Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Wide and Deep

"I am a waste and because God is God, a glorious waste at that.  It seems I've been in this moment for a while.  That is to say that I am learning to begin with and keep thinking in terms of God's continuing presence with us as more informative than any other truth of our lives. (Me, last week)
I started down this path when I sat with several diocesan friends and others to hear Martin Smith talk about Jesus as an "aroused arouser."  

Smith was looking for a placed shared by the "Marys and the Marthas," the contemplatives and the proselytizers, worshippers and the workers.  He saw the contemporary church as bifurcated and by way of that split undone as a means to the larger end given to it by God.

A close examination of what "turned on" Jesus or of that thing in which Jesus seemed to be most interested became for Smith the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God.  Smith included in his remarks the important reminder that because of its nearness and the places from where the kingdom arrives we can never "talk behind Jesus' back."  

He is with us as we wash the sojourner's feet and as we pray, as we stock the soup kitchen and as we sing old metrical hymns, as we live and as we die.  

It took a while for the first followers to understand this.  Paul's letter to the Romans is stuffed full with this concern and his attempts to share its pervasive wonder.  Paul says, 
38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
So I'm good with it.  God is with us and is seeing to God's proximity with us because God is God. Said another more "Smithian" way, "the Kingdom of heaven is near."

"I'm good with it" but none of this kingdom glory is settling for me.  Yes, I have my anxieties and Paul's words are reassuring but the overall effect for me is more up than down, more warmed than cooled, more awakened than rested. 

Here's where I want to go with this new (renewed?) arousal.  I want to go wide and deep. I want to ask again and again the question "what is God calling me/us to become?"  

I am confident that God's proximity allows the question to become a constant refrain for us. Because God is with us we can always be asking and answering this question.  God's presence is NOT contingent on our getting the answer right.

But when it hits us that God is with us and nothing can separate us from that love aren't we encouraged to do all sorts of things that previously would have seemed too daunting, too risky?  Beyond the refrain are answers that we may have refused in the fears and doubts of our past.  Whose responses we may have deferred because we thought God wasn't already in the room. 

There's so much to do! Thanks be that God is with us!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

God is with us, still!

I'm reflecting back on last Sunday's gospel of the sower.  I have grown to appreciating the extravagant love of God in broadcasting seed on every kind of soil.  3 bad locations and one good that only renders varied results - 100-fold, 60-fold or 30-fold.  What a glorious waste!

And so am I!  That's right.  I am a waste and because God is God, a glorious waste at that.  It seems I've been in this moment for a while.  That is to say that I am learning to begin with and keep thinking in terms of God's continuing presence with us as more informative than any other truth of our lives of largely bad soil.

This in the vein of my previous attempts to appreciate Paul Tillich's description of God as the ground of being.  There is a depth in that claim that we miss with some many other descriptions of who God is.  For sure it suffers the same limitation that all human descriptions of God suffer.  The concept is caught up in the term analogia entis.  That is to say our descriptions of God are not to be confused with God.

Another of Tillich's colleagues, the inimitable Karl Barth pushed back against this notion.
His take was that in the revelation of God in the person, life, death and resurrection of Jesus we were given the language capable of fully expressing who God is.  Barth termed it the analogia fidei.  That is to say that by faith God bestows the necessary language for us to know and express who God is.

Tillich and Barth don't really disagree here.  Both credit God with closing the gap.  Both would rely on language that identifies God as with us.  Both would understand Jesus as the means by which God speaks the language of faith through us.  Just like Paul says for us this Sunday, July 23:
When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15b-17, NRSV)
 For me the marvel is that we are glorious recipients of God's extravagant love and grounding presence.  Even bad soil has God as the ground of being.  Even bad soil can cry, "Abba, Father!"

This means so much in our day-to-day lives.  Bad soil cannot save itself but because of who God is we can say we're sorry and call on God who loves all soil, who sets things right and wastes his Glory on us.

God is the ground of our being. God is with us. God makes love possible. With God's presence all our promises can still be kept.  With God's presence we can learn and grow and bear fruit.  With God's presence our broken relationships can be restored again.

God does not wait but casts his love on all soil and God keeps on loving us.  Results may vary -- sounds like a warning label -- but really that just means we are different and yet still just as beloved of God.

So much is possible even though there be weeds among the wheat.  There are possibilities on so many levels because God is with us!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Other Sermons

Fred Craddock said lots of good things.  Things in sermons about the Bible, about Jesus, about sin, about God, lots of good things.  He also said some things about saying some things.  That is because he taught about preaching.

Here's one of my favorites, paraphrased,  "every preacher has a sermon, they just change names to protect the innocent and preach it over and over."

Some preachers have two sermons.  Some of the best have three maybe even four.  But all are guilty of the same "costuming."

I'm pretty sure I've got at least two sermons: God is God and you're not and that's good news.

My other sermon is something like "I once was a baptist and now I'm . . . "

I hope I have another two or three.  Craddock would say "don't be greedy."

I know this: I've never, I repeat NEVER, felt like I was being left alone in a wilderness to struggle with finding something to say.  The text is richer than what we read and the "word" does its work, often in spite of me.

This is not true for all preachers.  But what Craddock said about preaching is true for each one of us. There are only a handful of life lessons that can fit into our rule books.  We get one or two things down pat and just keep using them over and over.

Our capacity to learn and grow is always being challenged and we often just say "enough."  We retreat back to things we already knew and dress them up as something new.

Think about how many of us -- I'm the worst -- listen just enough to reply and seldom enough to be changed. Seldom enough to get to that vulnerability where change happens. Instead we load our gun with "ready, fire, aim" responses that let us stay with what we know and all our habits.

It's as if we don't trust someone.  It happens in preaching, too.

But trust is the threshold to learning.  For preaching it starts with listening.  Listening for the word that doesn't necessarily confirm what we've said before.  Listening for that truth that is bigger than the one we used last week.

With people we look for matches, shared likes and dislikes, similarities.  That's what makes Sunday morning the most segregated hour of the week.

Thanks be to God we don't go to church.  Thanks be to God we ARE the church. So that wherever we go we are always being shown,  called to listen to the others in our day-to-day lives and not the same old "sermons" redressed down to our size.

Trust is the threshold of learning.  Learning to live with others who are not immediately like us. Since we've recognized the truth that God is with us always maybe now we can trust and listen like never before.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Always with us

When I worked for Fluor Daniel I was impressed with how much time and energy were spent on the creating a corporate culture.  Posters, buttons, speeches, employee trainings were all tuned-in to the most recent idea adopted by upper management.  I especially remember when I started to hear the phrase "value added."

It was meant to title all those things each of FD's employees did on top of their specific assignment to positively boost the client's experience and enhance the product.  Not just pipes drafted but pipes drafted using the latest software so that plans could be adapted electronically and jobsite work could advance without delay!  Value added!

I suppose my part in adding value to the corporate culture was to squeeze more guests into the employee fitness center without them knowing it was a problem.  That's what the "vice-president of towel operations" was supposed to do.

In the end my best efforts toward that corporate goal were to listen and accompany every fitness center user as they relieved the stress of their own efforts to add value on a deadline, to find ways to forward their fitness away from work, to encourage them when their waistlines shrank too slowly.

I'm remembering those days as a way to explore more deeply into the truth that I've read between Paul Tillich and Diana Butler Bass these last few weeks.

There are transactional structures that inform the use of "value added" language.  But some of that transaction thinking fails to grasp the effect of our groundedness in God.  We are mudlings, made from the very ground and spittle and breath of God.  We are created by God in love and only away from God by our own forgetfulness and failing.

Forgiveness and repentance aren't contracts to which God adds value.  They are our acceptance that the deal of our creation was already good enough and needed no enhancement, no buttons or posters or ahead of schedule deliveries.  No need for "value added."

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Grounding Forgivness


Two weeks ago I wrote from Paul Tillich's claim via Diana Butler Bass that God is the "ground of our being." We should understand who God is from being "down here" and not depend singly on the understanding the God is from some lofty refined perch we imagine heaven to be.

The graphic above gets at one important aspect of that place we share with God "down here."  This is moving from Tillich's perspective and wondering closer to the points Diana Butler Bass makes in her recent work "Grounded."  For sure she shares the sense that God is with us down here but she wants to and digs further to get at those traits of faith that last.

One of the ways she envisions our moving forward is to look honestly at our roots.  To tell the truth about our families and our heritage and to stay close to the hard parts, to read between the lines and to remember that God is with us still.

She tells the story of President Obama's family tree as he learned it:
"he heard a genealogy recited by his granny: 'first there was Miwiru . . . Miwiru sired Sigona, sigoma sired Owiny.'  The lineage was accompanied by stories, mostly of betrayal and abandonment, that revealed to the young man a new understanding of his life:
'I felt the circle finally close. I realized who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation . . . '"
Most of us don't need to hear it to know that we have a story or more of "betrayal and abandonment" somewhere in our family's unfolding.  If we read between the lines or mind the gaps those moments can be acknowledged, not so much as disqualifications or sins deserving punishment but as markers of the down here to which God must "descend" to be with us.

It's humbling.  And it's hard.  Hard to understand when those family stories include our being betrayed or abandoned or abused.  Hard to understand when our memories stunt us and reprise the pain and hurt.

It will not do simply to prevent an emotional response to this grounding/humbling.  Human existence is what it is.  It is ours to understand and choose what's next so that we are not stuck in humiliation but finally standing with God.

Part of how we move out of the brokenness is to acknowledge that we are not static placeholders but living beings.  We grow!  We ask for forgiveness and we forgive. We hope, knowing that it will not be pride in our own efforts that saves us but a humble trusting on God as the "ground of our being."



Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Braided Trajectory




There are several currents moving in, around and through our lives as the people of the Church of the Advent in Madison, GA in the year 2017.  Think spiritual, political, regional, financial, historical, personal, physical, communal, tribal and on and on.

We're like a rope with multi-colored strands woven regularly and irregularly so that sometimes there's a pattern of texture and color and sometimes the pattern is lost causing the rope to bulge or stretch and some colors to be lost behind one or two.  Still a rope but less reliable for sure.

Most of us live with an intuitive sense of this pattern and balance.  Some of us can and do focus particularly on a subset of strands.  Some look ahead, others look back and compare now and then.

No matter our individual emphases or interests we share this braided-ness with each other.  Part of that sharing is how we contribute to the patterns and balance.  Another part is how we interrupt or misdirect the weaving.

Thanks be to God we are a community, a koinonia, shareholders.  We are not without the means or resources to contribute on each other's behalf toward a balanced and beautiful weaving.  That shareholding goes by many names: Pastoral Care Committee, Pledging, ROTA, DOK, Vestry, Altar Guild, Choir and on and on.

Some of who we are is colored and sized by the world outside our walls, by the world before and after worship and by the world we remember and visit that isn't directly related to Advent.  Think families, work, news.  There are others.

Each one of us can learn to manage that effect and still bring to our shared lives a balance of dark and light, weak and strong, broken and unbroken strands. That's one of the marvels of this braided trajectory, that it is made of all kinds and conditions of strands.

So . . . bring it!  Join this incredibly intricate and strong and varied and developing religion.  The word means tied back to God.  Join us! Make your contribution! Look to support each other by regularity and by a trusting attention to the surprises and gifts of irregularity and new strands.

As summer moves around us say a prayer and ask God to help you to see your part in this movement in, around and through our lives as the people of the Church of the Advent in Madison GA in the year 2017.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Down to Earth

Our just-passed-days of Easter celebration, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday observances have been wonderful in helping us to focus on the hard work of the "early church" in making sense of the news -- called good -- that the one who died and was raised was who and what God had in mind all along.

Sunday after Sunday we heard stories of those first believers struggling with the new information as it bumped into or even contradicted what they had spent years expecting differently.

Another lesson in the Sunday lectionary has been the "high theological" one of showing God-with-us but with us in raising us from the dead, and with us now in a spiritually gifted fellowship of love, proclamation and sharing.

Much of our study has been drawn to lofty titles and theological distinctions that take our risen Lord through ascension to a heavenly throne to be transcendent and to rule over all.

But there is another place or level through which we can understand God as with us.  The mid-20th century German Paul Tillich said it this way,
“We must abandon the external height images in which the theistic God has historically been perceived and replace them with internal depth images of a deity who is not apart from us, but who is the very core and ground of all that is.”
Tillich is opposed to the loftiness and is particularly cautious that we will leave a part of our own lives out of that formulation of "God with us" if our picture misses also understanding the continuing presence of God as the "ground of our being."

Thank goodness we took our time -- at least a Sunday -- to consider the nature of God as three-in-one and saw in our examination the presence of God down here as much as up there.  The story of a God who creates, redeems and sustains us and is with us "down here" is a constant refrain of scripture:
  • God is with us down here, fashioning a "mudling" to become human by the breath of God,
  • and down here with Moses and the pilgrim masses wandering for a generation to find the waiting promise of a homeland,
  • and down here with Jeremiah in a cistern inciting a renewal of faith to sustain soon-to-be exiles,
  • and down here in a den of lions with Daniel to change the mind of Darius, 
  • and down here with Jesus in weeping for his dead friend Lazarus, 
  • and down here in His suffering to death on the cross and to repose in the tomb, 
  • and down here with Paul blinded and convalescing to be healed by help of one of those he sought to persecute.   
It behooves us then to think of our lives of faith as called into a groundedness as much as any lofted holiness or above-it-all purity.  We needn't reject our recent learning about God as Trinity or of Jesus as died AND raised AND ascended.  All of that is true.  But because we are still here traversing Morgan County's fields and pathways we include the understanding that God is with us down here, indeed is the very ground of our being.