Luke 12 are also harder to hear, because we might be unhappy, unsettled, uncomfortable, or in deeper difficulty still, but we often don't know why.

But I have found that living with the question "where is God in my life?" helps me pay better attention to whether I am empty or filled, and knowing God's love is mine helps me make better choices which also help my tanks get filled.  But I've also come to know and believe that the relationship God has made with me is never lived just with me - it is a relationship of God to God's people, and I am connected to all God's children around the world in a profound way.  And to the people God has placed in my life in a powerful way.  They become truth-tellers to me, standing in God's place, reminding me if I'm getting empty, helping me remember I am loved by God, and helping me as I seek to walk a path of faithful discipleship.

So I am grateful to all my fellow travelers who help me keep on the path, who fill me up in so many ways.  And I think I might start writing here again, in hopes that this monologue/dialogue will be helpful to others in their journeys.  It certainly will be to me in mine.

Monday, April 12, 2010

We must obey God . . .

In the wake of several friends posting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer last Friday, and preaching about the apostles in Acts 5 on Sunday, I find myself continuing to ponder obedience to God and how it shapes our lives.  There is a deep level of discomfort in this country regarding people who claim to act out of obedience to God.  Americans can tolerate a lot of passion from people, but passion about religion unsettles us.  And when terrorists use their faith in God, their desire to obey, to follow their faith's teachings, as rationale, that discomfort becomes set in stone.

But on Sunday in my preaching I asked what we are to do with the apostles in Acts 5, then.  Standing before the council of Jewish leaders only months after Jesus' resurrection, they say they must obey God rather than human authority.  Their confidence in the risen Jesus led them to stand without fear, firm in their conviction that they were called to preach Jesus to the world.  Even if they were killed for it.  Which many of them were.  Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (see my Holy Saturday blog), their faith in God led them to fearless behavior.

There is a deeper truth here which transcends our discomfort and must be addressed.  If in fact we believe in God, then God must have a say in how we live our lives.  And that means that our faith by necessity leads us to act in the world - politically, economically, socially, spiritually.  Obedience is not something we can opt out of.

So we are left with this question: can we learn to live lives of obedience to God which respect those with whom we disagree, but which also take seriously God's call to us to go out into the world and make a difference?  In our fear of religious fervor and passion, we can fall too far on the other side, the side of quietism and private faith.  What would it mean for us to live in the world with that witness of the apostles, "we must obey God and not human authority," not as something to be feared, but as a way of life which could bring life to the world?  Otherwise, can we truly say that our faith is alive at all?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

And with the heavenly blessed sing . . .

Adoring praises now we bring and with the heav'nly blessed sing: "Christ has triumphed!  Alleluia!"
Be to the Father, and our Lord, to Spirit blest, most holy God,
all the glory, never ending!  Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
 -   ELW no. 367, Paul Z. Strodach, 1876-1947, alt.

Thanks be to God for Easter, when all our hymns seem to invite the heavenly host to sing praise to God for Jesus' resurrection.  Thank you, Mother, and all the rest of you heavenly host, for singing with us all today that Christ is risen indeed!  And praise and thanks to God who has raised Jesus from the dead.  Because now we need not be afraid of anything.

Nothing.  Ever.  This is a new creation, a new world.  And though we thought death was all-powerful, the end, the finality, it is no more.  It is truly the last enemy to be destroyed.

And so we sing Alleluia!  For we are no longer afraid.

The dawn has come.  The Son is risen.  Thanks be to God!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Even if not, we will still serve the Lord . . .

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”   Daniel 3:16-18, NRSV

This is the faith of Holy Saturday, waiting in the darkness for what God might be doing.  (In our case, at the Great Vigil.)   Waiting by the graveside in fear, but in trust.  If our God is able to deliver us from what causes us pain, from what life has laid before us, let God do it.  But even if not, we will not serve another.  We trust in the God in whose hands we are, the God who (let it be said) we know has raised Jesus, even though we walk now in Holy Saturday's shadow.

This is how we wait - in trust and hope.  For the God who raised Jesus will raise us.  Though we walk through water, and through fire, they will not overwhelm us.  Though sometimes the darkness seems so deep we cannot breathe.

Even so, we will wait for the Lord.  And serve no other.

For the dawn is coming . . .

Friday, April 2, 2010

This is the kingdom come . . .

I wish I could remember where I found this quote from John Howard Yoder:  “Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies, the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, who being rich became poor, who gives his robe to those who took his cloak, who prays for those who despitefully use him.  The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.”

I find myself like those early disciples after the resurrection, thinking, "OK, now we get it, the Messiah suffers and dies.  But now you're risen, so now are you taking over?  Now we've gotten Good Friday out of the way, we can get on to the good stuff."  (Acts 1, loosely paraphrased.)

But this is the "good stuff," Yoder reminds us.  This cross, this gallows, this is where God really is.  Everything Jesus did was leading to this, where God's love is shown most fully for us.  The Church has spent 2,000 years trying to explain the cross, understand it.  But tonight we stand in awe of a God who is truly with us, whose love for us is not shown in power or domination but in self-giving love, a love which when lived by God's children will change the world.

This isn't a detour, a hurdle.  It is the kingdom come.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

In the night he was betrayed . . .

And so we begin retelling the story of Jesus giving us the Meal of life. But there was so much he did on this night, so many things which tell us the truth about God. Washing the disciples’ feet. Giving the Meal. And making the momentous decision in the garden to go through with this plan. This was a night when God’s will was revealed, and God’s love in all its depth. Jesus, in his actions on these great Three Days, opened the heart of God for us, and revealed God’s will.
The question of will he faced tonight was whether Jesus could fully live in the love he had for us, or whether he would take up power against us. In the mystery of God’s wisdom, God at some point realized that we couldn’t be won back by main force, by violence, by power. So God chose to enter our lives, live with us, and show us the way back to God’s love. Literally, to live love among us and so transform us.
But the risk was tremendous – if we rejected that way, only valuing power and force, we might kill the one who came to love us home. Jesus, who, as we hear in Matthew’s account of the Garden of Gethsemane, had heavenly armies of 72,000 ready to fight for him, had to decide to stay his hand. To commit to the way of love to the end, even if it meant death.
And that is precisely what it meant.
But God’s wisdom is so much deeper than anything we can imagine – it also meant, as we will find out as we come to the end of the Three Days, that death and power and violence and hatred were defeated forever. Because of Jesus we have an unmistakeable sign of God’s will and God’s presence: self-giving, sacrificial, transforming love.
And it would have been so much easier for us if God had chosen the old way of power and law: If Jesus had only come with a list of rules – we could have found our loopholes and not had to change. But Jesus came and asked us to love as he loves – without limits, without stinting, without measure, without counting cost.
If Jesus had only come and told us to rule the world, to force our will on others, to control, to dominate – that we could do. But he came and asked us to let go of the need to win, to open our fists and turn our hands so that they embrace instead of exclude.
I’m often not sure which is harder for me – to live in Jesus’ love in my personal life, at home, at work, in the world – or to find ways in the institution of the Church for it to live in Jesus’ love in its teachings, its decisions, its actions.
But I am certain that there is no more difficult prayer we pray – even if we don’t realize it and say it blithely – than “your will be done.”